Skip to content Skip to navigation

Presumption of Innocence

Tuesday, November 17, 2020 - 20:00

I hadn't quite intended to take a vacation from the blog, but the stress of the US elections and their aftermath was more distracting than I'd anticipated and I gave myself a pass. And then, this past Sunday when I was planning to get the nose back on the grindstone...I ended up in the hospotal instead with a pulmonary embolism (i.e., blot clots in the lungs). I'm ok and following treatment, but it was, shall we say, disruptive to my schedule? But some down time in a hospital bed allowed me to get several more chapters written up (as well as a chance to read an entire novella on my phone while waiting for test results), so here we are.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.

Chapter 3: “They Venture to Share the Same Bed” – Possible Impossibilities

Part II: Queer Relationships

This pair of chapters presents four biographies of women’s live affected by law or religion. These aren’t people with public significance but we still have a picture of how their desires conflicted with heterosexual expectations. We also get a picture of how attitudes towards women’s same-sex relationships were complicated and situational.

Chapter 3 examines women whose relationships came under scrutiny of the law, while chapter 4 covers women who experienced their relationships within a religious context, flourishing, in part, because their associates chose not to question the nature of that relationship.

Chapter 3: “They Venture to Share the Same Bed” – Possible Impossibilities

This chapter begins with the familiar slander lawsuit of Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie against Dame Helen Cumming Gordon (examined in detail in Lillian Faderman’s Scotch Verdict). The essence of the trial was that a student at the school run by Woods and Pirie accused the two women of having a sexual relationship. As Dame Cumming Gordon spread word of the accusation, parents began pulling their daughters out of the school. To try to save their reputation and livelihood, the two teachers accused Cumming Gordon of slander while she counter-accused them of unnatural acts. The verdict (an oddity of Scottish law, “not proven”, which means neither guilty nor innocent) is not the most interesting part of the trial.

The trial records demonstrate that the judges (all upper class white men, of course) considered their first duty to protect the reputation and good name of British women in general from the suspicion of unnatural possibilities. It was important, not only to exclude the possibility that Woods and Pirie had done what they were accused of, but to protect the general female public from knowledge of those accusations, lest they give people ideas.

To admit the possibility that women—at least proper British women—could engage in same-sex erotics would make all women suspect. It’s the reverse side of sexual ignorance: not a disbelief in the possibility of lesbian relations, as such, but an imposed denial of those possibilities. Even in the closed-door context of the trial, the goal was suppression of the imagination.

In order to maintain this position, it was necessary to argue that the close, physically affectionate relationship between the two teachers—a relationship that included sharing a bed on occasion, and which they did not deny—could be entirely innocent of any sexual suggestion. This meant that it was also necessary to argue that a 16-year-old girl was either capable of imagining the sexual acts she described without having observed them, or had knowledge of them from some other source.

While the judges reviewed ideas of f/f sex prevalent in popular culture, they were able to exclude those possibilities in the present case on the basis of class, occupation, and nationality. The teachers were not tribades, prostitutes, or foreigners (who might be understood to engage in such practices), therefore they could be presumed innocent. If, one asserted, young women who were intimate friends and shared a bed could be considered suspect on that basis, then what woman would ever be innocent?

The resolution of these conflicts came by blaming the accusing student of invention, using her biracial (Anglo-Indian) background as an excuse for her familiarity with deviant sexual practices. Thus the reputation of true British women was maintained.

The other legal case considered in this chapter—the Codrington divorce trial—also rests on the question of whether two well-bred women could share a bed with that act assumed to be completely innocent.

Feminist and activist Emily Faithful was a close friend of unhappily-married socialite Helen Codrington. The two had shared a household when Admiral Codrington was absent on military duties. On his return—at least according to his later testimony—he blamed the growing conflict in his marriage on Helen’s association with Emily, including Helen’s preference for sharing a bed with her in preference to her husband. Codrington banished Emily from the household and later claimed to have written the reasons for it in a sealed letter that he placed in the care of a relative.

Emily Faithful went on to join forces with other feminists and found the Victoria Press, among other projects. The Codringtons were posted to Malta, where Helen engaged in flirtations and perhaps more with some of the officers there.

The Codrington divorce trial was sparked by suspicions that Helen had committed adultery under her husband’s nose in Malta, while Helen countered with charges of neglect and emotional abuse. Emily Faithful was drawn into the conflict when Helen accused her husband of having tried to rape Emily during the period when Emily lived in their household, on an occasion when Helen and Emily were in bed together.

Emily first agreed with the charge, but later said she was uncertain and had been convinced of its truth by Helen. Emily’s feminist activities and not conventionally feminine appearance led to rumors of lesbian improprieties. Forced to testify at the trial and with the rumor of the “sealed letter” hanging over her, Emily retreated from the accusation of attempted rape, thus throwing the matter back into Helen’s hands as the one who raised the topic.

Thus, although the accusation in the trial was heterosexual adultery, it came to revolve around rumors of lesbianism. And the heart of those rumors was the question of whether two women sharing a bed could be assumed to be sexually involved or assumed to be sexually innocent.

Although the trial reveals little of the truth of their relationship, Emily’s writings, and especially her semi-biographical novel Changes Upon Changes, make it clear that she was romantically obsessed with Helen Codrington, while feeling betrayed by Helen’s volatility and instability.

After the trial, Helen disappeared from public view while Emily Faithful eventually redeemed her reputation away from the glare of London, and finished her life with a long-term female partner.

Time period: 
Place: