Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40d - Class and Models of Lesbian Desire - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/11/23 - listen here)
There are a vast number of historical lesbian archetypes--always keeping in mind that I’m not necessarily talking about historic people who would have identified as “lesbian” but of people and lives who have resonance for modern readers who enjoy stories about women who love women. When we think of people like the women in a Boston Marriage, or a cross-dressing “female husband”, or the doomed swaggering seductive temptress of a decadent French novel, there is a tendency to imagine those archetypes as being the image of the lesbian in their particular era and culture.
This isn’t the case, any more than a particular era has only one model of what it means to be heterosexual. But in examining these archetypes in isolation, another thing we can lose sight of is that each model arises out of a particular set of cultural circumstances, and not all women had the opportunity to participate in all of their era’s lesbian archetypes. From the point of view of an author, the circumstances of your character’s birth affect what their options are likely to be for expressing same-sex love.
Today’s discussion explores the importance of class in lesbian archetypes. Which roles would a woman be able to inhabit? By “class” I mean not only economic status, but different social strata that brought both beliefs and expectations about one’s life path and goals. All of these factors changed over time. In order to know what your character’s expectations are--or what sort of character will best fit the plot you envision--you need to examine the setting in time, geography, and social context.
I’m going to look at five factors that intertwine in complex ways: understandings of sexuality, money, family structure, agency with regard to marriage, and access to economic independence. This won’t be an exhaustive catalog of the possibilities, but rather a set of contrasts and comparisons that inform how a woman might think about same-sex relationships and what her options are for engaging in them. As usual, my focus is primarily on Europe and the European-colonized era in America. I don’t feel I have enough of a deep understanding of other regions to do a similar analysis.
One of the more essential features of class difference in history can be beliefs about the sexuality of people of different classes. Does a culture believe that working-class people have a more intense or less controlled sex drive than upper-class people? This was true at certain times. Or does a culture view upper-class people as given to wild decadence and libertine sex lives, as contrasted with the down-to-earth morality of the poor? This also was true at certain times.
Cultural beliefs about the innate sexuality of people of different classes aren’t rooted in some sort of truth and don’t even necessarily reflect statistical reality. But they shape people’s self-image as well as shaping how others react to their behavior. When the image of chaste female Romantic Friendship was celebrated among middle-class British and American society, it was understood to be in contrast to the less “elevated” sensibilities of the lower classes and foreigners. The famous trial of Woods and Pirie concluded that it was inappropriate to even imagine nice, educated, middle-class women having sex with each other, but acknowledged that such things were done by the lower classes.
The libertine sexuality of the English and French courts in the late 17th and early 18th century included an assumption that both men and women were capable of sexual desire for any gender. But those ideas existed in parallel with a growing religiously-inspired sexual conservatism that was more popular among the middle and working classes.
So when you’re developing your historic character, you can’t assume that there’s a single attitude toward same-sex sexuality in your setting. How will people react to her desire for other women? How will they interpret it? How much will that depend on who she is?
In 21st century western culture, we’re accustomed to the idea that wealth can make everything easier and more possible. Whether we view wealth and class as distinct or as linked concepts, modern fiction tends to separate the abstract concept of wealth from the social contexts in which it is acquired.
Money buys us privacy; it insulates us from the opinions of others; and it goes quite a ways toward insulating us from legal consequences for our actions. Especially if wealth is inherited, we can treat it as a neutral character asset, like beauty or a good sense of humor.
But historically wealth has been closely tied to class in various ways, and class in turn affected self-identity and expected life paths. If a person’s wealth came from membership in a hereditary land-owning aristocracy, it came with strong expectations regarding one’s family role and the need to help create alliances and networks to maintain that status. Opting out of those responsibilities generally meant opting out of the benefits of the family wealth.
When the world turned, and wealth became associated with the rise of a middle-class mercantile or industrial class, one of the features of those groups was an aspirational upward mobility that often embraced stricter ideas of moral behavior than the aristocracy, even as they viewed their material success as distinguishing them from the lower classes.
So the same wealth that might, in theory, provide freedom and protection from popular disapproval of one’s sexuality, might bring with it an increased expectation to subordinate one’s personal desires to the goals of the family. Or the social aspirations that money made possible might be undermined by any appearance of deviating from expected behavior.
Furthermore, in past eras, wealth and its benefits were not easily portable. It could be difficult to continue to enjoy the benefits of money if you walked away from the institutions and social structures it was tied to. And someone with no apparent social or familial ties who shows up in town with a large fortune will likely be under more scrutiny for unusual behavior rather than less.
So you can’t necessarily solve the hazards of your historic character’s sexuality simply by throwing money at them. You need to consider how they obtained that money, what they need to do to maintain it, and what additional restrictions and burdens come with it.
The question of money leads naturally into issues of family structure and responsibilities, as well as household structures. How do these questions differ for different classes? And how do they enable or hinder different types of same-sex relationships?
In the realm of historical fiction, we often imagine that marriage obligations to further dynastic goals are restricted to royalty, or at least to the aristocracy. But especially in the pre-modern era--before the rise of industrialism--the creation of personal connections between families via marriage or other relationships had vital consequences for the economy and stability of the larger group as well as the individual. Heterosexual marriage was a way of exchanging resources between families and securing expectations of loyalty or assistance. Marriage established financial arrangements for the transmission of wealth to the next generation. Those arrangements could continue to bind the members of extended families in mutually beneficial contracts for generations to come.
This held true not only for middle class mercantile and craft families, but for rural agricultural families as well. So a specific woman’s life choices to marry a man or not could affect her entire extended family. In eras when participation in those extended family networks was critical to one’s personal success, as well as being driven by family feelings, it could seem only natural to subordinate personal taste to the greater good.
Conversely, the economic and familial bonding aspects of heterosexual marriage meant that the people engaging in it didn’t necessarily expect marriage to fulfill their emotional or erotic needs. Due to patriarchal interests in being certain of parentage, there was a great deal of scrutiny on women who looked to men to fill those needs, but for the same reason there was far less concern if they looked to other women.
And the inter-family bonds across all classes were not restricted to marriage, though as usual, the nature of those bonds differed by class. In working class families of the pre-industrial era, it was common for adolescents of any gender to spend time working outside the family home, either as a formal apprentice, or as a domestic servant, or as something halfway between the two. It was usual for a young woman in this type of arrangement to be part of a group of age-mates in the same position, who would share living space (including sharing beds) and perhaps make friendships that would affect the course of their lives.
Among the land-owning classes and aristocracy, similar arrangements brought even younger children into the household of a family connection (ideally, one of higher status) to learn manners, household management, and build ties of alliance perhaps including marriage to a scion of the family. We see a deeply emotional bond between two women who likely met in this context in the funeral monument of Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge in the 15th century.
Marriage and Employment
One topic where class can make a significant difference is in marriage options. Does a person have a say in whether or not they get married? How much choice do they have of one suitor or another? What are their options if they choose not to marry? While historic women might view heterosexual marriage as compatible with same-sex romance, the readers of historic fiction tend to feel uncomfortable around any pairing that doesn’t involve romantic love (at least in the end). So if the goal is to have your character find an unremarkable way to opt out of heterosexual marriage, it helps to know the options that are appropriate to her class.
A woman born into the upper classes will generally have less agency in marriage options than other classes. But this includes a higher likelihood of remaining unmarried if no appropriate suitor is available. During some eras, the narrow requirements for a suitable husband meant that large numbers of daughters of the landowning classes went unmarried. Alternately, a planned marriage might fall through for reasons of social politics. At the same time she’s less likely to have the ability or inclination to simply reject marriage for reasons of personal preference. When there’s no expectation that a heterosexual woman will marry for love, it seems less likely that lack of interest in men entirely would be considered a reason not to marry. And even alternate arrangements like entering a religious life rely on family cooperation, rather than being a matter of personal choice.
Among the working classes, one of the most common reasons for a woman not marrying is insufficient finances to set up an independent household. The most typical method of funding marriage might differ depending on era or region--in northern Europe she might be working for wages to “earn a nest egg” and argue that she hasn’t met her target yet. In southern Europe it might be more expected that a dowry would be provided by the family or through charity. Both of these might fail for various reasons.
The circumstances of a middle-class woman’s life would be affected strongly by era, location, and the precise nature of her family’s status. But it might be a useful generalization to say that she has more agency to refuse a suitor, to choose a self-supporting career, or to remain an unmarried participant in a relative’s household. In the middle ages, middle class women could be independent business women or craftswomen. In the 19th century, the option of a career in social or intellectual pursuits gradually became more available. But conversely, during the 17th and 18th centuries, a middle class woman would find it harder to be economically independent of her family.
Upper class women rarely had the option of working to support themselves. Not only was it simply Not Done, but they often didn’t have access to the skills and training to do anything other than manage a household.
So what about some of the popular literary tropes for getting your woman-loving-woman free of the social constraints of heteronormativity?
One very popular trope in f/f historical romance for allowing your characters a Happily Ever After ending is for one of the women to pass as a man. Setting aside, for the moment, the complicated question of gender disguise versus transgender identity, this option comes with some significant consequences. For one, changing your identity--whether it involves gender or not--means walking away from all the resources, support, and connections of your former life. In our hyper-mobile, individualistic world today, it can be difficult to realize just how drastic an action that would be in past ages.
Remember what I said about wealth being tied to land for the upper classes? You can’t just pick that up and take it with you. Nor can that type of wealth be suddenly bequeathed to a complete “stranger” who suddenly appears with a deed of sale. There’s a place in Anne Lister’s diary where she fantasizes about disguising herself as a man in order to marry one of her lovers. But she recognizes that it would mean walking away Shibden Hall, from any sort of financial security, and from the family heritage that she was so proud of. That’s a major roadblock.
In the pre-industrial era, even middle-class wealth was often in non-portable forms. Making a break with your former self meant starting from scratch, not only in employment, but in reputation and all the sorts of ties that make the difference between isolation and a social safety net. The closer you kept to the places and life you were familiar with, the greater the risk of being recognized by someone from your former life. And across vast swathes of time and in many places, being “not from around here” was a substantial handicap for success. It made getting employment harder and it often brought attention from the local authorities--something that passing women might want to avoid.
Changing one’s identity was easier, in some ways, for a woman who had little to lose: the poor or those who had lost family support and ties for some other reason. But you still needed to be able to support yourself and--since we’re talking about writing romance here--support the woman you love.
There’s a reason why a significant proportion of the early known examples of passing women correspond to the rise of professional military forces in the 17th century. Military recruits were often in short enough supply that they were given little scrutiny, and a military career could easily take you far from your origins. But from the point of view of establishing a same-sex relationship, military life had its own hazards.
One of the reasons for the popularity of gender-disguise plots in the American West--in addition to the simple popularity of the western setting in general--is that most people had the same starting point: they’d left their previous lives behind and were all establishing new identities. In a sense, the westward expansion erased many differences of class. But this show is about when class does matter, so let’s move on.
The concept of Romantic Friendship, which has such lovely potential to be a smokescreen for same-sex relationships, was enacted in different ways in different eras and among different classes. For middle-class women, economic changes in the 19th century made it more possible for two supposedly single women to establish an independent household together. Indeed, the economic savings of combining households offered cover to working women that wealthy women of a higher class didn’t have the same access to.
Aristocratic women of the 17th and 18th century might extol the importance of female bonds, as poet Katherine Philips did with her “Society of Friendship”, but they rarely had an economic basis that would enable them to avoid marriage in favor of their passionate female friends. When they could--as in the case of the late 18th century “Ladies of Llangollen”, it was typically due to family support and might be tenuously dependent on the continuing good will of a relative.
But similarly, before the rise of the “new woman” in the later 19th century, and increased economic options for middle class women, their romantic ties to other women often had to take second place to family obligations that provided a home and livelihood.
Putting Class Models Into Practice
I played on a lot of these class differences in developing the various characters and relationships in my Alpennia series. Jeanne de Cherdillac plays on the archetype of the decadent aristocrat. She is allowed to be entertainingly scandalous, to some degree, but also has a marriage in her past. Margerit Sovitre uses wealth as an excuse to avoid marriage, and balances on the edge of using middle-class respectability to deflect suspicion about her personal life. And Rozild Pairmen, the heroine of Floodtide, is a working-class girl who falls in love in the close quarters of the servants’ hall. No one will brush her relationship off as a pure and innocent romantic friendship because one doesn’t expect her sort to have that sort of refined sensibilities. All three archetypes--and more--co-exist in their own spheres of society. The circumstances of their births and the paths of their lives affect how they are able to establish and enjoy relationships with other women. And yet each has a path to happiness.
I’ll confess that I had higher hopes of relevance to my purposes for this collection. Overall, the articles included here were more narrowly theory-oriented and of less general interest than I hoped. Also, the queer content was overwhelmingly male focused. I’d originally planned to do each article as a separate entry, but found myself skimming through many of them. In the end, it made much more sense to cover this publication as a single blog.
Lochrie, Karma, Peggy McCracken and James A. Schultz. 1997. Constructing Medieval Sexuality. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8166-2829-7
The purpose of this collection is to “think differently” about medieval sexuality without losing the benefits of modern theoretical approaches. The authors address sexuality not in the narrow sense of orientation but as the study of experiences, attitudes, customs, and institutions that are a subjetive human experience and an objective field of “knowledge”. Sexuality was embedded in other medieval systems such as race, gender, ethnicity, and religion.
Sexuality is not a single phenomenon, and is often internally contradictory, such as the simultaneous view that variant sexual practices can be both “natural” and sinful. The articles share certain approaches: sexuality in relation to gender, ideas about the body as integral to sexuality, sexuality relative to identity/otherness, recognition of the influence of the present on our understanding of the past.
If sexuality is not considered side by side with gender, it risks accepting a conservative and male-dominated understanding of the past. Neither gender nor sexuality categories are entirely stable. Gender may be treated as independent of sex. The instability may come from overlaying different stable frameworks, such as medicine and literature. In literature, gender is established via clothing/appearance, not through the body, and through gendered role relationships. Bodily functions may be viewed both as functionally male and morally feminine (as with the idea of nocturnal emissions representing both an inherently male experience and a feminine loss of bodily control).
A history of the medieval understanding of bodies challenges one to “think differently.” Bodies are not a fixed, knowable substance, nor is sexual difference always assumed to be clearly and easily distinct. Foucault is invoked with regard to the concept of “identities” via his distinction between the sodomite (“acts”) and the homosexual (“identities”). But this strict chronology has been called into question by recent work. Categorization by “acts” is still active today, not solely a feature of the past. And there is evidence--if you look for it--of “identities” in the past. Medieval people might identify “kinds” of people for whom certain acts were natural, without those “kinds” aligning with modern orientations. Furthermore, heterosexuality isn’t a stable category in the middle ages either. Sexuality categories are intertwined with other types of classification.
Can the study of medieval sexuality lead us to different understandings of modern sexuality? Can studies like this collection challenge the myth of a heteronormative past and a queer modernity?
1. Pollution, Illusion, and Masculine Disarray: Nocturnal Emissions and the Sexuality of the Clergy - Dyan Elliott
A discussion of the problem of unconscious/uncontrolled sexual events with respect to men’s sexuality, with special focus on the clergy. [Not of particular interest to me.]
2. Homosexuality, Luxuria, and Textual Abuse - Mark D. Jordan
The article starts with a bunch of wordplay then moves on to consider three related words: luxuria, vitium sodomiticum, and peccatum (vitium) contra natura. The second and third can be read transparently as “sodomitic vice” and “vice/sin against nature. But luxuria is harder to render because it doesn’t correlate directly to “luxury” in the modern sense. One might interpret it more closely as “an inappropriate excess of pleasure,” but in Aquinas (as examined here) it focuses centrally on an excess of sexual pleasure. Though this is the central sense, the concept was considered to give rise to a number of secondary effects.
Like some of the other sins covered by Aquinas in the same text, luxuria is subcategorized into various kinds with different degrees of seriousness, including fornication, adultery, incest, rape, and acts “against nature.” The article closely examines not only how these subcategories are discussed and judged, but how that discussion compares to that of other sins. For example, arguing with Augustine’s position that sins “against nature” are less serious than adultery or rape (because they don’t harm anyone else), Aquinas argues that contra naturem are more serious because they harm God.
This variable evaluation of sodomy is a feature of many medieval theological treatments. Aquinas discusses sodomy as a “vice” not as a medical condition or a habit or an identity. Nor does he bring gender identity into the question (i.e., he doesn't consider men to practice sodomy because they have a feminine identity). But in touching on why people are drawn to this vice, he stumbles into contradiction.
“Pleasure,” he posits, comes from the fulfillment of a natural purpose, but the “anti-natural” vice of sodomy is attractive because it results in an overwhelming pleasure. How can that be, if pleasure only comes from the natural?
The focus on this article is entirely on male same-sex activity falling within the category of “against nature.”
3. Sciences/Silences: The Natures and Languages of “Sodomy” in Peter of Abano’s Problemata Commentary - Joan Cadden
This article looks at the language used to discuss sodomy, and especially the erasure of specific language about it “lest talking about it give people ideas.” The article is particularly concerned with a text by Peter of Abano that offers two conflicting “reasons” for men to engage in sodomy. Cadden briefly acknowledges the different ways such texts approached male and female same-sex activity. Women were considered to engage in it only as a substitute for unavailable heterosexual sex, but men needed a positive reason to explain their actions.
Abano offers two explanations. Some men, he says, have a variant physiology such that they only receive sexual pleasure through (receptive) anal sex. In this, they can be compared to the pleasure women take in being penetrated. But this raises the problem of why there are men who enjoy both “acting and being acted on.” Despite the vague language, it’s clear he’s concerned narrowly with anal sex. For these men, too, he offers a physiological explanation.
Abano’s theories draw to some extent on Avicenna, taken from Arabic sources. In this context, sodomy might be considered a “healthy” way to manage humoral balance in non-normative bodies.
But Abano then turns to those for whom sodomy is “a habit” rather than an innate impulse. Here the language is more negative and condemnatory. Cadden discusses how the two views are differentiated by the vocabulary and references Abano uses, but that the end conclusion is still that vice--whether innate or acquired--should be condemned and resisted.
4. Manuscript Illumination and the Art of Copulation - Michael Camille
An examination of medieval artistic depictions of heterosexual copulation, and how they reinforce a narrow understanding of normative sex acts based on a gendered hierarchy of power.
5. Bodies that Don’t Matter: Heterosexuality before Heterosexuality in Gottfried’s Tristan - James A. Schultz
[Note: to let the casual reader in on the joke, the article’s title is referencing Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter. I have the nagging sense that there may be a publication “Homosexuality before Homosexuality” that is also being referenced, but can’t find a clear candidate.]
Schultz examines how bodies and sexual desire are treated in medieval romances, and how gender is presented as relying on arbitrary superficial appearance, not as an inherent property of the person. Men and women are described as beautiful and desirable in nearly identical terms. Clothing and performance are what create gender. But clothing is also far more connected to class than to bodily sex. Despite all this, desire is assumed to be heterosexual in all cases, even when the bodies involved are of the same sex. There is a brief discussion of how heteronormative gender identities are assigned to couples who both have female bodies, but somewhat confusingly the author does not talk about specific romances with this motif (such as Yde or Tristan de Nanteuil).
6. Refashioning Courtly Love: Lancelot as Ladies’ Man or Lady/Man? - E. Jane Burns
Paired with the previous article, this takes another look at gender “creation” in medieval courtly romances. There are conflicting gender roles/performances in the courtly love tradition, borrowing from the lord-vassel relationship. This is further complicated in representation by the general similarity of male and female clothing and relatively gender-neutral standards of beauty. These conflicting roles and representations are relevant not only for how medieval people interpreted gender signifiers, but how modern scholars can (mis)interpret gender signs in visual representation. (An anecdote is given of an image of a kneeling figure in armor performing homage to a standing figure in a long garment where different historians interpreted it as an image of courtly love with the standing figure as female, versus ordinary feudal homage with the standing figure interpreted as male.)
This article focuses on the representation of Lancelot, especially in relationship to Guenevere, as portraying a slippage of gender roles. There is also a discussion of how clerical rhetoric against luxurious/fashionable clothing simultaneously claims that it feminizes men and masculinizes women.
In literature, armor is the ultimate creator of masculinity. To be armored/protected/covered is to be masculine, whereas to be exposed, uncovered, vulnerable is to be feminine. But the behavioral and sartorial crossing of gender lines is far more accepted for men than for women, who are rebuked if they step outside gender signifier norms. An example is given of a 13th century sermon against women who wear male-signified clothing and accessories as being both too knightly and too seductive at the same time.
7. The Love of Thy Neighbor - Louise O. Fradenburg
This article contrasts two types of love defined in Christian theology: charity, the love of God and the enjoyment of self and neighbor for the sake of God; and cupidity, the enjoyment of anything for the sake of something other than God. The article is a psychoanalytic study of the concept of “charity” in this context. [Note: I found it at the same time too dense and too diffuse to summarize easily.]
8. Conversion and Medieval Sexual, Religious, and Racial Categories - Steven F. Kruger
This article looks a tthe intertwining of gender, religion, and race to argue that identity cannot be defined for any of these axes without considering intersectionality. [Note: the article doesn’t use the term “intersectionality” but is clearly talking about the concept generally known by that name.] Anxieties about categories are especially focused on the image of category-transgression (women acting as men, the ”feminization” of Jewish men in Christian mythology, etc.). The article discussions the concept of “conversion” as a locus of anxiety for all of these categories, especially in the context of penalties for cross-religious relationships (both personal and economic) that were considered to create a risk of “pollution”, either overt or symbolic conversion from one category to another.
9. Mystical Acts, Queer Tendencies - Karma Lochrie
Lochrie considers the interpretation of mystical experiences in a sexual framework, especially within the concept of “queering” history. But is “queering” a valid study of the gaps and contradictions in the historic record, or an anachronistic projection? Lochrie looks at the often dark and violent imagery of mystical eroticism, with its themes of disease, torment, mortality, and decay. Ecstasy is depicted as a violent, violating experience. There is a discussion of the image of Christ’s wound as a vulva symbol and its relation to (feminine) suffering as a religious experience.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40c - Book Appreciation with Heather Rose Jones - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/11/16 - listen here)
A transcript is pending.
Show Notes and Links
In this episode we talk about:
It's the official book-birthday for Floodtide! I'm loving seeing all the mentions and recommendations washing through my social media. Such a difference from last time! (More thoughts on that, but not while I'm in the middle of celebrating.)
A brief reminder of logistics:
An even more brief reminder of the part you can play in Floodtide's success:
To celebrate the release of Floodtide, I've been picked as the Featured Author of the month at Bella Books. That means my entire backlist (hard copy and ebooks) is 30% off. So whether you're only just discovering Alpennia through Floodtide or if you meant to get caught up on the series before reading it, this is a great opportunity to fill in the gaps.
Last week finished up the teaser series, so all that’s left is waiting with breathless anticipation (no, don’t do that: breathe..in…out…in…out) for Floodtide to appear in your mailboxes, e-reader screens, and maybe even on selected bookstore shelves. (Keep in mind that if you do have a local genre bookstore and want to own a hard copy of my books, ordering through the store is a win-win all around. The bookstore wins, and it becomes more likely that they’ll order additional copies to display for others to find.)
I’m feeling reasonably confident about being prepared for this book release. Publicity blogs have been showing up. Reviews are starting to be posted. Bella Books is going to make me “featured author of the month” so if you’re planning to order any of the other Alpennia books, expect them to be on sale soon. (You can check on my catalog page to see if it’s effective yet. http://www.bellabooks.com/category/Bella-Author-Heather-Rose-Jones/)
But of course the majority of the success will depend on word of mouth and reader enthusiasm. I really appreciate how my unofficial “fan club” keeps plugging away to let people know about Alpennia. Floodtide is a great chance to invite new readers in and get them hooked. Expect me to be doing a lot of book cheerleading this week and feel free to join in the celebration!
Although I’m generally organizing this “classics of the history of gender and sexuality” series on a thematic basis, I moved this one out of order for logistical reasons (It’s the only one I have in pdf and I wanted get it done before I moved the other current 40+ article pdfs onto my iPad, so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.)
Rich’s article--written in 1980, the year I graduated college and came out as a lesbian--simultaneously feels dated and feels all too current. It is dated in some of the ways it uses terminology and concepts around the word “lesbian” in ways that are either overly broad or appropriative of other nuances of identity. I know that it’s frowned on to view either people or texts as “products of their time” but I think it is important to understand the context in which things are written and said.
In 1980 we hadn’t yet developed the current extensive palette of vocabulary to talk about nuances of identity. And in 1980 the queer struggle was for the right to be recognized as existing and valid in the face of overwhelming heteronomativity. If people seem to have taken overly absolute positions for queer identities that now feel narrow and prescriptive, it was in part because any equivocation, any sign of nuance or weakness in one’s political positions, was seized on as undermining the whole. If you’re a woman who has ever felt love or desire for a man, then you’re really just straight and confused. (It was social conservatives who established that interpretation first, before it became attributed as an official lesbian position.)
If lesbian activists and historians of that era seem overly eager to lay claim to marginal cases for the lesbian team, it was because all they seemed to have were marginal cases. The Ladies of Llangollen? Just good friends. Emily Dickinson? Neurotic and jealous. And for vast numbers of candidates “But they married/fucked men, so how could they be lesbians?”
But Rich’s article also feels very current in many ways: the exclusion of relations between women as a categorical alternative to heterosexuality when discussing social dynamics; discussing “women” in ways that silently assume “straight women” (and, of course, silently assume “straight white women”); the socio-political systems that indoctrinate women in (and enforce) heterosexuality because to recognize alternatives is to allow women an escape hatch, regardless of their innate orientations. When Rich lists those systems--including the interaction between misogynistic pornography culture and workplace gender power dynamics, social and legal structures that push women to rely on men for economic security and status, and so forth--many of the examples could be pulled from our current headlines.
So approach this article, written 40 years ago, with charity. And if parts of it seem quaintly old-fashioned, ask yourself why so many other parts haven’t changed.
Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Signs 5: 631-60.
Rich opens with examples of academic and feminist writing that talk about women’s lives in ways that exclude homo-affective bonds or label them as deviant. If lesbianism is mentioned at all, it is treated as being born of hostility toward men or as mere “sexual preference” or as being a direct mirror image of the male homosexual experience. She follows this bias towards “compulsory heterosexuality” in four sample texts, all presenting themselves as feminist and taking the position that social relations between the sexes are disordered and problematic, but in every case ignoring or excluding the question of how “lesbian existence” (and in the context of this article, it becomes clear that this should be read as “the existence of women’s committed same-sex relationships of any type”) would change both the analysis and possible solutions to that problem. None of the texts questions whether, all other things being equal, the same proportion of women would choose the problematic state of heterosexual marriage as it exists.
The first book, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women by Ehrenreich and English looks at professional health advice to women from a Marxist-feminist point of view with the conclusion that advice regarding sex, maternity, and child care has always echoed and reinforced the requirements that a capitalist economy requires women to fulfill. Although their analysis challenges the basis of many principles of this advice, it never deconstructs the anti-lesbian position embedded in the advice manuals, despite the clear parallels between the persecution of lesbians and more general misogyny.
The second book, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Miller) is written as if lesbians don’t exist. The third, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and the Human Malaise (Dinnerstein) argues that disordered gender relations can be addressed by more equal sharing of parenting and the erosion of gendered social roles. The current arrangements, the book argues, perpetuate social relations that are hostile, exploitive, and destructive. But the book operates on an assumption that relations between men and women are the essence of society and simply need to be made more rational. Excluded from consideration is the long history of women who either opted out of those relations or were excluded from them (singlewomen, widows, lesbians, etc.). The author considers female separatism an interesting but impractical thought experiment, ignoring the fact that the “experiment” already exists in the small scale and has done so for centuries.
The fourth book comes the closest to acknowledging lesbian existence. The Reproduction of Mothering (Chodorow) takes a psychoanalytic examination of the gendered imbalance of child-rearing and how relations with a same-gender versus other-gender primary caretaker affect a child’s psychological development. For women, she concludes, this dynamic means that men are “emotionally secondary” in their lives, that men are not as emotionally important to women as women are to men. And that women have had to learn to deny the limitations of men as lovers (compared to women) for practical and psychological reasons. But within this conclusion, she does not come to the apparently obvious attraction for women of having female lovers. Chodorow dismisses this idea with, “lesbian relationships do tend to re-create mother-daughter emotions and connections, but most women are heterosexual.” [Note: If one sometimes feels that Rich engages in bi-erasure in her rhetoric, it’s important to note that the texts she is studying also engage in bi-erasure from the straight side.] Chodorow continues, “This heterosexual preference and taboos on homosexuality, in addition to objective economic dependence on men, make the option of primary sexual bonds with other women unlikely--though more prevalent in recent years.” [Note: keep in mind that Chodorow was writing in 1978.] The presumption “most women are heterosexual” is not examined even in the face of acknowledging the potential influence of social taboos and economic inequities.
All four of the books focus on how to “fix” the existing system of compulsory heterosexuality, despite acknowledging that there are sound emotional and psychological reasons for women to enjoy bonds with other women. That women continue to disproportionately hold to heterosexual relationships because of innate preference and that engaging in homosexual relationships is the only state that requires an explanation. This is expressed sometimes as the position that all people are inherently bisexual and that in an ideal world in which gender inequities were removed, this would be expressed. But we don’t live in an ideal world and the choices women make and situations the find themselves in are shaped by the existing inequities, including unequal access to the concept of lesbian existence.
The second part of Rich’s article focuses on the question: if people’s earliest experiences of nurture and emotional caring are from women, why would women ever redirect their search for those things to men? [Note: Rich is engaging in her own essentialism and erasure here in accepting the archetype of the nurturing mother as representing an experiential truth.] Why have the dynamics of reproduction become so inseparable from the impulse toward emotional/erotic relationships that it became necessary to violently enforce women’s loyalty and subservience to men?
But she moves on to a set of dynamics laid out an essay “The Origin of the Family” (Gough) that, rather than examining the reasons for this situation, focuses on eight mechanisms by which it is maintained [my paraphrases]:
These mechanisms act together with the idealization of heterosexual romance and marriage in popular culture to make same-sex alternatives not simply unattainable but unthinkable.
The next part of the article looks at the braiding together of the sexualization of women in everyday life, especially in the workplace, with the normalization of pornographic imagery, and the use of accusations of lesbianism or prudishness against women who push back against these forces. Within this multi-layered dynamic, does the notion of women’s “consent” have any meaning? [Note: this is one part of the article where I got a strong “not enough has changed vibe,” when you look at entire industries where women feel that their economic participation is contingent on going along with pervasive, casual sexualization of their existence.] Does “consent” to heterosexual marriage have any meaning if it is offered as the only viable alternative to male predation in the workplace? [Note: In 1980, one could still have the illusion that marriage enabled a woman to remove herself from the public economy.]
What if, Rich asks, men’s sexual anxieties about women are not that sexually uncontrolled women will “devour” them, but that sexually uncontrolled women will find them irrelevant? How much of the enforcement of male sexual dominance over women is because men fear not having access to sex at all? [Note: this question in Rich’s article predates but predicts the “incel” mentality.] Female sexual slavery exists not only in conditions of physical restraint, but in any situation where women trade consent and autonomy for freedom from violence and exploitation. The concept of compulsory heterosexuality enables that system by suppressing the awareness of alternatives.
At polar opposites are the questions: why do some women never turn away from that “primary emotional attachment to women,” and conversely why do some lesbians persist in identify/aligning with men in their social and political allegiances? [Note: I feel like this can be answered by “people are complex” but we’re going somewhere more theoretical in this article.] The phenomenon of the oppressed identifying with the values of the colonizer is widespread as a survival mechanism. We see it in women being co-opted into being the “enforcers” of male dominance (e.g., women as the gatekeepers for phenomena like genital mutilation or other physical “beauty” torture practices). It is also a factor in white women’s racism where allegiance to white male oppressors is valued over identification with other women.
Rich returns to Cavin’s “rich and provocative, if highly speculative” ideas about the history of the rise of patriarchy within a posited context of matrilineal female-dominated social bands. I.e., that the mother-child bond with male children was allowed to overcome the purported practice of ejecting adolescent males. [Note: I’m glad that Rich added “highly speculative” here.] Thus the idea that the primacy of heterosexual pairings evolves from male exploitation of the mother-son parental bond. Whatever its origins, Rich suggests, is the question that feminism needs to address not so much simple “gender equality” but the enforcement of heterosexuality for the purpose of ensuring men’s unquestioned sexual, emotional, and economic access to women? And if this is the central problem of feminism, how does the erasure of lesbian possibilities undermine finding the solution?
In the third section of Rich’s article, she defines what she means by the terms “lesbian existence” and “lesbian continuum.”
[Note: this is a part of the article that I feel contemporary readers must work to enter with an open mind. The very phenomenon that Rich makes the center of this article--that a vast complex of social and historical forces combine to keep women from embracing the power of bonds with other women--continues to operate. There are ways in which use of the word “lesbian” are still being used to fracture and divide groups that by rights ought to be natural allies. I am not a disinterested bystander on this topic, as someone who identifies strongly with the label “lesbian” in a variety of its possible senses, and as someone willing to fight to the death to prevent the word from being turned into a poison pill by conservative forces who are trying to co-opt lesbian existence to weaponize it against other queer people. But that’s a rant for another time and place. For now, let me beg the reader to allow that “lesbian” can be used in an inclusive, rather than exclusive sense--in the sense used when we identify (the heterosexually-married) Sappho as a “lesbian”, when we embrace as historical antecedents the women described in 16-18th century texts as “lesbians” on the basis of erotic/romantic relationships between women, even when those same women also had erotic/romantic relationships with men.]
It’s worth quoting Rich extensively here. “Lesbian existence suggests both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence. I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range--through each woman’s life and throughout history--of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. If we expand it to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support; if we can also hear in it such associations as marriage resistance and the “haggard” behavior identified by Mary Daly ... we begin to grasp breadths of female history and psychology which have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited, mostly clinical, definitions of ‘lesbianism.’”
The denial of lesbian existence is made possible by the lack of automatic access to a shared community and history (unlike the existence of identities that are based on ethnic, religious, or national identifies). Lesbian existence in history can be erased not only by prevention of the creation of a historic record, but by prevention of the transmission of that record [Note: see the reason we don’t have the majority of Sappho’s poetry, or more recently the deliberate omission of vocabulary relating to lesbianism from the Oxford English Dictionary], or by the direct destruction of that record (e.g., the burning of letters and diaries). Lesbian existence can also be erased by a false equivalence of the lesbian experience as identical to that of men in homosexual relationships. [Note: in this section, we can see some unsettling hints of Rich’s woman-centered philosophy swallowing divide-and-conquer tactics when she notes that she wants to dissociate the lesbian experience from “male homosexual values and allegiances” and to consider it as “a profoundly female experience.”] Accepting “lesbian” as having only a clinical, medicalized definition divorces it from the experience of female friendship and comradeship, focusing only on the erotic and thus limiting the understanding of the erotic. [Note: She refers to the type of distinction seen in Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men where a qualitative line is drawn between romantic relationships between women based solely on whether those relationships had an erotic component. One angle that Rich doesn't---if I recall correctly--bring up explicitly, is that an insistence on a strict narrow clinical definition of "lesbian" as "a woman whose erotic desire and sexual activity not only is expressed overtly, but is solely directed toward women throughout her entire life." A big problem with such a narrow definition is that it essentially negates the possibility of finding lesbians in history.]
Rich works through a detailed catalog of the types of interactions between women that she wants to include under her concept of a “lesbian continuum” with the assertion that if all of those relationships can be dismissed as “deviant” in support of the proposition that heterosexuality is the only “natural” orientation for women, then women’s natural alliances with each other (and the resistance generated by those alliances) can be suppressed and dismissed. Similarly the “double-life” of women who would have preferred to devote themselves entirely to their relationships with women, but who married men for economic security, can be reclassified as “women’s natural preference for heterosexuality.”
The fourth section of Rich’s article is largely a summing up of her conclusions. Here are a few highlights. The denial of the reality and visibility of women’s passions for each other is a loss to the power of all women to change relationships between the sexes. It is based on a series of lies: that women are inevitably and tragically drawn to men even in destructive relationships, that women turn to women only out of hatred for men. So are all heterosexual relationships to be condemned? That’s the wrong question, she suggests, paralyzing us into a fixation on identifying “good” versus “bad” heterosexual relationships. It is the absence of choice--the refusal to acknowledge other categorical options--that must be addressed.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40b - Interview with Heather Rose Jones - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2019/11/09 - listen here)
Show Notes and Links
In this episode we talk about:
As has become the custom in SFF circles, this blog is to place on record those items I will have created in 2019 that might be of interest to those nominating and voting on SFF awards. (Or any other genre of awards, for that matter, but there really isn't any equivalent culture within the lesbian literary community.) At the actual end of the calendar year, I'll do my usual "What Hath She Wrote" post that summarizes all my activities, but this one is just for the plausibly SFF items.
Floodtide (November 2019, Bella Books) - Not actually out in the world yet at the time I'm posting this, but them's the breaks.
I'm going to the a bit daring and suggest that there's enough historic fantasy content in The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast to consider it eligible for consideration for SFF podcast awards. Specific episodes offered as evidence: a discussion of time-travel/time-slip motifs in f/f historical fiction, a discussion of and excerpts from Delariviere Manley's pseudo-utopian satire The New Atalantis, interview with author Katherine Duckett, interview with author Zen Cho, interview with author Molly Tanzer. I'd like to get people thinking of the podcast in this context even more in 2020 when the fiction series may publish historic fantasy as well as plain historical fiction.
I'm drafting up entries for an Alpennia FAQ based on either overt or implicit questions I get asked about the books. This time I tackle one more of the possible genres the books might fall in:
Are the Alpennia books SFF?
The Alpennia series fits very comfortably into the broad, general category of “science fiction and fantasy” or SFF for short. The magical elements place them solidly into the fantasy genre, and they also fit comfortably into the subgenres of “Regency fantasy” (more or less “settings that feel like Regency romances but have fantastic elements added to them”) and “fantasy of manners” (sometimes contrasted with genres like “high fantasy” that tends to deal with epic quests and the fate of empires, whereas a “fantasy of manners” tends to derive its conflicts and triumphs from the rules and mores of a stratified social structure).
As a reader and author, I tend to consider the SFF community to be my home town, and the SFF literary tradition to be my native tongue. As a generalization, I’d say that the Alpennia books have most easily “clicked” with people who consider themselves SFF readers. Other SFF readers may feel that the significant romance elements push them out to the margins of that genre. And for those who classify books based on publisher, the fact that Bella Books is not a SFF publisher undermines categorizing Alpennia as such. So, as for most of these questions, much depends on which factors you emphasize.