(Originally aired 2022/06/18 - listen here)
Transcript is pending
In this episode we talk about:
Edited to add additional titles identified by listeners:
Puella Magi Madoka Magica (link is to Wikipedia)
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Erica Friedman Online
The chapters in the latter part of The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature seems intended to provide something of a catalog to sources and themes in different eras. In this, the chapters succeed to varying degrees. This one does a fairly good job, first by analyzing the difficulties in defining "medieval lesbian literature," and then in looking at various genres and themes that have a "lesbian-like" resonance for the modern reader. (In other words, a similar approach as this Project uses.) While not exhaustive, and focused specifically on literary works and not the range of non-literary source material, I think it does a very good job. Three of the four chapters I'm blogging individually are written by authors who are esablished experts in the era they cover. The fourth, well, well come to that.
Lochrie, Karma. 2015. “Situating Female Same-Sex Love in the Middle Ages” in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5
Lochrie, Karma. Situating Female Same-Sex Love in the Middle Ages.
Identifying female same-sex love in the middle ages poses challenges in part because it goes against the prevailing stereotype of the era as reactionary and misogynistic. But in some ways, the forms female same-sex love takes in the middle ages poses a challenge to contemporary models in categories of desire.
The sexual fault lines in the middle ages were not defined by heterosexuality but by permitted and prohibited acts that considered procreation the only license for sex (prohibiting many types of male-female acts) and by a valorization of virginity over any sexual activity. Thus the sliding scale of acceptable sexual acts was distinctly different from a heterosexual-homosexual binary.
All this meant that female same-sex desire, as such, was not evaluated simplistically in terms of sex. Female friendship or female communities and passionate love between women could all – in certain contexts – be considered not only licensed, but idealized.
Against this, the question of whether, and to what extent, such relationships might also sexual is difficult to evaluate, given the relative scarcity of texts authored by women, and the general scarcity of candid autobiographical texts.
One must triangulate among women’s expressions of same-sex love, contextual opportunities of the type Judith Bennett labels “lesbian-like,” and authoritative condemnations of sexual activity between women. Relevant genres include penitential manuals inclusive of sex between women, often framed as gender transgression (“acting like a man”). Expressions of passionate friendship may strike the modern reader as erotic in tone, even when there is no explicit mention of erotic activity, the sun may include references to kissing and caresses that cross the line.
A small number of literary tales address female same-sex love either directly, as in various adaptations of Iphis and Ianthe, or more obliquely as in the same-sex bonding at the conclusion of Eliduc.
The genre of cross-dressing saints provides a number of framings of female-female encounters, though primarily of the inadvertent variety. Also, in a religious context, some interpret female devotion to the “wound of Christ” as having homoerotic implications (wound = vulva).
Martial women – either in real life, or represented by the mythical Amazons – also provided a context for gender transgression, potentially creating a site of female-female desire.
(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)
I’m taking a different approach with this collection than my usual. Rather than either blogging all the articles or only blogging the relevant ones, I’m going to do a very brief summary of all the “less relevant” material in this book and then blog the four articles of specific historic interest separately. My very brief skim through the articles summarized below means that I’m likely oversimplifying or misrepresenting some of the details. But it seemed like a good compromise.
Medd, Jodie (ed). 2015. The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5
A volume designed to provide a theoretical and survey background for the academic study of lesbian literature.
Articles not blogged individually
The collection opens with a select chronology of works that fall within the concept of “lesbian literature” as addressed in this book. About 6 pages cover everything up to the 20th century, then 10 pages cover the 20th and 21st centuries. [Note: The pre-20th century material does not include any works that haven’t been previously noted in some fashion in the Project.]
“Lesbian Literature?: An Introduction” by Jodie Medd
Medd discusses the problems of how to define and categorize the topic of this collection. There is a consideration of the place of reading and literature in the evolution of self-conscious “lesbian identity” and the distinct contributions of the activities of reading, writing, and critiquing.
Part I: In Theory/In Debate: Connections, Comparisons, and Contestations
1. “The Queer Time of Lesbian Literature: History and Temporality” by Carla Freccero
Discusses issues of terminology and the shifting meanings of words associated with lesbianism. Freccero has addressed issues of “temporality” (i.e., the relationship of historic time to queer identities) in the collection The Lesbian Premodern [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/5065], but I think I can repeat my comment on that article: “This article is all about theories about theories and didn’t really have any comprehensible content I could summarize. Sorry.”
2. “Debating Definitions: The Lesbian in Feminist Studies and Queer Studies” by Annamarie Jagose
Talks about the sense of awkward unease that many scholars have around treating the concept of the lesbian either within a feminist or a queer framework. Primarily a discussion of theoretical frameworks and the slipperiness of defining “lesbian” as a category. This article is reminiscent of a number of discussions in The Lesbian Premodern although Jagose did not contribute to that volume. There’s a wide-ranging review of significant theoretical works addressing this topic.
3. “Experience, Difference, and Power” by Sandra K. Soto
Raises questions of marginalization and intersectionality, largely generally within society rather than focused specifically on the study of lesbian literature.
4. “Global Desires, Postcolonial Critique: Queer Women in Nation, Migration, and Diaspora” by Shamira A. Meghani
Discusses issues relating to love between women in non-dominant world cultures, how these themes have been treated both internally and externally (i.e., by dominant cultures), the ways in which western concepts and definitions of lesbianism shape the discourse in other cultures.
Part II: In the Past: Reading the Literary Archive
Note: The four articles in this section are blogged individually.
Part III: On the Page: Modern Genres
9. “Modern Times, Modernist Writing, Modern Sexualities” by Madelyn Detloff
Maps out an understanding of English-language “modernism” in the 20th century up through WWII. Considers the themes of personal independence, outsider/expatriate perspectives, the rise of sexological and psychological frameworks.
10. “Popular Genres and Lesbian (Sub)Cultures: From Pulp to Crime, and Beyond” by Kaye Mitchell
A consideration of several iconic literary genres relevant to lesbian literature in the 20th century, including detective fiction of the 1980s and 1990s, the “pulp novels” of the 1930s to 1950s, and mainstream literary novels moving into the 21st century. [Note: I don’t see any reference to the rise of the lesbian small presses, despite the fact that the discussion of detective fiction largely mentions books published by them.]
11. “Lesbian Autobiography and Memoir” by Monica B. Pearl
Discusses works that—in some cases tangentially—can be understood or at least suspected of expressing the author’s own same-sex desires. The discussion includes poetry (Sappho, Dickenson), private correspondence, and literary memoir (Alice B. Toklans), as well as works in which known same-sex relationships were used as a basis for “autobiography in disguise” where the gender or relationships of the participants may be altered.
12. “Lesbianism-Poetry//Poetry-Lesbianism” by Amy Sara Carroll
A discussion of lesbian themes in poetry, focusing solely on 20th century work.
13. “Contemporary Lesbian Fiction: Into the Twenty-First Century” by Emma Parker
A consideration of lesbian literature in an era when it can be written and published as “mainstream literature.” The discomfort some writers have with categorization and labeling, in some cases particularly with “lesbian” as a label. A perception that self-identified “lesbian literature” has diversity issues and presents a false image of a unified community consciousness. The shift from “coming out” novels to works that take the characters’ identities for granted. Issues of motivation and representation in lesbian historical fiction. [Note: As in other articles in this collection, the author seems to be either unaware of, or disinterested in, historical fiction outside of “literary” works.]
14. “Comics, Graphic Narratives, and Lesbian Lives” by Heike Bauer
A survey of graphic stories (in the “stories told in pictures” sense, not the sexual sense) and the place of graphic stories within literary theory. Includes both classic works by artists like Bechdel and DiMassa as well as queer representation in “superhero” comics.
Appendix: A Guide to Further Reading
Several select reading lists for further exploration, including one page focusing on literature and cultural history before 1850. [Note: There are even 3 titles there that aren’t in my database yet!]
(Originally aired 2022/06/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2022.
News of the Field
It’s Pride Month, which means that I’m promoting the annual speculative fiction Storybundle. See the show notes for a link. If you’re not familiar with the Storybundle concept, it’s a collection of e-books centered around a theme or genre sold as a bundle with the idea that you might buy it for one or two titles that interest you and then find more books and authors that you didn’t realize you would enjoy. The Pride speculative fiction bundle always has a sprinkling of historic fantasies, and once again I have a book included: my brand new novella The Language of Roses. All the titles are worth checking out, but among those that might specifically appeal to sapphic historical readers include two titles in Cynthia Ward’s vampires and spies series: The Adventure of the Incognita Countess and The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum. In addition, there are several anthologies and collections, ghost stories, epic adventure, and solarpunk. And on top of great reads, the Storybundle always chooses a charity to support. This time the charity is Rainbow Railroad which helps LGBT people around the world to escape persecution and violence in their home countries.
Pride Month also means that it’s the anniversary of the start of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. That’s always a convenient time to look back and take stock. I kicked off the project in June 2014, so it’s been eight years of posting summaries of historic research relevant to writing lesbian and sapphic historic fiction. The schedule has been irregular: sometimes I’ve posted every day, mostly I try to post once a week, sometimes I’ve taken breaks. The publication count is up to 360 items, but the to-do list is over 500. I’m not adding new material to hunt down quite as rapidly as I used to, but it’s still faster than I’m reading things. One thing I haven’t been able to do in the last two years has been visiting the U.C. Berkeley library to pull articles from online sources that I can’t access from home. But there are enough books to keep me busy until I’m comfortable going back on campus.
One major benefit of accumulating that much material on the blog is that it makes creating podcasts easier. Back when I first started the podcast, each episode meant starting a research project from scratch. But now I often pick a topic specifically because it’s shown up in multiple publications for the blog. That means I can start by pulling up the relevant topic tags, or simply do a keyword search and find related blog entries. The next step is to copy-paste the relevant chunks of text into a master file. In the process, I get a sense of what sort of outline I want for the episode. Then it’s a matter of moving the blog text into the outline, removing the redundancies, smoothing out the flow of the language, and writing the introduction and transitions. It isn’t quite as simple as stitching together a patchwork of text from the blog, but it’s a lot easier than writing everything new.
Publications on the Blog
Last month I finally finished up the articles in the collection Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson. Only a minority of articles were directly relevant to queer topics, but they all addressed women’s lives in some fashion.
I started off June with a blog about Linda Garber’s Novel Approaches to Lesbian History, an academic study of the field of lesbian historical fiction. As you might imagine, I’m tickled to death to find out what other people think of this field as a whole. What sorts of patterns and trends they find and how those are interpreted from a critical perspective. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book for several years, ever since I first saw mention of it.
For the remainder of the month, I thought I’d tackle one of my very recent acquisitions and review the relevant articles in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. The majority of the collection either addresses theoretical topics or 20th century literature, but I think there are four articles that will be suitable for blogging.
And, of course, as usual, I’m buying new books faster than I can blog them! This month’s haul includes several items purchased during the online Medieval Congress. Though online ordering isn’t quite the same as wandering through the book vendors in person and wondering how I’ll fit it all in my suitcase to take home.
I’m going a little outside my usual pre-20th century scope with Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature by Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley. Although the literature Tinsley studies is from the 20th century, she explores the deeper historic context of Caribbean history in which it is situated. And I’m always searching for material to expand beyond the usual white European focus of the blog.
Some topics and historic individuals crop up again and again in the literature, but that doesn’t mean new publications aren’t valuable. Clorinda Donato has created a new study and edition of a fascinating text in The Life and Legend of Catterina Vizzani: Sexual identity, science and sensationalism in eighteenth-century Italy and England. I’ve previously done a podcast on Vizzani’s life and biography, but Donato’s work provides a detailed look at the context, not only of the original text, but of John Cleland’s English translation, and adds her own translation of the Italian original.
On speculation, I picked up a book titled A Little Gay History of Wales by Daryl Leeworthy. I’ll always have a fondness for Welsh history, but as I suspected, the book has essentially no information on women before the 20th century.
My last purchase to mention this month is Erica Friedman’s By Your Side: The First 100 Years of Yuri Manga & Anime. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this title in the next podcast, which will be an interview with Friedman about this very book, which looks at the history of Japanese “girls love” media.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
New fiction releases are plentiful this month! There are 3 May books to catch up with and then 14 titles released in June.
First, we have a Jane Austen-inspired work: Emma: Restraint and Presumption self-published by Garnet Marriott and adapted from the work by Jane Austen. I feel this should come with a caveat that this is one of those Austen adaptations that makes minor modifications in the original text—an inserted paragraph here and there—to add a queer twist to the story.
Emma Woodhouse distances herself from conventional marriage by imposing it on others, and her search for female intimacy leads her to befriend Miss Harriet Smith, to secure companionship and help Miss Smith to a husband of gentleman status. When this project fails, Emma questions her own approach to marriage, and in trying to establish a companionship with Miss Jane Fairfax, discovers that she must abandon her marriage plans, and seek to satisfy her true nature in an exclusively complete intimacy, independent of social expectation and conventions.
On Stolen Land self-published by Stephanie Rabig is a tale of supernatural horror set in the American west.
When a prairie-mad settler murders Milton Allen's brother and his family, the wealthy rancher offers an enormous bounty to bring the culprit in. Ada Marshall and Pearl Beckwourth, bounty hunters with twenty years’ experience, assume this is yet another straightforward job. But when a fellow bounty hunter is torn to pieces not fifty feet away from their camp, their natural wariness grows, and in the tiny, isolated valley town of Woodlawn, they learn that the attacker may not even be human...
Something Happened in River Falls self-published by Karyn Walters has a similar setting, but is a straightforward historic romance.
Virginia Morrisey is the owner of a successful hotel and a single parent in 1890's America. Best friends with the local madam, she is also known for her dubious morals and her lack of concern for societal mores. Helena Fernandez is the leader of an activist organization dedicated to preserving Christian principles in the town of River Falls, where they both live. Struggling with an attraction to other women, Helena uses her dedication to her organization to suppress and atone for her lesbian yearnings. Brought together by unforeseen circumstances, the women find it hard to ignore their attraction to each other. Can they find a way to come together in a world that will not accept them? Can they face the dangers together or will they push away their chance for happiness?
The June books start off with a fictionalized true-life adventure: Valiant Ladies by Melissa Grey from Feiwel & Friends.
Two teen vigilantes set off on an action-packed investigation to expose corruption and deliver justice in Valiant Ladies, Melissa Grey's YA historical fiction novel inspired by real seventeenth century Latinx teenagers known as the Valiant Ladies of Potosí. By day Eustaquia “Kiki” de Sonza and Ana Lezama de Urinza are proper young seventeenth century ladies. But when night falls, they trade in their silks and lace for swords and muskets, venturing out into the vibrant, bustling, crime-ridden streets of Potosí, in the Spanish Empire's Viceroyalty of Peru. They pass their time fighting, gambling, and falling desperately in love with one another. Then, on the night Kiki's engagement to the Viceroy's son is announced, her older brother—heir to her family’s fortune—is murdered. The girls immediately embark on a whirlwind investigation that takes them from the lowliest brothels of Potosí to the highest echelons of the Spanish aristocracy.
Glorious Poison by Kat Dunn from Head of Zeus press completes a series that has been mentioned here before. From the description, I suspect it would help to start the series at the beginning.
The daring and dramatic conclusion to Kat Dunn's epic C18th French Revolution trilogy 'with lashings of lust, love, sacrifice, betrayal and horror'. Robespierre is dead. The Reign of Terror is over. As Royalist strength grows, the Duc de L'Aubespine plots a coup that will consign the revolution to history. With Olympe in his clutches, he believes nothing can stop him. But he's reckoned without the intrepid Battalion of the Dead! Reunited in Paris, Ada is poised for action - but if she plays her hand too soon, everything she's sacrificed to gain his trust will be lost. Meanwhile, an unlikely alliance with an old enemy might be Camille's only option to save Olympe and stop the duc in his tracks. The glittering and macabre bals des victimes and the eerie catacombs make the perfect backdrop for the final episode of the Battalion's tale.
The Bluestocking Beds Her Bride by Fenna Edgewood from Starwater Press is in a Regency series titled “Must Love Scandal” which should tell you something useful about the book.
A carefully constructed life... -- More than ten years ago, Lady Julia Pembroke was a haughty beauty with the ton at her fingertips. Now she's an aging spinster who spends her days advocating for London's less fortunate. Balancing a precarious double-existence, half in and half out of good society, Lady Julia is rumored to prefer friendships with women to marriages to men. But when the charity home Julia runs is threatened, desperate times call for desperate measures—even if it means giving up everything she has fought so hard to become... -- Never weaken. Never trust. Never give away your heart. -- Untamed and incurably sarcastic, Fleur Warburton has spurned marriage once already. Now all but orphaned and down to her last penny, Fleur needs money—and she's ready to marry just about any old, rich fool to finally feel settled and safe. After enough tragedy for one young lifetime, happiness is not in the equation. -- A woman she cannot live without. -- But when Fleur winds up being hosted in London by the infamously independent Lady Julia, mutual admiration and close proximity blossom into an incendiary sensuality that tempt both women into a fateful decision...and threaten ruin and scandal. Now they must decide—make the safe choice and end their alliance or risk everything to follow the perilous adventure of their defiant hearts?
Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens from Scribner UK looks like an unusual cross-time story, involving several actual historic figures. Although there’s an indication of sapphic longing, I wouldn’t look for a happy ending since the protagonist is a ghost.
In 1473, fourteen-year-old Blanca dies in childbirth in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca. Nearly four hundred years later, when George Sand, her two children, and her lover Frederic Chopin arrive in the village, Blanca is still there: a spirited, funny, righteous ghost, she’s been hanging around the monastery since her accidental death, spying on the monks and the townspeople and keeping track of her descendants. Blanca is enchanted the moment she sees George, and the magical novel unfolds as a story of deeply felt, unrequited longing—the impossible love of a teenage ghost for a woman who can’t see her and doesn’t know she exists. As George and Chopin, who wear their unconventionality, in George’s case, literally on their sleeves, find themselves in deepening trouble with the provincial, 19th-century villagers, Blanca watches helplessly and reflects on the circumstances of her own death (which involves an ill-advised love affair with a monk-in-training).
Perilous Passages by Edale Lane From Past and Prologue Press is the second volume in a short fiction series: The Wellington Mysteries.
After solving a minor case for a major payout, Stetson embarks on a trip to America with Evelyn and her burlesque company, hoping to find her long-lost father. But the inventive detective leaves with an unidentified art thief still at large. Musician Evelyn has grown to love the unique woman who bends the rules to pursue her dreams. But facing the disapproval of her family and society at large, how can their relationship move forward? Can Stetson keep her newfound love alive, or will confronting lethal foes end in her own death?
Moving on into 20th century settings, we have Beautiful Little Fool self-published by Sarah Zane.
Daisy put everything on the line for love, only to be left broken and alone when her love shipped out to the Great War without so much as a goodbye. Now her parents plan to marry her off to the next rich man who looks her way and she doesn't have the fight left in her to protest. Until Jordan comes along. Jordan is unapologetically bold. She knows what she wants and always goes after it... until she falls hard for the girl next door, who happens to be her best friend. Speaking up could cost her everything, especially if Daisy doesn't feel the same, but staying silent has a high price, too. Her happiness. Both stand to lose everything including each other. With stakes this high, will they find the courage to go after what they want, or will they follow societal expectations straight to miserable ever after?
I realized just as I’m recording this that Beautiful Little Fool sounds like it may be playing with the characters and setting of The Great Gatsby. Not sure about that.
The next book uses the motif that Linda Garber calls the “romance of the archives”—a term I intend to adopt for this popular type of cross-time story. I’m not quite sure how to pronounce the title. Spelled L-O-T-E in all capitals, it looks like it might be an acronym, but I don’t know for what. The book is LOTE by Shola von Reinhold from Duke University Press Books. The cover copy is very elusive about the queer content indicated by the content keywords, so I’m taking this on faith.
Solitary Mathilda has long harbored a conflicted enchantment bordering on rapture with the "Bright Young Things," the Bloomsbury Group, and their contemporaries of the '20s and '30s, and throughout her life her attempts at reinvention have mirrored their extravagance and artfulness. After discovering a photograph of the forgotten Black modernist poet Hermia Druitt, who ran in the same circles as the Bright Young Things, Mathilda becomes transfixed and resolves to learn as much as she can about the mysterious figure. Her search brings her to a peculiar artists’ residency in Dun, a small European town Hermia was known to have lived in during the '30s. The artists’ residency throws her deeper into a lattice of secrets and secret societies that takes hold of her aesthetic imagination. From champagne theft and Black Modernisms to art sabotage, alchemy, and a lotus-eating proto-luxury communist cult, Mathilda’s “Escapes” through modes of aesthetic expression lead her to question the convoluted ways truth is made and obscured.
Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman from Minotaur is one of two books this month set in a 1920s New York nightclub.
New York, 1924. Vivian Kelly's days are filled with drudgery, from the tenement lodging she shares with her sister to the dress shop where she sews for hours every day. But at night, she escapes to The Nightingale, an underground dance hall where illegal liquor flows and the band plays the Charleston with reckless excitement. With a bartender willing to slip her a free glass of champagne and friends who know the owner, Vivian can lose herself in the music. No one asks where she came from or how much money she has. No one bats an eye if she flirts with men or women as long as she can keep up on the dance floor. At The Nightingale, Vivian forgets the dangers of Prohibition-era New York and finds a place that feels like home. But then she discovers a body behind the club, and those dangers come knocking. Caught in a police raid at the Nightingale, Vivian discovers that the dead man wasn't the nameless bootlegger he first appeared. With too many people assuming she knows more about the crime than she does, Vivian finds herself caught between the dangers of the New York's underground and the world of the city's wealthy and careless, where money can hide any sin and the lives of the poor are considered disposable...including Vivian's own.
A nightclub murder is also central to Harlem Sunset (A Harlem Renaissance Mystery Book 2) by Nekesa Afia from Berkley Books.
1926, Harlem. After the tense summer that resulted in the death of murderer Theodore Gilbert, twenty-six-year-old Louise Lloyd has once again gained a level of notoriety. Reporters want to talk to her and she is in the spotlight—the last place she wants to be. Louise begins working at the Dove, owned by her close friend Rafael Moreno. There Louise meets Nora Davies, one of the girls she was kidnapped with nearly a decade ago. Nora is a little rough around the edges, but the two women—along with Rafael and his sister, Louise’s girlfriend, Rosa Maria—spend the night at the club, drinking and talking. The next morning, Rosa Maria wakes up covered in blood with no memory of the previous night. Nora is lying dead in the middle of the dance floor. Louise knows Rosa Maria couldn’t have killed Nora, but the police have a hard time believing that no one present can remember anything at all about what happened. When Louise and Rosa Maria return to their new apartment after being questioned by the police, they notice the door is unlocked. Inside, the word guilty is written on the living room wall. Someone has gone to great lengths to frame and terrify Rosa Maria, and Louise will stop at nothing to clear the woman she loves.
And continuing the New York nightclub theme, but a couple decades later, we have In the Shadow of Love (Shadow Series #2) by J.E. Leak from Certifiably Creative.
Jenny Ryan wanted Kathryn Hammond from the moment she saw her sing at The Grotto, an exclusive Midtown nightclub in wartime New York City. From that moment on, she was plunged into a world of danger and intrigue that led her to a secret job at the Office of Strategic Services and an unlikely romance with the woman of her dreams. Kathryn Hammond didn’t want to fall in love. As an OSS agent, she has an assignment to complete, a war to get back to, and a debt to pay to the dead. But love doesn’t care about the plans of those it enchants, and loving anyone, let alone a fellow member of the OSS, has compromised everything—especially her heart.
Dead Letters from Paradise by Ann McMan from Bywater Books is another “romance of the archives”.
The year is 1960, and Gunsmoke is the most popular show on TV. Elvis Presley tops the Billboard charts, and a charismatic young senator named John F. Kennedy is running for president. And, in North Carolina, four young Black men sit down at a Woolworth's lunch counter and demand service. Enter Esther Jane (EJ) Cloud, a forty-something spinster who manages the Dead Letter Office at the Winston-Salem post office. EJ leads a quiet life in her Old Salem ancestral home and spends her free time volunteering in the town's 18th century medicinal garden. One sunny Spring morning, EJ's simple life is turned upside down when the town's master gardener unceremoniously hands her a stack of handwritten letters that have all been addressed to a nonexistent person at the garden. This simple act sets in motion a chain of events that will lead EJ on a life-altering quest to uncover the identity of the mysterious letter writer―and into a surprising head-on confrontation with the harsh realities of the racial injustice that is as deeply rooted in the life of her community as the ancient herbs cultivated in the Moravian garden. When EJ is forced to read the letters to look for clues about the anonymous sender, what she discovers are lyrical tales of a forbidden passion that threaten to unravel the simple contours of her unexamined life. EJ's official quest soon morphs into a journey of self-discovery as she becomes more deeply enmeshed in the fate of the mysterious letter writer, "Dorothea." Her surprising accomplice in solving the mystery of the letters becomes one, Harrie Hart: a savvy, street smart ten-year-old, wielding an eye patch and a limitless supply of aphorisms. Together, Harrie and EJ make seminal pilgrimages to the tiny town of Paradise to try and uncover the identity of the mercurial sender and, ultimately, learn a better way to navigate the changing world around them.
Now we’re moving into the era where I start getting uncertain about labeling stories “historic” with Vera Kelly: Lost and Found (Vera Kelly #3) by Rosalie Knecht from Tin House Books.
It’s spring 1971 and Vera Kelly and her girlfriend, Max, leave their cozy Brooklyn apartment for an emergency visit to Max's estranged family in Los Angeles. Max’s parents are divorcing—her father is already engaged to a much younger woman and under the sway of an occultist charlatan; her mother has left their estate in a hurry with no indication of return. Max, who hasn’t seen her family since they threw her out at the age of twenty-one, prepares for the trip with equal parts dread and anger. Upon arriving, Vera is shocked by the size and extravagance of the Comstock estate—the sprawling, manicured landscape; expansive and ornate buildings; and garages full of luxury cars reveal a privileged upbringing that, up until this point, Max had only hinted at—while Max attempts to navigate her father, who is hostile and controlling, and the occultist, St. James, who is charming but appears to be siphoning family money. Tensions boil over at dinner when Max threatens to alert her mother—and her mother’s lawyers—to St. James and her father’s plans using marital assets. The next morning, when Vera wakes up, Max is gone.
Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair by June Gervais from Pamela Dorman Books is another book teetering on the edge of what I’d consider historic.
Introvert Gina Mulley is determined to become a tattoo artist, and to find somewhere she belongs in her conventional Long Island town. But this is 1985, when tattooing is still a gritty, male-dominated fringe culture, and Gina’s funky flash is not exactly mainstream tattoo fare. The good news is that her older brother Dominic owns a tattoo shop, and he reluctantly agrees to train her. Gina has a year to prove herself, but her world is turned upside down when a mysterious psychic and his striking assistant, Anna, arrive on the scene. With Anna’s help, Gina recognizes that the only way she has a shot at becoming a professional tattoo artist is to stand up for herself, and embrace her quirkiness both in her art and her life. When Gina and Anna fall in love, Dominic gives Gina an ultimatum. She’s faced with an impossible choice: Is the romance and newfound independence she’s found worth sacrificing her dreams? Or can she find a way to have it all?
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading—or perhaps listening to, in many cases?
On a whim—because I found myself in a really cute bookstore and wanted to buy something—I got Ryka Aoki’s rather bonkers story Light from Uncommon Stars. It’s…well, it has a spaceship full of interstellar refugees managing a doughnut shop, a violin teacher who sells her students’ souls to the devil in order to save her own music, and a teenage transgender runaway violinist. And then things get complicated. Not the sort of book I’d normally pick up, except that it’s a Hugo finalist and I wanted to read it for that, but I very much enjoyed where it took me.
I also enjoyed Catherine Lundoff’s Blood Moon, the second book in her Wolves of Wolf’s Point series, which I’ve been meaning to get to for a while now. Queer menopausal werewolves and a thriller plot, need I say more? Another book that has been sitting half-finished in iBooks for entirely too long is T. Kingfisher’s collection Toad Words which is as delightful as Kingfisher always is.
I continue my plunge into audiobooks. First up is another book I wanted to read for the Hugo voting: P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, following a dapper butch magical investigator in a seriously alternate early 20th century Cairo who gets caught up in a conflict with a bad-ass Djinn. Oh, and her girlfriend is…well, that’s a spoiler, so read it yourself. Someone—and I confess I’ve forgotten who—mentioned that the narration for Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister was truly inspired, so since I’d had my eye on the book already, I took advantage. After growing up in the US, the protagonist is struggling to adapt when her Malaysian-Chinese family returns to their ancestral home. Torn between family loyalty and the desire for independence, missing her girlfriend but not out to her family, things only get more complicated when the ghost of her grandmother takes up residence in her head. Zen Cho brings her own background to a story thoroughly steeped in the culture and setting of contemporary Malaysia.
And finally I absolutely devoured Nicola Griffith’s Arthurian historic fantasy Spear, inspired both by dark age history and Welsh and Irish myth, the story posits the knight Peredur as a queer cross-dressing woman. I loved that—unlike many Arthurian fantasies—I didn’t feel like the outcome of the story was pre-determined and guaranteed to be tragic. For a long time I’d given up on my love of Arthurian re-tellings because I was tired of them all ending the same, but Griffith has given me back my joy in this genre.
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
A book release, along with all the anxiety and frenetic activity, means a chance to do things like appear on someone else's podcast to talk about my work. This week, I chatted with the folks at Writers Drinking Coffee (who also--ahem--happen to be personal friends) about The Language of Roses, fairy tale retellings, how the pandemic upended our writing routines, and other sorts of stuff.
If you enjoy listening to writers and creative people in a variety of fields talking about their work in a casual atmosphere, Writers Drinking Coffee hosts all manner of people--often less visible people you haven't heard from before--and ranges widely over the business and pleasures of writing.
Several years ago, I ran into references to this book as an in-process project and have been waiting eagerly for its publication. Blogging it as a LHMP entry is a bit meta: a blog in support of lesbian historical fiction looking at a study of lesbian historical fiction as a genre. Garber is looking at a number of questions that have been simmering in the back of my mind over the years of looking at LHF as a field. Why do we write historical fiction? In particular, why do we write queer historical fiction? And what does it mean to write specifically lesbian historical fiction? How does this genre re-fashion history to fit the needs of lesbian identity? And how does it re-fashion lesbian identity to fit the context of history?
I'm particularly delighted to find that Garber identified a trope that I'm also fascinated by and has given it a name: the "romance of the archives". That is, the type of cross-time story in which a (relatively) contemporary person is exploring and coming to grips with their own identity and relationships by means of researching specific queer-coded individuals in the past. I intend to adopt this label for my own use.
As is often the case with academic books, some of the chapters were originally independent papers, which can give an episodic or patchwork feel to the whole. Certain subgenres are given prominence by having a chapter focus on them, others get far less mention. Some chapters focus more on "literary" works, others on genre fiction. And--as is also common with academic books--there's a point when you have to stop accumulating primary material and start the analysis, so the content is strongly focused on publications from the 1990s and 2000s, with a much smaller proportion from the 2010s than their representation in the field. It also focuses almost exclusively on the output of small presses, with almost no examples of self-published or author-imprint books. This may help explain some of the differences between Garber's take on popular themes and my own analysis. For example, I don't see "western" stories being as predominant as she does, but it may be that among earlier works from the small presses this is a more accurate assessment.
It was a lot of fun to read through this book and find many of my own thoughts and assessments echoed there. OMG, lesbian/sapphic historical fiction is a real field of serious study! I don't usually talk about upcoming interview prospects until I have them recorded, just in case things fall through, but I'll be daring enough to note that I'm in discussion with Professor Garber to come on the podcast to talk about her work.
Garber, Linda. 2022. Novel Approaches to Lesbian History. Palgrave, Cham. ISBN 978-3-030-85416-4
Chapter 1: Who Knows, Who Cares, and Why Bother
The book opens with Garber laying out the reasons for tackling this subject and her personal history as a reader of lesbian historic fiction. Why is it that lesbian historic fiction is important to the project of lesbian identity, if not the project of lesbian history? And what is the relationship between history and historic fiction when juggling the competing cultures and preoccupations of research and representation? These are some of the questions this book tries to address.
Chapter 2: H(a)unting the Archives
This chapter has a largely literary focus looking at the creation of a “usable past”. Garber comes up with the term “romance of the archives” to discuss cross-time stories in which a character is researching lesbians in the past. [Note: I may start using this term, since it’s a clearly identifiable story type, and one I’ve been commenting on for some time.] The example is used of the film Watermelon Woman, which is a “fake” biography creating history where it has been erased. Similarly, in the novel Impasssioned Clay, the discovery of a body wearing a “scold’s bridle” provokes research into the literal and social “silencing” of women. In discovering the nature of the dead woman, the protagonist discovers her own identity.
Ghost stories and time travel stories similarly construct queer genealogies. In a typical example of the “romance of the archives” genre, an archival researcher finds an imagined or supernatural connection with the past more satisfying than book research. The tension between documented history and the attraction of historical fiction are integrated in this novel by each partner in the framing relationship focusing on one side.
Time travel can similarly provide direct unfiltered access to a (fictional) past that bypasses the gaps in the historic record and the inconvenient non-alignment of historic and modern identities. Add in reincarnation in a family line, and both the personal disruption of history and the knowledge gap can be closed in a happily ever after where the modern protagonists affirm and consummate the relationship disrupted in and by history.
Chapter 3: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lesbian Sex* *But Only in Historical Fiction
Chapter three focuses on the place of sex in lesbian historical fiction. This consideration exists in the context that some researchers consider evidence of sex as the only acceptable “proof” of historical lesbian identity. Sex in lesbian historical fiction creates the image of understandable lesbian identity. It also serves to contradict (or contrast with) the image of lesbian sex in popular culture. Activists and scholars of lesbian history have taken positions ranging from “does it matter?” (promoted by proponents of the “women-identified-women” approach) through to “it’s a sine qua non”. Sex as a defining feature contributes to “the historical denial of lesbianism” even for couples engaging in clearly romantic marriage-equivalents. This position appears in the variants “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” and as “sex between women isn’t really sex”. (There is a summary of various opinions and positions on this question.)
Garber asserts, “lesbian historic fiction, by definition, starts from the premise that they did 'do it' and then proceeds to imagine how they did it.” [Note: I find this position depressing from an ace point of view. There ought to be room in lesbian historic fiction for stories that can imagine lesbian readers finding a historic connection with women in romantic relationships even if they didn’t engage in sex.]
Garber estimates that 2/3 of lesbian historic fiction are “coming out” romances with the structure: two women meet; at least one doesn’t understand her attraction; smoldering frustration; kissing; then sex. The chapter goes into a brief history of the romance genre, the rise of more explicit texts in the 70s, a discussion of positive and negative views of romance as “porn for women,” and the relationship of romance to feminism. Lesbian romance has been critiqued in parallel ways as formulaic and clichéd, but in the context of queer literature a happily ever after can be seen as wildly radical rather than as conventional.
The most prolific publishers of lesbian romance are Bold Strokes Books, Bella Books, and in an earlier era Naiad. [Note: as my annual surveys show, while this may be true for lesbian romance as a whole, these publishers produce only a small percentage of current historical fiction. But if one is looking at the pre-ebook era, the impression may be more accurate.]
Lesbian historic romance follows the same basic formula as mainstream romance with sex scenes following a similar pattern. The sex tends to be conventional, and reflects how the mainstream expects lesbians in history to have behaved. This assimilates lesbians into a mainstream arc, moving from sexual innocence to true love.
A difference from straight romance (other than both protagonists being women) is the prevalence of coming-out plots. The “difficulty that must be resolved” is recognition of sexual identity--not just a recognition of sexual attraction in general, but accepting same-sex attraction. Coming out is intrinsic to the genre – for a happy ending the character must not simply accept her love for the other, but recognize and accept her identity as a lesbian.
See Bonnie Zimmerman’s three myths of lesbian origins: 1) the creation of the lesbian self, 2) the formation of a lesbian couple, 3) the finding of a lesbian community. But most lesbian historic fiction depicts a world where the characters have no label for themselves and no community.
Garber considers the depiction of a historic character finding identity/community with others to be anachronistic. Thus the post-Stonewall lesbian novel is a project of defining/creating an assumed (but fictional) “truth” about lesbian identity and continuity through time.
Explicit content in lesbian romance parallels the shifts in straight romance. Genres proliferated distinguishing porn, erotica, erotic romance, and sexy romance. Due to the prevalence of coming-out plots, lesbian historic romance often delays sex to relatively late in the story. The content of lesbian sex scenes must be explicit to counter the image of sexless “cuddling”. But this also requires defining what “counts” as sex. Kissing, especially passionate kissing is a given. Fondling and caressing, especially of the breasts is only a stop along the way. Digital penetration and oral sex are the equivalent to PIV for heterosexual romances in defining “doing it”. Unambiguous descriptions of orgasm are also essential.
There is a survey of historic commentary on female same-sex erotics and examples of how characters in lesbian historic fiction express recognition of same-sex desire. There is a summary of sexological theories of inversion, the myth of the large clitoris, various social habits and practices perceived as masculine that are attributed to female “inverts”. As these stereotypes have largely fallen out of the popular imagination, they are generally ignored in lesbian historic fiction, with the exception of the trope of the “mannish lesbian” (butch) which is addressed either through erasure (femme-femme romance) or by clearly indicating that the butch character identifies as a woman. Butch characters in lesbian historic fiction are rarely conflicted about their gender identity and often jump at the chance to adopt a more feminine performance if the social conditions that triggered gender-crossing are removed.
While superficially anti-trans, this trope must also be seen as a refutation of earlier stereotypes about lesbians (i.e., that they “want to be a man” or that “one of them is the man”). But readings (and perhaps in some cases, motivations) of transphobia must be recognized. [Note: the insistance on clear charter gender identity as female is changing.] The question of how to balance these readings persists, especially as the authorial voice may assign gender to the character in question.
Another conventional trope –- that homosexuality is immature development -- is turned around in lesbian fiction where same-sex desire is the means by which the character moves from adolescence to adulthood. The validation of maturity by the lover as part of finding one’s place in life. [Note: This is reminiscent of the often vain aspirations of actual historic romantic friends, where the achievement of a home together is the goal. In lesbian historic romance, that goal is treated as achievable.] Lesbian historic fiction challenges the stereotype promulgated by sexologists of the lesbian as immature, or the lesbian as predator.
Garber notes that lesbian historic fiction counters the predator stereotype in two ways. Firstly, by having the experienced partner hold back until her partner takes the initiative, or by means of a conversation explicitly asking and receiving consent. [Note: But compare with the rise of consent culture in historic romance in general!] The second means is depicting both partners as sexually inexperienced, such that neither fits the “predator” stereotype. These approaches can be contrasted with, for example, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and its contemporaries in which the authors accept the stereotype of the sexologist’s “invert” to make a plea for tolerance based on pity.
But in the embracing of sex-positivity since the 80s, lesbian historic fiction, in general, sticks to relatively conventional “vanilla” sex, focusing on mutuality and similarity, rather than including power imbalances or role-playing. [Note: I wonder how much of this is the conventions of romance versus those of literary fiction?] The emphasis on equality, mutuality, and “vanilla” sex is another contrast to the stereotype of predation, or that F/F relationships mimic M/F ones.
This purpose may also underlie the dearth of sex toys, especially dildos, in lesbian historic fiction, despite their prevalence and acceptance in contemporary lesbian culture. It’s as if there is an ongoing need to challenge the claim that lesbians “want to be men”. Sexologists up through the mid 20th century emphasized the presence of a “masculine” partner in lesbian relationships, and over-emphasized the role of dildos.
In lesbian historic fiction, the rare examples of dildos appear in gender disguise plots where one character uses it as part of the presentation. This type of plot often touches on the overlap between gender disguise and transgender identity, though not always sensitively. Plots with gender disguise involving a dildo often have a more explicit and frequent focus on sexual encounters. In novels marked and marketed as lesbian historical fiction, the disguised character is always brought to an acceptance of female identity within the relationship, regardless of public presentation. [Note: It might be pointed out that this goes with the territory of identifying a book as a “lesbian” story.] Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet is the rare exception where the presence of a dildo is not within a cross-dressing context. Garber suggests that ambivalence about dildos in lesbian historic fiction reflect ongoing debates in lesbian culture regarding its symbolism.
Regardless of the specific type of sex written into lesbian historic fiction, the presence of on-page sex establishes lesbianism (as a sexuality) as undeniable historic fact. In the absence of a general acceptance of lesbian sexual presence in history, the inclusion or not of sex scenes in lesbian historic fiction is meaningful.
Chapter 4: Tomboys and Indians
Garber asserts that a quarter of lesbian historic romances are set in the American West and explores that specific sub-genre in this chapter. [Note: Estimates of this sort depend greatly on how one defines the data. By my own database, I’d say that the most generous estimate would be that Westerns make up perhaps 5% of all lesbian historic romances. Still a significant proportion, but not quite as dramatic a claim.]
The problematic aspects of the American myth of the Wild West cannot help but tinge the lesbian historic fiction set there, with rare exceptions. The protagonists see the (mythical) western frontier as a place for self-actualization, independence from social conventions, and anonymity. The keywords “freedom”, “independence “, and “opportunity” appear frequently. But as in mainstream westerns, the price paid by others for the opportunities is rarely mentioned, even when Native American characters are included sympathetically. The white lesbian experience is generalized and centered, even when connections with other “outsider” characters are noted. This theme is developed in significant depth in the chapter.
Another category of “western” lesbian historic fiction uses positive stereotyping and appropriation of Native cultures to frame a protagonist as “not like other [characters]”. Perhaps the character has been mentored or adopted by a Native character. Native cultures may be depicted as more accepting and supportive of same-sex relationships. In return, the white character often becomes a leader or spiritual figure in the Native culture. Often there is a spiritual transformation that triggers this. Garber makes an explicit connection to New Age spirituality’s appropriation of Native culture.
As with heterosexual Western novels, these books tend to use the window dressing of Native cultures to enhance a white (or stereotypically mixed-race) character, while promoting the “authenticity” of the narrative, and often invoking tenuous native connections of the author.
Similar dynamics can play out in lesbian historic fiction with an American Civil War setting, with a protagonist establishing anti-racist bona fides while failing to grapple with the realities of the Black characters, or treating the North-South conflict as a romantic context for interpersonal conflict, while skimming past the socio-political basis for that conflict.
Rarely are these stories written by Black authors, which contributes to the preponderance of the mythic plots. Rare exceptions, like Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, are far less likely to treat the past as a romantic, desirable setting. There is not the same opportunity to paint a reclaimed positive past for Black lesbians that is available to white lesbians.
While recognizing that the majority of lesbian historic fiction westerns continue to operate within the bubble of white privilege, even when the characters are superficially depicted as unusually accepting and unprejudiced, several authors are noted as writing in the same setting from within marginalized cultures, though still typically through the viewpoint of white characters who observe and call out the systemic racism.
Another approach is to use a conditionally-white character to draw parallels between prejudice against Native Americans and those against non-Anglo settlers such as Irish and Italians. Occasionally a book written from the viewpoint of the more deeply marginalized residents of the Old West grapples with issues of racism and persecution on a grittier level.
Because the Western is fully entangled with images of heroic masculinity and white male adventures, lesbian historic fiction using the Western as its structure is largely the story of female masculinity trying to lay claim to that same legacy. A butch character is practically a requirement, whether passing as a man or openly transing gender “for practicality”. The butch protagonist of the lesbian western is definitively “not like other girls”. She is a gender outlaw and her sexuality sometimes appears more a consequence of that rejection of traditional femininity then a cause of it. As Halberstam notes, butch characters in westerns don’t necessarily challenge the gender binary. In a genre where people assigned male need to struggle and fight to achieve full manhood, there is a context for people assigned female to achieve the same if they work hard enough.
But one key feature of lesbian Westerns is that the butch character retains some ineradicable female nature – whether physical or psychological – and this is often a topic for the character’s internal conflict or self-reflection. Both the attraction to female masculinity and the rejection of relations with men are often depicted from a feminist angle – that it is not possible for someone inhabiting a traditional female role to be a fully realized independent human being. Lesbian desire then becomes as much a feminist necessity as a personal characteristic.
First wave feminism sometimes makes an appearance, giving the characters either inspiration, or a context, for expressing their feelings in this area. Both in fictional history, and in the study and interpretation of history, female masculinity in the Old West becomes a site of contention between lesbian, transgender, and gender-queer framings.
Some authors engage with such figures/characters explicitly, declining to categorize them. But authors specifically writing for a lesbian readership typically give their butch character a “tell” that clearly categorizes her as female, and thus a participant in a lesbian relationship. [Note: with a wider market for queer fiction among a more diverse readership, I feel this is loosening up, to some extent.]
Overall, Garber concludes, lesbian Westerns tend to be rather conventional and conservative in genre, outside the one subversion of introducing a butch character as the “cowboy hero”. The femme characters often fall in the most conventional of tropes: the prostitute with a heart of gold, the schoolmistress, the farmwife. And the happily ever after is typically the ability to portray the image of a conventional nuclear family, complete with children. And, as a whole, lesbian Westerns too often perpetuate white mythologizing about colonialist history.
Chapter 5: Unsafe Seas for Women
[Note: the chapter title is playing off Bonnie Zimmerman’s 1990 publication The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969-1989.]
Chapter covers several sub genres that have in common a theme of sea travel, whether the sea-going life of pirates, or the act of trans-oceanic emigration. There’s a bit of thematic whiplash as the chapter starts by discussing pirates, then moves to the immigration theme, before returning to pirate stories.
Pirate fiction is a more promising context for challenging the racist and imperialist past than westerns. Even stripping out the romanticism, the pirate culture of the 18th century involved ideals (not always maintained) of multi-ethnic egalitarianism, direct democracy, and economic fairness. The documented existence of at least two female pirates (Anne Bonney and Mary Reade) has inspired many lesbian pirate stories, whether as fictional biography or using those two as a model for original characters.
The age of exploration also inspires many stories that embrace imperialist and colonialist goals, and though these are a minority within lesbian historical fiction set in this era, Garber examines some titles that embrace the Intrepid White Explorer, or the Archaeologist's Orientalist Fantasy.
This chapter covers, more broadly, stories in which the crossing of seas is both a hazard and a quest.
European emigration to America forms another category of setting for lesbian historic fiction, carrying the motif of reinventing oneself. Such characters include a wide range of class backgrounds and motivations. Sometimes a couple travels together, hoping to escape scrutiny and disapproval. Sometimes the arrival in a new community provides the context for establishing a relationship. (Cross dressing/passing may be involved, but it’s not a default element as it is in the western.)
Various aspects and social movements relating to the immigrant experience may be key plot elements, such as labor activism and feminism. The issues around ethnic and religious prejudice that both drove emigration and met the immigrants in their new home are also prominent story elements.
In these “immigration novels”, same-sex romance maybe a source of strength, the embodiment of the multicultural environment, or a motivation for migration. Immigration stories tend, on the whole, to be gritty, realistic stories of the search for safety and security.
Pirate stories, on the other hand, tend to be fantasies based on pop-culture inventions, focusing on the search for adventure and the perils of freedom. Garber notes that they often intersect with another narrative genre, such as ghost story, love story, or “romance of the archive”. Settings often emphasize the purported democratic and egalitarian culture of pirate crews, extending that spirit to embrace gender equality.
The criminality and violence inherent in piracy are framed in contrasting ways to retain reader empathy. Criminality may be viewed Robin Hood-style as a matter of higher justice. But protagonists are often shown to find violence as increasingly distasteful – a necessary tool for the last resort and perhaps a motivation for leaving the life at the book’s conclusion.
Pirate novels also give the characters a context for anti-slavery sentiment and actions, and for depicting a multi-racial community on shipboard, without introducing seriously anachronistic elements. (Garber notes that some historians dispute this image. But it’s well enough established that authors can’t be faulted for embracing it in fiction.)
The presence and acceptance of women in pirate society of the 18th century Atlantic is perhaps the least historic element of lesbian pirate novels. Within the documented exceptions (talking about Western culture here) cross-dressing/passing is a common element, and seagoing superstitions regarding women on ships are well documented.
The inherent subversion of the undeniable existence of Reade and Bonney provide a wedge for the fictional imagination. And the potential for erotic relations between the two was raised in literature of the time, even if only to deny its possibility. So no wonder that fictionalizations of a Bonney/Reade romance form a substantial sub-genre of lesbian pirate novels.
As with the Western, seafaring culture is entwined with particular images and archetypes of cultural masculinity. And the two most famous female pirates have back-stories that involve episodes of cross-dressing beginning at a young age. Both in the historic reports of Bonney and Reade, and in fictionalized characters in lesbian pirate novels, the performance of a fierce, competent hyper-masculinity in times of conflict is seen as the essence of their survival and success.
Garber also notes and explores the pop-culture popularity of cross-dressing heroines in 17th to 19th century media, specifically including the genre of seafaring heroines. (See, e.g., Dugaw 1989.) Pirate fiction also intersects with the general category of popular literature featuring charismatic criminals and especially female criminals. Moll Cutpurse (the historical figure and lesbian novel) is cited.
Chapter 6: The Usual Suspects
[This chapter focuses on history and historic fiction from the era when self-conscious lesbian identity was emerging.]
Given that lesbian historic fiction is the quest to find or create a history in which recognizable and knowledgeable lesbians exist, one fertile area is fictional stories involving historic individuals who undeniably were women who loved women, such as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, or Natalie Barney. (Garber lists a number of relevant historic individuals, although the certainty of “identifiable” gets fuzzier the earlier you go.)
Within this topic, there is also the meta-fiction in which fictional characters explore and discuss the importance of telling stories that connect them with people they identify as lesbians throughout time, suggesting that the existence of such historic figures and the act of claiming them as lesbians is an essential part of lesbian culture. One author expresses that you cannot have a tradition of “lesbian literature” without a continuity of works that explicitly identify with such a tradition.
Novels in which Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas appear are cited as exemplifying this concept. With an actual historic grounding, the fictions that elaborate their lives and those of their contemporaries create a rich cultural history that feels absent from the strictly historical tradition. These fictions aren’t so much about Stein and Toklas as they are about the authors and readers who desire that richer history. And fiction can “claim” these characters for a lesbian historical tradition that has too often been erased or dismissed within heteronormative history.
But with a growing wider acceptance of queer themes in literature, fiction (or fictionalizations) about women loving women is expanding beyond the community who are creating stories “by lesbians about lesbians for lesbians”. This expansion raises new questions and concerns about “ownership”, representation, and the cultural purpose that such fictions serve.
Questions of representation and purpose also arise when one considers the fiction written by historical lesbians themselves, such as the Paris Circle of the early 20th century. These women were not concerned with creating a positive and uplifting legacy for their later admirers, and their themes and characters may strike modern readers as engaging in many of the same negative tropes and stereotypes that their male contemporaries applied to lesbian characters.
Garber closes with a meditation on what must be done in order to grapple with both the realities of history and the flaws of lesbian historic fiction as a genre, which risk repeating a history of biases and exclusions. She closes with the following: “In the meantime, lesbian historical novels provide a necessary if imperfect history, as well as copious material for a serious reflection on the definitions of history, identity, and above all, lesbian.”
I'm off at WisCon at the moment, so nothing brilliant to sum up here. I have the next LHMP entry already read,, written up, and ready to post. I figure I start off June with that one -- it's a really interesting academic look at the state of lesbian historical fiction, so you know it's right up my alley.
Howard, Jean. 1999. “Afterword: Producing New Knowledge” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2
Howard, Jean. “Afterword: Producing New Knowledge”
The summary discusses the importance of studying women in the Early Modern period not simply as individuals (possibly unusual ones), but in the context specifically of female networks and alliances. Men are assumed to participate in structures; too often women are viewed as isolated individuals, or else as existing only in relation to men. Individual women might have agency in negotiating their own position within society, but only in groups did women have any hope of making changes to society. Alliances between women have impact when they view women as a group as within their scope of concern, whether that concern is education, rights of property and inheritance, or challenging misogyny.
What it says in the subject line. This article doesn't directly address topics relevant to the Project, but Lanyer is definitely relevant in general for her interest in proto-feminist ideas and the complex intersections of her identity. There's a wonderful, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek play about her that I got to see an online performance of.
Bowen, Barbara. 1999. “Aemilia Lanyer and the Invention of White Womanhood” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2
Bowen, Barbara. “Aemilia Lanyer and the Invention of White Womanhood”
This article examines early origins of the default understanding of “woman” as racially specific (i.e., white women). This is viewed through the lens of early 17th century author Aemelia Lanyer that explores the concept of “womanhood” as a social rather than individual identity defined to some extent by who that identity excludes. Specifically including racialized exclusions as experienced by the author via her own Italian and Jewish heritage (identities that were racialized in Early Modern England).
[Lanyer’s life, work, and context are complex and deeply fascinating—too much so to go into here.]
Lanyer is interesting not only for her family background and her complex connections within the English court, but for her ground-breaking position as a published female poet, and for the ways in which she reframed the themes and narratives of her culture from a non-dominant perspective. In particular from the perspective of a woman arguing for her right to have intellectual value, and who worked to create a network of female patronage for her work.
Although the analysis of the racial aspects of Lanyer’s work is detailed and interesting, it’s hard to sum up concisely, so I’m simply going to say check it out if you’re interested.
There are some really interesting thoughts in this paper (which I gave up on summarizing in detail, since they don't relate directly to the Project). I confess that I'm also skimping on detail a bit in the last couple papers in this collection because I want to make sure I finish by the end of the month. Also, it's bleeping hot at the moment (36C) and my brain is melting.
Hendricks, Margo. 1999. “Alliance and Exile: Aphra Behn’s Racial Identity” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2
Hendricks, Margo. “Alliance and Exile: Aphra Behn’s Racial Identity”
The restoration of Charles II to the English throne brought the return of many royalist supporters from exile – an exile that left psychological marks within the culture they created. Themes of exile and return may have served to create a sense of continuing community that set them apart from those who had remained in England during the interregnum.
This article argues that the writings of Aphra Behn expressed these themes, both explicitly and implicitly, from a gendered perspective, but also in her work Oroonoko using racial passing as a type of exile.
Exile becomes more than a state of being, even a personal identity, creating an outsider’s perspective on one’s own culture. But for a writer, exile can mean not only separation from one’s culture, but also from one’s audience.
One theme the article explores is the connection between the pastoral genre (a type of deliberate imaginative exile) and the inclusion of “gossip” as a motif indicating the creation of connection and the exploration of emotional hypotheticals, under the cover of a “frivolous” activity. Behn’s “Our Cabal” creates a network of fictional alliances – between characters, between author and reader – via the medium of gossip as a narrative type.
In the epistolary poem “To Mrs. Price” Behn again intersects the themes of pastoral retreat and exile. The narrative voice describes the pleasures of pastoral retreat and begs the recipient to leave the court and city behind, to step out of time in space into the pastoral “exile” and join the writer there. The pastoral setting is framed as a preferred goal, but one of ambiguous enjoyment, given the writer’s depicted isolation and entreaty for company. The companions in this exile are mythic nymphs and shepherds, but the writer longs for the “home “of her prior friendships and companions.
The final part of the article tackles the question posed to the author – inspired by certain racial themes in Behn’s writing – whether Aphra Behn was “passing” in a racial sense. The author doubts this possibility, based on the known facts of Behn’s life (which, admittedly, are scanty and ambiguous), but tackles the question of whether there are themes in her writing that parallel the dynamics and concerns of a passing experience.
[Note: the discussion is fairly jargon-rich.]
There is no firm conclusion about the relationship of Oroonoko narrator to its author (Behn) or the relationship of either to a hypothetical mixed race origin. Rather, the analysis asks, “is the narrative consistent with a hypothetical case where Behn had a Black grandmother, and based the content and viewpoint of Oroonoko on her own background and experiences?”
This also raises the question of whether the themes of exile in Behn’s work might also be informed by a sense of exile from (part of) her own heritage.
(Originally aired 2022/05/21 - listen here)
The term “lavender menace” dates to 1969, when leaders in the National Organization for Women (the most prominent feminist organization in the USA at the time) took steps to distance itself from lesbian organizations and causes for fear that a close association of lesbians and feminists in the popular imagination would undermine feminist goals. The phrase was taken up as a rallying cry the next year by an informal group of lesbian feminists at the Second Congress to Unite Women, and their activism and outreach reversed the official position of the National Organization for Women to being inclusive of lesbian concerns.
But the association of female same-sex desire and feminist activism – and anxieties about that association both inside feminist circles and from anti-feminist agitators – dates to much earlier than the second-wave feminist movement of the 60s. So this episode takes a historic tour through that association within Western culture.
Definitions and Caveats
To begin with some caveats, it is not always the case that anxieties about feminism raised the specter of lesbian inclinations. And it isn’t an automatic given that women with same-sex desires will adopt feminist philosophies. And I should note here that, in this episode (as I often do), I’m going to use a variety of terms for female same-sex erotics—including the word “lesbian”—without intending a precise modern definition and without implying the use of that word in the era in question. Sometimes it’s just a matter of making the script interesting and elegant to read.
Cultural beliefs about gender and sexuality affect the types of connections people will make. It has been a repeating motif that anti-feminists view arguments for gender equality as an act of transing gender. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male." In various different forms at different times, people have thought that if women engaged in behaviors and activities and had rights that were considered to be masculine, it would turn them into men, either psychologically or—in some eras—physiologically. Or, if not into men, then into not-women. This is a different motif than the idea that feminism turns women into lesbians, but the two have overlapping territory due to certain models of sexuality, in which desire for women is viewed as an inherently masculine trait and indicates masculinity in the person who experiences it.
Similarly, it might seem like a given that women who desire women, and who are less invested in the normative expectations of heterosexual marriage, would be motivated to support equal legal and economic rights for women. But this assumption overlooks the importance of class and other types of identities, which may over-ride any sense of sisterly solidarity. Individual women—and Anne Lister in the early 19th century is a salient example here—sometimes thought of themselves as unique individuals apart from the general mass of womankind, and they might believe themselves, as individuals, as worthy of rights equal to those given to men while also believing that most women were not worthy of them. Similarly, some people assigned female who desired women perceived their desire for the rights and freedoms available to men as stemming from an inherent masculine identity that also motivated their sexual desires. As they did not identify with the category of “woman”, they might not feel aligned with the struggle for rights for women, and could be, in some cases, fairly misogynistic in their positions.
In order for anxiety about feminism leading to lesbianism to arise, it’s necessary for a society to have the concept of “the lesbian as a type of person” (to use Nan Alamilla Boyd’s phrase). This doesn’t require that the word “lesbian” be in use, or to have a concept of sexual orientation as a type of personal identity. It only requires that women’s same-sex desire be recognized as a habit, a propensity of taste, or a personality type. That recognition has existed in a wider swath of time and geography than the social constructionists might have us believe. But it’s also the case that without a public and recognized vocabulary for female same-sex desire, the accusations of lesbianism may surface in coded ways—as dog-whistles that may not be obvious to the modern audience.
Needless to say, in order for this equation of feminism with lesbianism to arise, it’s also necessary for a society to recognize a concept equivalent to feminism. Historians of feminism typically speak of the “first-wave” feminism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, focusing on voting and property rights, and “second-wave” feminism starting in the 1960s covering a wider range of social and legal inequities, with everything prior to those waves being labeled “proto-feminism”.
But in this episode I’m going to use a more general definition in which feminism consists of organized philosophical arguments for reducing the social and legal barriers to women’s participation in the public social sphere, whether in terms of access to education and an intellectual life, of participation in the workforce and control over the products of their labor, of having a role in government, of the right to a legal identity that was not dependent on a male relative, or addressing a gendered double-standard with regard to sexual behavior and marriage rights. Not all people who embraced some feminist aims aspired to the complete equality of the genders—some feminists were peculiarly limited in the types of changes they wanted to see and the arguments they expressed. But I think it’s reasonable for the current purpose to define feminism in terms of a desire to reduce the inequality of the genders.
At the same time, not all cases of individual women claiming or arguing for male-coded rights and freedoms can reasonably be called feminist. As noted above, some such women considered themselves to be special cases and were content for the majority of women to remain in their traditional roles. Or they argued only for the rights of certain subsets of women to have rights, excluding others on the basis of class, race, religion, or other factors. Those loyalties to the status quo didn’t protect them from the same attacks and push-back faced by women who did have broader aims.
Historian Valerie Traub discusses a phenomenon she calls “cycles of salience” where recurring co-existing motifs across time give us periodic views of phenomena that appear similar but are not directly related except through their superficial manifestations. I view this periodic recurrence of the “lavender menace” motif as one of these cycles of salience. Eras of feminist agitation give rise to a variety of types of social anxiety. Depending on other factors in society relating to sexuality, one of the forms that anxiety may take is concern about female same-sex relations. But here, rather than using “same-sex relations” as a euphemism for lesbian sex, I mean it in the literal sense: relationships between women.
Two different types of anxiety contribute to the lavender menace motif. The older type, as mentioned previously, is an anxiety that if women behave in ways labeled masculine, it will literally turn them into men, or at least will make them less female. This might take the form of a belief that male-coded activity will hinder female fertility, or it might operate more on a psychological level, making them less “feminine” in terms of the social ideal.
But the other theme is that equality of the genders will make men irrelevant to women. If women were no longer dependent on men for economic stability, to act for them in legal matters, to protect them from threats, or any of the other roles that men were expected to fulfill, then women would have no need for men at all, including for sexual gratification. If one examines the underlying logic of this anxiety, it isn’t very flattering to men. But for that matter, feminist rhetoric in some ages argued that marriage was a form of involuntary servitude with no guarantee of any return, so perhaps men’s fears were well founded.
Waves of Feminism
Proto-feminist ideas in the Middle Ages tended to focus on moral and philosophical issues, such as the feminization of Original Sin. Arguments for women’s moral equality, made by authors such as Christine de Pizan in The City of Ladies, focused on begging for men’s good will and recognition of women’s worth, but rarely challenged the economic status quo in which women’s labor was less valued. Questions of political equality were largely not relevant under systems based on monarchy and aristocratic rule. Women arguing for better education and an equal respect as moral beings might be considered undesirably masculine in nature, but the lack of a coherent concept of “lesbians as a type of person” meant that lesbianism did not form part of the equation at this time.
This general pattern held through the Renaissance. A wider interest in education and learning inspired some women to argue that women should have the same educational opportunities as men, but in general those opportunities were enjoyed only by the elite. As a broad generalization, many people recognized that some women could aspire to the same accomplishments as men, but there was a sense that this was only possible for women who were “masculine” to some degree to start with. But we can see glimpses of the themes that prepared the ground for a lavender menace motif. Feminist treatises (such as Jane Anger’s 1589 Protection for Women or Moderata Fonte’s 1600 treatise The Worth of Women) argue from the premise that women’s social power can only derive from separating themselves from men and focusing their resources in support of other women. Other authors who took a “women first” stand included Lady Mary Chudleigh, Marie de Romieu, and a semi-anonymous group of six London maidservants who published an open letter in 1567 appealing to their female employers to make common cause as women in support of their common interests such as resistance to male sexual predation.
These texts highlight the idea of a homosocial economy of women that allows for equality in relationships that can stand against patriarchal structures. This sort of equality was not possible between women and men. The specific activities of constructing these homosocial bonds point out the inequality of male-male friendships and female-female ones: men’s same-sex friendships act within and support patriarchy while women’s same-sex friendships act to subvert and negate its power. For women to create non-marital bonds outside the family was an inherent act of challenge to the status quo which expected women’s loyalties to be to husband, household, and extended family in that order.
The individual elements were starting to be present for a lavender menace, but they didn’t align quite yet. Sexual desire between women was recognized as a possible “personal taste,” but people weren’t making a connection between sexuality and philosophical positions on gender. Even in England’s “gender panic” of the early 17th century, the concerns about masculine women and effeminate men were not seen as relating to same-sex desire, but to gender identity.
But in the later 17th century we see the first recognizable iteration of the lavender menace motif.
Feminist thought was exploring topics like social and legal disparities in marriage, and the logical extension of humanist and neo-platonic philosophies that “the soul has no gender”—a philosophy that tripped over social beliefs about the inherent sexualization of male-female interactions. New non-conformist religious movements, such as the Quakers, embraced a fairly radical equality of the sexes. Poets like Katherine Philips were making the connections between philosophies valuing the equality of women and a personal erotic connection with specific women. Advocates for women’s education like Mary Astell argued that bonds between women were an essential bulwark against patriarchal barriers and that marriage was a hindrance to equality. Authors like Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish, and Delarivier Manley imagined woman-only societies and woman-centered relationships, driven by similar philosophies, that included a more overt eroticism—although they had a wide range of critical positions on the intersection.
And now the necessary components for a lavender menace fall into place. Susan Lanser argues that, in the later part of the 17th century, this conceptual shift in the use of intimate friendship structures among women to support their struggles for autonomy and authority collided with emerging recognition of the erotic possibilities between women. This “sapphic” consciousness (encompassing both private and public expressions of same-sex desire) acted to dismantle the logic of patriarchy and thus formed the basis for the emergence of modern feminism.
But increasing public visibility of this sapphic consciousness was accompanied by the increasing use of derogatory imagery of lesbianism to undermine women perceived as challenging male authority. We see this, for example, in the accusations of lesbianism directed at powerful women in the circle of Queen Anne of England. The satiric version of the tribade or fricatrice no longer represented a trans-masculine appropriation of the male role, but was now depicted as rejecting men entirely, with a goal of establishing exclusively female spaces that embraced lesbian erotics.
The attribution of lesbian desire to women who promoted—or simply adhered to—feminist ideals created (in Lanser’s analysis) a social divergence between those who deflected suspicion behind the rhetoric of idealized platonic relations—a rhetoric that would eventually give rise to the motif of romantic friendship—and those who embraced a more overt eroticism and saw their reputations and legacies get sidetracked and categorized as libertinism and satire. As it were, a divergence between “respectable” feminists and radical sexual outlaws.
This motif rises again a century later, in the last quarter of the 18th century. Women who took seriously the ideals of the Enlightenment challenged society to extend those ideals to women. The female-led and nominally egalitarian atmosphere of the salon in France and England became an incubator for new strains of feminist thought. Female philosophers in revolutionary France took advantage of the atmosphere of change to push for true legal and social equality. English social reformers like Mary Wollstonecraft set forth detailed critiques and arguments for women’s rights.
This time the backlash came in two flavors: feminists are either bitter, sexually-frustrated old maids, or they are lesbians. Although the “bitter old maid” motif is another one the recurs across history, we’re only concerned at the moment with the second motif. With roots in revolutionary France, there is a growing motif of tribades not as isolated individuals or couples, but as creating voluntary communities and secret societies. The sensational and pornographic depictions of the Anandrine Society (there’s a prior podcast on this topic) braided together the image of collectives of women rejecting male supremacy, discarding men as unnecessary, and enthusiastically enjoying lesbian sex.
Cautionary novels in England promoted the stereotypical feminist couple: the pedantic intellectual bluestocking, partnered with the mannish Amazonian sportswoman, reflecting the two dire fates that awaited women who rejected domesticity. This, despite the fact that the actual bluestockings tended to be relatively conservative and conventional in their aspirations for women.
Commentary on female intimacy became increasingly satiric, projecting anxieties about the irrelevance of men onto an exaggeratedly decadent elite, in order to elevate middle-class domestic femininity. The reasonable ideals of female equality in the Age of Enlightenment were rejected by male philosophers as extremist and the result of the excesses of female intimacy.
The sentiment in post-revolutionary France against secret societies of all kinds helped paint feminist and separatist organizations in general as suspiciously sapphic. This, in turn, pushed upper class and intellectual feminists into an emphasis on anti-eroticism in relations between women, seen for example in the work of Wollstonecraft and the rise of the motif of "romantic friendship" among upper class women. The portrayal of sapphic eroticism then shifted toward lower class women, framed as monstrous, and increasingly treated as criminal.
These are the fracture lines in the wake of the era of revolutions that proved a set-back to even modest feminist goals. Conventional domestic morality became identified with the political health of the state. The rejection of marriage and childbearing in favor of personal fulfilment came to be viewed as a form of treason. Those who had aligned calls for women’s equality with calls for sexual freedom, such as Wollstonecraft, were savaged in the public press as immoral. And those women in romantic couples—whether sexual or not—who succeeded in achieving an independent household together must have felt a certain amount of pressure not to attract similar attention by raising the feminist standard.
But once more the cycle sowed the seeds of its revival. The cult of female domesticity, the ideal of “separate spheres” for men and women, the elevation of sentiment as a virtue, all of which had the surface goal of keeping women out of male-coded roles, had as a side-effect the strengthening of social bonds between women. Romantic friendships and gender-segregated educational institutions became the building blocks of what would eventually become “first wave feminism”.
Romantic friendship – as the “respectable” face of female same-sex desire – was never quite as uncritically embraced as the simple version of history would have us think. (Though neither was it universally the “yeah, sure they’re just good friends” cover story that wishful thinking suggests.) And in the tension across the 19th century between the approved and hazardous flavors of female intimate friendship, we see the framework for “lavender menace” battle lines, once first-wave feminists start making gains toward the end of the century.
As Lisa Moore lays out in her article “Something More Tender Still than Friendship,” the depiction of non-sexual romantic friendships in both fiction and non-fiction of the 19th century – rather than being either an accurate description of women’s relationships, or even an unquestioned fiction – was deployed as a shield against the specter of lesbianism. In order to maintain and protect the illusion of white middle-class heterosexual domestic purity, the ideal of romantic friendship was defined in opposition to “dangerous female friendships” or racialized models of sexually deviant women.
The power of this illusion became even more important as women began achieving some of the long-elusive goals of feminism, especially the ability to earn a living apart from the patriarchal household or heterosexual marriage. This ability created the freedom for female intimate friends to set up domestic partnerships together in numbers sufficient that the rest of society took note. Perhaps men were becoming irrelevant to women’s lives?
A common theme in the personal correspondence of later 19th century women with professional or intellectual aspirations was the impossibility of finding support for those aspirations within conventional marriage. This meant that such women—having built their most solid and long-lasting personal connections in a gender-segregated society—turned to other women for emotional, psychological, and financial support. And, due to the barriers they faced, they turned to feminist philosophy to express their frustrations and envision a better future.
Some of the social factors that bolstered first-wave feminism were byproducts of a specific historical era. The increasing industrialization of the economy affected women’s ability to support themselves, as small private businesses were forced out of the market by large-scale industries that were highly sex-segregated in employment. Related to this was the focus among middle- and upper-class social reformers on bettering the position of less fortunate women and creating wider opportunities for them. This created a context for organized institutions whose goals required finding successful strategies for social and political change. And once established, they identified many changes they wanted to work toward. Organizations to promote women’s suffrage emerged in the USA, England, and France, although they had a long struggle to success.
Demographics were another key driver of feminism in the late 19th century. Women significantly outnumbered men in both Europe and America either generally (in part due to wars) or locally (due to the differential migration of men to industrial centers and to feed colonial expansion). This meant that many women who had been socialized to rely on marriage as a life path now found themselves needing to be self-supporting and yet cut off both from many of the traditional jobs for women (that had disappeared) and from the better-paying jobs created by the new economy.
Middle-class women began expanding their presence in intellectual and clerical work, such as teaching and office work, and began agitating for equal pay in workplaces where they might find themselves earning one half to one tenth that of a man doing the same work. At the same time, we see the rise of what now are termed “pink collar” professions--jobs that were opened to women specifically because women had been socialized to accept limited working conditions for poor pay. At a more restricted level, women began demanding access to, and recognition at, professional careers such as medicine and academia.
In the mid 19th century, ideas about women’s education that had been largely intellectual exercises in previous centuries began to be put into practice. Higher education became more generally open to women (though sometimes it was necessary to create entire new institutions to do so, such as Mt. Holyoke College in the USA). By the late 19th century, one third of college students in the USA were women and most major European countries had at least some colleges that admitted women. And the vast majority of these female students were in institutions with largely female faculty.
When one surveys the women who did pursue advanced and professional studies, the vast majority never married. Cause and effect were tangled: a married woman would have less freedom to pursue such interests, as well as being subject to the time demands of motherhood. But also, women who had such ambitions may have recognized that marriage would be a distraction and roadblock.
Who did they turn to? The close, supportive, long-term relationships they already had with other women. Historical studies of the life-patterns of early first-wave feminists identify some clear prototypes: an only or oldest child whose father was supportive of her education and was the primary parental bond, and often a sense from the woman that she was serving as a substitute for the son her father would have preferred.
And here we trip over the groundwork for that generation’s “lavender menace.” This model for the “New Woman” matches fairly closely the stereotype later identified by psychoanalysts as a “cause” of lesbianism. In her study of this era, historian Lillian Faderman speculates on cause and effect. Was it that women who were attracted to other women responded more strongly to the opportunities of this sort of upbringing? Or did such an upbringing make the rejection of marriage and the expression of desire for women more attractive? Faderman notes, “Whether, as an independent, ambitious nineteenth-century woman, she began as a lesbian or as a feminist, it was very possible that she would end as both.”
At the same time, the emergence—particularly in France—of women with a public identity that can solidly be labeled “lesbian,” and the greater publication of sexually explicit material involving female couples, meant that the deniability of lesbianism was being eroded. It became less possible for the average person to be ignorant of lesbian possibilities, and therefore accusations of lesbianism became viewed as more plausible.
This is the context in which the illusory ideal of platonic romantic friendship begins to fray at the edges. These independent “new women” were passing by the dubious attractions of heterosexual marriage and establishing stable domestic partnerships that were not simply recognized as a substitute for marriage, but were overtly labeled things like “Boston marriage” or “Wellesley marriage.” Once the word “marriage” is used, it becomes more difficult to ignore the erotic potential of such relationships.
The later 19th and early 20th century are full of the names of such couples among female professionals and intellectuals. The feminist movement was teeming with them. And with backlash against the growing success of that movement we begin to regularly see charges of “mannishness” and sexual impropriety. Satire and caricature were major tools of the backlash, depicting independent and feminist women as aggressive, ugly man-haters. Schoolgirl friendships that had been the social foundation of many a feminist power couple became pathologized even by those same movement leaders. Some feminists tried to rework the accusations of “mannishness,” depicting a type of affirmative female masculinity that marginalized same-sex sexuality. Others seized on a type of respectability politics that tied the feminist movement to moralizing goals such as the prohibition of alcohol, or campaigns against pornography. Ah yes, the sex wars. Is this starting to sound familiar?
In summary, feminism and female same-sex desire have been part of a long, tangled dance. The cycles that I’ve depicted here are, perhaps, not as clear-cut and distinct as I’ve made them seem. Feminism may have waves, but the ocean has always been present underneath. Reactionary responses to accusations of lesbianism are all the more ironic given how solidly each feminist wave has been rooted in social and emotional bonds between women—including between pairs of women whose bond encompassed romance and sometimes sexuality. And attempts to distance feminist movements from those accusations have always failed, not simply because there were lesbians present, but because the problem was never the lesbians but the stigma on lesbianism. To be aware of the historic pattern is the first step to breaking the cycle. The lavender menace has never been a menace to feminism but to the illusion that you can engage in revolution and remain respectable.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online