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Sunday, October 30, 2016 - 10:30
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.B.2 Writing Lesbian

This chapter surveys positive lesbian literature of the 20th century and the circumstances that allowed for its publication at various times, including a lot of ambiguity. This is well outside the scope of the LHMP and involves a great many literature citations. I’ll just note that there’s a lot of material there for those who want to see what else was available besides the depressing stuff. [It feels like the book has lost some of its through-line in the 20th century chapters. The general theme of the place of passtionate female friendships pops up now and then, but the content has largely moved from “literature as a source of information about social attitudes” to “literature survey for its own sake.”]

Time period: 
Sunday, October 30, 2016 - 10:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.B.1 The Rise of Lesbian-Feminism

Faderman moves into the modern political era with a consideration of the parallel movements for women’s rights and gay/lesbian rights starting in the mid-20th century. Both the strength and the weakness of attempts to associate feminism with lesbianism was the underlying truth of the association. Historically, feminism had arisen among women who directed their primary reform efforts and emotional connections to other women. Those connections ranged along a continuum from friendship to romance to sex. Conversely, lesbians had strong reasons to support a movement freeing women from the expectation that their social, political, and economic lives required connection to a man.

The sexual revolution of the 1950s and 1960s began eroding at the stigma of non-normative sexuality in general. Organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis and its newletter The Ladder that had originally organized as social support moved into activism and began attacking expectations that their members should consider themselves psychologically ill or that they should live lives of apology and guilt. Similar organizations and publications arose in France and Germany around the same time.

In 1970, The Ladder announced a policy shift that fully embraced feminist solidarity: rather than seeking to achieve for lesbians the same rights that striaght women had, their goal was to achieve for all women the rights that human beings should have. [Those goals were limited in some ways by the same limitations that prominent feminist organizations of the time had: they were founded by otherwise politically-moderate middle-class white women and prioritized solving the problems that they, themselves encountered.] Another way in which the two movements overlapped was in the “political lesbian”, i.e., feminists who felt that it was--at that time--impossible to live a life of true equality while in intimate relationships with men.

Overlapping concerns, however, did not prevent a wide variety of political fractures and realignments within the two general movements. But here I’m going to skip the detailed history of feminist/lesbian politics in the 1970s. It’s well outside the scope of the current project and is probably better studied from more politically-oriented sources. Suffice it to say that, in some ways, the merging of lesbian and feminist communities and interests re-invented the concept of “romantic friendship” in the sense of women whose primary emotional and romantic bond was with each other, whether or not it was also inspired by gender-directed sexual desire.

Time period: 
Saturday, October 29, 2016 - 18:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 3 - The Goblin Market

(Originally aired 2016/10/29)

Sheena had an idea to do a collection of Halloween themed podcasts from all the regular contributors to the Lesbian Talk Show, so I wanted to come up with a special Lesbian Historic Motif episode. It took me a while of brainstorming before I hit on a topic: Christina Rosetti’s poem “The Goblin Market”.

Rosetti was part of a talented family of Italian immigrants to England in the mid 19th century. Her father was a painter, but the more famous painter in the family was her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was one of the founders of the Pre-Rafaelite Brotherhood, a movement known for medievalism and sensuality. Another brother and a sister were writers. And Christina’s mother, Frances Polidori, was the sister of John Polidori, a close friend of Lord Byron and the author of what may be the first modern vampire story. (You see, lots of Halloween references.)

The Goblin Market indulges in a number of long flights of description. But before reveling in the beauty of the language, I want to focus specifically on the erotic imagery. So I’ll start by alternating excerpts from the poem with a synopsis of the overall story.

Two sisters, cautious Lizzie and daring Laura, encounter the goblin men who sell mysteriously tempting fruits.

Morning and evening

Maids heard the goblins cry:

“Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy:

There is a long catalog of the fruits they sell, and then we meet the sisters:

Evening by evening

Among the brookside rushes,

Laura bow’d her head to hear,

Lizzie veil’d her blushes:

Crouching close together

In the cooling weather,

With clasping arms and cautioning lips,

With tingling cheeks and finger tips.

“Lie close,” Laura said,

Pricking up her golden head:

“We must not look at goblin men,

We must not buy their fruits:

Who knows upon what soil they fed

Their hungry thirsty roots?”

“Come buy,” call the goblins

Hobbling down the glen.

Lizzie warns her sister not to take the goblins up on their offered wares and continues on home, but...

Laura stretch’d her gleaming neck

Like a rush-imbedded swan,

Like a lily from the beck,

Like a moonlit poplar branch,

Like a vessel at the launch

When its last restraint is gone.

Definitely a description of someone giving in to temptation! Laura doesn’t have a coin to buy the fruit so instead they demand a lock of her golden hair in payment. Hair had a strong sexual symbolism in the Victorian era, and for a girl to give a man a lock of her hair was practically the next thing to handing him her virginity.

She clipp’d a precious golden lock,

She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,

Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:

Sweeter than honey from the rock,

Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,

Clearer than water flow’d that juice;

She never tasted such before,

How should it cloy with length of use?

She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more

Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;

She suck’d until her lips were sore;

Then flung the emptied rinds away

Lizzie scolds her when she gets home, and reminds her of the cautionary tale of their friend Jeanie:

Do you not remember Jeanie,

How she met them in the moonlight,

Took their gifts both choice and many,

Ate their fruits and wore their flowers

Pluck’d from bowers

Where summer ripens at all hours?

But ever in the noonlight

She pined and pined away;

Sought them by night and day,

Found them no more, but dwindled and grew grey;

This is foreshadowing Laura’s fate. Even as she scoffs at Lizzie’s warning, she says:

I ate and ate my fill,

Yet my mouth waters still;

To-morrow night I will

Buy more;” and kiss’d her:

“Have done with sorrow;

I’ll bring you plums to-morrow

Laura describes for Lizzie all the delicious goblin fruits she’ll bring back to share, and then they go to bed together.

Golden head by golden head,

Like two pigeons in one nest

Folded in each other’s wings,

They lay down in their curtain’d bed:

Like two blossoms on one stem,

Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,

Like two wands of ivory

Tipp’d with gold for awful kings.

Moon and stars gaz’d in at them,

Wind sang to them lullaby,

Lumbering owls forbore to fly,

Not a bat flapp’d to and fro

Round their rest:

Cheek to cheek and breast to breast

Lock’d together in one nest.

The next day they go about their usual chores, but Laura’s mind is elsewhere. And as they walk home in the evening, she listens for the calls of the goblins in vain. Lizzie can still hear the goblins, which day by day drives Laura to distraction.

So crept to bed, and lay

Silent till Lizzie slept;

Then sat up in a passionate yearning,

And gnash’d her teeth for baulk’d desire, and wept

As if her heart would break.

Laura begins to pine and waste away, just like Jeanie did. Her golden hair grows dull and thin, her spirit fades, she has “sunken eyes and faded mouth”. She stops eating and sits listlessly in a corner.

Lizzie watches her sister decline and decides the only option is to go buy goblin fruit to revive her, even though Lizzie is afraid of what price she might pay.

Till Laura dwindling

Seem’d knocking at Death’s door:

Then Lizzie weigh’d no more

Better and worse;

But put a silver penny in her purse,

Kiss’d Laura, cross’d the heath with clumps of furze

At twilight, halted by the brook:

And for the first time in her life

Began to listen and look.

The goblins come to meet her and not only offer her fruit but harass her physically:

Hugg’d her and kiss’d her:

Squeez’d and caress’d her:

Stretch’d up their dishes,

Panniers, and plates:

“Look at our apples

Russet and dun,

Bob at our cherries,

Bite at our peaches,

Lizzie tosses them her silver coin and holds out her apron for the fruit, but the goblins keep urging her to eat them, right there and then. When she steadfastly refuses, they turn nasty. It’s a bit reminiscent of street harassers when rebuffed. And the goblins try to force Lizzie to consume the fruit in a scene that feels a lot like sexual assault.

One call’d her proud,

Cross-grain’d, uncivil;

Their tones wax’d loud,

Their looks were evil.

Lashing their tails

They trod and hustled her,

Elbow’d and jostled her,

Claw’d with their nails,

Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,

Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,

Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,

Stamp’d upon her tender feet

Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits

Against her mouth to make her eat.

Lizzie holds steadfast against this assault and is described as a citadel being unsuccessfully besieged.

One may lead a horse to water,

Twenty cannot make him drink.

Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her,

Coax’d and fought her,

Bullied and besought her,

Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,

Kick’d and knock’d her,

Maul’d and mock’d her,

Lizzie utter’d not a word;

Would not open lip from lip

Lest they should cram a mouthful in:

But laugh’d in heart to feel the drip

Of juice that syrupp’d all her face,

And lodg’d in dimples of her chin,

And streak’d her neck which quaked like curd.

Having successfully resisted eating the fruit, Lizzie hurries homeward because, of course, she does have goblin fruit to bring home to Laura--the fruit that the goblins have smeared all over her while trying to make her eat.

She cried, “Laura,” up the garden,

“Did you miss me?

Come and kiss me.

Never mind my bruises,

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices

Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,

Goblin pulp and goblin dew.

Eat me, drink me, love me;

Laura, make much of me;

For your sake I have braved the glen

And had to do with goblin merchant men.”

Somewhat belatedly, Laura realizes that Lizzie might end up sharing her fate for trying to save her.

Laura started from her chair,

Flung her arms up in the air,

Clutch’d her hair:

“Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted

For my sake the fruit forbidden?

And then, not from the addictive hunger for goblin fruit, but in gratitude and fear:

She clung about her sister,

Kiss’d and kiss’d and kiss’d her:

Tears once again

Refresh’d her shrunken eyes,

Dropping like rain

After long sultry drouth;

Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,

She kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth.

Laura kisses Lizzie and in the process consumes the juice of the goblin fruits. But that juice has been transformed by Lizzie’s selfless deed.

Her lips began to scorch,

That juice was wormwood to her tongue,

She loath’d the feast:

Writhing as one possess’d she leap’d and sung,

Rent all her robe, and wrung

Her hands in lamentable haste,

And beat her breast.

The fruit burns within her and Laura falls into a swoon. All through the night, Lizzie tends to Laura as if she were in a fever, but when morning comes:

Laura awoke as from a dream,

Laugh’d in the innocent old way,

Hugg’d Lizzie but not twice or thrice;

Her gleaming locks show’d not one thread of grey,

Her breath was sweet as May

And light danced in her eyes.

The poem ends with Lizzie telling the frightening cautionary tale to the next generation. A tale appropriate for a Halloween night.

Laura would call the little ones

And tell them of her early prime,

Those pleasant days long gone

Of not-returning time:

Would talk about the haunted glen,

The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,

Their fruits like honey to the throat

But poison in the blood;

(Men sell not such in any town):

Would tell them how her sister stood

In deadly peril to do her good,

And win the fiery antidote:

Thus, the fruit-inspired sensuality has been left behind, as in a fever dream. The sisters have settled down to live conventional lives. What remains is the memory of the deep devotion that risks its life for the beloved.

Despite the rather striking homoerotic imagery in her poem, there is no evidence that Rossetti’s relationships with women went beyond sisterly devotion. On the other hand, she received three proposals of marriage from men and rejected them all so who knows? But my interest here isn’t on Rossetti’s personal life, rather on the strongly sensual imagery in her poem, depicting an intense devotion between two sisters that is expressed in language more suited to lovers.

The Goblin Market’s sensuality--not only the intense kissing and the more subdued scenes of cuddling in bed or “clasping arms and tingling finger tips”--occurs not only in the context of sisterly devotion, but also in scenes where the goblins tempt the women with their sinister fruit, or even try to force it on them. There isn’t a clear correspondence of the sensual with the forbidden.

This was an era when the trope of decadent lesbian sensuality tinged with the supernatural was becoming “a thing”, though primarily among male writers. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel” is a long supernatural-themed poem with lesbian elements that were strong enough to get it condemned as obscene. The content falls in the “monstrous seductress” genre where the noble maiden Christabel encounters the mysterious Geraldine in the forest and brings her home to her father’s castle where Geraldine has a strange and sinister influence on all she encounters. Christabel shares her bed with Geraldine and the significance of this is emphasized with descriptions of disrobing and embraces.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,

And slowly rolled her eyes around;

Then drawing in her breath aloud,

Like one that shuddered, she unbound

The cincture from beneath her breast:

Her silken robe, and inner vest,

Dropt to her feet, and full in view,

Behold! her bosom and half her side—

A sight to dream of, not to tell!

O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!


Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs;

Ah! what a stricken look was hers!

Deep from within she seems half-way

To lift some weight with sick assay,

And eyes the maid and seeks delay;

Then suddenly, as one defied,

Collects herself in scorn and pride,

And lay down by the Maiden's side!—

And in her arms the maid she took,

But Geraldine’s eventual goal is not to win Christabel but to supplant her in her father’s affections. The poem shares with the Goblin Market a supernatural force that causes the innocent woman to waste away. But here there is no sister to save her.

The same process of wasting away by the influence of a supernatural intruder who feigns same-sex affection occurs in Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire novel Carmilla. Carmilla appears at the residence of the protagonist in the guise of a young woman, said to be something of an invalid. Despite Carmilla telling little of her background, the two girls become close.

She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, "Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die--die, sweetly die--into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit."

And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.


In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.


Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever." Then she had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.

Other works from the mid 19th century that carry this association of sensuality between women tinged with a mysterious and malevolent decadence include Honoré de Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes, and Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin. All these works have two things in common that contrast with The Goblin Market: they are written by men, and the sensual relationship shown between the women is destructive and a source of guilt rather than being a source of redemption.

Christina Rossetti’s work comes out of an entirely different tradition: that of Romantic Friendship, where close emotional relationships between women were idealized and valorized. Such relationships were not considered to partake of sexuality--though we know that in some cases they did. Within the Romantic Friendship tradition, descriptions of sisters cuddling together in bed or kissing passionately would not have been considered sexual, as such, and so could be portrayed without any sense of self-consciousness or guilt.

The Goblin Market is easily interpreted as an allegory--though an allegory for what is debatable. A Christian interpretation is certainly possible, with its themes of temptation, of a fall, and of redemption through an innocent person’s suffering on behalf of another. It’s also possible to see it as an allegory for drug addiction, and it’s thought that that part of the poem may have been inspired by Rossetti’s work at a charity house for former prostitutes--a context where she may have seen the effects of addiction to drugs or alcohol. Alternately, it can be viewed as an allegory of predatory male sexuality and sexual trauma. It’s worth noting that the goblins are referred to consistently as male and no other male characters figure in the poem.

Given all these considerations, interpreting the sensual imagery and passionate embraces of the poem as depicting lesbian eroticism is not entirely unproblematic. These complexities are always present when modern readers try to find connections with literature from another era.

And now, an entertainment for the night of Halloween, when pathways open up between the worlds, and someone who lingers on the path at twilight may hear goblins calling out, “Come buy, come buy.”

The Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti, published in 1862 and read by Heather Rose Jones

[The text of the poem has not been included in this transcript. It can be found in many places on the web, including the following page belonging to the Poetry Foundation:]


* * * End of Transcript * * *

Major category: 
Saturday, October 29, 2016 - 09:00

There's a special Halloween episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast live at the Lesbian Talk Show: a discussion of Christina Rossetti's poem "The Goblin Market" in the context of 19th century literature with themes of lesbian-tinged decadent sensuality and predatory supernatural creatures. The podcast concludes with a reading of the entire poem. I think I'm finally starting to feel ok about listening to the sound of my own recorded voice! One of the things I'd like to do with the podcast is include more readings from some of the texts discussed in the LHMP. So let me know if this is a sort of thing you'd like more of.

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.5 Internalization and Rebellion

Women who loved women in the early to mid-20th century no longer lacked public models for their relationships--the problem was that all the public models they now had were toxic. With the voices of authority insisting that they were deviant, the women who dared to be “lesbian in public” tended to be those who had little to lose, or whose living relied on notoriety: bohemians, courtesans, and the like. And it is these individuals that Faderman considers in the current chapter.

Even those women authors who were known publicly to some degree as lesbian or bisexual often employed the same tropes of aesthetic decadence as male writers. Nathalie Barney, Renée Vivien, Djuna Barnes, and Anaïs Nin fall in this category, writing of intense, desperate, doomed passions. More rarely, writers such as Colette evoke an older romantic sensibility: “What woman would not blush to seek out her amie only for sensual pleasure? In no way is it passion that fosters the devotion of two women, but rather a feeling of kinship.” But her work also employed imagery of a sexual underworld.

The biographies of women like Vita Sackville-West show how the pressure to enter into heterosexual marriages combined with the lack of strongly positive models for relationships between women often led to confusion and self-hatred when the inherent contradictions couldn’t be resolved.

Supportive social circles were most possible within the dense population of urban centers such as New York and London, and the literature produced for internal consumption within these circles, such as Barnes’ Ladies Almanack, reflects a less tragic and more realistic view of lesbian communities. Natalie Barney’s salons in Paris were an open gathering place for a large circle of lesbians, including prominent writers and artists, to the point where the men who attended the salons made snide digs about it in their own writing. And--perhaps fulfilling the fears of contemporary men--her love for women was inextricably linked with her feminism and her support for the careers of women writers.

The lives of less prominent lesbians of this era are harder to trace unless they left some autobiographical record, though Faderman presents a number of speculations on what they must have thought and felt about their desires.

Time period: 
Friday, October 28, 2016 - 12:00

Bella Distributing is holding a "Scary Good Paperback Sales" lasting through this whole weekend. Check it out for some stupendous deals on lesbian genre fiction--including Daughter of Mystery and The Mystic Marriage! If you've been waiting for a great deal to get caught up with the series in paperback in time for the release of Mother of Souls, it won't get any better than this. (If you want a chance to get caught up in e-book...well, you never know.)

And now, on to the movie review.

* * *

This is a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies originally inspired by a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions can involve some spoilers, but I will usually only hide them for new releases.

Many of these movies are not currently in print. I'll link each to their entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video [] is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

I'm going to confess that I've been putting off watching Imagine Me and You (2005) for quite some time because I was afraid of getting punched in the face. Somehow the "meet-cute" premise of a bride falling for the (female) florist at her wedding, combined with the cover image of two m/f couples with the women surreptitiously holding hands behind the men's backs, didn't feel very promising for a f/f happy ending. I expected a lot of angst, a traumatic coming out, and probably the women being tragically separated due to one or the other sacrificing her own happiness for the sake of the other. And despite several people assuring me (in a non-spoilery way) that it wasn't like that, I think there was a gap of a couple years between when I bought this DVD and when I finally watched it.

It wasn't like that.

There was a certain amount of angst--but only as much as one would expect when a newlywed discovers that, although she married her best friend, she hadn't married the love of her life. There was a fair amount of comedic confusion around coming out, but not in the "I'm revealing a secret" sense but more in the "um...why have you assumed I'm heterosexual?" sense. The second man in the cover poster--the groom's best man--starts out as a lecherous sexist boor, but is only moderately annoyingly persistant once he's been clued in to the sexual preference of the woman he's been set up with. Because, you see, the bride's initial reflex to feeling an instand emotional connection with the florist is to invite her over for dinner and then try to set her up with her husband's best friend.

What makes the biggest difference between my expectations (fears) and the movie is that it's set in the 21st century, when sexual preference is considered by the characters of no more moment (and equivalent comedic potential) to being vegetarian or some such. So the angst is all about respecting commitments versus following your heart and admitting to someone you care deeply about that you've made a dreadful mistake. And, in the way of the best romantic comedies, in the end, following your heart leads to a happy ending for everyone.

Evaluation: No one dies. No one recants. Everyone ends up happy (though some teeter on the edge of happy and bewilderment). The bride goes through coming out, but it's not the major focus and isn't traumatic. Once she realizes the nature of her feelings for the florist, the question is how to balance the imperative of True Love with having just made vows to someone else. And her friends and family don't react with shock and horror, only confusion concern.

So if you, too, have worried about whether this movie will punch you in the face, I'll echo what I was told and didn't entirely believe: It doesn't.

Friday, October 28, 2016 - 07:28
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.4 Fiction as a Weapon

The 20th century saw the rise of new genres of fiction that demonized lesbian relationships and inextricably linked them to social structures that had historically nourished women’s friendships, such as single-sex schools. Curiously, it has been revealed in retrospect that many lesbian novels of the 20th century were written by women who were, themselves, lesbian.

The “vampiric” lesbian became established as a trope, joining with the predatory schoolmistress motif in Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women (1915). Although Faderman identifies the central character as a “vampire” it isn’t clear to me from the discussion that this is meant in the sense of literally drinking blook, rather than simply causing a physical decline in her “victim”. Faderman explains “it is not the victim’s blood that the villain lives on but her youth and energy” although in another novel mentioned in this category (White Ladies by Francis Brett Young, 1935) the word vampire is used by a character for describing this psychic effect.

In addition to the lesbian schoolmistress, scholarly and academic women come in for identification as predatory lesbians. Depictions of close, emotional, dependent friendships between women are given a sinister sexual spin in works such as Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death (1927) [Sayers also invokes the “lesbian academic” trope in Gaudy Night but there it is challenged and countered by the character Harriet Vane], G. Sheila Donisthorpe’s Loveliest of Friends 1931), of Edouard Bourdet’s play La Prisonnière (1926). These stories typically involve an older, dominant, often ugly lesbian who seduces a younger, pretty, “normal” woman who may or may not be “rescued” by a male character by the end of the story.

Some anti-lesbian literature of this era purports to present “true case history” type stories, such as D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox (1922) in which the male protagonist considers the breaking up of a female couple to be something of a masculine biological imperative, likened to hunting down prey, with marriage to the more feminine of the two little more than an excuse. Perhaps more pointedly, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women (1928) satirizes and ficionalizes a real-life circle of upper-class lesbians living on the island of Capri, whose models included Natalie Barney, Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge, Romaine Brooks and, others.

The “mannish lesbian” became a stock figure of genre novels by popular authors such as Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. And with the rise of the paperback novel, the “lesbian pulp” genre emerged, no longer veiling their characters’ sexuality with allusions, and following a contractually-required plot formula that punished lesbianism with tragedy, loneliness, or death. But out of the pulps, eventually a different type of lesbian literature emerged.

Time period: 
Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 21:10
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.3 Keeping Women Down

The rest of these entries are going to get shorter and more condensed as we work though the 20th century.

This chapter details a variety of English and American cultural responses to feminism and to women’s greater independent present in the public sphere in the early parts of the 20th century. Women had entered traditionally masculine professions during the upheavals of World War I and suffrage movements in both England and America pushed for political equality.

Satire and caricature were major tools of the backlash, depicting independent and/or feminist women as agressive, ugly man-haters who are destined to be lonely old maids. Only abandoning their ideals for a traditional role of wife and mother can redeem them. The strongest tool was to depict independent/feminist women as “mannish” and on the road to lesbianism.

The 20th century saw several cycles of increased freedom--often associated with the economic and demographic disruptions of war--followed by social attempts to retrun women to traditional roles by stigmatizing the most assertive movements as unwomanly and deviant. In the 1970s, this tactic intersected with the “Gay Liberation” movement which undermined some of its success.

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Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 06:53

The Lesbian Talk Show, which hosts my Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast episodes, is doing a holiday special series currently, with special episodes of regular shows and additional episodes that mix and match the regular contributors. I was matched up with Suzie Carr who does a regular postive-thinking series called "Curves Welcome" and we brainstormed the intersection of our two topics and came up with "The Masks We Wear", discussing both phyiscal and psychological masks and costumes and how we use them to interact with others and negotiate our identities in the contemporary world and in history.

You can listen to the show directly online, or even better, you can subscribe to The Lesbian Talk Show through iTunes, Podbean, or Stitcher. (And if you like the show, we'd love it if you give it a rating to help others find it.)

* * *

I apologize for not posting my wrap-up of A Little Princess yesterday. It's being a demanding week--I have an intense investigation at work that is eating up my lunch hours, and the final proofs of Mother of Souls came in for review and took priority over other things in my non-work hours. You'll have to wait until next Wednesday to find out how the story ends!

Countdown to Mother of Souls release day: 17 days!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 - 08:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.2 The Spread of Medical “Knowledge”

By the 1920s, Freud was the primary source of attitudes in America towards same-sex love. Where Kraft-Ebing had considered sexual orientation to be inborn, Freud blamed childhood trauma and considered homosexuality to be “curable”. Both lumped men’s and women’s experiences together without considering the differences in social context.

Broad surveys showed that romantic and sexual relationships between women were statistically “normal” and not correlated with pathology, but the medical approach now considered all such relationships unhealthy. Freudian language and concepts became part of everyday conversation.

There were stirrings of homosexual activism in Europe, mostly by men, who latched onto the idea that their desires were “inborn” but rejected the idea that those desires were a “defect”. Some popular fiction took up the themes of “no-fault homosexuality”, sometimes urging pity for homosexuals, sometimes rejecting any sort of negative framing. Those medical theories that attributed homosexuality to “nature” rather than “nurture” provided ammunition for those who agitated for acceptance. This position countered the charges that homosexuality constituted immorality.

Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) fell in the “pity and acceptance” category. Its themes of “congenital inversion” and the framing of a same-sex couple as composed of a lesbian and a “normal” partner aligned in some ways with a transgender framing. [This echoes, in some ways, earlier medieval theories that one could determine true gender based on the object of desire. I.e., that anyone who desired a woman was inherently masculine.] There is a long discussion of the themes and implications in Hall’s novel. The Well of Loneliness, despite its publication difficulties, became a significant influence on lesbian self-perception, given the scarcity of other models written by lesbians. (As opposed to the “decadent” male-authored novels.)

There was a strong contrast between the “official” psychological framing of same-sex love and the broad-based case studies of women in such relationships when the selection of examples was not driven by medical or emotional problems. In the 1920s and 1930s, some studies found that 50% of all women had experienced intense emotional feelings for other women, and half of those had recognized those feelings as sexual. Surveys of lesbians that were not biased by physical or psychological problems found them on average to be more educated and better employed than heterosexual women.

The 1920s and later decades brought a general increase in sexual freedom (outside marriage). Self-reporting by lesbians concerning their relationships show a wide range of degrees of sexual interest, although the popular view assumed that sexual activity was the primary defining factor in their relationships. Jumping ahead to a 1978 survey, it found that women in lesbian relationships valued romance, affection, hugging, and kissing, and didn’t consider “sex acts” as the focal point of their relationship. [One wonders, given this description, what would distinguish these relationships from Romantic Friendship in terms of desires and behaviors.]

Time period: 
Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 12:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

III.A.1 The Last Breath of Innocence

As this book moves into the 20th century, I’m largely omitting tags for specific individuals and publications, as this is outside the scope of my core project.

In the first decade of the 20th century, love poetry between schoolgirls could still be published “innocently” as an expression of praiseworthy sentiments. Periodicals for women’s and children’s literature were still depicting Romantic Friendship positively. Likely there were several reasons for the delayed shift in attitudes in in the US. In Europe, images of lesbian “vice” (or “vice” in general) were closely tied up in Catholic ideas of sin and Catholic-based reactionary sensationalism. [But see also English literature of the 17-18th centuries which portrayed lesbianism through an anti-Catholic lens.] The geographic distance of America from the (German) centers of sexology probably slowed diffusion of those ideas. And American ideals of individualism may have contributed to less hostility to women’s social freedoms.

In spite of this, there are scattered examples in late 19th century America of generally anti-sex writing, including cautions against situations that might lead to masturbation or sexual activity between girls. But as a more general social reaction, suspicion of close romantic friendships between women didn’t come to prominence until the wake of World War I, accompanied by much greater female autonomy and the influence of Freud both on psychiatric thought and on popular culture.

The transition from “innocence” to suspicion of passionate friendships can be traced fairly precisely in published works. In the 1928 novel We Sing Diana by Wanda Fraiken Neff, the protagonist contrasts her experiences at college in 1913, when “crushes” between girls were widespread and considered normal, and the 1920s when she returns there to teach and finds everyone talking about Freud and assuming the stereotype of the “masculine” lesbian. A similar comparison can be made between two autobiographical publications by Mary MacLane, written in 1902 and 1917 that show the same shift. From these examples, it can be seen that the change was not in what women were feeling and doing, but in how they had been taught to understand those feelings and actions. In the later publication, MacLane admits to having kissed lesbians but is quick to assure the reader that she isn’t one herself.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the New Women were engaging in new opportunities while still holding on to old attitudes toward Romantic Friendship. Stories about college romances between women are common, and the gender-segregation of colleges encouraged these friendships to have the trappings of courtship and dating, via activities such as all-women dances. The expectation is that the women engaged in these “crushes” will move on to heterosexual marriage after graduation.

The unselfconscious publication of stories involving women in passionate friendships may have been enabled, Faderman suggests, by the relative “unsophistication” of American readers. (I.e., presumably this means they weren’t reading decadent French novels.) Many specific examples of such stories are given. [I wonder if anyone has ever considered collecting an anthology of the genre.]

Stories of passionate friendships between adult women often portrayed one or both as artists or in professions that “explained” their single state. These positive portrayals were written by both female and male authors.

By the 1920s, this unselfconsciousness disappears. Positive treatments as in the works of Gertrude Stein are now veiled in stylized poetic language and allusions. Alternately, the women’s friendship may be displaced elsewhere in time and space, as in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s play “The Lamp and the Bell” (1921). [This is an interesting parallel to the continuing theme over the centuries that lesbianism existed in a different place and time than the writer’s. Only now it is the “innocent” version of the relationship that is displaced.] There is something of a generational divide, with women raised in an earlier age still writing positively of Romantic Friendships.

The younger generation cannot ignore the potential implications. Vera Britain, writing in 1940, acknowledges the suspicions of sexual impropriety cast on the Romantic Friendship of her characters and tries to deflect suspicion with the argument of “it’s just preparation for being a good wife and mother.” This conflict of models can also be seen in debates of the possible sexual content of the friendship between Eleanor Rooseveldt and Lorena Hickok. Hickok had a history of (presumably sexual) relationships with women, but some have argued that the strongly passionate correspondence between them belongs to the earlier tradition of platonic Romantic Friendship and nothing more. [I always have a hard time around discussions of this sort because I keep thinking, why should it matter? Why would one particular set of expressions of desire turn a “beautiful friendship” into something to be ashamed of? But then, I’m a product of my own age.]

The attitude of sexologists of the 20th century was that the sex drive was the most important and central determiner of human behavior in both men and women, and this understanding was then projected retroactively to all of history. This made it difficult for women to experience love for other women without feeling the weight of social disapproval, although anecdotes can be found into the 1970s of girls experiencing same-sex love and affection “innocently” until encountering sex ed literature that assured them they were depraved and sick.

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