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An Overview of Lesbian Possibilities in 18th C England

Monday, July 30, 2018 - 07:00

This book chapter very conveniently lays out the problem of the historical novelist: given a general life story that is compatible with--but not prescriptive of--lesbian experience, how do we fill in the more detailed social context that establishes both the plausibility of our proposed story and how our characters would experience it on a day to day basis? Not that this is what Hitchcock is trying to do. After all, historians are not supposed to be looking to prove theories about specific individuals, but to determine what is actually knowable about them. ("Not supposed to" though of course historians regularly work very hard to prove personal theories about historic people.)

This is the case is no much research about specific individuals whose lives appear briefly in the historic record and where we long to establish a more direct and concrete personal connection regarding identity. It's entirely too easy for "we can't really know how this specific historic person understood their life" to turn into erasure of entire categories of identification simply because those categories always involve ambiguous and incomplete data. But at the same time, when that data is ambiguous and incomplete, it's also easy for the drive for personal identification to turn into erasure of the other possible understandings a person had of their life.

Examining the people, beliefs, and practices of an era through the conceptual lens of same-sex relationships as Hitchcock does here can highlight many of those other possibilities as well, if only because it asks the question, "What if we utterly reject the normative paradigm?"

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Hitchcock, Tim. 1997. English Sexualities, 1700-1800. St. Martin’s Press, New York. ISBN 0-312-16573-0

Publication summary: 

A general study of sexuality in 18th century England. This summary covers only Chapter 6 “Tribades, Cross-Dressers and Romantic Friendship”

The chapter opens with a tantalizing personal history that suggests, but never clearly demonstrates, lesbian possibilities. In 1722, Ann Carrack, a 30-year-old spinster set up in business as a milliner in London with Mary Erick. They rented a shop together and lived together above the shop. Several years later, they moved together to another location. After 7 years sharing a business and living quarters, they parted: Ann to work as a needlewoman and Mary to set up a shop in Chelsea. But 10 years after that, Ann resumed the partnership, moving in with Mary in Chesea. They lived and worked together for another 20 years until old age and the logistical demands of charitable relief parted them.

There are any number of frameworks for understanding their relationship. At the time, perhaps 20% of women never married, and simple economics would make sharing living quarters a necessity for those who didn’t live with family. But their continued and renewed partnership through changes of location and occupation suggest a personal bond of some type, though they left no evidence for its specific nature. Their lives allow a space where a lesbian relationship could have existed and in the absence of any reason for such a relationship to come to official attention, it would leave no trace.

After dropping this intriguing biography into the opening paragraphs, Hitchcock moves on to two fields of more concrete evidence regarding women’s homosexuality.

The first is that of legal and medical discourse. Unlike on the contintent, and unlike male homosexuality, lesbianism per se was never illegal in England. (Even on the continent, it was rarely prosecuted unless an artificial penis was involved.) This doesn’t mean that accusations of lesbianism were not a factor in cases involving other charges. Incidents of “female husbands” (i.e., marrying a woman while presenting as a man) could bring charges of fraud. In the case of Ann Marrow, the fact that she had married several women in this context in order to gain access to their money makes the fraud accusation seems apropos, though the extreme negative public reaction against her suggests that gender transgression was considered an aggravating factor.

Alternately, lesbian activity might be raised as an issue in unrelated contexts, such as when Ralph Hollingsworth, in a 1693 case of bigamy, argued that at least one of his previous wives shouldn’t count because she refused sex with men and had sex with women and thus had been unsuitable for marriage.

Some feminist historians have suggested that this apparent tolerance was actually a deliberate practice of erasing lesbianism from the social imagination--a position that Hitchcock finds implausible, noting that 18th century English law was not given to that sort of subtlety, as well as noting that there is no absence of lesbians from other professional literature, such as medicine and anatomy.

By the early 18th century, there were clear categories availble for discussing lesbian behavior. Medical philosophy had shifted from the “one body” concept that viewed gender as a continuum (or rather, as a sliding scale of maleness), to a “two body” concept that viewed male and female as distinct and--at least conceptually--equal. Under the “one body” system, a range of intermediate categories, loosely covered by the concept of “hermaphrodite”, created the potential for uncertainty regarding the gender of persons engaging in apparently lesbian sex. This created another way to erase lesbian possibiities: by re-categorizing any apparently female person who engaged in sex with women as actually being intermediate in gender and expressing a male nature.

A concretized version of this framing was that of the hyper-clitoral tribade: a woman with a clitoris large enough for penetrative sex, either as a cause or a result of engaging in sexual activity. Both causal modalities are seen in a story published in the Onania in which a young woman claimed that engaging in mutual masturbation (i.e., lesbian sex) with another woman had caused her clitoris to grow, and that this enlarged organ now “inclines me to excessive lustful desires”. The motif of the hyper-clitoral tribade enabled the official discussion of lesbian sex to be restricted to phallocentric and heteronormative practices, even when the bodies involved were undeniably female. At the same time, the focus on penetration, and the lesser degree to which this was possible even with a large clitoris, made it possible to frame lesbian sex as inherently less satisfying and therefore unthreatening. This was important given the 18th century belief in women’s strong sex drive and that a woman who had discovered sexual pleasure would become insatiable. Thus, men could reassure themselves that even if a woman’s sexual appetite had been whetted by lesbian sex, she would eventually turn to men for true satisfaction. This position is laid out solidly in Cleland’s erotic novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

The 18th century saw a shift in assumptions that affected understandings of lesbianism. One was a shift from viewing women as aggressively lascivious to viewing them as sexually passive (the beginnings of the attitude commonly associated with “Victorian” beliefs). Previously, there had been a belief that female orgasm was as essential to conception as male ejaculation was, but medical professionals were coming to an understanding that this was not the case. This was accompanied by a decline in the perception of male and female genitalia as being different configurations of the same underlying organs [Note: which, in fact, was more true than not -- just not as directly as they thought], replaced by a view of two unrelated sets of organs. And studies that focused more on direct anatomical observation than medical tradition were in the process of eliminating the myth of the hyper-clitoral tribade, and determining the relative rareness of intersex conditions (under the label of hermaphroditism). All of these shifts taken together eliminated the two most popular “official” explanations for lesbianism and redefined female sexuality in a way that appeared to leave no context for active sexual desire whether for men or women.

The absense of legal evidence (prosecutions) or biological evidence (pregnancies) for illicit sexual activity between women has enabled historians to deny the existence of lesbian activity prior to the clinical definitions of the late 19th century sexologists. This has left those looking for evidence of lesbian-like lives primarily with homosocial relationships that cannot be proven to be sexual in nature, and which therefore can be posited to be romantic but not sexual.

One significant proponent for the position of “not provable sexual and therefore provably non-sexual” is Lillian Faderman in her study of Romantic Friendship, Surpassing the Love of Men. She views 17th century female “libertinism” as more pansexual in nature and therefore not classifiable as lesbian. The epitome of the romantic friendship phenomenon, with its high-flown emotional language and apparent chastity were the “Ladies of Llangollen”, Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, who became celebrated icons of female friendship. The accepted timeline of the romantic friendship phenomenon begins in the 1760s and 1770s in both Britain and America, with the rise of “sensibility”, romanticism, and Gothic themes. In the later 19th century, these themes are joined by the rise of the “Boston marriage”. And, in parallel with these developments, we see the strengthing of the image of the “passionless” woman.

This timeline and alleged dominance of the passionless romantic friendship phenomenon has been challenged by historians such as Emma Donoghue and Terry Castle who have assembled extensive evidence for other 18th century experiences alongside that of classic “romantic friendship”. These experiences include a tradition of cross-dressing, marriage between women (both in theatrical and everyday contexts), libertinism, and extensive examples of homosocial affective communities especially among elite women. Donoghue returns to the idea of a lesbian continuum, ranging from non-sexual female friendships through explicitly sexual relationships, and covering both exclusively lesbian and bisexual women, with a wide range of sexual practices that included both non-penetrative and penetrative activities.

There is even evidence in language and literature for the beginnings of a lesbian subculture in London, including slang terms like “tommy” and “game of flats”. And to put a final nail in the coffin of the alleged non-existence of 18th century lesbians, we have the explicit journals of Anne Lister from the end of the 18th and early 19th century, which depict a homosocial world of women who flirted, engaged in sex, and sometimes devoted themselves to marriage-like partnerships with other women. One key element of Lister’s recorded experience is that her actions and experiences never seem to have been viewed as unnatural or unthinkable by her contemporaries. The uniquely candid nature of this source makes it difficult to argue on solid ground whether it represents knowledge and experiences available to all women.

Similarly, the skewing of sources on romantic friendship toward elite women makes it difficult to tell whether the experience itself was associated with specific classes. The experiences of working class women have, in part, simply been ignored by historical research, outside of a few actresses and the phenomenon of cross-dressing. In part, this has been fallout from a bias among scholars of lesbian history toward “positive models”, avoiding the types of evidence most common for the poorer classes, such as criminal records.

The patterns of everyday life--especially homosocial insitutions and the commonness of shared sleeping acommodatiosn among all classes--afforded opportunities for erotic encounters that were unlikely to leave a record. Further, a modern emphasis on lesbianism as an innate identity has sidestepped the question of any sort of chronological development of lesbian awareness. Hitchcock suggests the outlines of just such a potential chronological development, operating along multiple axes, suggesting that the broad transition from sexually voracious libertine to chaste romantic friend was one of a shift in public framing rather than necessarily a shift in individual experience.

The final topic in Hitchcock’s discussion is the place of female cross-dressing within the understanding of sexuality. The number of public accounts of women passing as men in the 18th century is remarkably large. (Not only in Britain--detailed studies have been made in the Netherlands.) The motif of the cross-dressed woman is equally prominent in popular culture of the time. Not all cross-dressing women pursued relationships with other women, but many did, in many cases involving marriage. In many cases, economic motives were the original impetus. In some cases, the change of dress was originally for practical reasons and not meant to hide gender. [Note: Hitchcock does not touch on individual gender identity as a potential motivation for cross-dressing.]

One remarkable aspect of 18th century cross-dressing women is that it was so often successful, and that when unsuccessful it rarely met with harsh condemnation. The absence of legislation against cross-dressing [note: I think Hitchcock must be speaking specifically of England here] is strong evidence for a high level of tolerance with a context where legislation often micro-managed personal behavior. Moving into the 19th century, the literature about cross-dressing declines, though we can’t be certain that the phenomenon itself did so.

Hitchcock concludes with a summing up of his view of the various trends and shifts in female sexuality relating to lesbian identity across the 18th century. [Note: I’d have to pretty much reproduce the whole thing to summarize it.]

Time period: 
Place: 
historical