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).
III.A.1 The Last Breath of Innocence
As this book moves into the 20th century, I’m largely omitting tags for specific individuals and publications, as this is outside the scope of my core project.
In the first decade of the 20th century, love poetry between schoolgirls could still be published “innocently” as an expression of praiseworthy sentiments. Periodicals for women’s and children’s literature were still depicting Romantic Friendship positively. Likely there were several reasons for the delayed shift in attitudes in in the US. In Europe, images of lesbian “vice” (or “vice” in general) were closely tied up in Catholic ideas of sin and Catholic-based reactionary sensationalism. [But see also English literature of the 17-18th centuries which portrayed lesbianism through an anti-Catholic lens.] The geographic distance of America from the (German) centers of sexology probably slowed diffusion of those ideas. And American ideals of individualism may have contributed to less hostility to women’s social freedoms.
In spite of this, there are scattered examples in late 19th century America of generally anti-sex writing, including cautions against situations that might lead to masturbation or sexual activity between girls. But as a more general social reaction, suspicion of close romantic friendships between women didn’t come to prominence until the wake of World War I, accompanied by much greater female autonomy and the influence of Freud both on psychiatric thought and on popular culture.
The transition from “innocence” to suspicion of passionate friendships can be traced fairly precisely in published works. In the 1928 novel We Sing Diana by Wanda Fraiken Neff, the protagonist contrasts her experiences at college in 1913, when “crushes” between girls were widespread and considered normal, and the 1920s when she returns there to teach and finds everyone talking about Freud and assuming the stereotype of the “masculine” lesbian. A similar comparison can be made between two autobiographical publications by Mary MacLane, written in 1902 and 1917 that show the same shift. From these examples, it can be seen that the change was not in what women were feeling and doing, but in how they had been taught to understand those feelings and actions. In the later publication, MacLane admits to having kissed lesbians but is quick to assure the reader that she isn’t one herself.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the New Women were engaging in new opportunities while still holding on to old attitudes toward Romantic Friendship. Stories about college romances between women are common, and the gender-segregation of colleges encouraged these friendships to have the trappings of courtship and dating, via activities such as all-women dances. The expectation is that the women engaged in these “crushes” will move on to heterosexual marriage after graduation.
The unselfconscious publication of stories involving women in passionate friendships may have been enabled, Faderman suggests, by the relative “unsophistication” of American readers. (I.e., presumably this means they weren’t reading decadent French novels.) Many specific examples of such stories are given. [I wonder if anyone has ever considered collecting an anthology of the genre.]
Stories of passionate friendships between adult women often portrayed one or both as artists or in professions that “explained” their single state. These positive portrayals were written by both female and male authors.
By the 1920s, this unselfconsciousness disappears. Positive treatments as in the works of Gertrude Stein are now veiled in stylized poetic language and allusions. Alternately, the women’s friendship may be displaced elsewhere in time and space, as in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s play “The Lamp and the Bell” (1921). [This is an interesting parallel to the continuing theme over the centuries that lesbianism existed in a different place and time than the writer’s. Only now it is the “innocent” version of the relationship that is displaced.] There is something of a generational divide, with women raised in an earlier age still writing positively of Romantic Friendships.
The younger generation cannot ignore the potential implications. Vera Britain, writing in 1940, acknowledges the suspicions of sexual impropriety cast on the Romantic Friendship of her characters and tries to deflect suspicion with the argument of “it’s just preparation for being a good wife and mother.” This conflict of models can also be seen in debates of the possible sexual content of the friendship between Eleanor Rooseveldt and Lorena Hickok. Hickok had a history of (presumably sexual) relationships with women, but some have argued that the strongly passionate correspondence between them belongs to the earlier tradition of platonic Romantic Friendship and nothing more. [I always have a hard time around discussions of this sort because I keep thinking, why should it matter? Why would one particular set of expressions of desire turn a “beautiful friendship” into something to be ashamed of? But then, I’m a product of my own age.]
The attitude of sexologists of the 20th century was that the sex drive was the most important and central determiner of human behavior in both men and women, and this understanding was then projected retroactively to all of history. This made it difficult for women to experience love for other women without feeling the weight of social disapproval, although anecdotes can be found into the 1970s of girls experiencing same-sex love and affection “innocently” until encountering sex ed literature that assured them they were depraved and sick.