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The Sexologists and Radclyffe Hall

Thursday, December 31, 2020 - 20:00

This finishes up Vicinus, just barely in time to complete it this year. (I need to get back to sticking to my LHMP-Monday thing.) I'm going through another phase of "why am I doing this? who cares?" which means I need to get back to blogging things that are fun for me, rather than having some grand plan. I hope 2021 brings you better things than this past year has. For me? At the moment I'll settle for 2021 bringing me lots of great submissions for the podcast fiction series. (Submissions open tomorrow!)

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Full citation: 

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

Publication summary: 

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

Chapter 8: “A Love of Domination” – The Mannish Invert and Sexual Danger

This chapter examines several lives in the context of sexological theory and the rise of the binary homosexual/heterosexual model of desire. Psychologists pathologized previous models and patterns of same-sex relationships and focused on the sexually adventurous, dominating, “mannish” woman as the core prototype of the lesbian. At heart, these models revolved around “gender inversion” seeing the homosexual (male or female) as someone whose entire life and personality partook of a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth (to use the current terminology). [Note: it’s interesting that, in many ways, the sexologists forced homosexuals into a transgender framework, without allowing for transgender identity as a viable experience. This isn’t too different from many earlier gender-based understandings of same-sex desire. It was innovative only in couching the theory in a new, medicalized vocabulary.]

The chapter spends several pages on people and theories among the sexologists, then moves on social anxieties about homosexual dynamics in all-female school situations, as expressed both in advice literature and in fiction such as Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women. The works of Colette are offered as an illustration of the more neutral French treatment of the topic.

Radclyffe Hall was, in some ways, an iconic representative of the sexologists’ “invert”. Her classic novel The Well of Loneliness accepted the psychological models but argued for acceptance and tolerance. She used the “born this way” argument but seemed to accept that homosexuality was a sort of tragedy. (Though unlike her protagonist, Hall had a long-term partner in Una Troubridge, disrupted only by Hall’s infidelity.)

The chapter discusses the struggles around the publication of the novel and its reception.


Vicinus reviews the various models that women used to imagine and describe their same-sex relationships, including a variety of family analogues, as well as models that rejected conventional relationship types. She discusses how the social meanings of such concepts as friendship, marriage, love, and sex have changed and affect how women have understood their bonds. The changing fashions in women’s writing, as well as the perils of public writing about private matters, have affected what we are permitted to know about women’s lives and loves in the past. Examples are given of how women’s expression of their love has shifted among romance, passion, sensuality, and sexual activity at different times.

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