Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) is commonly referenced as the "first" novel of lesbian identity, and in my generation that resulted in no small amount of trauma if we failed to recognize our lives and dreams within its pages. But Aimée Duc's Sind es Frauen? (Are these Women?) (1901) would have been a far more hopeful, sympathetic, and introspective introduction to the place of women who love women in the literary canon. One has to wonder whether the book's positive and feminist approach--and its happy ending--are exactly why the work was never made generally available. (I can't find any evidence of an English language translation.) If you want a different take on what sorts of lives and literary outcomes were considered possible for women who loved women around 1900, track down a synopsis of Duc's work and expand your historic imagination.
Breger, Clausia. 2005. “Feminine Masculinities: Scientific and Literary Representations of ‘Female Inversion’ at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 14:1/2 pp.76-106
Breger looks at the close relationship between articulations of gender and sexuality in modern European history. [Note: gender and sexuality categories have always been closely intertwined, of course, not just in modern times.] That connection has an important role in structuring culturally-defined identities at the turn of the 20th century. The social and political currents around feminist (and anti-feminist) movements used the concepts of “perverse” versus “normal” sexuality in their arguments. And within the period around 1900, the concept of “inversion” became the dominant tool for engaging with same-sex attraction and gender transgression.
These conversations initially focused primarily on male-bodied persons, leaving the concept of “female masculinities” unexplored and invisible. “Female inverts” were more prominent in literature, and the medical literature eventually caught up.
This article examines that context through the lens of the 1901 German novel Sind es Frauen? Roman über das dritte Geschlecht (Are These Women? A Novel about the Third Sex) by Aimée Duc. While Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is often touted as the first modern novel to treat female homosexuality sympathetically, Duc’s work is a much more positive depiction and tackles the political and social implications of the topic more directly.
Breger argues for a new understanding of the concept of “female inversion” as reflected in this work that addresses the relationships of gender and sexuality in history, and examines the ways in which historians coming to the material from feminist, lesbian-feminist, queer, and transgender contexts have read texts such as Sind es Frauen? differently. She situates this approach within the context of works such as Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and against interpretations of the “third sex” model as being inherently homophobic, arguing for a broader and more flexible reading of historical case studies that recognize a continuum between lesbian and transgender readings of “female masculinities.”
Read from a modern point of view, the psychological and behavioral characteristics of “inversion” as defined by early sexologists align more closely with our current concept of transgender identity than with homosexuality, but rather than privileging one reading or the other, Breger chooses to investigate the metaphorical and rhetorical processes by which historical accounts construct concepts of gender and sexuality. (Rather than imposing definitions from an external viewpoint.)
When examining the use the “third gender” concept within such works, we find that it’s used to articulate not only concepts of sexual preference and cross-gender identification, but also politicized gendering of professional and intellectual activities as women were accused of being “masculinized” by participation in the public sphere. These uses cannot be neatly separated, as women’s emancipation was framed as “unsexing” women or conversely as rendering them sexually dangerous to other women. The closer one looks--particularly outside the canon of medicalized sexology--the more incoherent the concept of gender inverstion and “third sex” identity becomes. Reference is made to theorizing and critique in works such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies.
Breger’s reading of texts such as Sind es Frauen? and the actual life histories of individuals described in sexological literature is that many “female inverts” cannot be conceptualized adequately in terms of transgender or homosexual identity, but rather as complex intersections of elements associated with both masculinity and femininity.
Aimée Duc’s novel is noteworthy for its positive and nontragic depiction of love between women. The story centers on a group of female friends, most of whom met as university students in Geneva. They refer to themselves as belonging to a “third sex” in contexts that make it clear this refers to their love for other women (or perhaps other female members of the “third sex”). In contrast to most literary depictions of lesbian romance at the time, the primary couple end up happily together at the end. (This time it’s the male rival for one of their affections who conveniently dies and enables the outcome.)
Like less positive stories, the plot sets up its conflict via a triangular relationship involving a man, but not only is this resolved positively for the women, but the secondary plots in which the women discuss gender and sexual politics occupy more page time than the romance. The characters comment directly (and critically) on sexological theories current at the time.
Breger notes that Krafft-Ebing’s case studies offered in support of his theory of sexual inversion were not only filtered by his selection process (looking for life examples that were relevant to the theories he presented) but were often edited to focus specifically on those concepts and behaviors that he considered crucial, while discarding details that detracted from the thesis. Many of Duc’s characters don’t fit easily into any of Krafft-Ebing’s categories of inversion, blending traditionally “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics in a diversity of ways.
These characters (and their real-life counterparts) fit even less neatly into other theorists’ work that considered the “third sex” to be an inherently masculine phenomenon, as with Carl Ulrichs’ category of Urning which he defined as “bodily male, while mentally...a ‘feminine being’.”
The concept of the “third sex” as a gender category was used both to support and undermine women’s emancipation, depending on whether the writer felt that blurring of gender categories was a positive or negative outcome. In some ways, those who theorized the “third sex” as something distinct and apart from the categories of male and female (as with Magnus Hirschfeld) inadvertently acted to maintain gender norms by removing problematic individuals from those categories.
[Breger’s article continues to examine sexological theory in even more detail, but the above summarizes the essence of what it covers.]