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Saturday, February 22, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43d - The Evolution of Butch as a Lesbian Signifier - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/02/22 - listen here)

Special Note: A slide-show version of this podcast will be available to Patreon sponsors of either the LHMP or TLT (See links at the end of the post) Slide-show will go live of 2020/02/23.


In an iconic scene from the classic black and white movie Queen Christina, Greta Garbo stands at the prow of a ship wearing a doublet and feathered hat, sailing away from her crown and off to adventure. In Morocco, the fabulous Marlene Dietrich in a form-fitting tuxedo serenades and kisses a female nightclub patron. In the more recent period drama The Favourite, Rachael Weisz as the Duchess of Marlborough strides through the queen’s chambers wearing high black leather boots and breeches.

These scenes have two things in common: from a queer perspective, they are hot, hot hot! And one of the things that makes them hot, is the strategic use of male-coded clothing on an unambiguously female body. But when and how did these two features become joined together?

F/f historical fiction and visual media are full of women whose romantic and sexual interests are signaled to the consumer by the strategic use of male-coded garments. And 20th century lesbian culture (using “lesbian” in the broadest sense) has a fascination with butch stylings. To the audience, these signifiers can be read either as deliberately indicating the wearer’s own orientation, or as being inherently attractive to the woman-loving woman. To a contemporary viewer, this connection may seem so obvious that we don’t question whether it has always existed. So let’s explore the question of how and when it developed. For the author of f/f historical fiction, it can be very useful to know how your characters might have understood “mannish” clothing, and what forms it might have taken in the era being written about.

I’ve previously discussed how some past cultures considered that desire for the female body was an inherently masculine experience, and that therefore women who desired women were viewed as behaving like men. I’ve also previously discussed the use of gender disguise to enable two women to appropriate the forms of heterosexual marriage in order to have their relationship recognized--as well as the ambiguous territory between that and transmasculine lives. Today’s show inevitably touches on behavioral masculinity as well as masculinity in dress. Both themes contribute to the development of butch images, and both threads are part of the weave, but today’s show will revolve primarily around clothing.

Historic Attitudes Toward Clothing Gender

The historic relationship in popular imagination between female same-sex desire and masculine-coded presentation is complex. Clothing and behavior are inevitably assigned gendered meaning, but those meanings aren’t static and fixed. In ancient Greece and Rome, manly men railed against the wearing of trousers because it was an effeminate Persian practice. Real men wore tunics. So the issues around gendered clothing are rarely about objective features of the clothing itself, but about the meanings assigned to those garments.

Aside from the question of what counted as a masculine or feminine garment, there was the question of how society interpreted wearing garments associated with a different gender. This is part of a larger question of how society reacted to people wearing garments associated with any category they didn’t belong to. Pre-modern society didn’t necessarily see clothing as an arbitrary accessory to one’s identity; clothing was your identity, in some essential sense. Sumptuary laws weren’t only concerned about people overspending their clothing budgets but also that people might wear clothing that was above their station and thus lay claim to rank. (I’m waving hi to my girlfriend Lauri at this point, because this is a vast oversimplification of her academic field!)

Cross-dressing was a concern, not only because it might confuse or deceive the observer, but because it might directly affect the gender of the wearer. This fairly extreme understanding of the expression “clothes make the man” began to fade around the 16th century, but that only gave rise to a more complex anxiety about gender confusion in clothing.

When historic texts talk about women openly wearing male-coded garments, we are dealing with concerns that the women will either gain or claim male attributes, but we also need to look more closely at how people understood “male attributes”. So let’s look at that question a bit.

Gendered Clothing Confers Gender Characteristics

The most immediate aspect of male identity that a woman might claim would be the social freedom and status that men had in relation to women. If women could wear male garments, they might want legal equality, or the freedom to move through the world as beings with independence and agency. They might turn the entire social hierarchy upside down. They might want--as the saying goes--to wear the pants. In medieval and Renaissance iconography, the image of a man and woman fighting over a pair of pants--often in the form of male underpants--was used to signify the battle of the sexes and the specter of women claiming the upper hand over men. And when feminist movements began to gain traction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the hostility directed against feminists regularly brought up masculinity in clothing as both a symptom and cause of their political positions.

Types of social activities that were considered to be the prerogative of men--such as active sports--were another area where masculine clothing featured. This wasn’t simply a matter of masculine styles being more suited to physical activity. For one thing, the association was applied to intellectual pursuits as well as physical ones. But also, the adoption by women of masculine garments for active pursuits didn’t necessarily enable mobility.

One area where we can trace this association is in the fashions of women’s horseback riding garments. In the early modern period, we see women adopting design features of male garments for riding habits--and being called Amazons for doing so--but without discarding skirts and the awkward riding postures that they called for. Wearing a riding habit even when not on horseback became a symbol both of an active lifestyle but also a rejection of more feminine fashion conventions. I’ll touch back on that topic a bit later.

If you want a modern example of a similar phenomenon, consider the design of women’s business suits, that lay claim to a place in the world of upscale employment in a way that more “feminine” dresses don’t, while still being clearly female garments.

Moving into the realm of sexuality, the most fundamental difference in pre-modern culture was that men were expected to be the active, controlling partner in sex, while women were expected to be receptive and acted on, rather than being sexual agents. Of course, medieval people recognized that women had sexual appetites--perhaps even stronger ones than men did--but the essential gendering was not in what type of partner one chose, but in what role one took in sex. This meant that women who wore male garments were viewed as being sexually aggressive, or simply sexually unruly, because that was the spin put on women who behaved sexually in ways that were considered normal and expected for men. They might claim male agency in the right to have partners outside of marriage, to disdain chastity, and have the right to say both yes and no to sex. Sexual interest in women was considered masculine, but it wasn’t the only aspect of sexuality that was assigned to men.

Another sexual strand in the weave is the way cross-gender theatrical performance created same-sex possibilities in the erotic imagination. Considerations of how to interpret 16th century English theater with its boy-actors playing women pretending to be men falling in love with women who were also boy-actors...well, it was complicated. But more directly relevant to today’s topic, once women were allowed on the English stage in the 17th century, they were soon followed by the phenomenon of women playing male roles in male clothing (while still being openly known to be female actors) attracting the dual possibilities of male desire for female anatomy that was being more clearly displayed than usual, and female desire that could be excused as being for the role and not for the person playing it--oh, no, not at all! Heaven forbid! For that matter, women openly wearing male clothing in the context of performance could also offer cover to men who were attracted to the appearance of masculinity while being able to claim the reality of heterosexual relations.

Not all of these contexts and interpretations are directly related to same-sex attraction and desire, but together they created a context in which that association developed. So let’s look at a timeline of examples of that development, with increasingly overt homoerotic associations.

Cross-gender Garments Signifying Sexual Unruliness

At the very heart of the matter, women wearing masculine items of clothing symbolized gender non-compliance. They were the mark of a rule-breaker, and especially a sexual rule breaker. Covert cross-dressing might be read in the same way, if discovered, but masculine cross-dressing when the body underneath was openly female was a direct challenge. For male spectators, sexual rule-breaking was assumed to mean a lack of chastity, a sexual wantonness. It primarily focused on heterosexual transgressions of expected female behavior.

In a 14th century English account of a group of women showing up at a tournament in male clothing, two things are clear in the author’s mind: that they were women despite the clothing, and that their purpose included to “wantonly and with disgraceful lubricity display their bodies.” That they had “slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint.” This was not a case of mere masculine stylings or individual male garments. They were dressed in complete male outfits. How the women themselves intended the event is not recorded, alas. And unlike similar scenes in chivalric literature, there’s no indication that any female spectators fell in love with the women. But our chronicler gave their performance a clearly sexual interpretation.

Intent is somewhat more in evidence in a number of records of women wearing masculine garments in a sexual context--or at least a sexualized one. In the 15th century, Joan White was arrested in London for being “wont to dance and make revels in her master’s house, sometimes in man’s clothing and sometimes naked.” There are even more London records in the next century of women, such as Helen Hudson, who are charged with prostitution being cited for wearing men’s clothing at the request of their clients. The descriptions don’t always make it clear how obvious the women’s actual sex was, but their partners at least can be presumed to be aware.

There are a couple of points to make with respect to these women. Any woman at that time who had extramarital sex could be considered a prostitute. An economic transaction wasn’t required, only illicit sex. The sexual associations of cross-gender garments suggest the interpretation that they may have been charged with prostitution because of the gender play, rather than engaging in gender play because they were prostitutes. But secondly, their sexual unruliness is either in the context of a heterosexual relationship or perhaps in a mock-enactment of a male-male relationship. The suggestion of female homoeroticism isn’t much mentioned in this context.

The anxieties of gender-blurring that began appearing in England in the 16th century and on into the next were both a crisis of category--OMG dogs and cats living together!--but specifically a crisis over women leaving the category of domestic modesty for that of sexual agency. The polemical tract Hic Mulier describes such clothing as: “exchanging ... the modest upper parts of a concealing straight gown, to the loose, lascivious civil embracement  of a French doublet, being all unbuttoned to entice ... and extreme short waisted to give a most easy way to every luxurious action.” Those unfamiliar with late 16th century clothing may need help envisioning the subtleties. The “modest upper parts of a concealing straight gown” can be imagined as a long, loose one-piece dress. Whereas much ado is made over the half-unbuttoned doublet--a sort of jacket--noted as being short to the waist. Both the unbuttoning and the short length are framed as being for the purpose of easy access to what lay beneath: the woman’s bosom. A woman choosing this outfit would be wearing it with a skirt, not trying to be read as a man. It was only the styling and tailoring of the garment that carried the suggestion of wantonness, partly in its physical design, partly in the wearer’s obvious lack of fucks. Well, or perhaps not a lack after all.

In one specific case, an early 17th century woman wearing this sort of hybrid-gender outfit is accused, at least obliquely, of being sexually wanton without regard to the gender of her partner. Mary Frith, better known as Moll Cutpurse (about whom I did an entire podcast) was notorious for wearing a mix of male and female garments, typically a man’s doublet over a skirt. When her contemporary immortalized her as a stage character in The Roaring Girl, one character in the play suggests that Moll “might first cuckold the husband, and then make him do as much for the wife.” That is, that she might seduce both members of a couple in turn. I won’t claim that this is the first instance where we can find the intersection of female same-sex desire and the open wearing of male-coded garments, but it’s probably as solid an example as you’re going to get in that era, due to the sexual ribaldry of the play.

Theatrical Contexts Interpreted as Sexually Desirable to Men but Also to Women

I want to pause for a moment to touch on some of the complications of interpreting gender-coding on stage or by people who were professional performers. When the fictional version of Moll Cutpurse is depicted on stage as having bisexual desires, alongside wearing a mix of male and female-coded garments, the implication is that both are features of her personality, not necessarily that wearing a male doublet made her more attractive to women. At that time, the intersection of cross-gendered clothing and female homoeroticism on stage largely invoked motifs of disguise and misperception rather than deliberate communication.

In one sense, cross-dressed actresses fit into today’s theme in that they are a case of someone known to be a woman wearing male garments. But the question is whether their choice to play such roles was an indication--or was read by others as an indication--of an interest in same-sex relations.

One might think that late-17th century French opera singer and swordswoman Julie d’Aubigny would be a perfect example in my timeline of this connection, but in many ways she’s an anomaly. She wore male clothing openly in a performance context (where the performance was demonstration sword fights) but also as an everyday practice. She took an assertive role in courting women with evident success. People responded to her as a rulebreaker, but to some extent she was so over-the-top that looking for subtle sartorial signaling is beside the point.

Another potential theatrical example was Charlotte Cibber Charke, who wrote a fictionalized autobiography about her adventures on stage and off in 1755. Charke was famous for playing “breeches parts” on stage but describes how she was attracted to masculine clothing and activities from an early age, with mixed reactions from her parents. Off stage, she frequently traveled and socialized as “Mr. Brown”, attracting the interest of women who variously were and were not aware of the disguise, though she seems to have always been scrupulous about laying out the facts before going further than flirtation. She had one very long-term female partner and they sometimes presented themselves as a male-female married couple. As with d’Aubigny, Charke presented a juxtaposition of sometimes being read as male--both on stage and off--with a romantic life that involved both female and male partners, but there are only traces of evidence that she may have used a masculine presentation to advertise her romantic and sexual interests. In contrast to Moll Cutpurse and Julie d’Aubigny who may have been attracted to the theater for the opportunity to experiment with presentation and identity, Charke was born to the trade. Her father, Colley Cibber, was a prominent actor, theater manager, and playwright. In addition, there is a plausible case to be made for reading Charke more as transgender than as simply playing with cross-gender presentation, which adds complications to the interpretation.

A better theatrical example is another Charlotte: 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman. (I did an entire podcast on her, too.) Like Charke, she became known for playing breeches parts--though she was also famous for strong and quirky renderings of non-romantic female characters. In Cushman’s case, there is ample documentation that female spectators responded to her as a romantic and erotic icon, swooning over her Romeo and Hamlet, with the plausible deniability that their feelings were purely a matter of sensibility when directed to a female object. But Cushman blurred the lines between performance and life. She used her roles as a context for flirtations with women, including some flirtations that developed into serious relationships. Cushman also wore “mannish” styles off stage, including a period of look-alike fashion with her romantic partner radical author and feminist Matilda Hays. It was something of a fashion among the feminist set in the mid-19th century to wear masculine-style tailored jackets and shirts, as well as masculine hats, a topic I’ll come back to later.

But by Cushman’s time, the relationship between mannish clothing and same-sex romantic interests was solidly established. So let’s go back in time a bit to see more of the development phase.

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Male-coded Garments in Gender Play Combined with Same-Sex Erotics

Early examples of openly wearing masculine garments while also openly engaging in same-sex erotics evolve in the context of gender play, often within a fictional all-female society where the cross-dressing offers an illusion of the gender binary.

Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure, written in 1668, is set among an all-female retreat. Among the amusements the women enjoy is for some of them to dress in masculine clothing and “act lovers-parts”, engaging in courtship, though it is passed off as being a game.

A similar fictional women-only social group “The New Cabal” is depicted in detail in Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, published in 1709. (And, once again, I’ve done a podcast on the topic.) Here the erotic relationships between the women are covered with the flimsiest of performative disbelief. While the majority of the ladies of Manley’s Cabal are presented as being feminine in appearance and being attracted to each other’s femininity, one couple is described as adopting masculine dress to go off and have sexual adventures with prostitutes, in this passage.

The witty Marchioness of Sandomire...used to mask her Diversions in the Habit of the other Sex, and with her Female Favourite, Ianthe, wander through the Gallant Quarter of Atalantis in search of Adventures. ... the little Liberties she took with her own Sex... These Creatures of Hire, failed not to find their Account, in obliging the Marchioness's and Ianthe's peculiar Taste...”

This is still a matter of taking on a complete gender disguise, though one that was known to her female partner--and evidently to the sex workers they visited. We haven’t yet entirely integrated that “peculiar taste” in sexual partners with the practice of only partially and openly wearing male garments on a female body.

A similar intersection appears in the 1744 novel The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, in which the title character and another woman travel around Europe together in male disguise, flirting with women and having romantic adventures, while at the same time expressing (though evidently not consummating) romantic and erotic feelings for each other. Once more, this isn’t a case of someone who is read by those around her as female but using masculine garments. Other than the two women’s knowledge of each other’s sex, the male clothing functions as a disguise. The characters overtly use gender disguise as cover for expressing same-sex desire, even between themselves.

And yet in all of these cases, the reader is privy to the knowledge of the women’s sex and therefore is invited to make a connection between their sexual desires and their clothing choices.

Women with Same-Sex Interests Depicted as Behaving Mannishly

These are the roots of the intersection of cross-dressing and same-sex desire: the expression of that desire via play-acting heterosexual roles, and the interpretation of sexual agency as an inherently masculine characteristic. But by the time Mademoiselle de Richelieu was published, another trope has begun to emerge: the behaviorally “mannish” woman where the behavior is correlated with sexual interest in women. The earliest examples follow something of an “essentialist” position, focusing on physical appearance and behavioral mannerisms as reflecting innate erotic desires, rather than focusing on deliberate choices in presentation.

In the fictionalized biography, Memoirs of the Life of Count Grammont by Anthony Hamilton, published in 1713, male characters compete for the attention of a series of young women with Mary Hobart, who has charge of the maids of honor in the Duchess of York’s household. Mistress Hobart is presented in derisory terms as behaving in an aggressively masculine way toward the women she desires--and that desire is presented in clearly sexual terms--but her clothing choices aren’t mentioned. In fact, following a motif popular in earlier centuries, Hobart’s erotic desire for women is hinted as being evidence that she is actually physiologically male, even to the point of having impregnated her maidservant.

 “Miss Hobart's character was at that time as uncommon in England, as her person was singular, in a country where, to be young, and not to be in some degree handsome, is a reproach; she had a good shape, rather a bold air, and a great deal of wit, which was well cultivated, without having much discretion. She was likewise possessed of a great deal of vivacity, with an irregular fancy there was a great deal of fire in her eyes, which, however, produced no effect upon the beholders: and she had a tender heart, whose sensibility some pretended was alone in favor of the fair sex.

This becomes, unfortunately, an established trope in 18th century novels: a masculine-acting, predatory woman with same-sex interests. Samuel Richardson features such a character in two of his novels, which are among books frequently cited as helping to establish the modern novel as a genre. Pamela, published in 1740, is the story of a virtuous young woman in service who is steadfastly trying to resist the advances of her employer. In the following scene, her employer’s housekeeper, Mrs. Jewkes, shows her own amorous interest in Pamela.

“The naughty woman came up to me with an air of confidence and kissed me: See, sister, said she, here’s a charming creature! Would she not tempt the best lord in the land to run away with her? ... Every now and then she would be staring in my face, in the chariot, and squeezing my hand, and saying, Why you are very pretty, my silent dear! And once she offered to kiss me. [The protagonist describes Mrs. Jewkes, emphasizing the ugliness of her features.] “She has a hoarse, man-like voice and is as thick as she is long; and yet looks so deadly strong, that I am afraid she would dash me at her foot in an instant, if I was to vex her.”

Richardson’s other mannish stereotype appears in the novel Sir Charles Grandison, published in 1753. Here, the heroine is describing the people she meets at a party, most of whom are pursuing her for her fortune. Miss Barnevelt isn’t explicitly in that category, but does flirt with her.

“...Miss Barnevelt, a lady of masculine features, and whose mind bely’d not those features; for she has the character of being loud, bold, free, even fierce when opposed; and affects at all times such airs of contempt of her own sex, that one almost wonders at her condescending to wear petticoats. ... Nobody, it seems, thinks of an husband for Miss Barnevelt. She is sneeringly spoken of rather as a young fellow, than as a woman; and who will one day look out for a wife for herself. ... Miss Barnevelt said, she had from the moment I first enter’d beheld me with the eye of a Lover. And freely taking my hand, squeezed it. --Charming creature! said she, as if addressing a country innocent, and perhaps expecting me to be cover’d with blushes and confusion.”

Although Miss Barnevelt’s masculine appearance and behavior are described, the only mention of clothing indicates that what she wears is still within the feminine norm.

Not so in the case of Harriet Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (published in 1801). Freke is set up as antagonist and rival with Belinda for the bosom friendship of Lady Delacour. Delacour describes to Belinda her first impressions of Harriet Freke:

She was just then coming into fashion; she struck me, the first time I met her, as being downright ugly; but there was a wild oddity in her countenance which made one stare at her, and she was delighted to be stared at, especially by me; so we were mutually agreeable to each other – I as starer, and she as staree. Harriot Freke had, without comparison, more assurance than any man or woman I ever saw; she was downright brass, but of the finest kind – Corinthian brass. She was one of the first who brought what I call harum scarum manners into fashion. I told you that she had assurance – impudence I should have called it, for no other word is strong enough. Such things as I have heard Harriot Freke say! – You will not believe it”

But more to the point, on several occasions we’re given extended descriptions of Harriot’s cross-dressing, balancing right at the edge of disguise and delighted when she can reveal to people how she fooled them. Harriot performs a masculine stereotype of boisterous, assertive cheer and loudly voiced opinions. She is an abolitionist, a revolutionary, a feminist--and all these things are meant to be absurd and a sign of her folly, putting her beyond the pale in terms of conventional relationships. Her clothing falls between that of complete disguise, for her identity is generally known, and that of the masculine-flavored female garments that come next under consideration. While there are other examples of the motif at this era, she may be the most explicit depiction. But was Harriot Freke purely a literary invention or did she reflect a type of woman familiar to readers of the time?

The Sartorial Stylings of Amazons and Bluestockings

The relationship of masculinity to the clothing of women pursuing an active sporting life or an active intellectual life went in both directions. To the extent that extremely feminine styles were considered impractical for those interests either on a physical or philosophical basis, women “dressed for the job” as it were. But to the extent that women with sporting and intellectual interests were considered masculine in personality, any clothing styles associated with them were also interpreted as masculine.

Thus, certain features of a riding habit were practical for sporting pursuits, but some simply borrowed from masculine fashions--especially military ones--for the psychological associations. And once it was established in the popular imagination that women who enjoyed horseback riding were, in some fundamental way, masculine, then a riding habit could stand in for feminine masculinity in general. And a woman who took on masculine traits like wearing riding habits could be suspected (or accused) of having a “masculine” romantic preference for her own sex. Such women might be nicknamed “Amazons” for their active pursuits, but the nickname carried the reminder of an entire tribe of women who had little use for men.

The idea of women wearing a special type of outfit for horseback riding appears by the mid 17th century in England. The prolific diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in 1666 “Walking in the galleries at White Hall, I find the Ladies of Honour dressed in their riding garbs, with coats and doublets with deep skirts, just, for all the world, like mine; and buttoned their doublets up to the breast, with periwigs under their hats; so that, only for a long petticoat dragging under their men's coats, nobody could take them for women in any point whatever; which was an odde sight, and a sight did not please me.”

Masculine-style tailoring of the upper part of the garment--though always adapted for female figures--remained a key feature of the riding habit across the centuries, as evidenced by the fact that women often went to men’s tailors to order them, rather than to their dressmakers. Decorations and details borrowed from men’s military uniforms were especially popular, with braid, epaulettes, frogged closures, and a masculine hat on top of it all. Riding habits might borrow features from popular women’s clothing of the day, such as sleeve shapes, but they were always in conversation with men’s styles. When 19th century men’s fashions turned away from bright silks and lace to more severe and monotone styles, so did riding habits, settling eventually on dull colors and little decoration other than braid across the front.

(I should probably note at this point that I have a serious Thing for riding habits. I could write entire books revolving around excuses to get women into and out of them.)

In parallel with the Amazons in riding habits, we also see stereotypes that associate unfashionable dress with female intellectuals, embodied in the nickname of “bluestocking” named after the less fashionable blue woolen stockings of the 18th century contrasted with high-fashion black silk stockings. While the nickname originally could apply to either sex, it became solidly attached to women via the Blue Stockings Society, a mid-18th century salon presided over by Elizabeth Montagu. By the end of that century, the word had acquired the sense of a learned, pedantic woman. Bluestocking culture arose within a somewhat puritanical vein of middle-class English culture, and the tendency of many of its members to value study and writing over fashion and frivolity cemented the stereotype in the popular imagination of the over-educated, plain-dressing old maid. Not that Bluestockings were necessarily unmarried, but they tended to form their strongest and most supportive relationships with each other, finding men to be a disruptive force in their pursuits. Thus, the Bluestocking, too, picked up a suspicion of sexual irregularity, or at the very least a suspicious aversion to marriage.

The time was ripe for the stereotypes of Amazons and Bluestockings to become merged with the images of the masculine-acting lover of women.

Lesbians in Riding Habits

The stereotype is laid out most clearly in fiction, as we’ll see in a bit, but we have clear glimpses of its roots in everyday fashions. As I discussed in the podcast about late 18th century sculptor Anne Damer, her whispered reputation as “a lady much suspected for liking her own sex in a criminal way” was accompanied by--though not necessarily tied directly to--comments on the masculine elements in her chosen dress. A contemporary wrote: “The singularities of Mrs Damer are remarkable — She wears a Mans Hat, and Shoes, — and a Jacket also like a mans — thus she walks about the fields with a hooking stick.”

In the same era, the famous Ladies of Llangollen were known, among other eccentricities, for preferring to wear riding habits as everyday dress. Despite the deliberate similarity of the couple’s clothing, when their appearance was remarked on in a newspaper article in the 1780s that described their elopement and their life together, this garment was specifically assigned to Eleanor in the following passage.

“Miss Butler is tall and masculine, she wears always a riding habit, hangs her hat with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoats which she still retains. Miss Ponsonby, on the contrary, is polite and effeminate, fair and beautiful.”

These descriptions were designed to match a popular stereotype, not to reflect reality, for Eleanor was short and at the age of 51 rather plump, rather than resembling a “tall young man.” Additional descriptions in the article made clear innuendo about their relationship to each other--sufficiently clear that Eleanor consulted a friend about the advisability of suing the newspaper for defamation.

While Eleanor Butler’s diaries don’t seem to touch on their rationale for their distinctive style of dress, we get a bit more interior commentary on the subject from the diaries of Anne Lister, another contemporary of theirs. The recent tv series based on Lister’s life presents her as adopting a very masculine style of dress, but in the diaries we see her edging into that presentation gradually, first deciding to wear black, and later recording references to cravats and other masculine-style items. Her internal motivations suggest a relation to gender identity. She is uncomfortable with high-fashion feminine styles, but there also seems to be a contributing streak of frugality and just plain can’t-be-bothered-ness in her dress.

Perhaps even more clearly demonstrating the association in people’s minds between riding habits and same-sex romance are Lister’s comments on the clothing of her acquaintance Miss Pickford. Both Pickford’s preference for riding habits and her intellectual pursuits lead Lister to cautiously sound her out about her romantic interests--while considering whether she herself might be the object of that interest.

Lister’s diary records, “She cares nothing about dress; never notices it. ... She supposes me like herself. How she is mistaken! She loves her habit and hat. She is better informed than some ladies and a godsend of a companion in my present scarcity, but I am not an admirer of learned ladies.” Later, she critiques Miss Pickford for the same indifference to clothing that she herself has, saying “I wish she would care a little more about dress. At least not wear such an old-fashioned, short-waisted, fright of a brown habit with yellow metal buttons as she had on this morning.” And then, on another meeting, notes that Pickford was wearing a mourning gown and bonnet and that “she looked better, more feminine than in her habit.” When Miss Pickford takes up with a Miss Threlfall, she and Lister carefully negotiate a common understanding of their romantic interests. Taken as a whole, the observations show that Anne Lister considered Miss Pickford’s dress as correlating both to intellectual pursuits and to a romantic interest in women--but also specifically as carrying a masculine air. Lister might find her a stimulating friend, but was put off romantically by someone who mirrored her own masculine-flavored gender performance.

This stereotypical romantic pairing of the “butch” Amazon with the “femme” Bluestocking is perfectly encapsulated in Charlotte Lennox’s 1790 novel Euphemia. In fact, the descriptions of Lady Cornelia and Miss Sandford illustrate the stereotype so well that they are worth an extended quotation. You may notice that there isn’t an explicit claim that the two are a romantic couple--although we’re solidly in the middle of the Romantic Friendship era and it may be taken for granted--but there’s a clear indication that they aren’t considered desirable by men. Particularly worth noting are the regular comparisons of Miss Sandford to the goddess Diana.

 “I have rare news for you, Sir John; who do you think is come to breakfast with you? even the learned and scientific Lady Cornelia Classick, with the Diana of our forests, the fearless huntress Miss Sandford, who, at the age of forty-five, declares her fixed resolution never to marry, though an Endymion were to court her; and boasts of her wonderful art in keeping the men at a distance.”

[The female narrator contrives to keep to her room during the visit and only peers out the window to see the visitors as they leave.]

There is my uncle leading Lady Cornelia with the most gallant air imaginable. By the motion of her hand and head it would seem that she is discussing some deep question in politics, theology, or the belles lettres; and my uncle, by his asenting nods, is fully convinced I observe.

But here comes the virgin huntress, with Mr. Greville on one side of her, and Mr. Harley on the other. I protest she does not accompany Lady Cornelia in the carriage, but mounts her steed with most masculine agility, to escort her female friend. Her military riding habit, the fierce cock of her hat, the intrepid air of her countenance, make her have the appearance of a very respectable guard, Ah! what a pity she has petticoats!

[The narrator then joins the men to listen to them mocking their erstwhile visitors.]

“Lady Cornelia,” said Mr. Greville, “does not mix in company to converse, but to make orations. She will stun her female visitants of sixteen with learned gibberish; gives rules for epic and dramatic poetry, and cannot endure a comedy that is not within the law of four-and-twenty hours.”


“A man makes a silly figure,” said Mr. Harley, in company with so learned a Lady, and her Amazonian friend. Talents so masculine, and so ostentatiously displayed, place them above those attentions and assiduities to which the charming sex have so just a claim, and which we delight to pay. Women should always be women; the virtues of our sex are not the virtues of theirs. When Lady Cornelia declaims in Greek, and Miss Sandford vaults into her saddle like another Hotspur, I forget I am in company with women: the dogmatic critic awes me into silence, and the hardy rider makes my assistance unnecessary.”

In a similar vein is a brief episode in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas in 1844 in which the rebellious and intellectual Eugénie Danglars, who is described as seeming “to belong a little to another sex” flees an unwanted marriage with her “inseparable companion” in male disguise. “She took a man's complete costume, from the boots to the coat, and ... with a promptitude which indicated that this was not the first time she had amused herself by adopting the garb of the opposite sex, Eugenie drew on the boots and pantaloons, tied her cravat, buttoned her waistcoat up to the throat, and put on a coat which admirably fitted her beautiful figure. "Oh, that is very good—indeed, it is very good!" said Louise, looking at her with admiration.” It is not the temporary disguise that aligns her with our theme, but the prior description of her as being masculine in personality and behavior, combined with the romantic elopement with a woman--and that woman’s open admiration of how she appears in male garb. She is a transitional character: the masculine behavior is overt, the cross-dressing covert, except to her lover.

“Mannish” Clothing and the Decadent Movement

But over the course of the 19th century, the stereotype of the “mannish,” sexually suspect woman moves from mockery to accusation, for which we must turn our attention to France. The rise of French novels about sexual love between women came hard on the heels of the rise of a feminist movement in early 19th century France and is often interpreted as rooted in male anxieties about women’s social freedom and power. Feminism often went hand in hand with a rejection of extremes of feminine dress, if not an outright embracing of masculine styles. And the close supportive relationships among women in feminist movements--whether also romantic or not--were often read by their contemporaries as challenging heterosexual norms.

But although French literature in the 1830s and later followed the war-cry “épater le bourgeois” (roughly: shock middle-class sensibilities), they were antagonists, not allies, to the feminist cause. The decadent movement was a major force in creating the stereotype of the “mannish,” predatory, sexually ambiguous or overtly lesbian character, such as Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (in 1835) or Émile Zola’s novel Nana in 1880.

This isn’t to say that there were no actual women who fit the type--including some who were decadent writers themselves. There were rumors as early as the 1830s about author George Sand’s relationships with women (although her famous lovers were men), and she depicted desire between women in her novel Lélia.

With later examples it can be hard to distinguish between women who inspired the stereotype and those who were inspired to adopt it for their own purposes. Women in theatrical professions might flaunt cross-gender outfits on stage and in everyday life as well, deliberately using them to attract female fans. But non-theatrical women also used male clothing in the context of courting female lovers: including Natalie Clifford Barney, the Marquise de Belbeur who partnered the famous writer Colette, the painter Rosa Bonheur.

By the end of the 19th century, French illustrated magazines and scandal rags had fixed the image of a lesbian set: peopled with women wearing masculine vests, jackets, and hats (with their skirts--or sometimes, more daringly, with pants) entertaining their more traditionally feminine companions--or sometimes similarly butch lovers--in cafés, taverns, or clubs, especially in the bohemian Montmartre district. Even more than descriptions in literature, the sketches and paintings of the time make clear the place of clothing in identifying these “young women following in Sappho’s footsteps” as author Rodolphe Darzens described them in 1889.

But I think I’ll leave the story here. By the time we’ve arrived at the 20th century, the association in people’s minds of a deliberate choice of masculine-coded garments with a sexual inclination toward women had become solidly established. It was no longer merely an accusation made against women who were considered to transgress gender norms in other ways, nor was it always an expression of a male gender identity trying to find expression in the context of allowable variations in style. Butch clothing was also being used as a playful signal, a means of participating in a community of practice, and of communicating desires that--though they were beginning to have more explicit labels--were not always wise to speak in words.

I’ll be posting a summary timeline of the content of this podcast on my Patreon, aimed at authors and artists who want to represent proto-butch characters in a historically based fashion. It’s part of an irregular series of practical reference materials provided as bonus content that I’m just beginning to create. Become a patron and check it out!

Links and References

People and Publications (Links are to LHMP blog posts or podcasts unless otherwise noted)

Other References Used

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

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Monday, February 17, 2020 - 07:00

The mentions of late 19th and early 20th century poetic "collaborators" with Sappho provided some suggestions for yet another poetry podcast. (I rather like doing poetry podcasts.) It's interesting, though, as Gubar points out, that even woman-loving women who looked to Sappho as a role model had a tendency to set her apart as a distant ideal--a symbol of all the lost women poets over the ages--while often disparaging the non-lost women poets of their own time in favor of more "masculine" verse. Internalized misogyny is a bitch.

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Full citation: 

Gubar, Susan. 1984. "Sapphistries" in Signs vol. 10, no. 1 43-62.

Gubar looks at the ways in which poets and writers have used and reinterpreted both the poetry and the image of Sappho across the ages, particularly in the context of sexuality. In the early decades of the 20th century, as translators were shifting to honoring the female pronouns in Sappho’s work and classicists were re-examining the myths of her life, a wide range of women writers focused on Sappho as an inspiration and model for their own work.

This focus included rejecting images of Sappho as chaste or the myth of Sappho’s suicidal leap for rejected love of a man. Virginia Woolf held up Sappho’s era as supplying an essential context for women’s literary accomplishment: artistic predecessors, membership in a group where art is discussed and practiced, and freedom of action and experience.

The flip side of this was that even literary women sometimes held up Sappho as a sole exception to the rule that “women’s simply awful” (Edith Sitwell). Sappho could be held up as a lost ideal while failing to challenge contemporary dismissal of women’s poetry in general. At the same time, Sappho could be used to stand in for all the lost literary women in history (without having to champion any particular non-lost women).

The massive gaps in Sappho’s surviving work inspired rather than intimidated women by creating the need for a “contemporary collaborator” to fill in those gaps. Such different poets as Renée Vivien and H.D. could collaborate with Sappho to produce wildly different images of the lesbian experience. Vivien embraced the French decadent image of a sadistic and devouring Sappho (there is a long discussion of her writing in this context), while H.D. is more lyrical and yearning, addressing the contradiction for a woman poet between the artist and feminine socialization.

The article covers (at less length) several other authors who embraced Sappho’s tradition, including Amy Lowell whose sapphic poetry celebrated her lifelong companion Ada Russell, and a wide variety of writers contemporary to this article (i.e., 1980s). Gubar concludes that “early twentieth-century lesbian poets had to reach back into antiquity to find a literary foremother...empowered to do so by the formation of autonomous female communities that the friendships of nineteenth-century women poets could only adumbrate.” She sees 19th century women poets as isolated and the rise of modern sapphic poetry as enabled by new types of erotic unions and female friendships starting around the turn of the century.

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Event / person: 
Saturday, February 15, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43c - Book Appreciation with Stephanie Burgis - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/02/15 - listen here)

(transcript pending)


Books mentioned

Links to Stephanie Burgis Online

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - 07:10
Cover image: Merchants of Milan

Today I'm hosting a guest blog from Edale Lane, who talks about the reserach behind her Italian Renaissance f/f superhero historic adventure Merchants of Milan.

One thing about historical fiction–the author must do her research! Fantasy you create, contemporary you live, but historical requires hours upon hours of research. I’d love to say I whisked off on a plane for Italy and toured all the historic sites, saw the artists’ masterpieces up close, but sadly that was not an option. Instead, I explored hundreds of websites souring for each detail I needed for a scene.

Merchants of Milan is set in 1502 shortly after Leonardo da Vinci left for France. Leonardo and his work was a focal point of this novel as the central character, Florentina de Bossi, grew up learning from him as her father served as his assistant. While Florentina and her father are fictional characters, it was common for Master Leonardo to have an assistant or two and several apprentices at any given time, and a minor character, Cesare da Sesto, was an actual student of his who was recorded to be one of the artists to paint replicas of the Last Supper. Unlike what I did in Heart of Sherwood incorporating a cast of historical figures into the story, most characters in Merchants of Milan are fictional, with the notable exceptions of political rulers and generals.

I knew I wanted Leonardo da Vinci to be central (although the reader never meets him in this book) and Milan needed to be at war. Therefore, my preliminary research was aimed at selecting the right year. I chose Milan, even though Florence boasted more art (and don’t worry, our characters will visit that great city before the series ends), because of its wealth and importance to trade. Italy, though not a unified country yet for a few hundred years, was where cities and towns grew first in Europe thrusting it out of the feudal Middle Ages and into the era of knowledge and advancement known as the Renaissance. It was the wealth of the merchant class that paid the artists and architects, financed voyages of exploration, and built great universities. While these powerful men (and a few women) were not technically nobility, in the Italian city-states they were regularly richer and more influential than the counts, barons, dukes, and so forth. Additionally the Italian city-states from time to time enjoyed a type of representative democracy not envisioned or allowed in other parts of Europe.

Researching Leonardo da Vinci was a labor of love. My mother introduced me to the great master at a young age and I have always admired him. Florentina, who watched and learned from Leonardo, kept some of his sketches and used ideas from his inventions to create her own arsenal. The flying machine was one of Leonardo’s unrealized passions; Florentina combined elements from his flying machine, his parachute, and the parasol to create her “wings.” She also took ideas from da Vinci’s early take on a Gatling gun to improvise a multi-fire crossbow. He was knowledgeable in the medical field as well so she learned about potions, chemicals, drugs, and first aid. History does not record that Leonardo had discovered the lost formula for Greek Fire, but it is highly probably that he did just on principle but did not write it down lest it fall into the wrong hands. The story also includes little-known facts about the Last Super and a peep into da Vinci’s character. 

Researching the politics was not so enjoyable, but equally important to setting the stage. The ruling family of Milan, the Sforzas, had brought da Vinci to the city and commissioned great building and art projects. Milan flourished economically under their policies, but in 1500 Milan’s army was defeated by France, who was competing with Spain to gobble up the rich Italian city-states. The reins of power were passed to the French, and the Milanese were now expected to support French armies against Spain. Fortunately, none of the fighting actually reached the city of Milan and commerce continued unhindered.

The plot also hinged on historical research. At that time period in Italy wealthy merchants and bankers held the role that oligarchs do today, wielding their power in an almost mafia type style, and the vendetta was an important part of the culture. They did not have police forces as we do today; instead it was up to the family--traditionally a father, brother, or son–-to avenge a wrong done to one of its members. Florentina was an only child and a girl, so Don Benetto thought he acted with impunity when he dispatched her father. While women, particularly of the upper class, had more rights and power in Italy than most countries in Europe, they were still not expected or allowed to engage in most activities designated for men. Therefore, Florentina, an only child, found it necessary to create a disguise, a secret identity with which to carry out the family vendetta. Thus the Night Flyer was born!

How does a lesbian romance fit into the time period? Renaissance Italians of education and prominence prided themselves on being Humanists, enlightened individuals who took their cue from the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Since Classical Greek society (and to a lesser but still notable extend the Romans) saw no problem at all with same-sex relationships–as long as a man had a wife to grant him legitimate offspring and she performed that duty acceptably–neither did the sophisticated Humanist. However, the Catholic Church did frown upon such relationships and society at large gossiped and may exclude people they found to be too unsatisfactory. Of course if one was rich or important enough, people looked the other way. Homosexuality and bisexuality were fairly common and accepted within the artist community; no one cared as long as their paintings or sculptures were first rate.

Setting the scene also required hours of research. I wanted to make sure every plant, every piece of furniture, meal, and article of clothing was correct for the time and place, along with geography and climate information. Fortunately, we have the internet! As for language usage, that was much easier to accomplish for Heart of Sherwood because it was set in England. I had no problem locating terms and expressions even for the 12th century, but Italy… that’s a whole different language. Therefore, I sprinkled in a few familiar Italian words and tried to steer clear of words and phrases that sound too modern. They would have had slang back then too, but that was harder to pin down. I selected “dribble” and “pinnacle” because the terms are old enough and they seemed to fit. As for profanity, all the colorfulisms of today were in full use during the 16th century.

Having earned a master’s degree in history, I am no stranger to research. It is my goal to make every aspect of the story as authentic as possible, enveloping the reader in the setting, educating as well as entertaining–even when giving a girl wings and teaching her to fly!

Blog Tour Promotion

Edale Lane has a new FF historical romance out, book one of the Night Flyer Trilogy: Merchants of Milan.

Three powerful merchants, two independent women in love, one masked vigilante.

Florentina, set on revenge for her father’s murder, creates an alter-ego known as the Night Flyer. Madelena, whose husband was also murdered, hires Florentina as a tutor for her children and love blossoms between them. However, Florentina’s vendetta is fraught with danger, and surprising developments threaten both women’s lives.

Merchants of Milan is the first book in Edale Lane’s Night Flyer Trilogy, a tale of power, passion, and payback in Renaissance Italy. If you like gadgets and gismos, rich historical background, three-dimensional characters, and fast-paced action with a slow-boil lesbian romance, then you are sure to love this series. Buy this one of a kind novel today and let the adventure begin!

Publisher | Amazon eBook | Amazon Paperback


Edale is giving away a $20 Amazon gift card with this tour. For a chance to win, enter via Rafflecopter: a Rafflecopter giveaway


In the next instant Maddie placed a caressing hand to her face, leaned in, and kissed her. Although she had been anticipating this very possibility for hours, it came on her as swift and unforeseen as a summer storm. The sensual heat of those urgent lips melded to hers ignited something deep within Florentina’s core that sprung to life for the very first time and exploded throughout her being, a sensation so phenomenal, so novel that she had no context in which to place it. Breathless, her mind went totally blank, and she simply savored the moment.

When Madelena withdrew she whispered, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep.”

“Sorry?” Florentina’s heart sank and her head spun. How could she be sorry? “Why? I’m not.”

“You’re not?” Maybe Maddie was as uncertain as she, as overcome with raw emotion and not knowing how to express it. “It’s just that–and I have contemplated this–with me being your employer and all, I don’t want you to expect you must do something you aren’t comfortable with. I would never pressure you-”

It was Florentina’s turn to be impulsive. She silenced Maddie by repeating the gesture, tasting again those full, cherry lips that flooded her mind, body, and soul with sensations. When it broke, they gazed into each other’s eyes looking for confirmation. “I understand I am only a servant in your household.”

“Don’t say that!” Maddie replied firmly. “That is not how I view you. Please, Fiore. How can I explain?”

The earlier butterflies began to settle in Florentina’s stomach and the fog of trepidation evaporate. She could perceive that the beautiful wealthy widow did regard her with esteem, did have feelings for her. This was not a mere dalliance she realized. “I care for you also,” she spoke softly and stroked Maddie’s luxurious strands. “Do not think you press me to do something I have not wanted to do since the moment I first saw you.”

Relief engulfed Madelena’s expression, and she brushed her cheek to Florentina’s then nuzzled her neck with moist, eager lips. A euphoric sigh escaped Fiore’s mouth at the intimate touch and she pulled Maddie closer. When their lips found each other’s again she opened to the honey-sweet tongue that was impatient to delve into it. Without willing them to do so, she realized her fingers were wound in those silky red strands while her other hand slid down Madelena’s back as far as the bench would allow. She could perceive her heartbeat against her own heated breast. This is what she had dreamt of and it surpassed her expectations. All she wanted to do was touch, caress, explore, and please this singular woman. Even as she was rendered breathless from the physical passion, her heart was telling her head that what she felt was far more, endlessly deeper. It was a very dangerous cavern, a bottomless pit that could spell her doom; she was falling in love.


Madelena realized she was making a mistake. She had acquired a good tutor for her children and a new friend to share meaningful experiences with, but a romantic affair? Where could that possibly lead? What would her brother think or do when he found out, and she knew he would, eventually. Hadn’t she lived a well-disciplined life? Could she not control her desires for more than a few weeks?

As her mind was blaring at her all the reasons to say no, her heart had been pleading an opposing case. Yes, she had found a teacher and a friend, but in Florentina she had discovered abundantly more. She was interesting, witty, talented, intuitive, and compassionate. She opened whole new worlds to the widow whose entire education was meant only to prepare her to be a merchant’s wife. For the past six months she had felt lost, as if she had no place and no purpose. She had helped Alessandro with the bookkeeping and personal relations with customers, but she had also spent her nights alone speculating on what the future may hold for her. She still could not answer that question, but she had spoken honestly when she said that Fiore made her feel real and alive. Since growing closer to the dark-haired inventor’s daughter she had begun to experience so many things. And today–today had likely been the best day of her twenty-eight years on this earth! Then the emotion of sharing her story, it was just all too much to expect her to maintain self-control. But now that she had initiated this passionate encounter, what would she do next?

Presently, she drew back from those sultry lips trying to regain some restraint. “Have you ever been with a woman before?” she asked to fill the silence.

Florentina shook her head. “If you mean sexually, I am quite inexperienced with anyone, male or female. Years ago when Cesare told me he was attracted to men, I mentioned that I was more drawn to women. I didn’t think he’d ever say anything; it’s not like we talked about it much, but now,” she paused casting starry eyes at Maddie, “I’m glad he did.”

She smiled and stroked Florentina’s cheek. “So am I.”

“I know you have experience,” she noted. “So, what do we do next?”

What indeed! Madelena considered. “Take one step at a time. May I suggest we try to get some sleep and take a night to process it all? I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment.”

“You’re overwhelmed?” Fiore laughed. “I’m not certain my legs will carry me upstairs!”

Maddie hesitated to move, as the tug of an invisible cord was drawing her back to her newfound treasure. Neither was Florentina was moving away. One more kiss and you must move. Give both of us time to think. She touched her lips to Fiore’s and closed her eyes. What makes one kiss a sloppy flop and another a driving, sensuous pleasure? Is it one’s mental perception or a physical current that connects two individuals who are similarly charged? I can feel the energy pass between her and I unlike any other before.

“I shall see you in the morning.” She released Florentina and pushed herself to her feet with a sheer force of will. Florentina followed saying her good-nights and Madelena closed the bedroom door behind her as she left. Alone once more, she glanced around her empty chamber and wished her lover could have stayed all night.

Author Bio

 Edale Lane

Edale Lane is the penname used by Melodie Romeo for LGBTQ fiction novels. She is a native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, earned a bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of Southern Mississippi and a master’s degree in History from the University of West Florida.

Ms Romeo is a retired school teacher who currently travels the country as an over the road truck driver. Her first book, Vlad, a Novel, an historical thriller, was published in 2002. She has had short stories published in anthologies by Seventh Star Press, Charon Coin Press, Alban Lake Press, Less Than Three Press, and Past and Prologue Press.

Edale Lane’s first novel, Heart of Sherwood, is an historical retelling of the Robin Hood story supposing that the hooded outlaw had been a woman:

In addition to driving and writing, Melodie is also a musician who plays the French horn, composes, and has spent many years as a choral and instrumental director. She aspires to be a successful enough author to quit driving and devote herself to writing fulltime. Melodie resides in Utica, MS with her longtime partner, Johanna.

Some of her works can be found at

In 2019 Melodie founded Past and Prologue Press. Please visit her website.

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Major category: 
Guest Posts
Tuesday, February 11, 2020 - 10:28

I've sold two stories to the fantasy audio fiction podcast PodCastle -- both in a planned four-part series based on queer re-imaginings of the medieval Welsh Mabinogi. The first story, "Hoywverch" is a classic "wooing and winning" story in which a woman plays a risky trick on her lover's suitor to win her hand. The second, "Hyddwen" draws on the tradition of a debt to the Otherworld and impossible tasks to win one's freedom. I've known for some time that the fourth story would be riffing off of Culhwch and Olwen, with another wooing and winning story (involving the child of the original couple and with the theme "sometimes the answer is polyamory"), but also drawing on motifs of transformation from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. I've had it pretty solidly plotted out for a couple of years, but needed to get through the third story first.

All I knew about that third story was that it would be inspired by themes of the desired/lost child from the First and Fourth Branches of the Mabinogi (blending themes from Pryderi and Lleu), but I hadn't gotten much past the opening scene where Elin and Morfydd spend the night on top of a gorsedd and discover a mysterious child whom they adopt as their own. I knew the rest of the story would involve consequences of the child's origins, and the interference of some Otherworld figures from previous stories, but I didn't have the "queer hook" to inspire the throughline of the series.

This morning, on my drive in to work, I realized what the hook was and how it would make everything else fall into place. And in my coffeeshop writing session, I set up the Scrivener file for "Gwylan" with all the scenes and their summaries. Not entirely sure how I'm going to keep this down to 6000 words (which is the standard limit at PodCastle, which will of course be my market of choice) but it's a goal.

So what's the peculiar coincidence? Today PodCastle re-released "Hoywverch" as a Tales From The Vault episode. How's that for an Otherworldly seal of approval?

Major category: 
Writing Process
Monday, February 10, 2020 - 07:00

I'm not finished with my "foundational weighty tomes" project, but for the next few months I'm interspersing them with shorter articles on similar themes in order to catch my breath. This one starts a month of articles organized vaguely around the theme of Sappho.

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Full citation: 

Andreadis, Harriette. 1989. “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips, 1632-1664” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15(1):34-60.

I should really do a podcast about Katherine Philips sometime, because she's a great example of how debates over how and whether to apply the label "lesbian" in historic contexts can obscure and distract from examining the ways in which same-sex desire were expresed in different contexts. It does equal damage to her historic realities to focus on her heterosexual marriage and the question of wehther she ever, you know, actually had sex with women, or to focus on the clearly homoerotic content of her poetry and correspondence and dismiss both the realities of women's social and economic options outside of marriage, and the possibility that her marriage may have brought her a different sort of satisfaction.

The English poet Katherine Philips, writing in the mid-17th century achieved a significant reputation during her own lifetime, one of the earliest English female poets to do so. Despite a bourgeois background, her personal charm and talents brought her entry into court and literary circles. Her reputation would continue into the 18th century before fading into being considered merely sentimental and an example of the préciosité fashion, and of interest only for the male literary circles she intersected. Her significant body of poetry written for friends and associates was published only after her death, though later re-edited with additional non-poetic material including translations of plays and correspondence. During her lifetime, her reputation came from private circulation of her work--a limitation that affected many female poets of the era. In addition to the evidence of the passionate poems dedicated to her female friends, the evidence of her correspondence, especially with her close friend Sir Charles Cotterell, traces the intensely emotional connections she had with a series of women--connections that were explicitly set in conflict with the marriages of those friends, and contrasted with Philips’ decidedly tepid relationship with her husband.

Since the 18th century, her importance has been trivialized or overlooked and is worth a close examination. The core of her work is her emotional focus on other women and the passionate feelings for them that inspired her poetry. In this, she was creative in manipulating both the conventions of heterosexual love poetry, and that of platonic male friendship (with homoerotic overtones) in ways that can only be read as same-sex love between women.

In her youth, Philips created a “society of friendship” among her female circle that used pastoral nicknames and motifs from Italian and French romances. She framed her emotions in the context of neo-Platonism and although she drew on the conventions of the précieux tradition of the French court, she did not indulge in its exaggerated imagery. After the Restoration, her poetry had moved from a more private, contemplative style to public, neo-Classical works on public themes. But it is more accurate to say that she was part of the establishment of this fashion than to assert that she was simply following it.

Several women feature prominently in Philips’ poems. The first was Mary Aubrey, assigned the name “Rosania”. After Aubrey’s marriage, she was replaced in Philips’ affections by Anne Owen, known as “Lucasia.” These poems speak of the union of souls, of the ecstasy of being with the beloved, and of the purity and innocence of their love. If addressed from a man to a woman, there would be no hesitation in classifying them as expressing romantic love. The poems are not simply sentimental expression, but also set forth philosophical arguments for the importance of such love.

Philosophical discussions of (male) platonic love at that time drew from several sources and ideals, including male friendship bonds as the foundation of the civilized state, or platonic ideals of an idyllic retirement to nature. Philips took a more direct and impassioned approach but was in dialogue with those ideals.

Philips’ personal life must be considered when interpreting her literary output. The daughter of a wealthy London cloth merchant, at 16 she married the much older James Philips (54). Although the marriage was amicable, the two had many differences. Katherine loved London intellectual society while her husband preferred his manor on the west coast of Wales. She was a royalist, he was a parliamentarian. (This worked to both their advantages, protecting her during the interregnum, and giving him an advocate after the Restoration.) Separation from her husband (and children) never provoked the anguish that Phlips expressed when separated from her romantic female friends. Her relations with him were described as “duty.”

Despite her own marriage, Philips treated the marriages of her romantic friends as a betrayal, writing one on the topic of “apostasy” and complaining to a confidante that “the marriage of a friend [is] the funeral of a friendship.” A third focus of her passion raised more ambivalence as the woman--known only from her nickname “Berenice”--was a member of the aristocracy, and Philips’ expressions of devotion also carry a tone of supplication to a patroness.

Having achieved success with her plays in Dublin, Philips returned to London where she died of smallpox at age 31. [Note: Andreadis suggests that Philips’ inability to recover from the loss of Lucasia’s friendship two years earlier, combined with her husband’s financial difficulties “left her depressed...weakened, and vulnerable to disease.” I’m uncomfortable with this implication that her romantic disappointment contributed to her death--an echo of the queeress=death trope--especially given that plenty of perfectly happy and contented people died of smallpox in the same era.]

The public poetry that Philips wrote later in her life retained the forms of her friendship poems while lacking much of their passion and are not counted among the foundation of her genius. The combination of her life story and the content of her poetry makes it clear that it would be wrong to classify her poetry as anything other than homoerotic. She was also conscious of the connection between her work and the tradition of male friendship literature, as evidenced by her philosophical correspondence with various men on the topic of the nature and limits of friendship. Their answers could be less than satisfactory at times, often considering women incapable of true friendship to men, and not even entertaining the possibility of true friendship between women.

These responses failed to daunt Philips and her dedication to the topic drew comparisons with the classical poet Sappho, not only for the subject matter, but for her technical brilliance. Interestingly, her contemporaries often felt compelled to contrast Philips' “chaste Orinda” with Sappho’s sexual reputation, even while praising Philips’ verses as “vigorous and masculine”, “solid...and manly.”

This comparison to Sappho was shared with contemporary Aphra Behn, and both were referenced by other woman writers of the time as being an inspiration and model.

The phrase “Sapphic-Platonics” in relation to Philips’ work was coined in 1905 in an introduction to a new edition of her work. The implication of same-sex love invoked by comparisons to Sappho was available throughout Philips’ posterity. There is little direct evidence regarding erotic relations between women in 17th century England, but plentiful literary evidence of what people imagined was possible (see, for example, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Delariviere Manley’s “new Cabal” in The New Atalantis).

One might consider the shift noted by several historians in the later half of the 17th century for male same-sex erotics from an accepted (if not approved) facet of a variety of social institutions, to an increasingly isolated “sub-culture” with the development of molly houses and similar phenomena. The suggestion these historians make is that, before this shift, homosexuality was unacknowledged in import, but not unusual. [Note: but beware of assuming direct parallels between male and female culture.] Regardless of how such relationships were understood by the participants and their society, it is clear that women’s erotic same-sex relationships existed. (Andreadis discusses this in the context of various approaches to modern theories of sexuality and identity.) Philips’ texts can certainly be identified as “lesbian” regardless of one’s position on her own identity.

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Saturday, February 8, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43b - Interview with Stephanie Burgis - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/02/08 - listen here)

(transcript pending)


Books mentioned

Links to Stephanie Burgis Online

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

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Wednesday, February 5, 2020 - 09:00

The contracts are all signed, so here's the 2020 fiction series for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast! The order of appearance isn't set yet, so this is alphabetically by author.

  • Ferreira, Jeannelle M. "Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink" - danger and decisions in a Russian Jewish community in the late 19th century
  • Flavell, Caitlin "Talking to Ghosts" - those left behind find comfort from the supernatural (maybe?) in Victorian Scotland
  • Lundoff, Catherine "Cardinal's Gambit" - another adventure with the pirate Jacquotte Delahaye and the spy Celeste Girard, who featured in a previous story on this site
  • Morrison, Diane "A Soldier in the Army of Love" - a tale of war, persecution, and the Court of Love set in 13th century Provance during the crusade against the Cathars
  • Nestojko, Jennifer "Give us this Day" - a baker's widow in 13th century Brittany may have found a new flame...if only her dead husband would let go

Jennifer Nestojko's story is perfect for a Halloween tale, and I'm flipping a coin between Caitlin Flavell's and Catherine Lundoff's for the February story. One of the stories will be scheduled for January 2021 since I'll need to line it up before the next Call for Submissions is finished. I have a lead on a narrator for the Morrison story, but I'm looking for someone to narrate Ferreira's work--which requires a solid comfort level with Yiddish vocabulary and names. If you think that might be you, contact me and we can arrange a voice audition. (This is a paying gig.)

Thank you to all the authors who trusted me with their submissions. I'm really excited about this year's fiction series, which fulfills my goal of expanding to include historic fantasy.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2020 - 07:00
cover image: Moontangled

I think I have enjoyed every single thing I’ve read from Stephanie Burgis, though I haven’t real any of her middle grade series. When preparing to recording an interview with her for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast on the occasion of the release of Moontangled, I read the entire series leading up to it. Herewith are some briefer-than-usual reviews of the component parts.

Usually I copy my blog reviews in their entirety over to Goodreads, Amazon, and iBooks, but to avoid awkward repetition, this time I’ll do a general background review that only lives on the blog and then individual “likes” on each book for the commercial sites.

The series posits an alternate history in which 1) magic exists, and 2) during the Roman invasion of Britain, Boudicca was able to successfully repel the occupation, teamed up with her magic-wielding second husband, establishing a model in which women fulfill their natural role in government as the practical, hard-headed sex (selected to join the ruling Boudiccate), supported by their magical husbands who are better suited to the more emotional realm of sorcery.

In the only alt-historical aspect that I had to work to get past, this has made little disruption to the basic outlines and flavor of society in succeeding centuries such that we arrive in the early 19th century with a culture that is recognizably “Regency”, softened by Angland’s international affiliations being due to extensive trade rather than colonial conquest. Probably best not to poke at the questions too sharply (especially for someone like me who did much the same thing in my own alt-Regency series).

The central through-line of the series revolves around Cassandra Harwood, born to a prominent political family but far more interested in learning magic than strategy. Because, of course, it’s not the case that women can’t do magic, only that they don’t. Just as it’s not the case that men can’t be practical and logical, only that they aren’t asked to be. Cassandra--and her brother who similarly bucks gender expectations by declining to learn magic--begins the process of upending the structure of her world by winning the right to study formal magic. And then the consequences start arriving.

Oh, and there are elves and fairies and supernatural creatures with whom the human residents of Angland have very tenuous peace treaties...


In the aftermath of a calamitous magical mistake, Cassandra Harwood is trying to put her life back together in the middle of an unnatural snowstorm as the treaties with the fair folk are fraying dangerously. I very much liked how the initial social conflict (“Argh, my family are trying to throw me together with a man I’m trying to avoid!”) isn’t at all what it seems and we’re led through several different understandings of their back-story as the main conflict progresses. The world-building is intense without taking over the plot and the conflicts never feel manufactured. Charming and intriguing.


A prequel best read after you’d been introduced to the Harwood Spellbook series. The (future) sister-in-law of the central character of Snowspelled is a strong-willed woman who goes after what (and whom) she wants and brings about a satisfying conclusion by refusing to abandon the dreams of any of the people she loves. I particularly enjoyed the casual ethnic diversity of the characters.


Cassandra Harwood has established her girls’ school for magic but the accreditation board arrives with a magical curse in their wake. A bit of light mystery, more details of the engagements between human and supernatural characters in Burgis’s alt-historical Angland, and a quiet set-up for my favorite characters in the series to get their own story. I really enjoy how this series solves plot conflicts with good will and the building of bridges.


Juliana Banks and Caroline Fennell have been secretly engaged for...well, for the last couple books, but there’s one major obstacle to their love. No, not the fact that they’re both women, but the fact that in order to have a successful career as part of the ruling Boudiccate of Angland, Caroline must marry a magician. And until the establishment of the Thornfell (Women’s) College of Magic, only men were magicians. Now that Juliana is a star pupil at Thornfell, why has Caroline grown cold and distant? This is an engaging romance of miscommunication and mistaken self-sacrifice, complicated by a meddling wood-fairy who has her own agenda. A fun and heartwarming romance that pushes all my Regency fantasy buttons.

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Monday, February 3, 2020 - 07:00

Well, there it is: my final thoughts on Foucault. I'm glad I read it, but not sure I've taken away much of value except renewed skepticism.

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Full citation: 

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8

With this third volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality it’s time to sum up my impressions. And mostly I’m just confused why the big take-away that has made a mark in the study of sexuality is the whole thing about “pre-modern people didn’t have a concept of sexuality, they focused on acts not identities.” Because that’s not the theme I take away from this work at all. Oh, to be sure, in the first volume Foucault argues strongly against the pre-modern existence of “sexualities” in the sense of “personal identities that correlate with a particular sexual experience”. But I’m not sure he demonstrates that non-existence unless we’re defining “sexual identities” as only and specifically the set of identities considered standard today. I see evidence and arguments for identities throughout Foucault’s arguments, they just aren’t identities narrowly defined by the gender (or sex) of one’s partners, or by engaging in particular types of sex acts. I’ll agree that to understand sex in the past it’s necessary to break free of assuming that modern sexual identities are fixed, unversal, and exclusive. But I don’t see the evidence that it’s necessary to discard the concept of sexual identities entirely and to view all experience in terms of isolated acts and random expressions of personal taste.

The second take-away I get from reading Foucault (and which I suspected I was going to get before reading) is that any pretensions this work has to presenting some sort of philosophical truth are fatally undermined by the functionally exclusive focus on elite male experiences. Further, by the lack of any genuine self-awareness that this exclusive focus might be a problem. There are places where Foucault appears to acknowledge the narrowness of the population he's studying, but no acknowledgement that this negates any claim that he has to identifying a "truth" about sexuality in general.

In the first volume of this work, Foucault makes a strong point about how the supposed age of Victorian prudery was actually an era of obsessive, excessive focus on sex. He points out that “sexual repression” as a concept is actually a question of enforced control over who is allowed to talk about sex and how they’re allowed to talk about it. It’s unclear that he took these questions to heart and considered what topics he engaged in an obsessive, excessive focus on. How he was part of the social apparatus controlling whose voices on sexual topics were amplified and whose were suppressed.

At any rate, I have paid this part of my dues. But if reading The History of Sexuality changes any aspect of how I discuss sexuality research in the future, I suspect it will be that I drift away from using “Foucaultian” as a shorthand for “social-constructionism”. Because viewing sexuality as shaped by social constructs is a more expansive topic than the position he puts forth, and it embraces possibilities he argues against. And I don’t think that social-constructionism is necessarily in conflict with an understanding that some aspects of sexual desire are innate. But that’s a topic for another day.

Part 1: Dreaming of One’s Pleasures

This section examines Artemidorus’s book The Interpretation of Dreams--the only work of the (classical) period that systematically addresses different sexual acts. It’s the only survival of what was once an extensive literature of dream interpretation and was intended as a practical manual. [Note: One might say that professional dream interpreters were the psychoanalysts of the day.] Artemidorus also presented a theoretical argument for the validity of the field of dream interpretations.

Artemidorus identified two types of dreams: those that simply reflect the dreamer’s present state, and those that tell what is to come and shape the soul to implement it. Another dichotomy is between images that can be read transparently and those that must be read allegorically. The professional dream interpreter comes into play for the latter two of each pair.

Four chapters of the work involve sexual dreams, with other scattered references to sexual imagery. The sex acts in dreams fall in three categories: those in accordance with law, those contrary to law, and those contrary to nature. [Note: The distinction between these categories and the assignment of acts to them is also present in other types of texts, but this work is often cited for the underlying concepts as it discusses them overtly.]

As allegories, the nature of one’s partner in the dream (wife, mistress, prostitute, stranger, married or not, of higher or lower status) is the key to interpretation, not the nature of the act itself. Also relevant is the dreamer’s role in the act, whether active or passive. This distinction gets a bit fuzzy when dealing with things like the category for “against nature”. For a man to dream of being the passive participant in anal sex carries a negative interpretation not because anal sex is involved, but because it’s “unnatural” for a free adult man to be in this position relative to a lower status partner.

There is a very brief mention of interpreting the sexual dreams of women, but a male partner is assumed and the analysis is not detailed in the same ways as that of men’s dreams.

The category of acts “contrary to law” is explored primarily as meaning incest. The category “contrary to nature” can refer either to the sexual position involved or to acts against the relative “nature” of the participants. Dreams of acts “against nature” generally have negative meanings, as do dreams of acts “against law” except in a few highly specific cases. But even negatively-valued sex acts can imply positive dream meanings in particular contexts. [Note: My perception is that Artemidorus was able to construct a positive meaning for almost any sort of dream by manipulation of the allegorical meanings.]

Dream-sex between women (unlike dream-sex between men) is always categorized as “against nature” because the only types of sex acts being considered involve penetration, and it is always considered against a woman’s nature to penetrate.

[Note: This is a point that is easy to misunderstand. “Contrary to nature” doesn’t mean “completely unnatural and never to be done” but rather “not consistent with the characteristics assigned to this category of person.” For example, it is contrary to the nature of a free adult man to allow himself to be penetrated, but it is not contrary to the nature of a male slave to be penetrated by someone of higher status. It is contrary to the nature of a woman to take an active, penetrating role in sex, regardless of partner, because it is woman’s assigned “nature” to be passive/receptive in sex. Thus if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Woman B, then only Woman A is acting “contrary to nature”, whereas if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Man C (regardless of his status) then both are acting “contrary to nature”.]

These interpretations always assume the dreamer is present in the dream and that sex is always a “predictive” image rather than one reflecting current reality. The focus of the interpretation nearly always assumes a male subject.

Part 2: The Cultivation of the Self

[Note: It feels to me as if the rest of volume 3 is a recapitulation of the topics covered in volume 2, but now considering them more in the context of Roman rather than Greek society. If this is the intended distinction, it isn’t made clear.]

The book shifts to a consideration of  a philosophy of “strictness” and a type of individualism in how “the self” was approached. The primary themes are self-control and self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is considered a life-long project. The body must be attended to so that one can attend to the mind and soul. Abstinence (either temporary or permanent) plays a key role in self-knowledge.

Part 3: Self and Others

The “cultivation of the self” now has less focus on the role of pleasure and this shift is associated with, or attributed to, changes in marriage practices and shifts in political dynamics. Marriage was evolving away from a private “ownership” transaction between the bride’s father and the husband--one that did not have significant social or political meaning. In the 1st to 2nd century BCE, marriage was shifting to being a civic institution in which the city participates. The rise of laws regarding adultery are one example of this. As upper class status became more tied to civic roles, marriage as a political strategy became less important. There was more emphasis on marriage as a voluntary partnership. Women gained (relatively) more power in making marriage arrangements. Men were increasingly expected not to maintain other sexual relationships outside marriage.

On the political side, the decline of independent city-states and political life as an upper class profession resulted in a turn to focus on the self as the “profession” of the aristocracy.

Part 4: The Body

This section discusses the field of medicine in classical references, especially medical understandings of sex--both as physiology and activity. Sexual activity was thought to have physical effects on the body, and medical manuals advised how both procreation and sexual pleasure should be organized to optimize health. The mind and “soul” had a role in the pursuit of proper enjoyment of sex. This idea developed into a fixation on sex as a potential hazard to health and spiritual well-being. But this idea must be distinguished from associating sex with sin.

Part 5: The Wife

This section discusses the place of marriage in the understanding of a “good life” (but only from the male point of view). Foucault reviews the evolution of philosophical views of marriage, including emphasis on the personal bond between spouses. Marriage was considered “natural” due to its place in procreation and community. People were expected to have an attraction to a joined life, but there was a constant tension with arguments regarding the proper forms of marriage. Treatises were written on the proper “regimen” for married life that gave rather limited space for discussing sexual relations. An ideal emerged that sex was only proper within marriage. The focus is still on self-restraint as virtue but there is also a focus on legitimate offspring as the purpose of sex. Though pleasure within marriage is expected, excess sexual pleasure can be considered inappropriate. It might suggest you are treating your wife as a courtesan, whose purpose is only to provide pleasure.

Part 6: Boys

In the early centuries of the common era, reflection on the love for youths became a less vital and less important debate. In part, this was a difference between Greek and Roman attitudes. A relationship with an older male figure was no longer an expected part of a free-born man’s youth. Discussions about the “love of boys” began to mean relations with male slaves.

[Note: There's an interesting contradiction here in Foucault's equation of these two types of male-male relations. If the nature of the object of desire and the types of erotic activity do not define a "sexual identity" then why should there be any conceptual connection between the Greek system of erastes/eromenos and the relations between (male) Roman citizens and their (male) slaves? Yet Foucault makes a direct connection between these two practices by context and impmlication while still maintaining his disbelief in the concept of sexualities.]

The sons of Roman citizens would be shamed by being sexual objects. But there was also a shift from the importance of male-male philia to the valorization of marriage as the primary bond. Love was no longer viewed as being elevated by the removal of physical pleasure.

It is the “naturalness” of male-female relations that becomes the argument both for and against the love of youths. “Natural” can be considered lesser because it’s common or ordinary, or it can be considered elevated because it aligns with one's inherent nature. This debate became its own genre of literary argumentation.


Foucault sees several strands of philosophical thought in the first centuries of the common era that converge on an elevation of the ideal of austerity. Was this a precursor to the ethics that developed within Christianity? Dual strands in this process include focus on the ethics of pleasure and care for the body with consequent consideration of the effects of pleasure on it and a distrust of those effects.

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