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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 289 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 13: Mothers, Sisters, Daughter – Pseudo-familial Relationships

Saturday, June 15, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 289 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 13: Mothers, Sisters, Daughter – Pseudo-familial Relationships - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/06/15 - listen here)

Introduction and the Elephant in the Room

Today we’re looking at romantic relationships between women that use the symbolism and language of familial relationships, either sisterhood or mother-daughter bonds. I debated about whether to put this topic in the tropes series, because it doesn’t strongly correspond to an established trope in male-female historic romance. But it does fall in the general category of “trope” in the sense of a structured framework for character relationships that affects the shape of possible stories and outcomes. It also gives me a context to talk about the dynamics of age-gap relationships as a trope.

But the elephant in the room for this topic is the question of incest imagery. If two women are framing their relationship as being a type of fictive sisterhood, how does that relate to the idea of biological sisters engaging in a romantic or even sexual relationship? If two women use the language of mothers and daughters for their partnership, is that problematic? And is it problematic within the historical context of a story, versus for modern authors and readers?

I feel the need to address this because I get a sense that some reading communities are going through a period of being highly sensitive to anything that could possibly read as incestuous, and yet the symbolic use of familial relationships—especially sisterhood—to talk about romantic partners is a strongly established historic practice.

So, to make clear, this podcast is not talking about romantic relationships between actual immediate biological kin, whether sisters or parent and child. What we’re talking about is the use of language and imagery of those relationships to construct models for social structures that had no concrete, authorized social reality.

Within this context, it’s important to keep two general practices in mind. The first is the broad use of familial language to talk about non-biological bonds. Members of a religious community or a social organization such as a craft guild might refer to each other as sisters or brothers, with those in positions of authority using the title of mother or father. Non-biological relationships created through marriage could confer both the label and social expectations of siblinghood or parental status.

Secondly, this type of language has regularly been in use between married male-female couples. Married couples might call each other “brother” and “sister” either within the context of community practice where these terms emphasized membership in a specific social group, or as a more individual practice to indicate a sense of closeness. Similarly, married couples might refer to each other using parental titles. Sometimes this is to emphasize the pre-eminence of parenthood as the purpose of marriage, for example, that a woman’s role as mother was viewed as being more important in the family than her role as wife. Sometimes it reflected a sense of power differential within a heterosexual marriage where a woman framed her husband as carrying the role of both spouse and parent with respect to her.

I’m not saying that such usage might not—in some cases—reflect problematic roles within heterosexual marriages, but the point is that women who used familial language and models to interact with same-sex partnerships were not doing so as a unique function of same-sex relations. Rather they were drawing on practices that existed more generally in society. So before we recoil from the specter of incest if a female couple talks about being sisters or if one partner assigns the role of “mother” to the other partner, consider if we would have a similar reaction if a married woman addressed her husband as “Daddy” which, in fact, is a practice I’ve encountered in my own extended family.

This is, perhaps, an overly long introduction, but given reactions I’ve encountered to the use of sisterhood language in my own writing, I wanted to put it openly on the table.

Why Use Familial Models?

Why use familial models for relationships at all? The simplest answer is that when human beings want to understand a new concept, they look for things it can be compared to—models that can be used to understand how to interact with it. If society does not present you with existing paradigms for a type of relationship, you look for paradigms that can be adapted for the purpose. Rarely have historic societies offered structures specific to same-sex romantic partnerships. So when two women looked for inspiration for how to behave toward each other and how to structure their lives together, they would usually look around to find concepts that felt similar in some way.

Marriage was one obvious existing model to borrow. Friendship was another obvious model. But if women felt that the closeness, familiarity, and mutual support of a kinship group came closest to what they were experiencing, then biology-based relationships between two women—specifically sisterhood and mother-daughter bonds—were another obvious option and could give them a way to anchor their partnership in familiar and socially-approved structures.

Even setting aside the question of romantic relationships, kinship networks have historically been essential for a successful and happy life, and those from the birth family could be supplemented (or even replaced) by fictive ones. Marriage itself could be made unnecessary with sufficiently supportive networks. Thus familial models for same-sex romantic relationships existed within a potential network of fictive kinship that served non-romantic purposes.

Such fictive kinship might be entirely informal, or it might have its own solemnizing rituals, or there might be formal structures in place to give the relationships legal weight. The available options will depend on the specific culture. This survey will be anecdotal, rather than trying for a comprehensive understanding of the options.

The Sister Model

The sisterhood model is supported by two pathways: the expectation that natal sisters will have a close emotional bond and will provide social and economic support to each other, perhaps including sharing a household, and the use of sisterhood as a model for close non-romantic relationships that share similar features. There are plentiful examples of women using the term “sister” to mark either the expectation or reality of a long-lasting interpersonal bond, to say nothing of the use of “sister” in religious contexts or charitable organizations to mark membership in a community. (I haven’t touched much on the intersection of love between women in convents with the use of sisterhood language because the two aspects would be difficult to untangle.)

The concept of sisterhood represented a close supportive bond between equals in age and status. Sororal relationships were expected to include a component of physical affection, as well as emotional closeness. In general society, sisterhood models might be enhanced by paralleling other attributes of natal families: naming children after the friend, co-residence, sharing beds while visiting, and integrating other members of the natal family into the relationship.

Somewhat more rarely, we can find examples of sister-language that carry an implicit understanding of romantic desire, as in a medieval Welsh love poem where the female poet sends a love-messenger to the woman who was “like a sister to me” but whom marriage has now put out of her reach.

An unusually clear 19th century example of the way fictive sisterhood could embrace a clearly romantic and erotic relationship comes from the letters of Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, who called each other sisters (though wishing they could use the language of husband and wife) and sometimes used the same surname, all while being accepted by their families as having a formal connection and behaving as natal family members would.

Formalizing Sisterhood

Fictive sisterhood could be formalized, in some cases. The simplest method would be for two women to swear some sort of informal oath to consider each other as sisters. We see this in Susanna Highmore Duncombe’s 18th century poem “To Aspasia” where she describes “In youthful innocence, a school-day friend first gained my sister-vows.

More formal understandings might be marked by traditional ceremonies. John Boswell, in his work on same-sex ceremonies, tentatively identifies some “sworn sisterhood” rituals in the early Christian period, alongside the better-attested sworn brotherhood rituals for men. He also cites a 17th century account from the Balkans of two young women formalizing a sisterhood ritual in church.

There are descriptions from the early modern period of Iranian rituals for women to make formal vows of sisterhood, involving elaborate “courtship” preliminaries and community participation.

One theme that shows up in 18th and 19th century records is of women formalizing fictive sisterhood through marriage—that is, one woman marrying the other’s brother, or perhaps both marrying a pair of brothers. Not, perhaps the ideal approach for sapphic history, but a solidly historic approach. A familiar example might be poet Emily Dickinson’s beloved, Susan Gilbert, marrying Emily’s brother, enabling their continuing close relationship.

Rejecting the Sister Model

And yet, women sometimes recognized that the sister model had its flaws when a lasting, exclusive relationship was the goal. In Sidney’s New Arcadia, the heroine Philoclea ponders how she might spend her life in a romantic relationship with the supposed amazon Zelmane. She considers sisterhood, but rejects it, as a sister might be parted by marriage.

The 18th century poet Pauline de Simiane complains to her female beloved that she doesn’t want to be kissed “like a sister,” recognizing a gulf between publicly-acceptable forms of affection and the more erotic version she desires.

The Mother/Daughter Model

Intimate friendships that involved a significant age difference might use the language and symbolism of a mother-daughter relationship, though parental imagery could also be used with smaller age differences, based on differences in experience or personality instead. Compared to sisterhood models that emphasized equality and reciprocity, a parental model could imply that the expected contributions to the relationship would not be symmetric, involving support and mentorship from the older partner, and devotion and loyalty from the younger. One might see a parental model being used in cases where the two women met when one was not yet independent or needed care-taking, but it might also be attractive in cases where it provided a “safety net” against the relationship becoming uncomfortably intense or exclusive. Occasionally, the use of mother-daughter language could reflect or encourage a view of the relationship as a transient, life-stage experience. And I have to say that some of the examples I found of parental relationship models can get somewhat messy.

Famed bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu took on a younger relative as a protégé, after being widowed, who functioned as something halfway between an adopted daughter and a supportive spouse. While there aren’t any clear indications that Montagu had romantic inclinations, she did seem to intend the young woman to serve as her “wife” for household purposes. The relationship—whatever its nature—foundered on Montagu’s refusal to formalize it by naming her protégé as her heir. The young woman subsequently considered marriage to offer a more secure future and left her.

One familiar example of a clearly romantic couple who used a parental model for their relationship was poets Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote together under the pen name Michael Field. Katharine was Edith’s aunt and—along with her mother (Edith’s grandmother) helped to raise Edith and her sister when their mother became an invalid. There was a 16-year age difference between the women. But after Edith began attending college, their relationship shifted to one of partnership, though it must have inescapably retained some hierarchical aspects.

The use of a parental model for relationships could sometimes partake of religious overtones, with the mother figure framing her love as spiritual, even when it included erotic encounters.

Composer Ethel Smyth had a series of romantic affairs and crushes on older women in whom she looked for something of the unconditional supportive and understanding love she does not appear to have received from her own mother. In some cases she found partners who supported the role-playing she sought, while in other cases the targets of her affection seemed to have accepted a motherly role as a means of holding off the possibility of an erotic relationship.

Actress Charlotte Cushman had a fairly extensive series of female lovers, often overlapping significantly as she juggled competing relationships. For the most part, her partners were of similar age and experience, but when she encouraged and indulged a crush from Emma Crow, the daughter of a business associate, she was 24 years older than the 18-year-old Emma, whom she addressed in letters sometimes as her “little lover” and sometimes as her “daughter”. Cushman was always a sucker for devoted admiration but Emma’s romantic pursuit of her pushed the more cautious Cushman into something of a managing parental role. In her bid to have her cake and eat it too, Cushman suggested that their cohabitation might be safely camouflaged by having Emma marry Cushman’s nephew, in a new variation of the “marry her brother to become her sister” ploy.

Mother/Daughter versus Age-Gap

I haven’t made direct comparisons of sisterhood and mother-daughter relationship models to parallel dynamics for male-female relationships, though such comparisons could certainly be worth exploring. As I mentioned at the beginning, these don’t necessarily fall in the usual category of “romance tropes,” although they can have connections to friends-to-lovers, among other tropes. But I thought I’d finish up with a consideration of a closely-related trope that we hear a lot about in lesbian romance circles: the age-gap romance.

By identifying age-gap relationships as a “trope” there is a certain implication that the unmarked default is for a female couple to be closely similar in age. This is another facet of the contrast between similarity and difference models in romantic attraction, but focusing on maturity and experience rather than gender polarity. Certainly not all age-gap relationships partake of a parental model, or even of a mentor-student model which is another possible framing. But there will be echoes of some of the dynamics: not simply a generational difference in age, but differences in life experience, perhaps in perceived social power dynamics, all of which will likely need to be addressed in some fashion within the relationship.

But when we compare the situation to male-female pairings within the context of historic romance, we can see that there isn’t really a corresponding trope because the defaults are opposite. The default for historic mixed-gender couples is an assumption that there will be an age gap: that the man will be older—sometimes even significantly older—and more experienced, without that being notable as a particular type of scenario. So it’s an apples and oranges situation: age-gap isn’t a trope that carries over from the more general world of romance fiction, but rather one that emerges within same-sex romance literature specifically because it creates an unexpected dynamic with respect to the assumed default.


So if your romantic couple are reaching for concepts and structures into which they can fit their emerging relationship, one possibility they might consider is to view themselves as becoming family, not in the shape of a marriage, but in the shape of slipping into existing familial roles that presume the sort of closeness, affection, and mutual support that they desire.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Relationships using the imagery of sisters and mother/daughter
  • Age-gap relationships
  • References
    • Babayan, Kathryn. “’In Spirit We Ate Each Other’s Sorrow’ Female Companionship in Seventeenth-Century Safavi Iran” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0
    • Boswell, John. 1994. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Villard Books, New York. ISBN 0-679-43228-0
    • Hansen, Karen V. 1995. "No Kisses is Like Youres" in Gender and History vol 7, no 2: 153-182.
    • Lasser, Carol. 1988. "'Let Us Be Sisters Forever': The Sororal Model of Nineteenth-Century Female Friendship" in Signs vol. 14, no. 1 158-181.
    • Levin, Richard A. 1997. “What? How? Female-Female Desire in Sidney’s New Arcadia” in Criticism 39:4 : 463-49.
    • Matter, E. Ann. 1989. “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity” in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. Harper & Row, San Francisco.
    • Merrill, Lisa. 2000. When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female Spectators. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. ISBN 978-0-472-08749-5
    • Morgan, Mihangel. 2016. “From Huw Arwystli to Siôn Eirian: Representative Examples of Cadi/Queer Life from Medieval to Twentieth-century Welsh Literature” in Queer Wales: The History, Culture and Politics of Queer Life in Wales. Huw Osborne (ed). University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBN 978-1-7831-6863-7
    • Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5
    • Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. 1975. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” in Signs vol. 1, no. 1 1-29.
    • Vanita, Ruth. 1996. Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-10551-7
    • Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
    • Wiethaus, Ulrike. 1993. “In Search of Medieval Women’s Friendships: Hildegard of Bingen’s Letters to her Female Contemporaries” in Wiethaus, Ulrike (ed) Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse. ISBN 0-8156-2560-X

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