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LHMP #137 Faderman 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men

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).

Given how foundational a work this is on the study of love between women in western culture, it’s a bit surprising that I’ve taken so long to include it here. Surpassing the Love of Men is an awkward work in several ways. On a trivial level, the density of information combined with a large number of chapters means I have the choice between dividing it up into 26 bite-size entries, or 6 unwieldy ones. At the time I’m writing this, my plan is to go for the smaller entries but post them more often than usual. (It occurs to me this book would have been a convenient Pride Month project, with a post every day, but I don’t feel like putting it off.)

On a philosophical level, Surpassing the Love of Men is awkward because, in the 35 years since it was published, a number of Faderman’s positions have been found to be historically inaccurate. As Faderman notes in her introduction, the book was inspired by her puzzlement over the contrast between the love expressed by poet Emily Dickinson to her future sister-in-law Sue Gilbert and the unselfconsciousness Dickinson apparently felt in expressing that love. Faderman notes that she had gone into her study of Dickinson convinced that here was a mid 19th century American lesbian waiting to be reclaimed for the team, but she couldn’t integrate that framing with Dickinson’s lack of guilt or anxiety around a same-sex relationship that had not had the benefit of the gay liberation movement.

That sounds a bit quaint and...perhaps even smug. How could anyone be comfortable in a non-normative life without the support of a political movement? When Faderman went looking for similar same-sex sentiments to the ones in DIckinson’s poetry and correspondence, she found the 19th century to be rife with them, not only in correspondence but in literary representations. She found that such sentiments were so common as to have a variety of conventional labels: Boston marriage, sentimental friends, the love of kindred spirits, or dating back to the 18th century, romantic friends. And now we come to the sentence that is at the heart of Faderman’s most important failing in this work:

“These romantic friendships were love relationships in every sense except perhaps the genital, since women in centuries other than ours often internalized the view of females as having little sexual passion.”

The problem is that this is not a true historical statement of attitudes towards women’s sexuality in pre-modern times, either by women or by society in general. I can only presume that Faderman’s focus on the 19th century led her to be less familiar with earlier data and to accept that century’s beliefs about the past as being accurate. And, in fairness, much of the work on the history of sexuality that would easily refute this understanding has been produced after the publication of this work. I’d love to know if Faderman has shifted on this position since then. (I’ll see if I can track anything down on this point. If I had the nerve, I might even try writing her!) But this means that in my presentation of this work, I may be adding pointers to contradictory evidence and opinions.

Faderman’s overall conclusions run something like this: Prior to around the 18th century, nobody cared what women did romantically or sexually together as long as they didn’t challenge masculine privilege, either by adopting masculine dress or by resisting the supremacy of heterosexuality.  18-19th century female “romantic friends” mostly did not have sex with each other because women didn’t have sex drives until the 20th century (except in prurient male imaginations). Because genital sex wasn’t involved, romantic friends felt no guilt or shame about devoting their lives to each other and expressing their love openly. But then the late 19th century sexologists invented homosexuality as a concept and included women’s romantic friendships as an example of the homosexual continuum. Now, retroactively, romantic friends were suspect, leading for example to Emily Dickinson’s niece omitting much of the romantic content in her papers when editing them for publication in th 1920s. Now it was no longer possible for two women to be unselfconsiously and innocently in love with each other, resulting in lesbian literature becoming riddled with self-doubt and self-loathing until the gay liberation movement of the 1960s made it ok again.

OK, so that came off sounding a bit snarky. And I don’t actually mean it to be. This was a groundbreaking and valuable work when it was written, and it’s still a valuable compendium of historic information on how romantic friendship was expressed. But I think it’s been amply demonstrated since then that the premise that romantic friendships were never sexual has been shown to be as incorrect as a presumption that they must always have been sexual.

The structure of the book is also awkward for my usual pattern of simply identifying entries in sequence by chapter numbers. There are three parts, each part has two sections, and each section has 3-5 chapters with numbering starting over from “chapter 1” for each section. So the individual entries will be identified with something like “II.B.3 [chapter title]. Here’s the overall structure above the chapter level:

Part I: The Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries

  • A. Lesbianism in a Phallocentric Universe
  • B. The Enshrinement of Romantic Friendship

Part II: The Nineteenth Century

  • A. Loving Friends
  • B. The Reaction

Part III: The Twentieth Century

  • A. Sophistication
  • B. When it Changed

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