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homosocial environments/communities

 

There were many different reasons and contexts where people interacted and socialized primarily with their own gender. These ranged from entirely single-sex communities, such as some religious institutions, to single-sex schools, to simply a strong differentiation between the everyday activities of men and women that resulted in separation. In such contexts, it was often considered typical (though not always desirable) for individuals to form strong emotional same-sex bonds.

LHMP entry

This article looks at the women’s religious educational communities founded in the early 17th century by Mary Ward, the School of Blessed Mary. As an English woman setting up Catholic institutions during a period when Catholicism was out of favor in England, and as a woman becoming a prominent religious leader in the Catholic Church at a time when women were not encouraged to take leadership positions, the hierarchies of both sides found Mary Ward problematic.

Drama often draws on contemporary dynamics to depict historic stories, and in this article Brown uses the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and her female courtiers to examine the depiction of Cleopatra’s court in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. And, given the focus of this collection, it particularly looks at the types of alliances within the court between a queen and her waiting women. Brown’s position is that these relations strengthened Elizabeth’s position and goals, while Cleopatra is depicted as weak in this department.

McLaughlin traces the history and internal politics of a planned women’s community in Ferrara in the first half of the 15th century. Although the community eventually shifted (through several branchings) into a traditional religious order, it had started as a secular (though devotional) community and maintained that status for almost 50 years, largely due to the determined and forceful personalities of its successive leaders.

The idea of “modern lesbian identity” and when it can first be identified is a question that has preoccupied many historians in the field. In this article, Vicinus tackles the question. Keep in mind that this article was written in 1992, so it was still rather early in terms of current lesbian history scholarship.

The 19th c, far from being an era of sexual repression (as the “Victorian” age is often depicted) saw an increasingly diverse and intense focus on sexuality, including homosexuality. This paper looks at depictions of homosexuality in Paris from the 1830s through the end of the 19th century, in printed and visual media. From this, we see the obsessions, anxieties, and taboos about public behavior.

The article opens with a discussion of how 16-17th c French discourse around sex between women contradictorily emphasizes the similarity of the couple (woman with woman) then describes what they do as “like a man with a woman.” (Brantôme “give themselves to other women in the very way that men do”, Richelet 1680 “a tribade is one “who mates with another person of her sex and imitates a man”.)

Hatem looks at systems of institutionalized male control of female sexuality in 18-19th century Egypt, considering issues of class and ethnicity, as well as large-scale political shifts and disruptions. Moreover, patriarchal systems are not only about relations between men and women, but about how relations among women and relations among men support or resist power structures.

Among the various models for how close female friendships were viewed in the 19th century, that of sisterhood plays a regular role. The concept of sisterhood represented a close supportive bond between equals in age and status. Sororal relationships were expected to include a component of physical affection, as well as emotional closeness. In addition to echoing bonds of blood family, the language of sisterhood was common within religious communities and charitable organizations. Thus it was a natural option for intimate friends to use with each other.

Smith-Rosenberg takes an in-depth look at the nature and dynamics of women’s intense and intimate same-sex friendships in 19th century America, as documented in the correspondence from 35 middle-class families dating between the 1760s and 1880s, from a variety of geographic regions, both rural and urban, and belonging to a variety of Protestant denominations. Private correspondence and diaries have the advantage of presenting the best available approximation of unfiltered personal reporting. They were never intended for public consumption and therefore are able to reveal private thoughts.

Vicinus begins the paper by placing it in the context of lesbian historiography in general and the focus on when same-sex emotional friendships came to be labeled “deviant” and looked askance. There is a conflict between the ability of labeling to enable self-identity and community formation, and the ways in which those labels had a spreading effect over practices and experiences that shared a context.

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