Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 16a - On the Shelf for November 2017 - Transcript
Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2017.
Sometimes it’s easy to tell that when it comes to history, my heart lives in the middle ages. Last week’s episode on women knights in shining armor was a lot of fun to put together. But the middle ages isn’t just about pageantry and castles. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has been covering a number of publications that look closely at how medieval people thought about sex and gender. The essays in the collection Premodern Sexualities ask questions like “what does it mean when homosexuality is not considered an identity but being a prostitute is?” Or “what was the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation, and how did that affect how medieval law treated people with ambiguous bodies?” It can be easy to acknowledge today that gender and sexuality are social constructs, but it can be harder to accept that people in the past used such different constructs that it can be hard to draw clear parallels between our lives and those of our ancestors. When we encounter hints of homoerotic sentiment in the writings of women like Margery Kempe, do we work too hard to try to fit them into our modern identity boxes?
When I finish up the papers from the Premodern Sexualities volume, I look at the original text of Knighton’s Chronicle that I talked about in last week’s episode--the one about the gang of cross-dressed women showing up at a 14th century tournament. I don’t usually include primary sources in the blog, but sometimes it’s fun to let a text speak for itself. After that I cover an article on an unusual joint memorial brass to two women from 15th century England. Memorials like this gave me an idea for a future essay, so hold on to that thought.
After that, the blog is going to plunge deep into the pool of historiography and theory with Valerie Traub’s book Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. This book was a lot more dense than what I usually choose to cover and talks more about talking about history, than looking at the past itself. I’ll be continuing on a similar theme of historic theory for much of the rest of the year, covering the articles in a collection titled The Lesbian Premodern, which includes a lot of essays on what it means to think about lesbian history as a field of study, and the academic conflicts between various ways of approaching the study of the past. I’m finding the debates intensely interesting and it makes me want to find people to discuss the parallels between the study of lesbian history and the creation of lesbian historic fiction.
This month’s author guest is someone I can imagine having those discussions with. Farah Mendlesohn is publishing her first novel: a lesbian regency romance titled Spring Flowering. Farah is an academic with a background in history and literature and has a lot of interesting things to say about the social dynamics of gender and sexuality in the early modern era. And I can’t wait to read her novel, which should be on my iPad by the time you’re listening to this.
This month’s essay is going to be on the vocabulary of women who love women, looking at the words used in various languages and cultures across the ages, both technical language and everyday slang. You can tell a lot about how people perceived lesbian sexuality by the root meanings of the words that were used. But you can also learn a lot from the simple fact that such vocabulary existed and by noticing how and when it was used.
This month’s Ask Sappho question touches on the question of how women have communicated their desires in the past. Rose Herman-Pall asks “How did women in history signal to each other that they were Sapphically inclined, especially if they were in marriages to men?”
The question doesn’t specify a particular era or culture, but I’ll focus in the last several centuries in England and America, since that’s the context most listeners are likely to be familiar with. And this is going to be a lot more off-the-cuff than usual, so there’ll be no footnotes in the show notes.
In the past, when I’ve done research for historic re-enactment, or answered research questions for authors, I’ve always found it a useful exercise to take a question that starts out “How did they...?” and back up a step to ask, “Did they...?” I remember once someone asked, “How did medieval people get going in the morning when they didn’t have coffee yet?” That started a conversation on the history of breakfast as a concept, and the other changes in society that happened around the time that stimulating beverages like coffee and tea entered Western society, and the ways in which rituals around those beverages have become so ingrained in our lives that it’s hard to imagine life without them.
So let’s think about what underlies that question: “How did women in history signal to each other that they were Sapphically inclined, especially if they were in marriages to men?” There are at least three important assumptions here that we need to unpack before thinking about an answer. The first is that women needed some special way of signaling their desires to each other. The second is that women have always had a specific concept of lesbian desire as something different from the default. The third is that women would have viewed heterosexual marriage as a barrier to expressing those desires.
For those of us who grew up in the latter part of the 20th century--and that’s pretty much all of us at this point--it can be just as hard to imagine a world in which same-sex desire is not considered a separate, fixed, inborn orientation as it is to imagine a world in which people have never encountered coffee or tea. But when you look at women’s literature around romance, affection, and passionate expression during the last several centuries (and earlier as well, but I’m focusing on maybe the 17th through 19th centuries) it becomes clear that passionate and romantic feelings between women weren’t considered some special separate aberration, but were considered normal, natural, and desirable. It was women who didn’t experience sentimental attachments to female friends who were considered odd.
In a world where women are expected to call each other beloved, to speak of their undying devotion to each other, and to long for each other’s presence and embraces, in a world where it is utterly normal to exchange kisses, caresses, and embraces, both in public and in private, in a world where it is completely expected that people of the same sex will sleep in the same bed as a sign of their close emotional relationship--or simply for the sake of convenience--it can be hard to figure out what sort of special signal a woman would need to use to express romantic interest in her special friend.
I emphasize the word “special” because this isn’t to say that women didn’t have ways to indicate that they wanted to shift the intensity of the friendship. We can see some methods in the diaries of Anne Lister because she talks about them explicitly. She talks about mentioning certain works of literature that discuss same-sex desire to see if the other woman is familiar with them. Or maybe she kisses the object of her interest in a more lingering way than she would kiss an ordinary friend. But the fact that she kissed her would have been considered normal.
Another thing to consider is how geographically circumscribed most lives were before the 20th century. The vast majority of people you interacted with would be people you’d known all your life. People who lived in the same town as you--or if you were part of the minority who lived in a large city, people who lived in the same neighborhood or who were part of your family’s social circle. If you wanted to delicately hint that you wanted a deeper relationship with someone, you weren’t likely to be dealing with a stranger. It would be someone you’d known for some time. Someone whose opinions and responses you were already familiar with.
When considering the lives of pre-20th century women, it’s also important to understand that the dividing lines between sex and affection were drawn in different places at different times. Activities that we consider sex acts might have been considered ordinary expressions of very close friendship. A woman might want to make sure that the object of her affection felt the same degree and intensity of attachment that she did before committing herself wholeheartedly, but it wasn’t necessarily a negotiation that either of them would have felt needed to be done covertly. And they wouldn’t have considered the degree of attachment and affection between them to be something separate and apart from what other female friends felt for each other.
But--you ask me--what about the historic records we can find in which women that we would consider lesbians are criticized or punished? This gets back to the question of how society is drawing lines between concepts and behaviors. You will find women being criticized if they claim male social prerogatives. If they cross-dress. If they marry a woman in the guise of a man. You will find women being criticized if they explicitly resist the expected forms of society. If their attachment to a female friend leads them to reject what would be considered a desirable marriage. In some eras, if they are open about genital sexual activity of any type--with a woman or a man--this will be cause for censure. And in some eras, public discourse around stereotypes of female same-sex sexuality is used to communicate expectations and limits, and to create social divisions that prevent women as a class from advancing women’s causes. In eras when outspoken, socially active women were accused of lesbianism, the point wasn’t to control women’s sexual activity, but to control women’s social and political agency. Sex itself wasn’t the point, it was the weapon.
So getting back to our third assumption--that women who desired other women would have considered marriage to a man to be a bar to those relationships or to expressing those feelings. This takes a very modern position on the optionality of marriage. For most of history, marriage was not about making an individual, voluntary choice based on erotic desire or even on romantic attraction, even in eras when romantic attraction was held up as an ideal. Marriage was primarily an economic transaction--at the very least a major influence on one’s economic and social status. As a parallel, consider how absurd we would consider it to think that one’s employment should be based primarily on personal bonds of affection with the employer. Sure, in some cases you may be offered a job because of personal connections. And sure, in some cases you may end up having a personal friendship with your boss. But those things aren’t considered expected. A woman opting out of marriage because she didn’t have a pre-existing erotic attraction to the man she was marrying would have been considered as silly as we would consider refusing a job because you didn’t think your future boss was hot.
Another aspect of pre-20th century society that we sometimes have a hard time imagining is how strongly gender-segregated people’s lives were. (Think about that awful politician who said he had a rule never to be alone in a room with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Now imagine everyone in society thinking that way.) In a society that considers a woman suspect for any sort of emotional attachment to a non-related man, it’s not only expected that your close emotional bonds will be with other women, but that is considered desirable. Friendship, as the theory went, was only possible between equals, and men and women could rarely be equal. Women were expected to rely on other women to fulfill their emotional and affectionate needs. (Just as men were expected to rely on men for those needs.) In that context, the dividing line between affection and romantic love was functionally non-existent. The dividing line between ordinary physical expressions of that love and something that went beyond the norm was exceedingly fuzzy. And that dividing line would be negotiated between two women who already had established an emotional bond and engaged in a lot of physical expression of that bond already.
So, to a large extent, the original question presumes a universality to our 21st century experiences of desire, our expressions of desire, and our social expectations. We won’t find 18th century women secretly signally their erotic desires to complete strangers by using carefully color-coded handkerchiefs, because they had no need to do so. They would be walking side by side in the park, with arms twined about each other’s waist, leaning in for a kiss the way that good friends were expected to do, and then maybe lingering over that kiss just a few moments longer than they ever had before, to see how the other woman would respond.
Call for Submissions
And now for a special announcement. I’ve been pondering what to do with the occasional fifth show when there are five Saturdays in a month. And the idea that kept coming back, as persistently as a cat at feeding time, was to include some original lesbian historic fiction audio short stories. So I’ve posted a call for submissions on my website. You can find the link in the show notes. In January 2018 I’ll be accepting submissions of original, unpublished short stories of up to 5000 words and choosing two to record for the show. The text will also be published on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project website. I’ll be paying professional rates because the purpose of the Project is to encourage people to write and enjoy really great lesbian historic fiction, and you only get the best by letting authors know you value it. There are some content specifications, so be sure to read the call for submissions if you’d like to submit a story for consideration. Instructions on how to submit will be posted closer to the submissions window, but this gives you two months to get writing.