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LHMP #137n Faderman 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men II.A.5 Love and “Women Who Live by Their Brains”

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).

II.A.5 Love and “Women Who Live by Their Brains”

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There was a narrow list of available occupations for a middle-class woman in the later 19th century--teacher, nurse, glorified lady’s maid, or occupations that shaded more in to the questionable: seamstress, actress. But for a select few, the professions were beginning to open up: doctor, professor, social reformer. To succeed in these professions meant foregoing marriage to a man for a wide variety of reasons. So is isn’t surprising that many such “new women” turned to other women for companionship and to provide the everyday support functions that a man could automatically expect from marriage. And in informal writings, it wasn’t uncommon for some professional women to refer to such a companion as a “wife”, and even to refer to themselves jokingly as a “husband”.

Some couples had a fairly egalitarian arrangement, and might collaborate on their intellectual endeavors. Several examples of such couples are offered, such as Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (who used the pen name Michael Field for their collaborations). [As we move into these discussions of turn-of-the-century literati, a great deal of the chapters concerns details of their lives and careers and quotations of their work. It's clear that we've reached the era of Faderman's greatest familiarity and expertise.] Examples of partnerships where the energy of both partners went to support one career--more like a traditional husband/wife arrangement--included novelist Marie Corelli, writer Alice French (writing as Octave Thanet), and French artist Rosa Bonheur. Author Louisa May Alcott never seems to have entered into any such relationship herself (though she never married) but she wrote of supportive partnerships between women in a number of her works, and also of how entering into heterosexual marriage would distract a creative woman from her career. Actress Charlotte Cushman is given as another example of a woman who entered into both equal and supportive partnerships with women.

Academic women in this era had a very practical reason for avoiding marriage: in many cases their teaching contracts required them to remain unmarried. But “bluestocking” women had long had a reputation for forming close friendships within their own circles. The example is given of the German women Bettine von Arnim and Caroline von Günderode. Similarly the American academics Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks. These women saw their sort of partnership come under suspicion, and there is a painful transition as they sometimes try to distance themselves from the very structures that had supported their own careers, as when Jeannette Marks wrote a pamphlet on “Unwise College Friendships” for the students of the all-female Mt. Holyoke College. [This sort of self-hating behavior is noted in a number of early 20th century women, so it’s odd that Faderman fails to suspect that a similar internal contradiction might have explained the absence of self-examination among Romantic Friends who publicly denied the possibility of women’s sexuality.)

Time period: 

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