Skip to content Skip to navigation


Saturday, March 23, 2019 - 13:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32d - Laudomia Loves Margaret

(Originally aired 2019/03/23 - listen here)

This week, I’d planned to do the next installment discussing the various ways people in history created definitions and categories for gender and sexuality. But I’m in the middle of novel revisions and came down with a miserable head cold during a critical free weekend, as you may be able to tell from my voice, and I simply don’t have the time or brain power to write a new show. So instead I’m going to reprise another of the early episodes. I hope you enjoy this essay, whether you’re one of the lucky people who’s heard it before or whether this is your first time. This show originally aired on December 31, 2016.

[Note: I have not transcribed the poems that are quoted in the podcast for copyright reasons. The translations I used are from: Eisenbichler, Konrad. “Laudomia Forteguerri Loves Margaret of Austria” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (ed. By Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn), Palgrave, New York, 2001.

In Plato’s myth of the origin of love--a myth that accounts for both opposite-sex and same-sex love--he describes how all people were originally part of a double body, split from each other and eternally seeking their other half. In his 1541 dialogue titled “On the Beauty of Women”, Italian philosopher Agnolo Firenzuola expands on this, saying: "Those who were female in both halves, or are descended from those who were, love each other’s beauty, some in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Forteguerra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as in ancient times Sappho from Lesbos, and in our own times in Rome the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana. This type of woman by nature spurns marriage and flees from intimate conversation with us men.”

Now I’m curious to know a lot more about Cecilia Venetiana, but alas this is the extent of her footprint in history. However we know a great deal about Laudomia Forteguerra and Margaret of Austria. Firenzuola was a contemporary and friend of theirs and no doubt was careful in how he described their relationship. The Seigneur de Brantôme, writing half a century later in France, and knowing only rumor and gossip, asserted that their love fell in the lascivious category. What evidence do we have to search for the truth between these two claims?

Laudomia was a member of the ruling families of the republic of Sienna in Italy. You must understand that 16th century Italy was far from a unified country. It was made up of a lot of separate states, often at war with each other. Large chunks were ruled by the Vatican, known collectively as the Papal States. Other chunks were ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor, who controled lands in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, and elsewhere, in addition to Italy. Other parts of Italy were independent, such as Florence under the Medicis or Mantua under the Gonzagas.

Sienna was another one of these states, ruled by a coalition of noble families and struggling to maintain their independence from the greater powers all around them. Laudomia Forteguerra, as I have said, was Siennese. She was famed for being beautiful and educated--a true Renaissance woman in every sense of the term. Scholars dedicated books to her and her own poetry was highly praised. Among those poems are five sonnets, addressed and dedicated to Margaret of Austria, expressing her devotion, admiration, and love.

I’m unable to pronounce Italian well enough to give you the original version. The translation, alas, does not rhyme and scan. But here’s the sense of one of her poems.

[Poem: Alas for my beautiful sun]

But who is Margaret of Austria? And why is Laudomia writing her poetry?

In 1521, a serving woman named Johanna Maria van der Gheynst, became the mistress of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. For those not familiar with the intricacies of the genealogies of 16th century royalty, you know how Queen Elizabeth the first of England’s older sister Mary was married to King Phillip II of Spain? Well, Charles V was Phillip’s father. It gets really complicated and I’ll try to keep the political discussion simple.

So Emperor Charles had an affair with a servant and a year later she produced a daughter, who was named Margaret and placed in the care of her aunt (Charles’s sister), also named Margaret of Austria, who was serving as governor of the Netherlands at the time. (When I first encountered this description I was, I confess, a little stunned. Wait: a woman was governor of the Netherlands? So obviously there’s a lot about Renaissance history that even I, an amateur historian, have somehow missed.)

An emperor’s children are never insignificant, even the bastards--and for the first several years of her life, Margaret is referred to in the household records simply as “the little bastard”. When Margaret was three, there were thoughts of betrothing her to a bastard of the Medici family. The Medicis were extremely important in Italy at this time, not only ruling Florence, but supplying several popes. It’s also important to know that 16th century popes were not exactly a model of propriety and virtue. You’re going to meet several bastard sons of popes in this story. But I get ahead of myself.

As I said, when Margaret was three, there was talk of betrothing her to a Medici. When she was four, she was briefly betrothed to the heir of the Duchy of Ferrara. When she was seven, it’s back to the Medicis again, but a different one. This time she was betrothed to the pope’s nephew (some said, actually his son) named Alessandro, a man ten years her senior with a terrible reputation. But this was business. Margaret the bastard would become Duchess of Florence, bringing an extensive dowry of lands and the military support of the Holy Roman Empire not only for Florence but for the Medici papacy.

The year after that, the Empire occupies Sienna and establishes a military garrison there. Remember Sienna? Where Laudomia lives? They aren’t happy about this.

When Margaret is eight, her future husband, Alessandro dei Medici travels to the Netherlands to meet her. This is also the first occasion when she meets her father the emperor face to face. The marriage is scheduled to take place four years later and preparations are made for a grand procession to convey Margaret to Italy. She settles in Naples for the interim.

And then the pope dies. He is succeeded by a member of the Farnese family who ruled in Parma. Now the Medicis aren’t looking like quite the same hot property that they were before. There is some dithering about the marriage but the Florentines apply pressure and Margaret marries Alessandro when she’s 13. Although she is installed as Duchess of Florence it’s quite likely that this is still a marriage in name only. Child marriages among medieval and Renaissance nobility often came with an understanding that the marriage wouldn’t be consummated until the bride was a reasonable age--something that isn’t always understood from the bare facts.

Whatever the nature of Margaret’s marriage, it didn’t last long. Alessandro, as I’ve said, had a terrible reputation, both personally and politically. Half a year later, he was assassinated by his own cousin to the cheers of the citizens of Florence.

Margaret doesn’t have long to enjoy her widowhood. The next year she is betrothed to Ottavio Farnese. Remember that the new pope is a Farnese? This is his grandson.  Margaret is sixteen and this time she’s older than her future husband, by four years. She’s on record as despising him and trying all sorts of things to get out of the marriage. But she is taken to Rome in preparation, and as she travels to Rome, she passes through Siena and spends three weeks there.

Remember Siena? Where Laudomia lives? At this time, Laudomia is 23. She is married and has produced a son. And we know that Laudomia and Margaret meet on this occasion.

A contemporary of theirs says they also met three years earlier and describes it this way:

At their first meeting, “as soon as Laudomia saw Madama [that is, Margaret], and was seen by her, suddenly with the most ardent flames of Love each burned for the other, and the most manifest sign of this was that they went to visit each other many times.” On one of those subsequent meetings he describes, “They renewed most happily their sweet Loves. And today more than ever, with notes from one to the other they warmly maintain them.”

Alas none of this correspondence has survived, only the poems. Here’s another one of the poems that Laudomia wrote for Margaret.

[Poem: Happy plant]

Margaret continued on to Rome and set out to win the hearts of the people of Rome (who weren’t all that fond of the Farnese pope, and by association, of her future husband Ottavio). She has her own villa there in Rome, which she fills with scholars and artists. Although she tries to delay the marriage, she is tricked into receiving a ring that is then held to be a token of her acceptance. Relying on the support of the people of Rome and the political indifference of her father the emperor, she refuses to consummate the marriage.

By this time, Laudomia has finished writing her sonnets to Margaret.

Political satires at the time accused the Farneses of all sorts of sexual vices and Margaret was accused of being a lesbian in this context, an accusation that may have been mere mud-flinging or may have been based on actual knowledge. What was definitely noted was that, although Margaret did obey her father’s ultimatum and produced twin sons for her husband, she returned to living separately from him after that. And in an age of sexual scandal, her name is never associated with any male lover and at least one political commenter notes that she has no interest in men. (He intended it as a positive comment on her virtue.)

Italian politics are getting even more violent. Margaret takes up her position as Duchess in Parma and finds herself besieged by her neighbors the Gonazagas. Ironically her father the emperor supports them in this because Margaret’s husband has started playing political footsie with France. Let’s skip the details of what France is doing in all this, except to note that Siena--remember Siena?--is also calling on French support against the Holy Roman Empire and it, too, comes under siege as a result.

During the siege of Siena, Laudomia is recorded as having valiantly organized the women of the city to help strengthen the city walls. But eventually the combined forces of Florence and the Empire win out and Sienna falls.

Laudomia never appears by name in any records after that date. The only tantalizing clue we have is that 18 years later, Laudomia’s second husband makes a will that makes reference to a living wife. (It is possible, of course, that he has remarried.)

After all the political uproar settles down for a bit, Margaret and Ottavio make peace with the emperor and Margaret travels to the Netherlands with her one surviving son to place him in the guardianship of her half-brother Phillip, in whose favor Charles has just retired from the imperial throne. Margaret ends up staying in the Netherlands and even serves a couple of stints as governor there before eventually returning to Italy to spend the rest of her life.

This is all a great deal about politics with not quite so much about the love between Laudomia and Margaret. But we know a great deal more about the former than we do the latter. We do know that they met and that they loved each other, by some understanding of the word “love.” We know that contemporaries who admired them considered their love to be that of two souls finding their other half. We know that Laudomia wrote poems to Margaret that used the language and imagery of romantic love--imagery that would be considered to imply sexual desire if used from a man to a woman. And we know that Margaret was notorious for disdaining and avoiding sexual relations with her husband, even when that avoidance caused significant personal difficulties.

That seems quite enough as a basis for imagining what a love affair between two Renaissance noblewomen might look like. I have *ahem* imagined just such a thing in my short story “Where My Heart Goes” which is included in the historic romance anthology Through the Hourglass, edited by Sacchi Green and Patty G. Henderson. And I even dared to imagine how to give them a happy ending.

Major category: 
Where My Heart Goes
Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 10:08

Things move very quickly once we get into discussions of cover design! What do you think?

(I confess I do feel left out of "cover reveal culture", which doesn't seem to be a thing among lesbian presses. I always find out what my cover looks like when it pops up online.)

ETA: Almost forgot -- I also have cover copy!

The streets are a perilous place for a young laundry maid dismissed without a character for indecent acts. Roz knew the end of the path for a country girl alone in the city of Rotenek. A desperate escape in the night brings her to the doorstep of Dominique the dressmaker and the hope of a second chance beyond what she could have imagined. Roz’s apprenticeship with the needle, under the patronage of the Royal Thaumaturgist, wasn’t supposed to include learning magic, but Celeste, the dressmaker’s daughter, draws Roz into the mysterious world of the charm-wives. When floodwaters and fever sweep through the lower city, Celeste’s magical charms could bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor of Rotenek, but only if Roz can claim the help of some unlikely allies.

Set in the magical early 19th century world of Alpennia, Floodtide tells an independent tale that interweaves with the adventures.

Major category: 
Monday, March 18, 2019 - 10:00

I’ll confess that I thought this article was going to be a lot more relevant to lesbian history than it was, given the inclusion of “Tommies” in the title. I’m including this brief summary because I already had the article scheduled, but the content is solidly focused on male issues and topics. In that context, it’s a fascinating look at shifting images of masculinity and the part that institutionalized male homoerotic encounters and relationships played in those images. But the reference to "tommies" is minor and entirely in relation to male desires.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Neff, D. S. 2002. “Bitches, Mollies, and Tommies: Byron, Masculinity, and the History of Sexualities” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 11:3 pp.395-438

Neff looks at shifting concepts and images of masculinity in England through the lens of Lord Byron (1788-1824) who stands in for an era when both masculinity and aristocracy were receiving increased scrutiny as privileged classes. Interpretations of homoerotic elements in Byron’s biography have been contested ground as he fails to fit neatly into the modern categories of sexuality. Neff declines to take a position on categorization and instead looks at the details of Byron’s life that raise the question in the first place.

In Western concepts of gender and sexuality, the 18th century is viewed by some historians as the era of a shift between the view that male and female represented a continuum of a single category, to a view that they represented entirely distinct categories and, in that case, what the definite distinctions were. In parallel was the development of a distinct category of “adult men with homosexual desires” as an identity rather than part of a continuum of behavior. [Note: The timepoint when we see this shift from “acts” to “identities” has been moved around by different historians, with the identification of new types of evidence. Neff gives a nod to some views that “identities” can be identified much earlier than the early modern period.]

Part of the older system included traditions of homosocial environments (such as all-male educational institutions) creating “male” and “female” roles, that could have sexualized as well as gendered aspects. Within these contexts, age or status influenced the acceptability of “female” roles, but participation in the system did not change men’s self-perception in terms of gender identity.

Prior to the emergence of the “molly” identity for men with homosexual desires, the performance of masculinity could encompass the “fop”--the man who delighted in exaggerated or sophisticated esthetics. But it later came to be associated with femininity and cast suspicion on the fop’s sexuality.

Byron’s public reputation took hits from this shift (though it was scarcely the only hazard) as he continued to operate within the older model where such flamboyance was unrelated to assumptions about one’s sexual role.

[Note: There is a fascinating digression about coded language in Byron’s correspondence that referred to sexual desire for, and encounters with, young men. It’s a useful reminder of contexts in which non-normative sexuality can be erased or denied in the records simply by taking textual evidence ruthlessly literally.]

The discussion of “tommies” (typically understood as referring to women with homoerotic desires) occurs in the context of Byron’s relationships with women who engaged in masculine cross-dressing, with the suggestion that they provided a bridge to Byron’s underlying preference for male partners.

And...that’s pretty much the point when I gave up on the article and skimmed to the end without finding anything else that made it more relevant. Sorry. You can’t win them all.

Time period: 
Saturday, March 16, 2019 - 10:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32c - Book Appreciation with Katharine Duckett - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/03/16 - listen here)

(Transcript pending)

In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.

In this episode Katharine Duckett recommends some favorite queer historical novels:

Links to Katharine Duckett Online

Major category: 
Monday, March 11, 2019 - 07:00

I sometimes make joking reference to the "industry of Anne Lister studies" but it's hard to exaggerate the value of Lister's candid diaries for disrupting theory-based understandings of 18-19th century female homosexuality. We need to be careful not to assume that Lister's experience is universal, nor to treat it as unique. Many women, no doubt, wrote candid private diaries and correspondence that may have expressed their negotiation of homoerotic desires. Vast amounts of women's private writing have been deliberately destroyed by their families after death "to preserve their privacy and reputation." We know for a fact that Lister's diaries came close to being destroyed at various points in their transmission. And, as noted in this article, we know for a fact that Lister was deliberately dishonest in her public presentation with regard to same-sex desires.

But conversely, we see Lister considering and choosing amoung a variety of possible understandings of her own life and desires. And we shouldn't assume that all women would have had the same understandings and made the same choices in how they modeled their lives. If anything, the individual agency in constructing a self-identity that Clark examines here--and the absense of "official" public models for that identity--argues for the likelihood that women who desired women would have had a variety of understandings and identities.

I sometimes get nervous about the "Lister Studies Industry" and the way that modern pop culture has fixated on specific aspects of her performance and re-framed them in modern terms. (For example, I've encountered Lister fans interpreting her "masculine dress" as meaning she wore trousers, even though it's clear from the diaries themselves that this was not the case.) Surely one of the lessons of the treasure that is Lister's diaries is that we need to enjoy the complex contradictory variety that is historic lesbian experience, rather than trying to envision women in the past as being exactly like us.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Clark, Anna. 1996. "Anne Lister's construction of lesbian identity", Journal of the History of Sexuality, 7(1), pp. 23-50.

Clark presents the early 19th century example of Anne Lister, not only as a fairly unambiguous example of lesbian identity--despite never using that term for herself--but as an illustration of the function of representation and agency in the history of sexuality. A contradiction of sorts to the social constructionist position that sexual identities are shaped or even determined by the surrounding societal discourse, rather than by the personal experience of desire.

The 19th century paradigm of “passionate friendship” between women encompassed emotional bonds and romantic expression but--as described by modern scholars--was considered to be unable of conceiving of sexual desire, much less acting on that desire. Under this paradigm, it is posited that early 19th century women could not develop a “lesbian identity” because no such concept existed for them to claim.

The social constructionist position is strongly associated with Michel Foucault, who held that until the late 19th century, a man who engaged in sex with men was regarded as sinful or criminal but was not considered to have a “homosexual” personality. Rather, that the ability to identify such a man (or to identify oneself) as “homosexual” was only possible after sexologists and psychiatrists invented the concept. And that the idea of homosexual identity was only then adopted by men and women whose desires aligned with those psychological models. Having an articulatable identity then made it possible for homosexual men and women to develop subcultures centered around their sexual orientation. This model made little or no allowance for individual agency in the development of identity.

The Foucaultian model has been eroded in recent decades, in part because more extensive historic research has contradicted the chronologies it relied on. Subcultures of homosexual men have been extensively documented in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, and sources such as Anne Lister’s diaries clearly show that women could be aware of the sexual nature of their desire for women and were acting on those desires. Extensive studies by Vicinus, Castle, Trumbach, Moore, and Donaghue regarding 18th century cultures point out that people in general--not just the women involved--could conceive of lesbian desire and recognize social roles associated with it.

An alternate theory from social construction is “sexual scripts”, in which sexual desires are learned rather than innate. This idea has problems in eras when homosexual desires or activity are strongly stigmatized. What is the attraction of adopting a negative script? It also suggests that homosexual desires could not be experienced in a vacuum--that they could only be acquired by encounters with those already familiar with the “script”. In contradiction to this are examples of isolated individuals who express a self-recognized same-sex desire without such a social context.

In the case of Anne Lister, although there is some evidence for lesbian subcultures among entertainers and sex workers in 18-19th century Paris, there is no similar evidence in England. So Lister could not have been “socialized” into a familiarity with lesbian desire, even by rumor. In England, Sapphic references seem to have been largely confined to sophisticated cosmopolitan intellectual circles. Circles that Lister encountered only after she had recognized and identified her own orientation.

Lister requires an understanding of sexual identity that allows for individual agency in constructing the self. Clark traces this act of construction based on three elements: her recognition of her own experiences and desires, her material circumstances, and the cultural representations she had available. For this, we have the abundant evidence of her detailed and candid diaries. One feature of Lister’s diaries was the use of a cipher code based on Greek  that enabled her to record explicit details of her relationships. She shared the code with some of her romantic correspondents.

Lister’s social and economic circumstances both enabled and restricted her expression of desire. Having recognized her interest in women in the context of a boarding school romance, she made an early decision not to marry. Family circumstances offered her the wealth necessary to avoid marriage. This was not entirely a matter of passive luck. Lister’s financial savvy was one motive for her being named the heir of her aunt and uncle (who were siblings, not spouses) rather than the property going to her father. But until that inheritance was realized, she didn’t have the financial standing to support a life partner in appropriate style. This threw obstacles in the way of several of her initial romances when her lovers succumbed to the pressure to marry for financial security. Lister did, eventually, find a life partner once she had obtained financial stability and control over her inheritance.

Lister’s records indicate that she was well aware of the variety of sexual morality that prevailed, not only in the upper levels of British society, but among her neighbors and peers. She also shows an awareness of the limits of tolerance and the need for discretion, while revealing an awareness of the transgressive nature of her own desires. She shows an awareness of the need to play multiple roles and to accept the contradictions between public and private identity.

That public identity, however, was constrained in the available roles for women at her time. Having declined that of wife and mother, she explored the possibility of the role of “passionate friendship,” including a visit to the famous “Ladies of Llangollen” who exemplified the role. But her commentary on that visit suggests that she viewed passionate friendship as not allowing for the sexual aspect that she enjoyed with her lovers (even when speculating that the Ladies themselves had a sexual relationship). Lister also explored a public role that adopted masculine motifs, particularly in the style of her clothing and accessories, as well as her vigorous physical behavior.

Another source of identity construction came from sparse references to sex between women that could be found in classical literature, such as Martial and Juvenal, as well as the more plentiful references to male homosexuality. Lister’s education included Latin and French, making this material linguistically accessible to her, though obtaining the publications required significant effort. She documents her interest in tracking down references to Sappho’s sexual interests, either through her work or allusions by other classical writers. The layers of misogyny and bowdlerism present in the material required substantial work to interpret, via a sort of double vision, consuming the negative treatment of lesbian desire and transforming it into a recognition of the existence of her own identity. Lister’s diary also traces how she tried to reconcile this identity with conventional religious (Anglican) attitudes toward sexuality. In this area, she developed a personalized morality that enabled her to use forms of religious experience (such as formalizing her relationships with women by taking the sacrament together) without considering her behavior to be uniquely in conflict with traditional moral principles.

Lister negotiated a similar ambivalence to Romantic literature, indulging in the power of authors such as Byron to offer intense emotional experiences, while recognizing that trying to follow their example in her own relationships “got her into scrapes.” But as with the classical authors, she simultaneously identified with writers like Rousseau while needing to sidestep his misogyny and negative attitude toward homosexuality. Lister used oblique references to these authors as coded overtures to women she was interested in, lending them books of poetry to observe their responses. Her diary follows in detail how she sounded out the nature of the relationship between the learned Miss Pickford and her good friend Miss Threlfall, while pretending to the former that her own relationships did not “go beyond...friendship.” A deceit that she directly acknowledges in a related entry.

In addition to these external sources that informed Lister’s construction of identity, the work of negotiating and articulating it often came in her interactions and discussions with other women. She developed covert and coded overtures that would enable her to determine the other women’s desires and attitudes before making any irrevocable confession. Included in this was her practice of discussing her interest in one woman with her other friends and lovers, while playing coy about her true desires.

[Note: It strikes me as highly relevant for interpreting the writings of Lister’s contemporaries that she records herself as publicly denying the possibility of sex between women, and denying the substance of her own desires as part of her negotiations with women she was considering as lovers. With Lister, we have the contradiction of her private commentary and the details of her sexual relationships. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to accept as literal truth similar public protestations from women who did not leave private records. Just because a woman of that era says she can't imagine what two women would do in bed together can't be taken as proof that she wasn't doing those "unimaginable" things herself.]

Lister synthesized her understanding of her own sexuality into a belief that it was “natural” and perhaps even biological. Not in the sense of considering herself to have an underlying masculine physiology, but in the sense of concluding that male and female sexual biology was far more similar than was generally believed, and therefore there was no biological argument for a greater “naturalness” of sexual response to one sex over another. In this context, she had a fascination for androgyny.

Lister’s own pursuit of androgyny and performative masculinity encompassed both projecting “masculine” roles on her female lovers (calling her first lover “husband”) and later adopting masculine style jackets (in part, as an economic gesture to opt out of the pursuit of feminine fashionability) and viewing her active pursuit of potential partners as reflecting a masculine social role. She notes that she models herself on being “gentlemanly” rather than “masculine”, but also sometimes expresses the experience of sexual desire as being masculine in nature. She envisions the desire for women as partaking of some sort of inherent masculinity, without expressing any desire to be a man. Masculinity represented her desire for women and for the male privilege that would enable her to live the life she envisioned with one particular woman. This imagined male privilege does not seem to have been expressed in sexual performance. Although Lister preferred to take an active role in sex there are no indications that she used a dildo or in other ways enacted a masculine role in bed.

It’s clear from the various references to dress that Lister did not cross-dress completely. She wore specific male-coded garments, but always in combination with skirts. There are a couple of references in the diaries to fantasizing about passing as a man, but she rejects it as an option, not only because it would have meant leaving behind her comfortable position as a respectable heiress, but because the rules of homosociality would then bar her from the ordinary company of women, which she greatly enjoys. “It would not have done at all. I...should have been shut out from ladies’ society.”

During Lister’s lifetime, the blurring of gender boundaries created an anxiety expressed in caricatures of dandies in corsets and “female sailor boys”. But there was not a strong social stereotype linking overt female cross-dressing with lesbian desire. The multitude of stories of passing women and “female husbands” most often presented them as heterosexual, using flirtation or “fraudulent” marriage only as a part of the disguise and not an expression of sexuality or gender identity. Only on the stage were there allusions to the potential for overtly cross-dressing actresses to attract the desire of female spectators, though this was always accompanied by the opinion that this desire could not be fulfilled due to the absence of a penis between the couple.

In this context, Lister’s adoption of specific masculine signifiers, both in dress and behavior (her style of walking was noted as “masculine”) was viewed as threatening to convention and provoked hostile reactions from men, including the use of the probably derogatory nickname “Gentleman Jack”. But her economic position gave her some share in masculine privilege and her political activity seems to have wavered between feminist ideals and a more reflexive conservatism of the landowning gentry.

When Lister finally achieved her domestic ideal of an equal intellectual and economic partnership with a neighboring heiress, another Anne (Walker), it isn’t clear exactly what they both understood as the nature of their relationship. It had a sexual component, though Walker seems to have been uneasy about that aspect. It had a romantic component, though Lister at one point suggests that she was playing a romantic part to secure Walker’s affection rather than entirely expressing her true feelings. They lived and traveled together for a number of years, cut short by Lister’s death of a fever while traveling in the Caucasus.

In summary, Lister’s testimony in her diaries makes it clear that she didn’t adopt an existing sapphic role, despite there being at least scattered references to such a concept in contemporary society. Rather it was something she constructed from bits and pieces--from literature and her own experience--and negotiated covertly, being constantly aware of the need for discretion. She did not inherit the libertine understanding and philosophy of the 18th century, but looked for her identity in classical and Romantic literature. Her identity was, to some extent, compartmentalized between the private and public spheres, and she regularly recorded the duplicity she used to maintain the distinction. She was familiar with the concept of passionate friendship but didn’t consider the role to fit her own desires. She used masculine performance to express her sexual desires and longing for male social power, but rejected the idea of having an underlying male gender identity. She can’t be considered to have participated in a lesbian subculture, but did establish a personal network of women with same-sex desires that was surprisingly extensive. One of the bars to turning this network into a subculture was Lister’s chronic use of deception and mendacity to maintain the upper hand in her relationships and dodge the public scrutiny that she feared would put them in jeopardy. In part, this was a facet of Lister’s unique personality, but in part it was a reflection of the social realities of her time.

Time period: 
Event / person: 
Saturday, March 9, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32b - Interview with Katharine Duckett - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/03/09 - listen here)

(transcript pending)

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about

Publications mentioned:

Links to Katharine Duckett Online

Monday, March 4, 2019 - 07:00

I've met women like Linton, as she is depicted in this article. You probably have too. The woman who despises other women for the same traits and behaviors she herself displays. The woman who goes on the lecture circuit telling women they should stay in the home. The woman who simultaneously wants to be "one of the guys" but mocks women as a class--whether for their femininity or for their unfemininity. The woman who has clawed her way into economic independence then argues against women's rights. And just perhaps, if her writings betray what they seem to betray, the woman who hides the recognition of her own homoerotic desires in an outspoken homophobia. If you will forgive me the completely anachronistic language.

But in being at the same time so outspoken and so candid in writing about non-conforming women, Linton also gives us a valuable chronology of public conceptions of lesbian-like identities in 19th century England. Her novels provide a useful counterpoint to the "official" stereotypes of women's identities and roles in the Victorian age. People are messy and self-contradictory. And that's an important lesson to take away from history.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Meem, Deborah T. 1997. “Eliza Lynn Linton and the Rise of Lesbian Consciousness” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 7:4 pp.537-560

Meem looks at the development of a public understanding of lesbian identity in 19th century English society through the life, journalism work, and novels of Eliza Lynn Linton. Linton was a contradictory figure, described by one historian as “a radical conservative, a militantly feminine antifeminist, a skeptical idealist, and a believing atheist.” Her journalism was shot through with misogyny and a belief that women should stick to the domestic sphere, while claiming economic and social independence in her own life. In her fiction, she depicted complex and sympathetic emancipated women who can easily be interpreted as proto-lesbian figures, even if she didn't give them happy endings. Also noteworthy is that when Linton wrote a fictionalized autobiography, she used a male persona to represent herself.

While showing a familiarity with the rising self-conscious lesbian presence in England in the later 19th century and giving strong evidence for homoerotic desires herself, Linton publicly condemned feminists and “mannish women”. And three key novels from her body of work show shifts in her attitude toward her proto-lesbian characters in parallel with the increasing public awareness of lesbian possibilities. In significant ways, Linton embodies a counter to the position long popular in academic circles that there was a rapid and drastic shift only at the end of the 19th century between rigidly prescriptive gender roles that relegated men and women to “separate spheres” in which women might safely enjoy non-sexual “romantic friendships”, and the appearance of the image of the “mannish lesbian” and her association with women’s emancipation. The association of both feminism and women’s same-sex desires with masculinity had two faces: for some, masculinity was a symbol of empowerment, while for others it represented the breakdown of society and a threat to traditionally female spheres of social power.

As a journalist, Linton was solidly reactionary and became the anonymous spokesperson for the anti-feminist movement in the 1860s with the publication of “The Girl of the Period”, an attack on young women whom she saw as rejecting Victorian domestic ideals. The misogyny running through Linton’s work is not simply an interpretation of modern readers. Linton is quoted from correspondence as saying, “I hate women as a race...I think we are demons. Individually we are all right, but as a race we are monkeyish, cruel, irresponsible, superficial.” For the use of the term “monkeyish”, keep in mind that this was the era when Darwin’s theories were gaining visibility. Another dog-whistle term that crops up in her writing is “hybrid”, as in a characterization of feminists as, “the women’s-rights woman, with her hybrid costume and her hard face.” The word “hybrid” not only invoked a horror of the blurring of gender boundaries, presaging the use of “third sex”, but probably had racist overtones as well. Linton used Darwinian imagery often in her writings and in the 1890s hopped on the social Darwinism bandwagon, suggesting that differentiation of the sexes was a mark of evolved civilization, and thus that attempts to erode gender difference would contribute to society’s downfall.

Linton was also a novelist, and Meem traces shifts in her attitudes and possibly her self-image via three key works focusing on homoerotically-tinged relationships between women. Sowing the Wind (1867) is a sensational story in which the naive young wife Isola struggles with her wealthy and possessive husband’s descent into poverty, perversion, and insanity. The revealing character is Isola’s cousin Jane: a journalist [note: can we say “self-insert”? I knew we could], unmarried, plain, who uses masculine signifiers such as wanting to be called “Jack” and socializing primarily with men while wanting to be treated as a “chum”. But despite Linton’s journalistic scorn for similar figures in real life, Jane is in many ways the strongest and most positive character in the novel. She is unfailingly loyal and supportive of the protagonist and encourages Isola to follow high moral principles rather than focusing on personal survival. Jane is not an overtly lesbian character, but exhibits features that later would become part of the “mannish lesbian” archetype.

The second novel in this series is The Rebel of the Family (1880) appears at a time when the myth of the “sexless woman” that had been promoted heavily in the earlier part of the century was fading in the face of recognition not only that women had erotic desires but that they could feel such desires for each other. The literary motif of decadent lesbian sexuality was appearing from authors such as Diderot, Gautier, de Balzac, and LeFanu. Linton had left England for Italy in 1876 to escape what Meem calls an “ill-advised relationship with a woman” who appears as a character in Linton’s fictional autobiography. She traveled to Italy in company with another female friend, and while in Rome they socialized with well-known lesbians Harriet Hosmer, Matilda Hays, and Adelaide Sartoris. [Note: for the social context of the first two, see the LHMP podcast on Charlotte Cushman and her circle.]

In The Rebel of the Family, the protagonist looks to be a continuation of the “mannish” Jane from the earlier novel, now named Perdita Winstanley. Again, she is single, unconventional, not traditionally attractive, and is male-identified in behavior and ambitions. But now Perdita, rather than maintaining these traits across the novel, is depicted as a rebellious “New Woman” tamed by love and returned to domesticity. The position of feminist icon is again taken up by a supporting character, Bell Blount: the president of a women’s rights organization, “handsome but bold and confident-looking,” dressed flamboyantly and vulgarly. Bell woos Perdita to the feminist cause with an overt undertone of sexual seduction. When exposed to Bell’s persuasions, Perdita feels “as if about to be initiated into those hidden mysteries where the springs of human history are to be found” and is simultaneously attracted and repelled when Bell embraces and kisses her “with strange warmth.” Perdita is susceptible, due to feeling unloved and out of place at home, and is attracted by the image of Bell’s world where women work out in the world and come home to female companionship. Bell has a female partner who is introduced as her “good little wife” and who treats Perdita as a romantic rival.

The plot involves the battle between Bell’s attractions of a purposeful life and freedom from the constraints of traditional femininity, and the more conventional path offered by the hyper-masculine Leslie Crawford. In contrast to the supportive but non-erotic friendship that Jane offers Isola in Sowing the Wind, Bell’s overtures are unmistakably sexual and she moves in a world of “mannish” feminists who are unambiguously coded as lesbian. Perdita flees back to conventionality, not only because she learns to embrace “the loving woman’s instinctive glory in acknowledging her own comparative inferiority” but because Bell reveals herself as hypocritical and controlling. Her feminism is intended to support only those like herself and “does not include democratic equality or communistic mishmash in any form.” This hypocrisy is braided together in Linton’s mind with her lesbianism and feminism, rather than being coincidental traits.

The third novel further explores the rising image of the “New Woman” who was viewed as antithetical to the British social structure in her desire for independence and equality. In The New Woman in Haste and At Leisure (1895) we find a mirror-character to Bell Blount from the earlier work in the protagonist Phoebe Barrington. Here it is not so much a physical resemblance as situational aspects of their characters: both are separated from their husbands and active in the women’s rights movement, both are “handsome but vulgar”, and both inhabit a world of women’s clubs that engage in smoking, drinking, speechifying, and flirtation. Unlike Bell, Phoebe doesn’t have a wife waiting at home, but surrounds herself with a variety of lesbian archetypes. Phoebe’s female friends encourage her to become a feminist orator, much to her estranged husband’s shame. This husband becomes Linton’s voice in the work, expressing a horror for “manly woman and effeminate men” (explicitly using the term “third sex”). The book’s crux comes when Phoebe’s husband seduces her back to domesticity.

Taken as a whole, Linton’s fictional output trace the development of the 19th century British awareness of lesbianism from a vague, unnamed (but strongly sympathetic) image of strength and independence, to the “invert” of the sexologists, for whom a woman’s erotic desire for women could only be visualized as an essential masculinity and sexual aggressiveness. But in depicting this shift, Linton struggles against the realities of her own life and expresses what can only be viewed as a self-hatred for her own feminist and homoerotic impulses.

Time period: 
Saturday, March 2, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32a - On the Shelf for March 2019 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2019/03/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2019.

I am getting a bunch of really great interviews lined up for the next several months! I love how this podcast gives me both an excuse and the courage to reach out and talk to authors who are doing work that I love. I’m always looking for people who want to join us on the show. Whether you’re an author who writes queer women in historic settings, or a reader who has enthusiastic opinions about historical fiction, or a publisher who wants to talk about the field, or a historian who wants to talk about researching queer history, I’m open to almost anyone whose work intersects the themes of this podcast.

Fiction Series

Last month, you may remember that I was feeling a bit pessimistic about submissions for the 2019 fiction series on the podcast. I did have a bunch of submissions come in on the very last day of the month and I’ve selected a line-up that I think you’re really going to enjoy. But I’m still thinking about whether to continue the series in 2020. It’ll make a difference if people let me know that they’re enjoying the fiction series and consider it valuable, whether you’re a listener, or as an author looking for new venues for your work. Promote the heck out of the podcast and let all your friends know what we’re doing here.

Publications on the Blog

The blog has been looking at some articles about the rise of the study of sexology in the late 19th and early 20th century, and especially the ways in which women’s experiences were marginalized in the construction of modern theories of sexuality. But moving forward, I’ll be turning back to the earlier material that’s my first love, with yet another article from the growing academic industry of Anne Lister studies, another of Sahar Amer’s excellent looks at studying lesbian-like themes in medieval Arabic sources, and the hazards of expecting them to align with the European experience, and then a couple of articles that touch on medieval transgender concepts and how they intersect with historic sexuality.


That last topic is also relevant to this month’s essay, which is part of my current series on interpreting the interrelationship between models of gender and sexuality in historic sources. Last month I played with approaches to breaking down our accepted notions of how gender and sexuality features get bundled into complex categories, and how those categories can vary enormously across cultures in terms of how gender and sexuality are understood.

This month, I’m jumping from the general and theoretical to the very specific. I’ll be looking at a handful of case studies of individuals whose existence challenged their cultures gender and sexuality categories, and how the outcome of those challenges give us information, not only about the structure of the cultural categories that people had available to them, but how people found ways to articulate identities that failed to match those categories, and tried to negotiate a modus vivendi even when their culture had no place for them.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be Katharine Duckett, whose debut novella, Miranda in Milan tells a possible story of what happened to Miranda, from Shakespeare’s supernatural drama The Tempest, after her father returns with her to 16th century Milan. Within the mysteries and dangers she encounters, she finds an unexpected connection with a woman with roots in the suppressed Moorish community in Spain.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

The new and forthcoming book list this month has some interesting coincidental categories. As usual, I’ve collected up some books I missed from the last couple of months. So starting with January releases we have several books set during the world wars of the 20th century.

January Books

How to Talk to Nice English Girls by Gretchen Evans (Carnation Books) looks like a nice traditional romance.

In the aftermath of The Great War, everything is changing. But not for Marian Fielding. Marian’s life is quiet and predictable in the solitude of the English countryside, where she plans to remain and care for her parents. But Marian’s world is turned upside down when she meets brash, confident Katherine Fuller. Katherine arrives at the Fieldings’ estate for the wedding of Marian’s sister and immediately shakes things up. Instead of keeping an eye on the ill-mannered American girl and keeping her out of trouble, Marian finds herself magnetically drawn to Katherine’s vivacious nature, and they are swept into a whirlwind romance that will change both of their lives. But will Katherine’s unconventional behavior ruin their chance at happiness? Can Marian leave her old life behind? Will two women from different worlds find a way to be together against all odds and expectations?

As War Goes By by Aimée (Amazon digital) picks up on the recent surge of interest in the women code-breakers of Bletchley Park.

1940, England. War has a way of engineering the most unlikely encounters. When Penelope Lowes sits next to Clarissa Cartrew in the packed train, she has no idea they are both going to the same place, about which they’ve both been sworn to secrecy. Nor that her journey will take her much further than her original destination, Bletchley Park. As World War Two wreaks havoc in the world, it also makes people grow up faster. Penelope’s initiation to love during her stint as a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force has not been the most auspicious, and if anything has made her even shyer and more gauche than before. Meanwhile, Clarissa enjoys the social scene, and does not lack admirers. She is decided to make the most of her opportunities, away from the constraints of her aristocratic background. When Penelope – Penny – is recruited by the Special Operations Executive to become a Special Agent, she doesn’t hesitate long before agreeing. Only the thought that she may not see her friends ever again could make her waver between heart and duty – a young driver has recently shown her the power of a simple kiss, and her friendship with Clarissa is blossoming. Duty wins, and life and war go on…No one knows what the future entails – will they get a second chance?

This next book looks like an oddball alternate history. It’s quite short -- I’d guess maybe a novelette or short novella in length -- and currently only available from Amazon. It sounds like my sort of catnip, so maybe if it’s ever released more widely I’ll check it out.

By Royal Lottery by M. Wyllie (Amazon digital)

It is the late Victorian era and, by a tradition of the country of Brittany and Greater Cornwall, a lottery has been run to find a common man of good education and standing to wed the widowed Princess Louise. Only, a young woman named Alice is chosen. While Alice does her best to act her part in all this, she is soon troubled by Louise raising the mystery of what exactly happened to her late husband, as well as troubled by her own feelings as she spends more time with the somewhat mischievous princess. All along Alice thought this would be a ‘pretend’ marriage, only to begin to wonder how far Louise wishes to take this game of pretend. It will be a long month for her until the ceremony.

February Books

The February releases start out with what look like some complicated relationships.

Sophistries of Summer Days by Jenny Lofters (Amazon digital)

Two women forge an extraordinary friendship during a time of instability, deception, treachery, and loss. Even the British West Indies are no refuge from the rising political tensions of the 1930s, but fourteen-year-old islander Cherrimina is much more interested in Dove, a pretty red-haired American who has mysteriously appeared in her remote hometown. Dove takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, and as a devastating hurricane blows in, she commits a crime—one seen only by Cherrimina. An unlikely friendship forms between the two young women, but when the storm finally abates, Dove disappears from Cherrimina’s life. Then World War II breaks out, and during those terrible years, Cherrimina witnesses uprisings, homelessness, and betrayal. Choosing to escape the nightmare that her home has become, Cherrimina flees to New York, where she is reunited with Dove. But her friend is not the woman Cherrimina remembers. As Dove and Cherrimina struggle to reconnect, they must determine whether friendship and love can weather the storms of life.

Memoirs of a Triangle by Christine Twigg (NineStar Press) is somewhat vague about how the titular triangle will end, so read at your own risk.

When Edith instigates a new game with her two best friends, May and Peter, on a warm spring day in 1869, she ignites sexual awakenings that will influence and shape the rest of their lives. Although Edith lusts for Peter, she is aware that May’s desires are directed toward her, and when their triangular involvement begins to splinter, she leaves her two best friends to begin a career in Boston. However, even after choosing what they thought was the more stable path, they learn that the past is not so easily left behind. On their separate, yet connected paths, they find themselves drawn together, experiencing eroticism, love, confusion, trust, and grief throughout the course of their lives.

The Highwayman by Eleanor Musgrove (Amazon digital) follows familiar pathways in taking its inspiration from Alfred Noyes poem of the same title. This is another very short work, somewhere in the novelette range, and leans heavily on its source material, but with a queer twist.

Bess lives a simple existence as the daughter of an innkeeper – or so it seems. But she and her forbidden lover, the notorious highwayman plaguing the area, have more secrets to keep than just their clandestine moonlit meetings. Even one overheard conversation could change both of their lives forever. Inspired by Alfred Noyes' tragic poem of the same name, this adaptation reimagines the story of the ill-fated lovers with an LGBT+ twist – and a touch of hope...

March Books

The March releases are dominated by novels from mainstream presses and especially by historic fantasy. Though this is in part a side-effect of the difficulty of hearing about small-press and self published books in advance of release. Remember that if you have, or know about, an upcoming book that falls in the scope of this podcast, drop us a note with the information. Especially if you’d like to have it included before it gets released.

The first up is by this month’s author guest:

Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett (

With Miranda in Milan, debut author Katharine Duckett reimagines the consequences of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, casting Miranda into a Milanese pit of vipers and building a queer love story that lifts off the page in whirlwinds of feeling. After the tempest, after the reunion, after her father drowned his books, Miranda was meant to enter a brave new world. Naples awaited her, and Ferdinand, and a throne. Instead she finds herself in Milan, in her father’s castle, surrounded by hostile servants who treat her like a ghost. Whispers cling to her like spiderwebs, whispers that carry her dead mother’s name. And though he promised to give away his power, Milan is once again contorting around Prospero’s dark arts. With only Dorothea, her sole companion and confidant to aid her, Miranda must cut through the mystery and find the truth about her father, her mother, and herself.

The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino (Touchstone) looks like a complex mix of history, adventure, and forbidden romance.

By day, Mary Ballard is lady’s maid to Charlotte Walden, wealthy and accomplished belle of New York City high society. Mary loves Charlotte with an obsessive passion that goes beyond a servant’s devotion, but Charlotte would never trust Mary again if she knew the truth about her devoted servant’s past. Because Mary’s fate is linked to that of her mistress, one of the most sought-after debutantes in New York, Mary’s future seems secure—if she can keep her own secrets… But on her nights off, Mary sheds her persona as prim and proper lady’s maid to reveal her true self—Irish exile Maire O’Farren—and finds release from her frustration in New York’s gritty underworld—in the arms of a prostitute and as drinking companion to a decidedly motley crew consisting of a barkeeper and members of a dangerous secret society. Meanwhile, Charlotte has a secret of her own—she’s having an affair with a stable groom, unaware that her lover is actually Mary’s own brother. When the truth of both women’s double lives begins to unravel, Mary is left to face the consequences. Forced to choose between loyalty to her brother and loyalty to Charlotte, between society’s respect and true freedom, Mary finally learns that her fate lies in her hands alone. A captivating historical fiction of 19th century upstairs/downstairs New York City, The Parting Glass examines sexuality, race, and social class in ways that feel startlingly familiar and timely. A perfectly paced, romantically charged story of overlapping love triangles that builds to a white-knuckle climax, this is an irresistible debut that’s impossible to put down.

I still haven’t gotten to reading the first novella in the following series, but it gets the nod from reviewer Liz Bourke and that’s usually good enough for me. The queer content isn’t obvious from this blurb (which is a repeating theme in some of the following descriptions) but take it as given.

Alice Payne Rides (Alice Payne #2) by Kate Heartfield (

After abducting Arthur of Brittany from his own time in 1203, thereby creating the mystery that partly prompted the visit in the first place, Alice and her team discover that they have inadvertently brought the smallpox virus back to 1780 with them. Searching for a future vaccine, Prudence finds that the various factions in the future time war intend to use the crisis to their own advantage. Can the team prevent an international pandemic across time, and put history back on its tracks? At least until the next battle in the time war…

The True Queen by Zen Cho (Ace) is another historic fantasy where the queer content has to be taken on trust from the rumor mill. Although in this case, the rumor mill includes direct from the author. (Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I have a recording date to interview her.) This is a sequel to Zen Cho’s acclaimed Regency fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, and like that book it examines themes of colonialism and the place of people of color in Regency England.

When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic. If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she's drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed.

Levitate: A Spy Novel by Geonn Cannon (Supposed Crimes) takes us back to the mid 20th century with its spies and international intrigues. Many of Geonn Cannon’s books include supernatural elements. I can’t tell from the blurb whether this one does as well.

To Cassiane Jurick, there is nothing in the world as important as The Mission. As a covert agent for Greek intelligence, she disappears into whatever role she's given. Her latest mission ends in failure and nearly costs Cassiane her life, but she is rescued and nursed back to health by her handler, Timothea Riddock. Adrift between assignments and still recuperating from her injuries, Cassiane begins a physical relationship with Timothea. Their relationship is put on hold by the arrival of another agent, Constance Grimaldi, who brings them a new mission: a Soviet chemist has arrived in Berlin with a new strain of anthrax which they believe he plans to sell to one of their enemies. As Cassiane disappears into her latest identity, Timothea finds herself drawn to Constance. From a ghost station in the shadow of the Berlin Wall to hidden strongholds hidden deep inside dark German forests, the three agents must learn to trust one another because this mission's failure would mean certain death.

And that’s it for the new crop of books. Check them out and let us know what you thought.

[Sponsor Break]

Ask Sappho

This month’s Ask Sappho question is from Eh Stevens, on the Lesbian Talk Show facebook group, who asks, “With the new release of Hick I was wondering if you’ve ever talked about the relationship she had with Eleanor Roosevelt. Truth to the rumors or just wishful thinking on our part that Eleanor found some happiness in her life.”

There have been a number of works in recent years covering the relationship between journalist Lorena Hickok and First Lady and prominent diplomat and activist Eleanor Roosevelt. Given the very close and warm relationship between the two women, there has been a lot of speculation whether the friendship was also romantic and possibly even erotic in nature.

The long supportive marriage between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt is not, in itself, an argument against this possibility. As the daughter of a socially and politically prominent family in the early 20th century, opting out of marriage would have been tricky. The Roosevelts--Eleanor was a Roosevelt by birth, not just by marriage--were American aristocracy. Eleanor was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt and he gave her away at her marriage. And as with Europe’s hereditary aristocracy, marriage was not considered a bar to romantic and sexual relationships outside the marriage. At least, for the men in the family. Eleanor and Franklin married against his mother’s wishes after a secret correspondence, but Eleanor had few options other than marriage in terms of a career. She is on record as having disliked the sexual side of marriage, and when she discovered that Franklin was sexually involved with her secretary Lucy Mercer, the only thing that kept their marriage together was Franklin’s political prospects, which divorce would have destroyed.

But the failure, for all intents and purposes, of her heterosexual marriage isn’t the same as concluding that Eleanor was inclined for the ladies. So what is the positive evidence on that side?

One of the things to keep in mind is that Eleanor Roosevelt was born in 1884. She lived at the tail end of the era that considered Romantic Friendships and schoolgirls crushing on each other to be utterly normal and even expected. So even if the evidence never went any farther than writing long daily personal letters to a woman with sentiments like, "I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth,” I think it would be perfectly reasonable to conclude that this constitutes a “romantic relationship” with a woman. Me? I’m not particularly hung up on defining the nature of people’s relationships based on the precise catalog of which of each other’s body parts they’ve touched.

But the evidence does go further than that.

Lorena Hickok was widely known to be a lesbian. She had an eight-year relationship with a fellow female journalist in the 1920s. Her orientation is not the slightest in dispute. She was not the only known lesbian in Eleanor’s life. (One can’t exactly say “out lesbian” given the times, but “known” is sufficient for the purpose.) Eleanor was greatly influenced in her teen years (and later) by the headmistress of the finishing school she attended, Marie Souvestre. A known lesbian. Eleanor was close friends with two female couples active in women’s suffrage and political activism: Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, and Esther Lape and Elizabeth Fisher Read. So she had solid models for women sharing marriage-like partnerships based on mutual romantic love. This makes it highly unlikely that when Eleanor wrote to Hickok expressing a desire to kiss her and hold her close, she was naive about how such sentiments might be understood and responded to.

The intense scrutiny that Eleanor came under as First Lady contributed to their eventual separation, but even the nature of their conflicts and correspondence around that era have far more of the shape of a romantic breakup than friends drifting apart. Eleanor had close emotional relationships with other people in addition to Hick, both men and women. It’s common for people of a certain mindset to fasten on any attachment by a woman to a man as a basis for negating even overwhelming evidence for attachments to women. Hopefully we’re past the era of bisexual erasure and can accept that one person’s life can encompass love for both men and women. Most historians who are not blinded by willful denial have concluded that Eleanor and Hick’s relationship was clearly romantic and erotic. At this point, for me, it isn’t really even a question.

Books Mentioned

Major category: 
Friday, March 1, 2019 - 06:30

Sometimes you send a query out into the universe and the universe says, "We'd love to have you on our podcast!" Check out this episode of the Smart Bitches Trashy Books podcast, where I talk about the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, the current field of lesbian historical fiction, and many other things. If you aren't familiar with Smart Bitches Trashy Books and you're a fan of romance novels, you should definitely check out their website and podcast.

Major category: 
Monday, February 25, 2019 - 07:00

This article started out feeling a bit like Clark came up with an interesting metaphor and then went searching for contexts to apply it. That feeling faded as I read further. I think she has hit on a useful concept for a diverse type of experience that falls between the cracks of many of the existing theoretical approaches. It seems to boil down to “Within any given societal context, there will be activities that are not condoned but where people are willing to look the other way as long as no one’s forcing them to deal with it.” It is, to some extent, how my Alpennia series depicts people’s attitudes towards women’s same-sex relations. So clearly it’s a concept I’m happy to accept as a way of describing specific historic attitudes. I’m not sure whether my initial reaction to Clark’s article is because she treats it like some new insight, or because it feels like she’s lumping too many disparate topics under one umbrella.

There are a number of other useful conceptual tools that Clark discusses in the article that I may need to use as search keywords and explore further. Of particular interest is the concept of "sexual scripts," i.e., scenarios that a specific culture recognizes as a context for the experience of desire or for engaging in sexual activities. While the existing scripts in any particular culture will not cover all possible variations of sexual experience, we can identify the "approved scripts" by the ways they're adapted for use in those other contexts. For example, viewed in this context, the medicalized model of same-sex desire created and promoted by the late 19th century sexologists can be understood simply as one possible "script"--one that came to dominate professional circles for a time--into which many different individual experiences were crammed. Similarly, that script overlapped and coexisted with the "romantic friendship" script, as well as overlapping with the "lesbian decadence" script. None of those scripts provided a model for relationships between women that were based on a combination of romantic and sexual partnership, and individual women whose experience was the latter might look to different scripts to adapt for understanding their own lives.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Clark, Anna. 2005. “Twilight Moments” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 14, nos. 1-2: 139-60.

Clark came up with the poetic label “twilight moments” to identify practices relating to sexuality that are not openly acknowledged--and certainly not accepted--but that are treated as temporary and “recoverable” lapses, even if they are lapses that happen repeatedly and throughout a society. She opens with the example of the Codrington divorce trial in 1863 (the subject of Emma Donoghue’s novel The Sealed Letter) in which the accusation that Helen Codrington had engaged in some sort of sexual relationship with her close friend, feminist Emily Faithfull, was simultaneously raised and hidden under layers of misdirection. While the nature of the accusation was never made explicit either in the trial record or in the gossip surrounding it, both women were forced to withdraw from society for a time, though Emily Faithfull’s reputation was eventually rehabilitated.

Clark points out that this incident and its consequences don’t fit with Foucault’s timeline of the understanding of sexuality. Per Foucault, in the 1860s, it should not have been possible for people to conceive of a “type” of woman who would be expected to have lesbian tendencies. And yet Emily Faithfull--perceived as “mannish”, suspect for her feminist activism, and with a close emotional relationship to Helen Codrington--was treated as if such a “type” clearly existed in people’s minds. Rather, Foucault’s theory would have it that, in the 1860s, people would only have the concept of specific stigmatized acts--and yet no such acts were in evidence, nor were they named in their absence.

Based on this and other similar contexts, Clark asserts that we need “additional conceptual tools to discus cases...which involved sexual desires, relationships, and practices that did not produce identities, that were half-understood, expressed only by oblique gestures, veiled in silence.” She notes that just because a desire was erased from public discourse didn’t mean that it wasn’t subject to social discipline. But the consequences of these “twilight desires” might be as nebulous and elusive as the understanding of the desires themselves. She uses the metaphor of twilight--of something that is neither completely hidden in darkness, nor seen in the light of day--to describe these desires and activities that people experienced and pursued, perhaps as an open secret, and that were not considered to result in a fixed identity, but that were still disapproved and might result in (temporary) negative consequences depending on context. Those consequences would involve shame or social opprobrium, but did not change people’s relationships or social standing on a permanent basis.

Such “twilight desires” might be considered normal or natural--such as the expectation that unmarried people might still desire sexual fulfillment--without being “approved” or “moral.” And society might go to some length to accommodate them, despite that disapproval, as with attitudes towards prostitution, based on a belief that some sort of outlet for men’s sex drives was required to maintain social stability. That doesn’t mean that these “twilight desires” all involved victimless activities. In many cases, it covered not-entirely-consensual acts involving power differentials, such as interracial sex with enslaved women, or pedophilia involving class differences. The key was that the consequences of the act were not considered to disrupt the social structure and so could be ignored.

Clark notes that there have recently (as of 2005) been some cracks in the Foucaultian edifice from authors such as Halperin who argue that some forms of “sexual identities” can be identified in the pre-modern period, such as medieval concepts of “the sodomite” as an identity. Or Ruth Karras’s argument that the category of “prostitute” was treated as a distinct sexual identity in some medieval contexts.

But Clark’s concept of “twilight moments” specifically excludes desires, practices, and relationships that were considered to constitute an identity, whether public or private, licit or stigmatized. And she notes that such desires/practices/relationships could shift between “twilight moments” and fixed identities as society required. Sometimes prostitution and sodomy might be treated as ignorable lapses, and then society would require a scapegoat for some disaster and might shift prostitutes and sodomites into the required slot.

Clark spends several paragraphs examining the concept of sexual desire and its relationship to “sexual scripts” -- scenarios that a particular culture authorizes for the experience of desire. These scripts are prescriptive and are learned from one’s culture. Even “forbidden desires” may be learned via established scripts. But the established scripts don’t always account for the possible range of personal experience (or even for common experiences, as when no allowance is made for sexual desire outside of marriage). Existing scripts may be adapted for alternate contexts, as when Romantic Friendship borrowed the terminology of marriage, with female partners calling each other “husband” and “wife”. [Note: I think this is a key insight when considering the intersection of women's same-sex desires and the practice of gender-passing. If a particular cultural context doesn't have a "script" for desire between women, and women who experience such desire borrow a hetrosexual "script", there will be no fixed guidelines as to how much of that borrowed script should/must be performed.]

Anxieties about sex that crossed barriers of class, gender, or race were most likely to come to the fore during times when other social boundaries were perceived as being eroded. It was during these times that the allowances made for “twilight desires” were more likely to be interpreted as creating fixed identities, and those identities persecuted. But an allowance for “twilight desires” could also help to prop up dominant power structures by diverting illicit acts into a context where they had no power to destabilize.

The “twilight” concept is compared to other ways of framing non-normative behaviors and social categories, such as stigmatized economic activities (prostitution, collecting human waste) that created fixed identities but were recognized as socially necessary. Another related concept is that of identified geographic spaces in which illicit activities were tacitly permitted (such as “red light zones” for prostitution, or neighborhoods where interracial socializing was permitted within segregated societies). As long as the behavior was restricted to the designated location, privileged people could visit those locations without alteration of their public status and identity.

Concepts that are less similar to “twilight desires” include that of subcultures (which do imply fixed identities) and allowances for otherwise illicit activities during liminal states of age or status (which implies a linear transition, not an ability to move in and out of the twilight space). But again, specific behaviors might be recategorized among these concepts over time or with changes in the larger social context. So, for example, an age-based allowance for same-sex activity among young men in early Renaissance Florence might move in and out of “twilight” status depending on the larger political context and the need for moral scapegoats.

Although many allowances for “twilight desires” were solidly gendered and accessible only to men, Clark notes early modern contexts where even strict notions of sexual honor imposed on upper class women might be treated as twilight events that need not result in a fixed status as “dishonored” or "ruined" if the proper forms were followed for maintaining the appearance of honor (including prompt marriages or the quiet disappearance of obviously illegitimate pregnancies).

The concept of “twilight desires” can also apply to language around those desires, where disapproved activities could be ignored as long as they were not publicly named in so many words. This could include censoring of explicit sexual material in popular medical literature, or backlash for victims of sexual crimes if they made accusations in undeniable language. Disapproved sexual practices could be tacitly ignored if discussed only in terms of “exotic tastes.”

Such tactical silences could even allow for people to deny the reality of acts they had participated in, if that reality were never expressed concretely. Participants might claim that they didn’t understand what their sexual partner was doing, or that they didn’t know that it was forbidden. Similarly, communities might be well aware of the illicit activities taking place among them, but only “discovered” them when some event made it impossible to ignore, or when there was an ulterior motive for taking notice of it.

Taken together, all these phenomena can help understand how identity categories can coexist with deniable “twilight moments” across a long span of time, making it possible to both deny and prove the existence of sexual identities during transition periods. This is particularly the case with women’s same-sex relationships, where the wide variety of framings for romantic/erotic desire made it possible to practice and represent those desires according to the needs of the moment, for good or ill. Thus, in the mid 19th century, it was possible both to deny the existence of lesbianism and to use the suspicion and stereotype of it as a social weapon.

(Clark includes many examples of “twilight desires” that are only relevant to heterosexual contexts which I’m glossing over here.)

Time period: 


Subscribe to Alpennia Blog