I'm not going to lie: I'm feeling a bit anxious about the reception of this week's podcast. The topic of how erotic desire has been handled with respect to the history of lesbians has the potential for hurtful erasure on every side. Some scholars have approached the history of sexuality from a position that erotic desire and erotic activity are how you define the presence of lesbianism. Even aside from the way in which an eagerness to "claim women for the L team" tends to erase bisexual identity, using sexual activity and sexual desire between women as the sine qua non of lesbian identity erases those for whom romantic attachment, rather than sex, is the key factor. (Although it does encompass aromantic women who enjoy erotic attraction to women.)
In this episode, I look at the patterns of history, not through the question of "how did specific women experience homoerotic and homoromantic attraction?" but through the lens of cultural archetypes. What were some of the prominent cultural archetypes that combined romantic bonds between women with an absence of the expectation of sexual activity? I'll be very curious to hear what people think.
* * *
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 13d - Beguines, Boston Marriages, and Bed Death: Archetypes of Asexual Lesbianism - transcript
(Originally aired 2017/08/26 - listen here)
One of the things that history and literature provide for us is archetypes that can help us understand ourselves and that give us a framework for connecting to society. Archetypes can also be pernicious stereotypes that act to lock us into specific ways of viewing ourselves or other people, but today I’m going to talk about the positive things archetypes can offer.
An archetype isn’t a factual description of a set of people, or even of any specific person. Rather it’s a symbolic image. In Platonic philosophy, an archetype is the hypothetical idea of something that actual life never reaches. In Jungian psychology the term is used for a collectively-held unconscious pattern of images or thoughts that is believed to be present in every individual consciousness. More generally, the word “archetype” may be used to refer to a recurring symbol or motif.
In literature, the knight in shining armor is an archetype, as is the wise old mentor, or the femme fatale. In pop culture we might see certain iconic characters are representing archetypes, such as how June Cleaver in the tv show Leave it to Beaver became the unobtainable ideal of a ‘50s American suburban wife and mother.
So when I talk about lesbian archetypes, I’m not talking about individual experiences, or even about statistical realities, but of cultural models that are communicated to us and then internalized in our understanding of the world. No archetype will hold true for everyone. Different archetypes will speak to different people. Having archetypes that speak to the truths of your life can be the difference between feeling isolated and broken, and feeling that you’re a thread in the larger fabric of history and society.
What do I mean by archetypes of lesbianism? A good example to start with is the butch-femme couple. This archetype has deep roots, but most people are familiar with it from the mid 20th century. The archetype consists not simply of the individual gender presentations of butch and femme, but also of the framework in which butch and femme are expected to be attracted to each other and to form a particular type of couple based on the interaction of those roles. To some extent, the butch-femme archetype may extend to cover particular types of social activities. Either ones that were popular at the time the archetype flourished, or ones that were part of the venues where lesbians found each other during that era.
Obviously, there are more ways of being lesbian than being butch or being femme--there were even at the time the archetype hit its stride. And there’s no rule that says that butches have to be attracted only to femmes and vice versa. But none of those exceptions mean that the archetype of the butch-femme couple doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t affect how people think about the world and their place in it, if that archetype has resonance for them.
Today I want to talk about historic archetypes of lesbianism that incorporate asexuality, that is, women who are romantically attracted to women, but have a lower experience of erotic desire or response than what is considered typical or expected.
This is a complicated topic to talk about, because much of lesbian activism starting from the mid 20th century on has been focused strongly on the right to claim a sexual existence and to overcome social and political forces that denigrate sexual desire between women. Similarly, much of the historic research into lesbian-like women in the past has focused strongly on the question of “Did they or didn’t they?” Where the key question is about sex, rather than romance or domestic arrangements or any of the other elements that can make up an interpersonal relationship.
In Lillian Faderman’s study Surpassing the Love of Men, she dances around the idea that there is a qualitative difference among historic women who had deeply passionate and romantic attachments to each other based solely on whether they engaged in activities that they would have considered to be sexual. In historic research, there is a constant difficulty in figuring out what a particular society even considers to be sexual activity, versus physical activities that might express affection, such as hugging and kissing, but were not necessarily considered sex.
The point here is not to consider whether actual women engaging in relationships that fit these archetypes did or did not have sex, but rather whether there was a widely known, socially recognized type of relationship that included strong emotional and romantic bonds between women but did not include sexual activity. Whether women in romantic relationships that did not involve sex would have seen themselves reflected in these archetypes.
In discussing archetypes of asexual lesbianism, I’m going to try to avoid assigning modern interpretations to past relationships. Since I’m talking about ideas and ideals, I don’t need to know what people were actually doing, I need to know what they thought about what they were doing, and what other people thought about them, and how they were represented in the culture of the time. As for the other word in the phrase--lesbianism--I’m going to lean towards the idea of Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum” which focuses on a wide variety of expressions of dedicated emotional connection between women. But in general I’m going to look at archetypes where at least the ideal goal was for women to share a household, independent of heterosexual marriage, based on a deep and lasting emotional bond and a desire to support each other both economically and psychologically.
One thing I need to acknowledge is that these archetypes can derive, in part, from social models that are themselves problematic--such as the model that has prevailed in various times and places that the genders have different innate sex drives, or the model that people of different classes experience sexual desire differently. All archetypes involve problematic aspects. For example, the archetype of the butch-femme couple (just to pick one I’ve already mentioned) incorporates models of gender performance that correlate with heterosexual gender archetypes of the same era, as well as relying on the model that love and desire are driven by an “atraction of opposites”.
So, for example, archetypes of asexual lesbianism often reflect the social model that women have an inherently lower sex drive than men. Some of the specific archetypes I’ll be talking about are strongly class based, where people accepted that working-class women might have sex drives, but “ladies” weren’t expected to be interested in that sort of thing. Conversely, some of the archetypes evolve out of a model where the only activities considered to be sexual are those that resemble heterosexual penetrative sex. So a woman might consider a relationship to be non-sexual that we wouldn’t classify that way today. When it comes down to it, it’s nearly impossible to find an archetype of any sort that doesn’t rely on problematic elements, simply because they arise out of popular culture and popular culture tends to be inherently problematic.
So enough about theory, let’s look at some of the specific archetypes I’d like to talk about in their historic context.
There’s always been an uneasy connection between the all-woman environments of Catholic convents and the potential for their residents to form intense emotional relationships with each other. (In fact, I have a podcast episode planned at some point to talk about the motif of lesbian desire in convents.) Within the cloister, the concern was not simply that nuns were expected to life a chaste life, but also that they were supposed to reserve their emotional intensity for Jesus and God.
Nevertheless, it was extremely common for cloistered women to pair off in “special friendships”. We know some of the ways these relationships were expressed from the descriptions of what their superiors were concerned about. They would hang out together, holding hands, talking together late at night when they should be sleeping, addressing each other with endearments. In letters and poetry addressed from one nun to another, we find sentiments like “I love you more than any, you alone are my love and longing.”
It is clear that these special friendships in convents were tolerated -- perhaps in part due to the number of women who were being warehoused in convents to protect their reputation, regardless of any true religious vocation. Sometimes these convent friendships were even celebrated. In part, the tolerance relied on retaining an adherence to the principles of chastity and celibacy. Certainly they were an archetype in the sense of being an accepted model of a particular social arrangement.
But not all women who dedicated their chastity to God lived under the strict rules of convents. One interesting group is the Beguines, who flourished in the 13th through 16th centuries, especially in northern Europe. Although these women lived together in semi-monastic communities and promised not to marry during their time of residence, they didn’t take lifelong vows as nuns and were free to leave if they chose.
Free of the stricter rules of convents, beguines often lived together in group homes called beguinages, usually in an urban area, where they would work within the community as teachers or doing charitable works. They weren’t required to renounce their property, as nuns were, and well-off beguines might have servants and separate households. But the key relevant characteristics for the present discussion is that they renounced marriage to men, they lived in women-only and women-centered households, and -- necessarily given attitudes toward sex outside of marriage and the association of holiness and chastity -- they were expected to live celibate lives.
But that doesn’t mean lives devoid of close emotional attachments. A collection of correspondence between Beguines in 13th century Flanders expresses these attachments in very romantic terms, including using the term “minne” (as in Minnesinger) which refers specifically to romantic rather than platonic love. The letters hint of romantic jealousies and the fear that the emotion is not returned to the same extent.
One letter begins, “Greet Sara also in my behalf, whether I am anything to her or nothing. Could I be fully all that in my love I wish to be for her, I would gladly do so; and I shall do so fully, however she may treat me.” And in the same letter the writer addresses another woman named Emma, “both of you [that is, Sara and Emma] turn too little to Love, who has so fearfully subdued me in the commotion of unappeased love. My heart, soul, and senses have not a moment’s rest, day or night; the flame burns constantly in the very marrow of my soul.”
So there’s the first archetype: women living in an all-female establishment that excluded the expectation of heterosexual marriage, who formed a strong and exclusive emotional bond with another woman, expressed in terms of romantic love, but where the relationship was assumed not to involve sexual expression, although it might include physical affection.
Listeners may be familiar with the Romanic Friendship phenomenon of the Victorian age, which I’ll talk more in a little bit in the context of Boston Marriages, but the roots of passionate or romantic friendship begin earlier in the Renaissance.
The neo-platonic ideal of an intense friendship of equals that was popular in the Renaissance more or less excluded the possibility of such friendship existing between men and women, as there was no possibility that they could be on an equal social, legal, and economic standing at that time. Never mind the inescapable presumption that relations between men and women would lead to illicit sex.
Neo-platonic friendships between men were taken for granted, those between women were acknowledged as a possibility by some authors. This ideal was expressed succinctly by Agnolo Firenzuola in the mid 16th century in his dialogue entitled “On the Beauty of Women”. He recounts the story in Plato’s symposium that gave rise to the name and concept of Platonic love--that is, of two souls who seek each other out because they were originally joined--and he provides several examples of notable female friendships that illustrate it. Women who “love each other’s beauty, some in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Fortegurra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as in ancient times Sappho from Lesbos”. That is, Firenzuola is setting up a model of platonic love between women that specifically excludes lascivious behavior. And how did such women express their love? Alessandro Piccolomini says of the same pair of women, that when they first met, “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.”
Such love, especially among women of the upper classes, didn’t necessarily come with the ability to choose a female partner to the exclusion of heterosexual marriage. And a conventional marriage to a man may have been one of the mitigating factors that enable society to recognize and praise such relationships. But even so, these intense friendships might be granted the symbolism and trappings of marriage by public acclaim.
In 16th century England, the close friendship between Mary Barber and Ann Chitting of Suffolk was honored by Mary’s son when he arranged for Ann to be buried together with his mother (and, of course, alongside his father) with an inscription noting that the women would be united in heaven’s embrace as they had “lived and loved like two most virtuous wights”. Burial together was normally reserved for spouses, so this was an important sign of the acceptance of the women’s relationship.
But women’s passionate friendships did sometimes lead to them resisting marriage--or to being depicted as doing so. In 1573 the French poet Pontus de Tyard wrote a poem translated as “Elegy for a Lady enamoured of another Lady” in the voice of a woman who feels romantic love for another woman--a love that, by its nature, is assumed to be “honorable”, that is, non-erotic. She envisions the possibility that:
Would by miracle through the centuries us wed
And that, unique example in French history,
Our love would serve as eternal memory
Proof that love of woman by woman may arise
And from all manly lovers seize the prize
Although, alas, the object of her affection in the poem doesn’t return the same level of commitment. An anonymous Scottish poem of 1586 expresses a similar desire by a woman to live in a committed romantic relationship, invoking Hymen, the god of marriage.
Your peerless virtue does provoke
and loving kindness so does move
my mind to friendship reciproc
that truth shall try so far above
the ancient heroes love
as shall be thought prodigious
and plain experience shall prove
more holy and religious
The poet compares their love to that of any number of classical pairs, such as Achilles and Patrocles or Penelope and Ulysses, but in the end she recognizes the practical barriers from what she desires:
As we are, though to our woe
Nature and fortune do conjure
and Hymen also be our foe
yet love of virtue does procure
friendship and amity so sure
with so great fervency and force
so constantly which shall endure
that none but death shall us divorce
and though adversity us vex,
yet by our friendship shall be seen
there is more constancy in our sex
than ever among men has been
no trouble, torment, grief or pain
nor earthly thing shall us dissever
such constancy shall us maintain
in perfect amity forever
Such bonds were sufficient to cause men jealousy, as expressed in Edmund Waller’s poem of 1645 titled “On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies” in which the poet falls back on the expectation that at least such friendships are not sexual and therefore need not provoke outrage.
Women seeking artistic inspiration for this type of chaste same-sex relationship could find it in pastoral scenes of classical figures, especially depicting the goddess Diana and her followers who explicitly rejected relations with men and were often portrayed or described as forming paired friendships. This archetype of a platonic marriage-like state between women is depicted as asexual because the understanding of the times defined sex in ways that required the presence of masculinity -- either an actual man, or a masculine-acting woman, as in the case of cross-dressing plots on the stage, or marriage involving a “female husband” in real life. Therefore bonds between two feminine women--even ones with an exclusive romantic bond--were imagined as inherently asexual.
Fictional depictions of romantic relationships within all-female social groups in the 17th and early 18th century suggest that women were perhaps more skeptical about the idea that “kisses and embraces” were qualitatively different from sexual activity, as we see in works ilke Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Mary Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis where there’s a bit of a wink-wink nudge-nudge aspect to claims that the kisses and embraces between female romantic couples don’t involve sin or irregularity.
But here I go back to the concept of an archetype. The archetype of the romantic but chaste female couple clearly existed -- it had to exist for Cavendish and Manley to poke fun at it. And that archetype continued to hold sway as fictional depictions of women’s same-sex love diverged in the 17th and 18th centuries into two genres: the pornographic, as exemplified by Nicholas Chorier’s The Academy of Women--which describes two women’s erotic journey from lesbian sex to pan-sexual orgies--and the platonic, as exemplified by Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millennium Hall, in which a thinly-veiled version of the author and her bluestocking friends create a woman-focused charitable foundation, based on female couples who eschewed conventional marriage to support each other in lifelong partnerships.
In the 18th century, such partnerships were more often an unrealized ideal, described in women’s letters to each other during separations from each other. But one particular couple might be considered the perfect embodiment of that idea of passionate friendship.
Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were two upper-class Anglo-Irish women who fell in love and determined to spend their lives together as a couple. It took several attempts and a move across the Irish Sea to Wales before their families accepted this as the status quo. The made their home in the town of Llangollen--becoming known to the ages as “the ladies of Llangollen” and were publicly celebrated throughout the British Isles as the epitome of a chaste and romantic friendship between women. Their home became something of a pilgrimage site for the litterati, being visited by many notables of the day and inspiring a minor industry of poetry about them by such famous names as William Wordsworth. Despite people using the language of marriage to refer to them (for example, writing to one of the women and referring to her partner as “your better half”) their public image was of platonic, non-sexual partnership. Men praised them for their virtuous purity; women envied their steadfast marriage resistance. Whatever the realities of their day-to-day lives may have been (and there were those who suspected their relationship was less chaste than the official image suggested) they became living icons of the archetype of Romantic Friendship.
Social changes in the mid to late 19th century gave more women an opportunity to achieve the ideals of Romantic Friendship in everyday life. In America, the prevalence and normalcy of women living together in committed romantic couples is signaled by the existence of a specific label for the phenomenon: Boston Marriages. I haven’t been able to find a source that pins down the earliest use of the term, but some suggest it was inspired by Henry James’s 1885 novel The Bostonians which depicts such a relationship, although the story ends with an unhappy disruption of the Boston Marriage by a male rival.
Unlike the Romantic Friendships of the 18th and earlier 19th century, Boston Marriages fell in an era when women were increasingly able to achieve professional and economic independence. The possibility of this independence brought with it a growing impatience with the lack of support that such women typically found in heterosexual marriages. Women intellectuals had long relied on close friendships with other women for sympathetic moral support in their endeavors, and circumstances now allowed for economic support as well. It was now possible and practical to reject marriage to a man in favor of forming a household and lifelong relationship with a female partner. Although individual rural exceptions can be found, this option was most available to urban middle and upper class intellectual and professional women--another possible reason for associating the phenomenon with an intellectual urban center like Boston.
As with earlier archetypes, the public face of the Boston Marriage as being non-sexual is neither erased nor is contradicted by the personal lives of individual women in these relationships. It is clear that the image is shaped in part by the official position of the Victorian age that “nice women don’t like sex”. If these well-born intellectual women were to be accepted publicly as respectable ladies, it was necessary to allow society to believe that Boston Marriages did not involve sexual desire. Personal correspondence and memoirs indicate that the women involved in them had a wide variety of attitudes towards erotic activities, and that some found the archetype constricting, while others embraced it.
One specific example of the Boston Marriage model is that of the late 19th century New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett and her 30-year domestic partnership with Annie Fields. Another pair that fit the archetype closely are Mary Woolley--named president of the women’s college of Mount Holyoke in 1901 and her partner of 55 years, Jeannette Marks.
The intersection of the gay liberation and women’s liberation movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s brought in a new archetype: women whose partnerships were driven by political principles of rejecting compulsory heterosexuality and dedicating themselves to women-centered lives as a philosophical path, rather than inspired by erotic desire. The gay liberation movement established a social space -- however tenuous -- in which identification as a lesbian was an acceptable choice. And the women’s movement offered support and encouragement for those women who chose to opt out entirely of supporting patriarchal structures like heterosexual marriage in their own personal lives. Labeled “political lesbians” by the old guard, there was something of an uneasy partnership with women whose lesbianism was based on sexual desire.
In an era when marriages and partnerships of all types had fewer expectations of permanence, it’s unclear how many same-sex partnerships entered into by political lesbians survived the first flush of idealism. And as the ‘60s and ‘70s were also an era that embraced greater sexual openness, identifying as a political lesbian didn’t necessarily mean being unwilling to explore lesbian sexuality. Still, the creation of the archetype of political lesbian offered a new model for women who desired the emotional structures of a same-sex relationship without necessarily being interested in the erotic ones.
Coming to the last item in our alliterative trio, beginning with beguines and Boston marriages, we arrive at the questionably named “bed death”. That is, the supposed phenomenon in which lesbian couples lose interest in regular sexual activity more commonly and more rapidly than heterosexual couples or gay male couples.
Archetypes aren’t always framed in ways that make people eager to identify with them, even when they serve a purpose of saying “this is a thing that happens to people.” The term “lesbian bed death” was coined in 1983 by a sociologist studying the dynamics of long-term couples and-- somewhat daringly for the time--including lesbians among the data set. Her conclusions were that lesbians had less sex than other types of couples and that the frequency of their sexual encounters declined the longer the relationships lasted. The study has been criticized from a number of angles, in particular the question of whether “sex” was being defined in terms that excluded common erotic activities enjoyed by female couples. (This, of course, is a theme mentioned at the beginning of this episode -- that the archetype of a non-sexual relationship often depends on how one defines sex.)
Regardless of the validity of the data or the conclusions, the phrase established a new archetype at the intersection of lesbianism and asexuality: that of the established couple that--presumably by mutual agreement, if they are continuing happily as a couple--gradually drop sexual activity as a core aspect of their relationship.
And here I’d like to re-emphasize the difference between an archetype and a sociological truth. It doesn’t matter whether the way sex was defined in the study led to flawed conclusions. It doesn’t matter that the conclusions may be contradicted in the lives of specific individuals. None of that contradicts the establishment of a new archetype that people can use in evaluating their relationship with the world.
To be sure, in the context of current society, with it’s emphasis on sexual desire, the label Lesbian Bed Death frames the question in overtly negative terms. In the same way, the archetype of Romantic Friendship existed in a context that emphasized the virtues of chastity. Neither emphasis embraces the full variety of the human condition.
The overall point of this podcast is not to set a relative value on the presence or absence of sex within a romantic relationship, or to try to pin down the sex lives of particular historic individuals, but rather to point out that the historic record holds a wide variety of archetypes of asexual lesbianism just as it holds a wide variety of archetypes of sexual lesbian relationships. There are models that speak to each of us, if we only know where to look for them.
This topic is drawn from a wide variety of sources covered in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. The following tags will provide further reading on the central themes: