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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 254 – They Did the Smash (the Schoolgirl Smash)

Sunday, March 19, 2023 - 18:19

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 254 – They Did the Smash (the Schoolgirl Smash) – transcript

(Originally aired 2023/03/18 - listen here)


This show could almost have been a “F/Favorite Tropes” episode. But that series is aimed at examining the tropes that are popular for mixed-gender romances and how they work in a same-gender context. “School friends to lovers” isn’t a standard pattern in heterosexual historic romance, for the salient reason that co-educational schooling was not the norm in most places before the 20th century. So instead I’ll do this as a thematic episode.

The history of gender-segregated education

Single-gender institutions and communities have always tended to be a context where intense and intimate same-gender bonds could flourish and even be celebrated. One contributing cause is obvious: lack of other opportunities. This has often been cited in contexts where the women had little or no freedom to leave the institution, such as prisons and pre-modern convents. But often such bonds between “particular friends” were actively encouraged, with the understanding that close personal bonds helped to stabilize the micro-culture and to provide emotional support, especially when the inhabitants might be separated from family for an extended period.

I discussed the ambivalent attitude toward “particular friends” in convents in an earlier episode dealing with that institution. But today I want to tackle the history of passionate or romantic friendships in schools, both between students and between teachers.

The idea of mixing the genders in educational institutions is rather recent, in a historic time-scale. And there are many contemporary cultures that still prefer to keep separate male and female schools for a variety of reasons, as well as individual institutions that consider it to be a more productive way of focusing on education and personal development. I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of single-gender schools—an extremely complex topic—but rather to focus on how that environment has intersected historically with same-sex relations.

As usual, my broad generalizations will tend to focus on Western culture, due to the nature of my sources, with many of the specific examples drawn from the English-speaking world, though in this case the general pattern is similar throughout western Europe.

One reason for gender segregation in schools, especially for older students, has been the historic exclusion of women from formal education. While some women challenged this exclusion on an individual basis, in many cases, girls’ schools and women’s colleges were created to redress this exclusion as a more practical solution. But another motivation of gender segregation was to reduce the risk of unauthorized romantic relationships, or sexual encounters—especially in contexts where the girls and women were not under direct family supervision. One theme I come back to regularly in the trope shows is the pervasive attitudes that unregulated mixing of the genders created an existential risk of sexual activity. Outside of marriage, respectable women and girls did not have the social permission to say “yes” to sex, and both in and out of marriage they had very little social permission to say “no”. Thus, strict supervision, codes of etiquette, and physical segregation were all employed to reduce this risk.

In Europe, religious shifts in the 16th century that encouraged basic education for all children led to the development of local grammar schools that were typically co-educational and non-residential. But more advanced education, and especially at what we would consider the college level, was mostly residential and single-gender (and, at that time, not available to women). Such residential schools were being established for boys in the later Middle Ages. Residential schools for girls began appearing in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Catholic countries, these were typically—though not always—run by religious orders and sponsored by convents, while Protestant institutions were set up either as philanthropic—or sometimes commercial—enterprises. Girls who had the opportunity for post-grammar school education might be sent to a boarding school or convent school that combined education with limits on their interactions with men. Here we’re generally talking about middle-class families and higher, not only due to the cost of boarding school but because it kept students out of the workforce. In urban areas, non-residential schools were also part of the educational landscape, but they aren’t the primary focus of this show.

Women’s colleges began to be established in the early-to-mid 19th century in England and the United States, with a scattering of women’s colleges elsewhere in Europe. In that era, there are isolated examples of women gaining entrance to established (men’s) colleges, but it was only with the creation of women’s colleges that higher education became generally available to women.

In the United States, public secondary education generally shifted to being co-ed in the 19th century with gender segregation continuing in private institutions, while in England secondary education typically remained gender-segregated well into the 20th century. Most Western countries fall somewhere within that range. Genuinely co-educational colleges appear at widely different times in different countries, with rare examples in the USA starting in the mid-19th century and in the UK in the later 19th century. But women-only colleges remained a significant presence into the mid-20th century.

This sets up a timeline for the social dynamics of women-only educational institutions. For secondary boarding schools, we would generally be talking about the 17th century and later, with the shift away from single-gender institutions depending on location, and sometimes on class or income. For the heyday of women’s colleges, we’re talking generally about the mid-19th century into the early 20th century. The specifics—not only of school systems, but of attitudes towards same-gender relations within them—can differ significantly within this scope, by time and culture, as we’ll discuss later.

This age of women’s colleges coincides and is intertwined with a number of other social factors that affect women’s intimate friendships and attitudes toward them, such as a significant rise in feminist movements, and the beginnings of the medicalization of homosexuality. We can see how awareness and attitudes toward homosexuality affected the perception of school “smashes” across this heyday, moving from an accepted, admired, and even encouraged practice, to one viewed with suspicion, and discouraged in its more excessive manifestations.

Romances Between Students

When we look for romances between women that began as boarding-school friendships, we can begin in the 17th century with English poet Katherine Philips. She attended a boarding school in Hackney run by a Mrs. Salmon from 1640 to 1645—when she was in her early teens—and it was there that she met Mary Aubrey, to whom she gave the classical nickname “Rosania” in her poetry and correspondence, and who was the first of her romantic objects.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Anne Lister engaged in her first romantic relationship with boarding school roommate Eliza Raine, when sent to the Manor House School in York when both were in their early teens. Although that relationship didn’t last past Lister’s departure from the school two years later, it may well have been the context in which she recognized her exclusive orientation toward women.

In the mid 19th century, future English novelist Mary Mackay (who would write under the pen name Marie Corelli) was shipped off at age 11 to be educated at a Parisian convent school, where she met Bertha Vyver. Their lives were intertwined from then on. When both women were around 20, Vyvyr moved in to care for Corelli’s invalid father. After his death, the two shared a household and supported each other’s careers for over 40 years, and Corelli left the profits of a best-selling literary career to Vyvyr when she died.

These are only a very few examples of known romantic couples who first met as schoolfellows. But finding isolated examples of female romantic couples who met at boarding school is a different matter from having an open culture of such relationships.

In the 18th century, literature about female schoolfriends didn’t tend to fantasize about their possible sexual relations in the same way it did about women in convents. But there are veiled allusions in manuals about education that suggest girls not be left unsupervised too much, in order to preserve their “discretion.” These references could be either to same-sex activity or to masturbation, but those two topics were not always distinguished at the time.

By the later 18th century, it became typical (although not universal) for middle and upper-class girls in England and the United States to be sent to gender-segregated boarding schools. Initially, these schools were typically small, family-style arrangements, but in the later 19th century there began a shift to larger, more institutional establishments with hundreds of students and more rigorous practices and standards. In this context both the schools and families encouraged girls to form close friendships, while at the same time warning against “excessive” affection. This concern was not necessarily sexual. There was an anxiety about friendships superseding the loyalty and duty owed to the family.

The Culture of School Crushes

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg includes school friendships in her study of women’s same-sex bonds in 19th century America, using family correspondence dating between the 1760s and 1880s. Although Smith-Rosenberg tends to view these ritualized female bonds as primarily non-romantic, even when couched in romantic language, we can turn directly to the relevant quotes to see how these relationships were viewed. Female friendships were expressed with warmth, spontaneity, and a sense of fun. Girls routinely slept together, kissed and hugged, and enjoyed dancing with each other. This sort of behavior was enjoyed openly without any expectation of suspicion or criticism. Indeed, schools often encouraged students to pair off and sponsored all-women dances and similar events.

Sarah Butler and Jeannie Musgrove met in their mid-teens in 1849 when their families were vacationing in Massachusetts. They then spent two years together in boarding school where they formed a deep, intimate friendship that included romantic gestures and the assumption of nicknames for each other. One of them took a male nickname, a pattern we regularly see among intimate female friends. They continued using those names to each other all their lives. Sarah married, but the two continued to write of their desire to spend time together, of their longing to be with each other and of how much they meant to each other. Passages from their letters include, “I want you to tell me in your next letter, to assure me, that I am your dearest.” and “A thousand kisses--I love you with my whole soul.” Jeannie married at age 37, precipitating significant anxiety between the two about how it might change their relationship. And it did result in a physical separation, though with no change in their emotional intensity.

A second pair has a similar story. Molly and Helena met in 1868 while attending college together in New York City. Over several years, they studied together, visited each other’s families, and became part of a network of artistic young women. They developed a close intimate bond that continued the rest of their lives. In their letters, they called each other dearest and beloved. They expressed this affection in kisses and embraces. After five years, they had planned to share a home together but when Molly bowed to her parents’ wishes and decided against the plan, Helena responded angrily, leading Molly to fear it would mean a break-up. The friendship cooled somewhat and both gained male suitors and married. During this time of upset, they expressed their feelings in romantic and marital terms. Molly wrote, “I wanted so to put my arms round my girl of all the girls in the world and tell her...I love her as wives do love their husbands, as friends who have taken each other for life--and believe in her as I believe in my God.” And she wrote to Helena’s fiancé, “Do you know sir, that until you came along I believe that she loved me almost as girls love their lovers. I know I loved her so. Don’t you wonder that I can stand the sight of you.”

Martha Vicinus takes a detailed look at formalized romantic dynamics within English girls’ boarding schools in the later 19th and early 20th century in her article “Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships,” specifically looking at the practice of “smashes”—another term for “crushes” or “raves”—ritualized romantic connections between students, or sometimes between student and teacher.

While the schoolgirl friends mentioned previously involved couples of equal age, which seems to have been typical of relations in the 18th and larger part of the 19th century, the later practice of “smashes” in English boarding schools arose in a culture that encouraged an age-differentiated and more formalized love, rather than an egalitarian relationship. Note that Vicinus is focusing specifically on the era when the social perception and performance of such “smashes” was changing due to external social shifts, and they were beginning to be viewed less innocently.

It is not generally possible to know whether the participants in these school friendships were conscious of an erotic aspect to the relationship, but they typically spoke in terms that duplicated the language and symbolism of heterosexual love. Moreover, around the turn of the 20th century, as society began to view the strongly emotional nature of these friendships as something that should be controlled and channeled into religious or external social service, it is unlikely that the pressure to do so would have been as forceful if not for a recognition of the sexual potential.

The increased “professsionalism” of girls’ boarding schools toward the end of the 19th century contributed to this new dynamic. Rather than focusing on the individual personal development of the students, there was an emphasis on goals of public service and the option of a professional life for women. Students had greater autonomy and individualism but at the same time were encouraged to channel that freedom into supporting the values and organizational identity of the school. While this shift did not diminish the tendency of schoolgirls to form close supportive emotional friendships with their age-mates, a new pattern emerged from the growing sense of distance and emphasis on self-control, in which a younger girl developed an intense erotically-charged crush on an older student or a teacher, but one that was not necessarily expected to be reciprocal or egalitarian.

The ordinariness and expectation for this type of bond is reflected in the rich vocabulary that described it: crush, rave, spoon, pash (short for passion), smash, “gonage” (from being “gone on” someone), or flame. The vocabulary varied between English and American boarding schools, but the underlying phenomenon was similar, deriving from equivalent social conditions.

In the prototypical “smash,” love was expressed, not in physical closeness or mutual exchanges, but through symbolic asymmetric acts. Physical sexual fulfillment was not part of the official prototype. It would have meant a failure of the expected self-discipline and therefore a failure of the proper expression of love. The older object of the rave or smash might recognize the underlying urge as sexual, but she was expected to help channel those feelings into emotional rather than sexual expressions, directing the younger student’s emotions to a “higher cause” whether the school, religion, or social improvement movements. These age-differentiated friendships were sometimes institutionalized in a formal “mothering” system, in which an older girl was assigned as a mentor, which set up a “safe” symbolic context for the interactions.

British “Rave” attachments came to involve two contradictory features: public performance and ritualized secrecy. The public aspect came from the open discussion among schoolgirls about their crushes--discussions that normalized the practice and socialized new students in how it was to be performed. The secrecy was expressed in the often covert nature of the gifts and services provided to the target of devotion. These acts typically didn’t involve direct contact or interaction, but might include leaving gifts in the beloved’s room, or performing housekeeping tasks for her. Any indication of recognition or a return of affection carried great weight, with the down side that such signals might exist only in the perceiver’s imagination. The rules for these romantic rituals might even be codified in guidebooks and etiquette manuals.

Letters from American college students describe less hierarchical and less covert practices, as in this description from 1873. “When a girl takes a shine to another, she straightaway enters upon a regular course of bouquet sendings, interspersed with tinted notes, mysterious packages of ‘Ridley’s Mixed Candies,’ locks of hair perhaps, and many other tender tokens, until at last the object of her attentions is captured, the two become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as ‘smashed.’” “If the ‘smash’ is mutual, they monopolize each other and ‘spoon’ continually, and if it isn’t mutual, the unrequited one cries herself sick and endures pangs unspeakable.”

Age-difference relationships were often by their nature temporary, as the older beloved would inevitably leave the school first. For this reason, authorities sometimes characterized the experience as being merely a preliminary or practice for heterosexual love. But some women who participated in rave relationships later reminisced that they never experienced love with a man that was as fulfilling as their school crushes.

The language of marriage was frequently invoked between such friends. In 1892 one woman writes after the death of her lifelong friend, “To me it seems to have been a closer union than that of most marriages. We know there have been other such between two men and also between two women. And why should there not be. Love is spiritual, only passion is sexual.”

This last provides a hint of how the participants may have reconciled their passionate friendships with conventional ideas of morality. Kissing and embracing and snuggling in bed together were not necessarily understood as sexual. Once the idea that such activities might be sexual emerged toward the turn of the 20th century, only then were intense female friendships increasingly looked askance. And, of course, for those relationships that had been sexual, the shift in attitudes might result in suspicion focused on relationships that had previously been considered admirable.

Romances Between Teachers

Among women in teaching professions in the 19th and early 20th centuries the vast majority never married. Cause and effect were tangled: it would have been nearly impossible to pursue a career in academia while fulfilling the expectations for a wife. Even pursuing the education necessary to become a college professor required personal and professional support that women could not expect to receive from a husband, much less support in a career itself. But even more importantly, schools and colleges usually required that female faculty be unmarried. So whether women entered teaching professions already having an emotional life focused on other women, or whether they chose the profession over the possibility of heterosexual marriage and then found life with a female partner to be an attractive option, the teaching profession became a fertile field for finding female life-partners with a wide variety of forms of relationships.

Whether such relationships were viewed as having erotic potential depended on the general attitude toward intimate female friendships. At the beginning of the 19th century, Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie co-founded a girls’ boarding school in Scotland and then became embroiled in a famous legal trial when a student accused them of having a sexual relationship. While the results of the trial were complex and not entirely satisfactory, the two women benefitted from their society’s rejection of the idea that two respectable women—however close—would engage in an erotic relationship.

Around the same era, Eliza Frances Robertson ran a school in Greenwich with her beloved friend Charlotte Sharp. When the school encountered financial problems, Robertson came under attack for a strange variety of charges, but including the assertion that she and Sharp had an unnatural relationship. As a novelist and pamphleteer, Robertson came to her own defense invoking Biblical justifications for intense same-sex friendships. Without weighing in on the truth or falsehood of the specific charges, we can see that within the numerous examples of female academic partnerships, erotic potential was imaginable. But for most relationships, the question was never raised, even when they had all the external trappings of marriage. To do so would have undermined the entire economy of female education.

Publicly recognized female couples were such a fixture at women’s colleges in 19th century New England that, alongside the term “Boston Marriage,” such relationships might be called “Amherst marriages” or “Wellesley marriages” in reference to those two women’s colleges.

The book Improper Bostonians details a great many such couples, focusing on those for whom we have photographic and other records, both famous and obscure. Many established couples among the female faculty of women’s colleges simply lived quietly ordinary lives, such as Carla Wenkebach and Margaretha Müller, both in the Wellesley German department in the 1890s, and Margaret Pollock Sherwood and Martha Hale Shackford, also at Wellesley.

But female academic couples include a number of rather well-known women. Katharine Lee Bates, the author of the anthem “America the Beautiful,” met her partner Katharine Coman while at Wellesley and both later joined the faculty there.

Not all romances between teachers arose at colleges. Black poet and playwright Angelina Weld Grimké and her beloved Mary K. Burrell met while fellow teachers at Dunbar High School, a segregated school for Black students in Washington D.C.

One particularly illustrative example is that of Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks. The two met in 1895 when Woolley had just been made a full professor at Wellesley College and Marks (12 years her junior) was a student. The two hit it off and from there on their lives and careers ran in parallel. That same year, Woolley was offered a job heading the women’s college at Brown University and offered the presidency of Mount Holyoke College, a prominent women’s college. She chose the latter and a few years later became one of the youngest college presidents when she took over at Mount Holyoke. That same year, Marks (having finished her degree at Wellesley) became a professor of English at Mount Holyoke. The complexities of a two-academic-career household were simplified somewhat by Woolley’s ability to pull strings as president. The two were recognized publicly as a couple and lived together at the Mount Holyoke president’s residence for 36 years. After retirement, they continued to live together at the Marks family home in New York.

Despite this clear evidence of enjoying a marriage equivalent and a deeply romantic attachment, Woolley and Marks were not immune to shifts in attitudes toward their type of relationship. In 1908, Marks wrote an essay entitled “Unwise College Friendships” suggesting that such romantic relationships between female students were an “abnormal condition” and asserting that only a relationship between a man and a woman could “fulfill itself and be complete.” The essay was never published, and Lillian Faderman suggests that it may have been too out of step with public attitudes in the US, which still saw schoolgirl romances as harmless or admirable. Marks left other writings showing a developing homophobia, and one is left contemplating the tragedy of embracing a change in social attitudes that negates the validity of one’s own life partnership.

A Shift in Attitudes

In the first decade of the 20th century, love poetry between American schoolgirls could still be published “innocently” as an expression of praiseworthy sentiments. But the combination of anti-feminist backlash, the growing field of sexology and its theories about same-sex desire, and an increasing public awareness of the erotic potential of women’s romantic friendships was gradually changing attitudes towards both schoolgirl and fellow-teacher romances in the decades surrounding the turn of the century. The public culture of school crushes or raves became a focus of psychological concern. School authorities gradually began to characterize raves as disruptive and self-indulgent, or to try to channel the same emotions into a more distant and diffuse expression. As medicalized theories of homosexuality spread into people’s awareness, even the participants in rave culture might later view their experiences with misgivings.

One American woman who novelized the details of her own 1880s schoolgirl crush on a teacher, when writing in the 1930s, felt the need to turn the teacher’s happy, life-long Boston marriage with another teacher into a tragic love triangle that provoked the suicide of the teacher’s partner. Over the course of a single lifetime, the attitudes and understandings toward such school crushes had changed and a tragic ending was, perhaps, required in order to maintain the illusion of schoolgirl innocence.

Just as the shifts in women’s place in society opened up new opportunities that contributed to the rave phenomenon, the resulting social dynamics—especially when they expanded outside the school context—resulted in patriarchal anxiety. This in turn became focused on the very institutions of single-sex schools that had contributed to creating the “new woman” of the early 20th century. Same-sex bonds, whether between students, between teachers, or between student and teacher, became stigmatized and morbidified by the sexologists. Unmarried female teachers became figures of suspicion (ignoring the context that their singlehood was often a contractual obligation) and suspected of having twisted or at least frustrated sexual desires that made them prone to exploiting student crushes.

This professional re-labeling of crushes as deviant in the beginning of the 20th century did not have much initial effect on the phenomenon itself. Crushes continued to be a staple of single-gender organizations such as Girl Guides (the British equivalent of the Girl Scouts) and in the genre of boarding school literature. Not until perhaps the 1920s were such crushes regularly portrayed as a negative influence and suggestive of latent (or overt) homosexual tendencies.

Women’s Same-Gender School Relationships in Literature

There are several strands of academic same-sex romance that appear in historic literary works. Some come out of the culture of Romantic Friendship and depict devoted, loving couples who may or may not end up devoting their lives to each other. Some are more ambivalent, suggesting that these academic romances are transient and problematic and will give way to a marriage plot. Some engage with the motif of the predatory lesbian and the hazards of single-gender environments in bringing “innocent” girls and women into contact with predators who consider such environments a useful hunting ground. And some fall more into a libertine and even pornographic context, using the single-gender institution as an excuse for depicting lesbian interactions.

The love of schoolfellows or of a student for a teacher shows up in any number of classical novels where no suggestion of eroticism is present. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (published in 1847) deeply loves her school friend Helen as well as a compassionate headmistress. We can find devoted school friends in the works of Jane Austen, such as Anne Elliot’s attachment to her friend Mrs. Smith in Persuasion. But works in this category generally draw a curtain on the erotic potential of such friendships by marrying their protagonists off to men.

In the extensive genre of girls’ school novels, crushes and romantic behavior between students at boarding schools are depicted unselfconsciously as sweet and innocent, though when the narrative is confined to the school years, there is no need to address whether and how the relationships persist later in the characters’ lives. This genre was popular in the later 19th and early 20th century and existed in parallel with the development of darker stories in which erotic potential was recognized, and typically punished.

On the more daring side of school stories, Colette’s Claudine at School (published in French in 1900) includes a series of sexual liaisons between students, student and teacher, and between female teachers. But the depiction—though hardly involving sincere long-term romances—is playful and sympathetic, with none of the looming threat of decadence and damnation seen in other works with similarly overt erotic content.

A Sunless Heart, published in 1894 by Scottish writer Edith Johnstone includes several archetypes: the racialized student Mona who falls in love with her lecturer, Miss Grace, who in turn wavers between discouraging her and a creepy erotic possessiveness, fellow lecturer Miss Gasparine whom Mona views (evidently with reason) as a rival for Miss Grace’s affections, and the older male professor who represents the temptations of heterosexual marriage for multiple characters. The book’s position with respect to same-sex relations can be seen in the plot’s resolution in which Mona and Miss Grace, after an angsty breakup, find each other once again as they are both dying in a train wreck.

Even more hostile to same-sex love is the 1917 novel Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane, in which the predatory boarding school teacher Clare Hartill courts and lays claim to younger colleague Alwynne Durand, gradually isolating her from other contacts until Clare’s controlling behavior finally drives Alwynne into the arms of a convenient male suitor. The novel ends with Clare contemplating possible candidates for her next conquest at the school.

The punishment of same-gender school liaisons with nervous exhaustion and mental breakdown is a contribution to the genre from the French decadent writers, where the motif shows up earlier than in the English literary world. In Adolphe Belot’s Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (published in 1870), the point of view character comments on the French casual acceptance of lesbianism compared to the greater concern showed by Germans. In the story, a young married woman refuses to have sexual relations with her husband (the protagonist) because she is sexually enthralled by a passionate friendship with a woman she’s been involved with since their school days. When the two women are forced to separate by their husbands, the wife goes into a decline caused by sexual exhaustion and dies. Belot’s position was that schoolgirl romances led inevitably to lesbianism, during an era when writers in America were still praising school friendships as a noble ideal.

The depiction of such passions as understandable but doomed, appears in Christa Winsloe’s 1933 novel (originally in German) The Child Manuela, later filmed in more than one version as Mädchen in Uniform, in which the entire girls’ school has a crush on the most personable and kind of their teachers, but Manuela believes she has been given reason to believe her love is especially returned and makes a public declaration, triggering a crisis. The teacher, already under suspicion of same-sex interests, gently rejects her, resulting in Manuela’s suicide (though the movie version has the student saved from death at the last minute).

The transition from “innocence” to suspicion of passionate friendships can be traced fairly precisely in the works of some authors. In the 1928 novel We Sing Diana by Wanda Fraiken Neff, the protagonist contrasts her experiences at college in 1913, when “crushes” between girls were widespread and considered normal, and the 1920s when she returns there to teach and finds everyone talking about Freud and making assumptions about the stereotype of the “masculine” lesbian.

A similar comparison can be made between two autobiographical publications by Mary MacLane, written in 1902 and 1917 that show the same shift. From these examples, it can be seen that the change was not in what women were feeling and doing, but in how they had been taught to understand those feelings and actions. In the later publication, MacLane admits to having kissed lesbians but is quick to assure the reader that she isn’t one herself.

A work mentioned earlier, Olivia by Dorothy Strachey Bussy was based on the author’s own school experiences around the turn of the 20th century when she had a crush on a teacher who had a romantic partnership with a fellow teacher. But by the time Bussy fictionalized her experience in the 1930s, the student crush and declaration of love becomes the catalyst for the breakup of the academic couple, resulting one partner’s death.


In summary, the culture of girls’ and women’s educational institutions, beginning in the 17th century, not only created a context in which many women found romantic attachments that might shape the rest of their lives, but came to encourage an unselfconscious public culture of courtship-like behavior. The social dynamics around women in academia similarly encouraged the creation of female partnerships that fell on a long sliding scale between friendship and marriage-equivalents.

Social changes toward the end of the 19th century began to introduce elements of doubt and suspicion into these dynamics, for both students and teachers, that eventually eroded the public culture of school crushes and undermined the acceptability of the “Wellesley marriage” arrangements previously popular among faculty. But these changes were gradual, taking different shapes in different countries, and one can find both positive and negative takes on women’s academic romances overlapping across several decades.

All of this makes the school environment a rich source of potential for sapphic historic romances full of angst and drama, but with the potential for happy endings.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Romantic and pseudo-romantic relationships in single-gender educational institutions
  • The public culture of the schoolgirl “smash” or “crush”
  • When and how attitudes toward such romances changed
  • The culture of life partnerships between female faculty

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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