Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).
I.B.3 The Battle of the Sexes
Elizabeth Mavor, in her study of the Ladies of Llangollen, offers as a motivation for the rise of Romantic Friendship, that women could not achieve with men the ideal of equal Platonic friendship, and so turned to other women. But Faderman notes that 17th century writers (some female) considered such heterosexual equality possible. Even so, the general sense on both sides was that men and women existed in such different spheres (both by practice and because of beliefs about their inherent natures) that reaching across the divide was difficult. By the 18th century, middle- and upperclass women (and it is primarily those groups who participated in Romantic Friendship) were encouraged to be genteelly idle. Intellectual women were looked askance, as were women who indulged in active pursuits like riding. These pursuits had become considered to be inherently masculine in a way they hadn’t in previous centuries. [Or perhaps--thinking about some of the discourse around gender and intellect in the middle ages--the "masculinization" of intellectual women had now come to be considered a bad thing rather than an ideal to strive for.]
Thus the most assertive and ambitious women were the ones least likely to find satisfaction in friendships with men, even as they were celebrated in the supposedly egalitarian society of the salons. And their writings and correspondence show that they turned to each other for support, admiration, and friendship. Marriage to men was often treated as a necessary evil and no impediment to their passionate friendship with women. Successful resistance to marriage (when economically possible) was considered an ideal.
Now we get another one of Faderman’s asserted-but-not-proven conclusions: “Because women of their class and temperament generally did not engage in sex outside of marriage, it probably occurred to few of them that the intense emotion they felt for each other could be expressed in sexual terms--but that emotion had all the manifestations of Eros without a genital component. Perhaps the primary difference between the salons of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and England and the salons of Paris in the 1920’s where lesbian love was openly expressed...was that as a result of the late nineteenth-century sexologists, women in the 1920’s knew they were sexual creatures and behaved accordingly.” [It is in passages like this that I feel the work most suffers from a lack of historic depth. Social beliefs about women's sex drives have fluctuated greatly over the centuries. Chaucer's Wife of Bath didn't need a sexologist to give her permission to be a sexual creature and behave accordingly!]
There is a nod to the consideration that, although it is easiest to track the nature and development of Romantic Friendship among intellectual women who produced copies written records of their experiences and thoughts, the phenomenon of Romantic Friendship was common among non-intellectuals as well.
The eighteenth century in England, Faderman asserts, was the point of greatest female repression of passion and sexuality, with a hyper-focus on virginity and chastity in literature and life that made any social interactions with men suspect. Men might pursue women and encourage them to demonstrate their love, but--as epitomized in Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the goal was conquest, not mutual affection. A woman who capitulated might find that her lover now considered her impossible to trust with any other man. The extreme version of this war between the sexes was found in the increasingly violent misogyny of pornographic literature. Even literature about the importance of equal companionate marriages (such as Benjamin Franklin’s Reflections on Courtship and Marriage) are presented as proof that such a thing was considered rare.
What I find missing in this chapter is a sense of statistics. Anecdotal examples from eighteenth-century life and literature are presented as evidence for considering marriage and relations between the sexes to be a relentless hellhole. This, then, is presented as the context in which Romantic Friendship between women became a refuge and ideal. Marriage was desired only so far as it make it economically and socially possible to live a life independent of that husband.