When I was putting together my main podcast essay for this month, on details of lesbian sexual techniques as given in sources like penitential manuals, I realized that I already owned this book but had never blogged it. I was somewhat disappointed to discover how heavily excerpted it was, making it rather less useful for my purposes than I thought, particularly in relation to the podcast. That means that at some point I should track down the full texts of some of the penitential manuals that I know have relevant information. Still, it was on the list and now it's been done.
Penitential manuals were designed not only as guidance for acceptable behavior in monastic institutions and for the clergy, but later as guidelines for confessors to sort out exactly what was and was not considered a sin, and to standardize penances to some extent. Although my summary here is only concerned with same-sex sexual sins, I found some of the early Irish material fascinating in how it pointed out some of the social fractures of the time (especially between different branches of the church).
Penitentials are, of course, theoretical sources. They discuss what sorts of activities people are considered at risk for doing. And they only cover activitites that the church was actively concerned about. So while they aren't exactly useless as evidence for what women were doing together, neither are they a reliable guide to the details. And in the case of this publication, there's the further filter that we see only those sections of the books that the translators/editors considered to be of historical interest.
McNeill, John T. & Helena M. Gamer. 1990. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales.Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-09629-1 (reprint of 1938 edition)
A collection of excerpts in translation from early medieval books of pennance. The significant editing means that the material is less useful for tracing the details of how penitential manuals handled same-sex sexual activity.
Penitential manuals began being produced in the early Christian era (at least by the 5th century) as a guide for confessors or those in charge of monastic institutions to, in some ways, standardize and regularize what actions were considered sins, and what the penance for different degrees of sin should be. This focus can make them valuable for the discussion of matters that might otherwise not be discussed in historic sources. Although penitential manuals covered a wide range of behaviors and aspects of life, this blog is specifically interested in what they have to say about sexual relations between women. So mostly I’ll be extracting the specific passages that speak to this topic. For a more general discussion of penitential manuals, follow the related tags.
As this book and its translations were initially published in 1938, don’t expect a nuanced and broad-minded treatment of homosexuality. The inclusion or omission of activities from these manuals often reflects the degree of concern that the church had about them at the time, rather than the presence or absence of those activities in society. Note also that general references to “fornication” may have been understood to cover same-sex situations, but have not been included in these notes unless they explicitly do. Furthermore, this edition does not reproduce the penitential texts in full, and in some cases I know from other sources that material specifically addressing female homosexuality is present but hasn’t been included.
The following early medieval Irish material is meant for the guidance of male monastics and priests, therefore it is not surprising that women’s same-sex activity isn’t addressed as it doesn’t fall within the scope of interest.
Misc. early Welsh penitentials (6th century) - A vague reference to “anyone who sins with a woman or with a man”. The assumed audience is male, but there is only an implication that the sin is sexual. Specific reference to “he who is guilty of sodomy in its various forms.”
Penitential of Theodore (7th century, Anglo Saxon) - In contrast to the previous documents which primarily addressed an audience of male monastics, this one has a broader audience. The section on fornication has an elaborate set of distinctions for sexual acts between men, and addresses women’s same-sex activity explicitly: "If a woman practices vice with a woman, she shall do penance for three years. If she practices solitary vice, she shall do penance for the same period.” That is, for women, masturbation and lesbian sex were considered equivalent in severity. The penance is less severe than for sex between men, though the proliferation of distinctions for male participants makes it hard to know which to compare to. But male masturbation appears to be treated much more lightly.
Penitential of Columban (7th century, St. Columban was Irish but this text was compiled on the continent where he founded monasteries) - A reference to monks committing sodomy, to laymen committing sodomy (in a context where the audience is clearly male). Even though women are covered by other sex-related penances, there is no reference to same-sex activity between women.
Judgment of Clement (8th century, Frankish) - The audience for these rules is general, not clerical. Nothing specifically addressing sexual activity is included.
Burgundian Penitential (8th century, Frankish) - The implied audience is male except in some very specific cases. There is reference to committing “fornication as the Sodomites did”.
Saint Hubert Penitential (9th century, Frankish) - There is a fascinating item on cross-dressing that seems to have to do more with prohibitions on pagan practices than gender transgression. “Of dancing -- Anyone who performs dances in front of the churches of saints or anyone who disguises his appearance in the guise of a woman or of beasts, or a woman [who appears] in the garb of a man--on promise of amendment he [or she] shall do penance for three years.” No references to same-sex fornication.
Penitential of Halitgar (9th century, Frankish) - The default audience, as usual, is male, in which context we have a reference to “if anyone commits fornication as the Sodomites”. There are no references to women’s same-sex relations.
The collection also covers a number of later documents but in much abridged form, generally quoting only discussions that don’t appear in earlier documents. There is no material relating to same-sex relations in these excerpts.
Genevieve Fortin returns to the podcast to talk about her favorite lesbian historical novels.
The Lesbian-Interest website posted a nice shout-out to The Lesbian Talk Show and featured my episode on Sappho's poetry to illustrate it. If you're interesting in discovering lesbian media in a wide variety of formats and from the entire international scene, you should check them out! I'm going to go add them to my Feedly feed right now.
This book isn't in-depth in context or details, given the purpose for which it was put together. And it is sometimes generously inclusive in subject matter, straining the limits of solid evidence. But what better place to look for lots of portraits of women in Boston Marriages than a book on the history of lesbians and gay men in Boston? I only wish this blog could show you some of the photographs of female couples--going back to the mid-19th century--who we know to have been in romantic relationships with each other.
In reviewing this entry just before setting it to go live, I was reminded of an unfortunate practice that I participate in: assuming a white default in the subjects of my postings. I notice it when I find myself including racial/ethnic information about subjects only when they are not white. To some extent, this is a reflection of a "default to whiteness" in the sources I'm summarizing. If my sources don't explicitly indicate a particular racial/ethnic origin, then it doesn't occur to me to track down and specify one. This is laziness, and I own it, but I also don't really have the time to re-research all the unmarked people mentioned in publications. I'd like to take this opportunity to recognize all the historic, archaeological, and anthropological research that reminds us that Europe (and hence, European-origin America) has always been home to people of color, and that very many of the historic individuals mentioned in the publications I cover could have been something other than white, if it isn't specified.
History Project, The. 1998. Improper Bostonians. Beacon Press, Boston. ISBN 0-8070-7948-0
A companion book to a museum exhibition on “Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland”.
This book is a glossy, photo-filled companion volume to a museum exhibit on lesbian and gay history in Boston, for a fairly broad definition of those terms. Due to this connection with a museum exhibit, there is a natural focus on material objects, accompanied by a relative minimum of explanatory commentary. The exhibit emphasized the importance of making a historic connection for modern visitors--a “usable history”. The scope extends to people who “lived unconventional lives” with regard to gender and sexuality, whether or not they can be confirmed as falling within the category of homosexual.
All events and individuals mentioned here had a personal connection with Boston--generally having been born there or living much of their lives there--even if the specific events discussed happened elsewhere. As usual, I have cherry-picked the material relating to women.
Boston was founded in 1630, so its history covers nearly the entire scope of the European presence in North America. In a valiant attempt to be inclusive, it begins with a discussion of non-cis/heterosexual understandings of gender and sexuality among indigenous Americans, but notes that there are no relevant records regarding sexuality for the specific cultures in the area that would become Massachusetts.
The earliest materials are legal statutes regarding sexual crimes, at a time when religious law and secular law were functionally identical. A 1656 statue addresses “men lying with men”, and acts of women that are “against nature” (though the phrase “against nature” doesn’t necessarily specify homosexuality). Very little of this early material mentions women specifically, even when homosexual behavior between men is explicitly targeted.
In 1677 a court record notes a charge of cross-dressing against Dorothie Hoyt who left town before the accusation could be lodged, leaving her father to answer for her in court. No explanation or context for her actions is given. Also in the 17th century there is a record that Elizabeth Johnson and a fellow maid where whipped and fined for “unseemly practices...attempting to do that which man and woman do” along with other unruly behavior such as insolence toward their employer. In 1649, Sarah Norman was charged with “lewd behavior on a bed” with Mary Hammon and warned against repeat offences. In 1696 Mary Cox asked the court for leniency for the “inadvertence” of wearing men’s clothing. (Since it’s hard to imagine one wouldn’t notice doing so, perhaps the inadvertence is that she didn’t realize it was forbidden?)
There are far fewer similar records in the 18th century, in large part because the legal authorities became less interested in prosecuting people’s personal lives in this fashion. Women in the 18th century had the social freedom to express emotional attachments to other women in romantic terms, though they were restricted in their ability to share their lives with a woman. In the 1750s, Sarah Prince, the daughter of a Boston preacher, exchanged romantic letters with Esther Burr, the mother of Aaron Burr. When Esther died, Sarah wrote of her heartbreak at the event.
Concern over women cross-dressing persisted, but reactions were mixed. Deborah Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army in male guise and was later granted a pension for her services by the government of Massachusetts. A contemporary biographer implied that she may have had romantic encounters with women while in the army as part of that disguise, though she later married a man. Another woman, Ann Bailey, was not treated as warmly when she tried to enlist in 1777. She was charged with “fraudulently” passing as a man and was fined.
In the 19th century, women gradually begin to achieve the ability to support themselves outside of heterosexual marriage, and thus to set up domestic partnerships together. Early in the 19th century, Margaret Fuller wrote a feminist treatise that argued for the possibility of same-sex love as equivalent to that in heterosexual marriage. She herself had a deep emotional attachment to a cousin, Anna Barker and recorded some revealing sentiments at Barker’s marriage. Fuller translated the correspondence of Karoline Günderode and Bettine von Arnim (a German same-sex couple whose literary works are full of themes of gender transgression), which in turn inspired writers such as Emily Dickinson.
In the mid 19th century, a number of women were establishing international careers in the arts. One notable Boston-born example was actress Charlotte Cushman, who gathered a circle of artistic (and woman-loving) women both in Boston and in her second home in Rome. Cushman had something of a specialty in “trouser roles” on stage and was romantically linked to several of the female artists in her circle, including sculptor Emma Stebbins who had originally been introduced to Cushman via fellow sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Hosmer was another Bostonian by birth. She was described as something of a tomboy in her youth and continued to be criticized for “unfeminine behavior” in adulthood, though in some cases this meant her lack of an appropriate modesty regarding creating sculptures of male nudes. Cushman seems to have made a specialty of collecting sculptors. Another member of her circle was Edmonia Lewis, a Bostonian of West Indian and Chippewa heritage who preferred Cushman’s residence in Rome as a place where her gender and color were not a bar to artistic success.
An anonymous Boston woman writing under the pen name Mary Casal produced an autobiography in the later 19th century (though not published until 1930, under the title The Stone Wall) that included her coming to recognize her lesbian identity.
In the late 19th century social networks of unmarried women founded clubs and held social events that promoted singlehood as a positive state, in contrast to the image of the “old maid.” In addition to the clubs of middle-class, financially stable women, the opportunities for women to come together and form romantic bonds outside of parental view included single-sex schools and colleges where the same-sex “smash” was considered an ordinary and expected experience, and boarding houses for single factory girls.
Among the educated upper classes, the phenomenon of two unmarried women living together in a devoted long-term partnership was so well established and recognized that such relationships came to be known as “Boston marriages”. Among the female faculty at Wellesley College, female couples among the faculty were common enough to be known as “Wellesley marriages”. The catalog details a great many such couples, focusing on those for whom we have photographic and other records. Among these couples are:
The remainder of the book covers the 20th century and so falls outside the scope of this project. It focuses to a large extent on the infrastructure of social institutions such as bars and clubs that catered to a (largely male) same-sex clientele.
This week I'm talking with Bella Books author Genevieve Fortin about her recent release Water's Edge, involving Canadian immigrants to New England in the late 19th century. Genevieve talks about how local and family history inspired her to write this story.
How delightful to wake up this morning to find the release announcement for "Hyddwen" in my Twitter mentions! This is the second story in a series inspired by my love for medieval Welsh literature (and the gnawing feeling that what medieval Welsh literature needed was more lesbians). I love love love what Pip Hoskins, the narrator, has done with this one! If you enjoy "Hyddwen", you might want to go back and listen to "Hoywverch", the first story in the series, though you get the essential recap within the story itself.
If you enjoy fantasy fiction and listening to audiobooks, I strongly encourage you to subscribe to the Podcastle podcast. You may have read my occasional short reviews of some of their output. In addition to doing audio reprints of stories published elsewhere, they publish a lot of great original work and recently won the Best Fictional Podcast at the Academy of Podcasters Awards. All their podcasts are free to download, but if you like what you hear, you can support them through venues like Patreon.
The Monday holiday almost made me lose track of setting this post to go live! Such is the power of habit--my brain is in weekend mode. The next few LHMP entries are chosen to tie in with the August podcast "Beguines, Boston Marriage, and Bed Death: Historic Archetypes of Asexual Lesbianism". This week we look at a study of modern (well, at least 1990s) asexual lesbian relationships with reference to the historic concept of Boston Marriage.
Rothblum, Esther D. & Kathleen A. Brehony (eds). 1993. Boston Marriages: Romantic but Asexual Relationships Among Contemporary Lesbians. The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst. ISBN 0-8723-876-0
This book is primarily concerned with the dynamics of modern relationships, but it uses the historical concept of the Boston Marriage as a conceptual framework.
Introduction – Esther D. Rothblum and Kathleen A. Brehony
This summary will cover only the Introduction and the chapter by Lillian Faderman on the history of Romantic Friendship. The remainder of the book is primarily personal memoirs of psychologists and some of their patients around the topic of non-sexual lesbian relationships.
The term “Boston Marriage” is useful in this context because it discusses asexual relationships in a positive way, in reference to publicly accepted (and even celebrated) female partnerships that were framed as being non-sexual (whatever the individual practices of the partners may have been). This book was written in 1993, well before any inkling that same-sex marriage would be legalized in our lifetimes. So it notes the problem in discussing relationships that—in the absence of a marriage certificate—the existence of a marriage-like partnership (as contrasted with a friendship) tends to be defined by the presence of sex. The authors acknowledge the problem of using sex as a defining characteristic when considering historic relationships, as access to knowledge about it is lacking. In considering the characteristics of “Boston Marriages” today, they note a tendency of the lesbian community to delegitimize partnerships that are known to be asexual.
Nineteenth-century Boston marriage as a possible lesson for today – Lillian Faderman
This chapter is largely a summary and recapitulation of Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Man. The term Boston Marriage reflects an era when pairs of women, typically feminists and career women, frequently chose to live in long-term devoted relationships. There was an often-unstated assumption that because they were “respectable” women, they did not have sexual relations. Nevertheless, they were perceived by friends and society as the equivalent of a married couple. In Henry James’ The Bostonians (which may have given its name to the phenomenon), he describes a couple of this type as “one of those friendships that are so common in New England.”
A professional woman of that era who wanted to avoid the distraction of repeated pregnancy and running the resulting household did not have the option of having a non-marital romantic relationship with a man, but there was no stigma associated with enjoying a romantic relationship with another woman. Faderman notes similar types of supportive same-sex relationships among women in China, India, and Africa. But when sexologists began conflating same-sex romantic relationships with a pathologized model of lesbianism, the institution of the Boston Marriage was no longer viable.
Faderman repeats her thesis from Surpassing the Love of Men that social expectations regarding female desire most probably were internalized such that women in Romantic Friendships did not participate in genital sexual activity. There is a quotation from the 18th century correspondence of Madame de Staël to Juliette Récamier expressing strongly passionate feelings for her. Such feelings were condoned in women, in part because they were not taken as a serious challenge to heterosexual marriage. Rather, intense passionate relationships between women were seen as an acceptable outlet for emotional needs that might not be satisfied through marriage. Faderman suggests that the stigmatization of female romantic bonds in the 20th century may in part have been driven by social shifts that allowed such relationships to challenge the need for marriage.
Suspicion of female same-sex affection grew in the 1920s, during the era of The Well of Loneliness and the increasing medicalization of homosexuality. The change in attitude can be seen, for example, in how romantic friendships at girls’ schools were treated. Simultaneously, the label “lesbian” provided a framework for women to identify their same-sex relationships as being meaningful and significant, if they were willing to claim that name. But lesbian relationships were expected to be sexual. Lack of interest in a sexual component implied repression and inhibition.
Faderman doesn’t challenge the validity of the theory of “bed death”, but explains it in terms of the historic socialization of women regarding sex drive (i.e., that men are expected to have one, and women are not), the lack of an obvious “on/off” signal of sexual arousal like that present for men, and a willingness to find satisfaction in “non-sexual” expressions of affection. She makes reference to a theory that difference/unfamiliarity are drivers of sexual desire which she sees as a motivation for a pattern of serial monogamy. [Note: the argument that desire between women is “vain” due to excessive similarity is heard in critiques of the possibility of female homoeroticism as early as the Renaissance.] Faderman interprets surveys of long-term lesbian couples with respect to sexual frequency as suggesting that a strong sex drive is incompatible with relationship stability.
[Note: I will reiterate that I often feel that Faderman is carefully defining her terms to make the facts fit her theories. But this is a summary of what the book says.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 14a - On the Shelf
(Originally aired 2017/09/02)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2017.
Recording this is a bit of a surreal experience because I’m recording it in mid July and it won’t air until the beginning of September. You see, I’m going to be spending three weeks in August traveling to Europe for the Worldcon - the World Science Fiction Convention - in Helsinki Finland, and then traveling around visiting friends. Some of whom I’ve known online for over a decade but have never met in person yet. And while I’d love to burble a bit about the convention and my trip in this update, I’m looking at the calendar and suspecting that I’ll be too wiped out to record anything in the few days between when I get back and when this episode will have to air. So you’ll just have to imagine me telling you all about my travels through Europe.
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog spent the month of August finishing up the last five chapters of Sherry Velasco’s Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. This book is an example of the rich trove of historic data that can be made available by someone willing to sift through records outside the well-worn tracks that most general histories of sexuality touch on. There are summaries and excerpts from the very extensive trial records that provide details of the everyday lives of lesbians in 16th through 18th century Spain, including an indication of how their relationships were viewed by their friends and neighbors, and under what circumstances they might be accepted or at least tolerated. There’s a discussion of three individuals who become something of gender-outlaw celebrities in 16th and 17th century Spain, including the part that race and class played in how they were treated. As touched on in discussions of Catalina de Erauso, upper class women in early modern Spain basically had two options: marriage or the convent. And not all women in convents were there because they had a religious vocation. Velasco looks at how these women-only institutions dealt with the inevitable “special friendships” that developed between nuns and to what extent they were concerned with preventing sexual relationships specifically. For a culture seen as being conservative and strait-laced, drama and fiction in Spain was chock full of women disguised as men and the inevitable romantic entanglements that caused. But there were also works that explored romantic relationships between women that didn’t rely on mistaken gender identity.
While the publication list forthcoming for August is still being finalized, my plan is to do a couple of tie-ins with the last history episode and cover books about the concept of Boston Marriage and the queer history of Boston in general.
This month’s author guest will be Genevieve Fortin whose historic novel about Canadian immigrants to New England in the early 20th century was released just a couple months ago.
The Ask Sappho segment this month comes from a question on the Lesbian Talk Show Chat Group on facebook. (As of the time of recording, I hadn’t received permission to mention the requester specifically, but if you’re out there, I hope you’re listening!) This was a request for lesbian historical novels set at the time of the American Civil War.
Since there isn’t already a specific Goodreads list set up on this topic that could be pointed to, I thought I’d throw something together. Of course, now I will make it into a Goodreads list. This is largely taken from sifting through Goodreads lists of lesbian historical fiction to find the books with the desired setting. To narrow things down, I’m specifically focusing on books and stories that have the war as a background, not simply ones from the same general time period. I’ve tried to summarize reviews of the books that I haven’t read myself. And most of these, I haven’t read myself.
But I hope I’ll be forgiven for starting off with an anthology-sister. The short story “Emma” by Priscilla Scott Rhoades in the anthology Through the Hourglass edited by Sacchi Green and Patty G. Henderson is a sweet love story set on the cusp of the American Civil War involving a girl who disguises herself as a boy to run away from home and who takes a job as a handyman at a school for the deaf. Complications from a budding romance with one of the students motivate her to enlist in the army. I really liked the voice in this one (it’s told in something of a diary style) and the historic context was quite believable.
Firefly by Whitney Hamilton follows the intersection of two southern women during and after the war, one a widow struggling to keep her farm going, the other a woman who served in the Confederate army in male disguise. Reviews on this book are passionate in several directions. Many readers were drawn in by the story, but several were concerned that it painted a too-rosy picture of social and political issues underlying the war particularly with regard to race.
Promising Hearts by Radclyffe also hinges on a character who participated in the war in disguise (this ends up being a very strong trend in this set of books). This time the woman is a surgeon who comes out of the war wounded in body and spirit and heads West where she encounters an archetypal madam with a heart of gold. Reviews were impressed with the intensity of the story but some felt the short length was a bit too packed with details to do justice to the characters.
House of Clouds by K. I. Thompson has the set-up for an enemies to lovers romance with a staunch Union loyalist and actress turning spy until she’s confronted with the need to betray the woman she loves--the daughter of a Confederate officer. Reviewers seem to agree that it’s more of a strong historical novel--full of nuanced and accurate details--that has a romance sub-plot, but is not primarily a romance story.
Words Heard in Silence by T. Novan and Taylor Rickard blends the two popular motifs of a woman serving in the army in male disguise and throwing two people from different sides of the conflict into close connection. Charlie Redmond--the soldier in disguise--commands a troop quartered at the Virginia farm of widow Rebecca Gaines. Their growing attraction threatens Charlie’s secret. Most reviews were enthusiastically positive, though with few details. Some felt the book’s origins as an episodic serial could have been cleaned up a bit more.
The War Between the Hearts by Nann Dunne braids together three of the popular themes in this group: gender disguise, spying, and romance between two women on opposite sides of the conflict. Sarah is a spy for the Confederate side, in male disguise and Faith the beloved enemy who betrays her and threatens any hope of a future. There weren’t a lot of reviews to judge by, but there seems to be agreement that this should be approached as a historic novel with a romance plot rather than as a category romance novel. This book has a sequel The Clash Between the Minds which follows the characters after the war as they struggle with the violence of the reconstruction era and face suspicion about their relationship now that gender disguise has been abandoned.
Miserere by Caren J. Werlinger isn’t precisely a Civil War novel. Teenage Connemara in the 1960s starts having visions of her Civil War era ancestor, an Irish indentured servant whose legacy involves a mystery and a curse for her to solve. Reviews are generally positive, but the focus of the story is split between the two eras, so it may not answer the original request for Civil War stories.
Divided Nation, United Hearts by Yolanda Wallace once more brings together the themes of a woman serving in the military in male disguise and sparks between two women on opposite sides of the war. Reviews were very mixed on this book with some loving it wholeheartedly and others feeling the pacing was off and the romance thread rushed and weak.
Beguiled and Her Beguiling Bride by Paisley Smith are a series that starts with the requisite Union woman in disguise as a soldier ending up wounded in the hands of the mistress of a southern plantation. The second volume continues into the Reconstruction era when the two must make hard choices to keep their land. Unlike most of the books in this list, these fall solidly in the category of erotica, and some reviewers who were expecting something more in the line of historical fiction felt a little short-changed. Comments suggest that these are both more novella length than full novels.
Sabre by Rhavensfyre is another very short erotic piece, following the familiar themes of a soldier in male disguise and the woman who discovers her secret. Reviewers seemed to feel that it should have been longer and the comments weren’t detailed enough for further evaluation.
For those who feel the whole motif of women cross-dressing as men to become soldiers and spies in wartime is a bit over the top in terms of believability, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project reviewed an article on the narratives of real-life crossdressing women in the 17th through early 20th centuries that includes figures from the Civil War era like Ellen Craft, a black woman used a combination of gender-disguise and the fact that her skin was fairly light to play the role of a white southern slave owner in order to enable her darker-skinned husband, William to escape slavery. And Cuban-born Texan Loreta Janeta Velazquez who accompanied her lover in battle in disguise, after his death continued serving the Confederacy as a spy. Although these women were not lesbians, their lives demonstrate that the motifs used in these novels are within the realm of historical accuracy.
You can find links to all of these publications in the show notes.
I've titled the first-week-of-the-month round-up podcast "On the Shelf" as a bit of a pun. On the one hand, it's referring to what books I have "on the shelf" to be covered in the blog, or talked about with our guest author. But it was also a term in the 19th century for a woman who was still unmarried at an age when society considered her too old to be an eligible bride. And, of course, a certain number of the women who were "on the shelf" were avoiding marriage to a man very deliberately.
In addition to a review of what the blog is covering, and an announcement of this month's author guest, the Ask Sappho segment takes a reader request for lesbian historical novels set during the US Civil War. (Due to a cut-and-paste error, the show notes repeat last month's question about the legal status of lesbianism through the ages.) Doing thematic book lists is a fun little project. What time period, culture, or historic topic would you like to see a list built around? I can't guarantee that I can find books on every possible topic!
Can you know a lesbian when you see one? What characteristics did people in early modern Spain think a lesbian would have? And what did that say about how they conceived of sexual orientation? The concluding chapter to Velasco's book covers an assortment of loosely-connected topics having to do with visual signifiers. It's interesting how old the trope of the "masculine-looking ugly lesbian" is. One aspect in this regard that I don't recall seeing addressed is the extent to which "feminine beauty" as a concept is actively and deliberately created rather than being a natural and spontaneous state. Is the mythical "ugly lesbian" simply the resting bitch face of sexuality? The trope also points out that the understanding of sexuality was still very much focused on an active/passive definition. Only the "active" desiring woman risked evoking the "ugly, masculine-looking" accusation.
As we come to the end of Velasco's book, I'd like to step back and once again marvel at how much material the author found to address her topic, and what that implies for many other historic cultures that have not yet had the benefit of a knowledgeable and interested researcher. I'll reitereate one of the main lessons I've gained from this project: the assumption that information is scarce and skimpy regarding the history of women's same-sex desires derives from a history of the field that often focused on types of data that were more relevant to men, and interpretations of the data that assumed "heterosexual unless clearly proven otherwise." Historians don't find things that they aren't looking for. Once you start looking, there is a greater wealth of data than we've been led to believe.
Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0
A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.
Chapter 7: Looking Like a Lesbian
This chapter looks at the role of imagination, spectacle, and accusation in shaping understandings of female same-sex relations. These understandings, in turn, could create or enable same-sex erotic possibilities for their consumers. There is a contrast between writers who denied the possibility of desire between women and the regular use of female homoerotic imagery in popular culture. Spectacles involving female homoeroticism were meant to warn and punish, but could also inform and educate. Accusations against specific women assumed general knowledge of homoerotic possibilities and expectations regarding types of homoerotic activity.
Probable intersex cases tested the understanding and judgement of same-sex activity. Beliefs about the possibility of spontaneous physical sex change problematized investigations into potential transgressive relations when physical sex was ambiguous or did not match gender performance. Medical opinions presumed that people had an innate sexual orientation, though they differed on the underlying cause.
When same-sex relationships were performed in public (for example, when the specifics of relationships came out in public arguments or lawsuits) the evidence suggests that individual fear of punishment for sexual transgression was not an absolute deterrent for entering those relationships. [Note: when has it ever been?] Within all this, what was the public expectation for being able to identify lesbians from their appearance? How could you know you were looking at one?
Catalina de Erauso was depicted in a portrait from life by Francisco Pacheco, and that portrait was further publicized by engravings based on it. Her features were interpreted differently depending on how people perceived her gender. Physiognomy--the pseudo-science of identifying innate characteristics based on facial features and physiology--was not only applied to Catalina during her lifetime, but was taken up by psychologists and sexologists in the early 20th century to “diagnose” her in terms of supposed psychological and medical abnormality.
Simple economics meant that homoerotic scenes of women in art were typically designed to cater to the male gaze for the purposes of titillation. One exception was depictions of lesbian erotics in genre scenes of witchcraft that often drew on male anxiety about powerful and dangerous women, conflating lesbian sexuality with anti-male magical activity. (That is, the scenes may still have been created for the male gaze, but not likely for titillation.)
In religious art, images of close emotional bonds betwen women were often depicted using physical gestures to indicate spiritual connections and conferral of authority. This appears in art showing Saint Teresa and her rival spiritual heirs in a sort of religious propaganda art staking claims to her legacy using imagery of closeness and inseparability.
Velasco includes a discussion of visual art associated with Nicholas Chorier’s pornographic Satyra Sotadica showing a frontispiece with a group of upper class Spanish women shopping in a “dildo market” with wares hung up on display as in a butcher’s shop. This seems to be included on the basis that Chorier’s work was alleged to be a translation of a dialogue by the 16th century Spanish poet and humanist Luisa Sigea. Sigea did write dialogues between women expressing passionate friendship. [Note: Velasco seems at first to treat the connection to Sigea as solidly evidenced but then appears to agree with other sources that the connection with Sigea is entirely fictitious and was, in part, intended to imply a genuine female authorship for Chorier’s female-voice dialogue.]
Beliefs in gender essentialism with regard to sexuality led to an emphasis in descriptions of women with same-sex desires as being masculine in appearance (or at least unfeminine). Contemporaries of María de Zayas suggest she may have been viewed as “manly” in appearance as well as in literary talent. Other writers compared her poetic talent to Sappho, possibly intending implications about her sexuality. Zayas herself excluded Sappho from her list of dedicatory “foremothers” possibly suggesting that she herself was anxious about what people would read into the comparison. There is some evidence that Zayas lived with a fellow female poet, Ana Caro, but the nature of their relationshp must be entirely speculative.
The Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (later 17th century) wrote poems to multiple women (including her patroness) that used amorous language and imagery, such as, “I love you with so much passion...My love for you was so strong I could see you in my soul and talk to you all day long...Let my love be ever doomed if guilty in its intent, for loving you is a crime of which I will never repent.” And in another work, “I aspire that your love and my good wine will draw you hither, and to tumble you to bed I can conspire.” Historians writing of Sor Juana and other examples of suggestive evidence between nuns often dismiss the possibility of same-sex desire out of hand on a presumption that they would have needed to learn about homoerotic love before being able to experience it, and that they were “too young” to understand the implication of such desires. [Some things never change.]
I'm not going to lie: I'm feeling a bit anxious about the reception of this week's podcast. The topic of how erotic desire has been handled with respect to the history of lesbians has the potential for hurtful erasure on every side. Some scholars have approached the history of sexuality from a position that erotic desire and erotic activity are how you define the presence of lesbianism. Even aside from the way in which an eagerness to "claim women for the L team" tends to erase bisexual identity, using sexual activity and sexual desire between women as the sine qua non of lesbian identity erases those for whom romantic attachment, rather than sex, is the key factor. (Although it does encompass aromantic women who enjoy erotic attraction to women.)
In this episode, I look at the patterns of history, not through the question of "how did specific women experience homoerotic and homoromantic attraction?" but through the lens of cultural archetypes. What were some of the prominent cultural archetypes that combined romantic bonds between women with an absence of the expectation of sexual activity? I'll be very curious to hear what people think.