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Monday, March 25, 2019 - 07:00

Even when Sahar Amer is largely recycling topics that the Project has covered from her before, there's always enough new material to provide intriguing glimpses of what's out there in the field of medieval Arabic same-sex literature. One of these years, if I continue the fiction series on the podcast, I dream of getting an own-voices story drawing on this material. (Or lots of them! But I don't want to dream too high.) The topic of women's same-sex relations in the Islamicate world has too often been treated through an Orientalizing or male-gaze lens when depicted in fiction. And as scholars like Amer note, the contemporary association within Islamic societies of homosexuality with "Western corruption" can be a bar to the exploration of these themes from within those societies. But there's such a wealth of tradition here. And it provides such a delightful contrast to the treatment of women's same-sex relations in the texts of Christian Europe in the same era.

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Full citation: 

Amer, S. 2009. “Medieval Arab Lesbians and 'Lesbian-Like'” in Journal of the History of Sexuality, 18(2), 215-236.

Amer begins by tackling the Whorfian-tinged assertion that the lack of a specific terminology for lesbianism in medieval Europe contributed to a lack of modern scholarship about same-sex desire between women in that era, by noting that the existence of a diverse and specific vocabulary for the topic in medieval Arabic (sahq, sihaqa, musahaqat, al-nisa’, sahiqa) hasn’t resulted in a vibrant field of study. This is particularly disappointing given the significant surviving literature on the topic. Further, Amer notes, if you broaden the field of inquiry to include “lesbian-like” women (following Judith Bennett’s definition), the literature is even richer. The structure of cultural and social life in some medieval Arabic courts may contain unstudied spaces in which same-sex activity occurred that--if not “lesbian” by a strict definition--certain fall into the category of “lesbian-like.”

Medieval Arab Lesbians

The medieval Arabic vocabulary for “lesbianism” (sahq, sihaq, sihaqa) and “lesbian” (sahiqa, sahhaqa, musahiqa) arise from describing a behavior rather than an identity or orientation, coming from the root s-h-q meaning “to pound” (as with spices) or “to rub”, and thus being semantically connected to Greek tribas and Latin fricatrix.

Medieval Arabic medical theories included the idea that lesbianism was caused by an itch of the labia that could be soothed only by rubbing against another woman’s genitals. (These medical writings included versions of the 2nd century Greek writer Galen, and included a tradition that Galen’s daughter was a lesbian and had provided him with data on the topic.) This theory included humoral concepts of heat and cold to explain why sex with a man couldn’t scratch the itch in the same way. (al-Kindi, 9th c)

The scientific view of lesbianism in Arabic literature was as a medical category, with theories about the underlying cause that included maternal consumption of specific plants. (Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, 9th c) In this context, it was seen as innate, lifelong, and as morally neutral.

But although the etymology of sahq indicates an activity, the cultural context of the range of terms in medieval Arabic literature associates sahiqat with love and devotion, and in some contexts with an exclusive and supportive subculture of women who loved women. Legendary tales identify the “first lesbians” as an interfaith couple (Christian and pre-Islamic Arabic) in what is now Iraq. The earliest surviving Arabic erotic treatise (10th c) includes this tale of Hind Bint al-Nu`man and Hind Bint al-Khuss al-Iyadiyyah and places them in the 7th century. They were held up as an icon of love and loyalty.

The historicity of this story is less important than how it was presented in the Arabic literary tradition as a symbol of the greater love and devotion women have for each other than men have for women. Arabic literature embraced stories of female couples, twelve of which are named in the literary catalog Al Fihrist (al-Nadim, 10th c) although nothing except their names and the fact of their relationships is preserved. Amer provides a list of the titles of the twelve books (which are the names of the characters) with translations of what the names mean, if relevant. I’ll reproduce it here because I’ve never seen it spelled out before.

  • The Book of Rihana and Qoronfel (“Basil” and “Clove”)
  • The Book of Ruqayya and Khadija
  • The Book of Mo’ees and Zakiyya
  • The Book of Sakina and al-Rabab (“Calm” and “the Mistress of the Household”)
  • The Book of al-Ghatrifa and al-Dulafa’
  • The Book of Hind and Bint al-Nu`man (“India” and “the daughter of al-Nu`man”, the “first lesbian couple” mentioned above)
  • The Book of `Abda al-`Aqila and `Abda al-Ghaddara (“the Wise Slave Girl” and “the Treacherous Slave Girl”)
  • The Book of Lu’lu’a and Shatira
  • The Book of Najda and Zu’um
  • The Book of Salma and Su`ad
  • The Book of Sawab and Surur (“Justice” and “Happiness”)
  • The Book of al-Dahma’ and Ni`ma (“the Dark One” and “the Gift from God”)

Amer notes parallels with the Kama-sutra (from which some elements may have been borrowed) where lesbians formed groups, held meetings, and led schools of pleasure for other women. The 13th c Tunisian writer al-Tifashi offers descriptions of such a community and the teachings of its leader Rose [note: I assume this is a translation of her name]. Organized communities are also implied in the (otherwise negative) writings of Leo Africanus (15th c, from Granada but writing about Morocco) about a community of female diviners in Fez for which he uses the name suhaqiyat.

Al-Tifashi describes teachings about sexual practices, such as the a woman should “snort heartily while wiggling lasciviously” during sex and that lovemaking should be accompanied verbally by “wheezing, panting, purring, murmurs, and heartbreaking sighs.” He also includes a detailed, step-by-step description of a sexual technique called “the saffron massage.” [Note: I’ve included a translation of the full passage in this entry for Amer 2001.]

The presence of this material in medieval Arabic literature does not negate the predominance of a male focus in that literature, or the phallocentric point of view from which much of the lesbian material is written. But what is notable is that lesbianism is not presented as a sin or crime, and that it is included as a topic worthy of intellectual discussion. It is included under the generally positive attitude toward eroticism, including the view that sexuality is essential to religious piety. This contrasts with Christian ascetic attitudes toward sexuality which influenced Western attitudes in general.

Within the larger picture of Islamic sexual morality, the most vehemently condemned sin is adultery (zina) which is defined specifically as a man having heterosexual vaginal sex with a woman he does not have legal rights to (i.e., she isn’t his wife or concubine). Zina is universally condemned while homosexuality (liwat, which refers to male relations) is treated more ambiguously even when viewed negatively. The social focus on the cult of female virginity and preserving the “sexual honor” of women, meant that lesbianism was at times encouraged (as in ibn Falita, 14th c) as helping to preserve women’s sexual honor, because only heterosexual activity could damage that honor.

Legal attitudes began to shift in the later medieval period. In contexts where homosexual behavior did come under scrutiny, attitudes varied widely, as the Qur’an did not mention specific penalties for it. Local custom might treat it harshly, or distinguish between married and unmarried, active and passive, when assigning penalties. But note that this discussion applies specifically to liwat which was defined specifically as anal penetration by a man. Activities such as kissing and caressing or intercrural intercourse did not fall under the same penalties even if discouraged.

Within this context, sahq was generally classified as less serious than liwat and the least serious form of zina (if classified as zina at all) and penalties--if they existed--were much less severe. In many legal compendia, sahq is not addressed at all.

Sexual Categorization

All of this being said, it’s important not to equate medieval Arabic concepts of female same-sex sexuality with modern Western concepts of lesbianism and sexual identity. Despite the proliferation of terms for various sexual practices and identities (ones relating to women that were not previously mentioned include mutazarrifat “elegant courtly lady-lovers”, nisa’ mudhakkarat “masculinized women”) there are no medieval Arabic terms for the unmarked state of bisexuality or for heterosexuality. (That is, a specific orientation toward homosexuality was considered a marked state in terms of vocabulary.) The contemporary Arabic word used generically for “sexuality” didn’t acquire this meaning until the early 20th century, when it was used for Arabic translations of Western sexological texts. The adoption of Western medical/psychological theories of sexuality has led to the replacement of traditional Arabic terms for sexual variety with terms that offer literal translations of concepts like “homosexual”, “heterosexual”, and “queer”.

Medieval Arab Lesbian-Like Women

When we expand the scope of interest to “lesbian-like” women in medieval Arabic literature, we encounter entire genres of cross-dressed heroines, female warriors, Amazons, slave girls dressed up as boys, sufi rituals, and women’s courtly traditions, all of which may have provided space for homoerotic expression. Many of these contexts have been recognized in medieval European writings as related to homosexual expression (“second-degree homosexuality” as labeled by one scholar) but have not been viewed similarly in the study of medieval Arabic writings.

One could argue that, given the direct and explicit treatment of homosexuality in Arabic literature, the need to search for it in more tangential forms is unnecessary. But such writings provide a richer and more complex understanding of same-sex sexuality.

Such examples include the 9th c tradition in the caliphate court of Baghdad for ghulamiyyat, slave girls who dressed as boys. The superficial purpose was to hijack male same-sex desire and bend it toward de facto heterosexual practice. While the fashion did not directly include women’s desire for ghulamiyyat, it could have offered a context for stepping outside gender expectations (and was imitated by some upper-class women of Baghdad).

Female cross-dressing is relatively common in medieval Arabic literature, not only poetry addressed to ghulamiyyat but also folk romances (in the same genre as the Thousand and One Nights) dating from the 11th century on, which include many examples of cross-dressing women warriors and Amazons. These include characters in the story of Qamar al-Zaman and the Princess Boudour, or stories of the island of Waq, inhabited exclusively by women. (A list of story titles covering similar themes is given.) The presence of cross-dressed heroines typically gives rise to ambiguous situations of desire or identity, and sometimes include women who express disinterest in marriage alongside erotic interest in women. “I do neither long for marriage nor for men, but my heart has an inclination for the ladies,” says the character Alûf in one tale. (These characters often end up marrying men anyway, given the nature of the genre, but the tales offer same-sex love as an alternative, if only in theory.)

One of the most significant and interesting cultural practices in this context is that of zarf, a tradition translated as “courtliness” or “refinement” that had its origins in Medina in the pre- and early Islamic era and spread to major urban centers. The tradition (practiced by both sexes) focused on sophistication in clothing, food, language and home decoration, as well as valuing intellectual debate around topics of love, expressed through poetry, song, dance, and stories.

Women were important in the development of zarf culture, holding literary salons in which the elite of different classes mingled. While these women did not necessarily have homoerotic interests, they enjoyed an independence from male control that created possibilities. And in some contexts, the term mutazarrifat (reined/courtly ladies) was clearly used as a synonym for (or at least an allusion to) “lesbians”. The 11th c Andalusian Wallada, daughter of the caliph of Cordoba, was an archetype of the upper class praticioner of zarf and an example of the degree of women’s sexual freedom that was possible in that era. She is known to have had at least one named female lover as well as male lovers.

More common among the known practitioners of zarf were qaynas (“singing slave girls") who, because of their social status, were more free to express themselves as part of public culture and who achieved fame via intellectual skills and beauty. Their connection to lesbian-like categories comes from being described as mutazarrifat, the same terms applied to cultured upper-class women with lesbian-like interests. [Note: Amer doesn’t give specific examples, but if you follow the tag “zarîfa/tharifa” more specific textual examples can be found.]

Modern Implications

Amer concludes with a discussion of the difficulty of researching homoerotic topics in historic Arabic literature--and especially the difficulty for female scholars--due to censorship, suppression, misogyny, and the historic dominance of male scholars in the field of translation and publication. Works that touch on lesbianism have been made unavailable, have had those sections removed during publication, either due to modern prejudice against homosexual topics in general, or because the material was being translated and published by men who were narrowly interested in male homosexual topics. All this means that there’s an untapped wealth of medieval Arabic material about women’s same-sex eroticism waiting to be shared.

Sunday, March 24, 2019 - 14:28

(This is an essay I've had kicking around in draft for a while, but the first couple paragraphs exaplain why I decided to polish it up and post it.)

I've been watching the most recent Twitter conversations about the Romance Writers of America RITA award process, specifically the ways in which it demonstrably reinforces a very narrow (and very very white) vision of award-worthiness, in part due to the crowd-sourced "popular choice" nature of the process. In the past, it hasn't just been a matter of clearly excellent books by authors of color and/or featuring non-white characters getting overlooked, but of books with immensely problematic themes and characters getting elevated.

I have no dog in that fight. I'm decidedly removed from the RWA award process, primarily because I have yet to write anything that would be solidly recognized as "a romance novel" in structure. But also because the very tentative steps RWA has made toward acknowledging and accepting queer romance wouldn't make me feel welcomed if I did. (And those steps for the most part fall solidly in the field of "women writing m/m romance" so even the current level of acceptance doesn't feel welcoming to me.) But this post isn't specifically about RWA or about romance, it's about how an award system -- any award system -- gains or loses prestige, and consequently gains or loses value to both the authors and readers who use it as an index of excellence.

What the RITA awards are flirting with is embracing irrelevance.

Very few awards achieve prestige from the start. You can't build it in by fiat, though you may be able to get a leg up by borrowing an existing level of prestige either via the founding organization, the decision makers, or the initial works and people who are recognized.

If you are a well-known, well-respected book-related organization and you decide to create a new award or awards program, you can start with existing prestige that will be lent to the recipients of the awards and coast on that momentum until the award program itself either justifies the borrowed respect or fucks up enough to lose it.

If you begin a brand new award program by bringing in highly respected judges with a track record of reliably evaluating and identifying excellence in writing (for whatever interpretation of "excellence" you're aiming for), then people are going to start with a certain level of good will toward the outcome of your process, even if (or especially when) awards go to unexpected or unknown works and writers.

If you start an award program that recognizes the excellence of works or writers that your audience already considers excellent...well, this one's tricker. How transparent is your process? Are you going to be perceived as trying to borrow glory or ride coattails? Are you also recognizing less known works and authors within a process that leads people to check them out and agree that they share characteristics with the already-famous winners? This method can work, though people may reserve judgment a bit longer.

But if you're an unknown, with a selection process that involves people of unknown or unproven judgment (which may include crowd-sourced judgment), presenting awards to works or authors who don't have an existing track record of performance...well, let's just say that the prestige and value of your award will need to prove itself over time and in the pudding. (An example of a relatively new award that has yet to establish this sort of track record--and consequently hasn't yet developed the prestige it hopes to attain, is the Dragon Awards given out in a number of genre categories at Dragoncon.)

If you're an existing awards program that regulary, consistently elevates works that have glaring problems, or that regularly and consistently overlooks eligible candidates that the majority of your audience considers to be better than the works/authors that won, you're flirting with losing whatever existing importance you have in the field. And if writers of recognized excellence decline to participate in your award system, sooner or later, your award winners might start thinking that what you're offering isn't much of an honor after all.

But how is an author--especially a brand new author or one who doesn't have the benefit of mentors in the field--supposed to navigate the multitude of book awards to determine which are worth their interest (and especially, which are worth the expense of participating)? How do you figure out which awards or nominee/finalist lists are going to mean something to your audience in the long run and which boil down to empty self-congratulation? And especially, which will be a red flag to people in the know that you're either naïve or think that your audience is?

Anyone can create an award. Anyone can hand out certificates and shiny gold "award winner" stickers for your book covers. In fact, there's practically an industry built around this awards program model. But let's look at a few examples, just to explore some of the possibilities. Because outside of simple name-brand recognition there aren't hard and fast rules for identifying awards the confer respect and awards that maybe send a message you didn't mean to send.

Being an award nominee or finalist (never mind winner) can provide at least three types of usefulness for your career as an author.

  1. The actual cachet of having an independent entity say, "This is a book that we consider to be worth your attention."
  2. Internal permission to talk about your book--especially useful for those of us who feel guilty any time we do self-promotion. Nomination/finalist/award status is a socially permitted context for doing so.
  3. Convincing your audience that you have received #1 regardless of the status of the award in question.

Within these purposes, the different types of status (e.g., nomination vs. finalist) and the nature and exclusivity of the award itself will affect reception of your promotion to the extent that your audience knows about differences in that status/nature. For the undiscerning audience, "My book is has been nominated for the Arglebargle Award!" may be impressive. The more discerning audience wants to know exactly what the process is to be nominated for the Arglebargle and whether there is any filtering involved. If they feel that the Arglebargle (or the status of "nominee") is functionally meaningless--and especially if they suspect the author knows that--then the claim can have the opposite of the intended effect.

For example, among Science Fiction and Fantasy awards, the Hugo Award is pretty far up there in terms of established prestige. And being a Hugo Finalist is usually treated as being only very slightly less prestigeous than being a winner. But being a Hugo "nominee"? There's a reason that "nominee" isn't an recognized status for the award, because everyone who's a paid member of the relevant conventions is a nominator and all it takes is one person (including you) putting your work into the nomination process to technically be a "nominee". (Though it takes a certain threshold for you to be able to prove it, as even the list of the long tail of nominations that is released after the awards are presented has a numeric cut-off below which titles/names are not identified.) So while it certainly is A Thing for some people to puff themselves off as a "Hugo nominee" because their best friend Bob said they nominated them, it's a thing that will tend to attract derision.

Similarly, there are well respected book awards that require an entry fee for consideration (though see more about entry fees below) as well as submission of copies of the work for consideration. Technically, anyone who pays the fee and submits their work is then "a nominee" for the award. But it does seem a bit odd for an author to treat that status as being an honor it itself. (There's a fuzzier line where maybe your publisher has selected specific works to submit for consideration for the award and has paid the fees. In that case, it may well be a mark of your publisher's confidence in your work to do so, and something to be pround of. But it still isn't a status that has emerged from the award selection process itself.)

Let's talk about award entry fees. Fees exist for a very practical purpose: manageability of the numeric logistics. (Also: profit. But we'll get to that.)

Crowd-sourced award systems, where large numbers of people have volunteered to participate in the nomination and selection process, and who obtain works to evaluate out of their own pockets manage these logistics by the distributed and voluntary nature of the system. There will be overhead for data management, the physical awards, and the context of presentation, but it's more or less a fixed cost and doesn't increase with the numer of potential works/people eligible for consideration.

At the opposite end of the scale, a juried award where a relatively small number of people have committed to read and judge all eligible works has to have some system for making that a manageable workload. Even in the rare case where the judges are being compensated for their time. The system might involve a separate pre-filtering process (of unspecified nature). It might involve procedural hoops that need to be jumped through that not only reduce the number of people who consider it worth the effort, but that--when applied by many award systems--reduce the number of awards systems an author is willing/able to do the work of submitting for. (It used to be that the sheer cost and effort of mailing in multiple physical copies of a book for consideration was enough of a hoop. E-books have changed this dynamic significantly.) But a very practical system that not only sets an entry filter but also supports the incidental expenses of the award system is to have an entry fee. It forces authors to consider not only whether the award itself would be worth the investment should they win, but also forces them to consider which of the many existing fee-based award systems it might make sense to focus on. Ideally, ones their works are suitable for and that would provide genuine prestige from being associated with.

It's easy to calculate that if an author can enter a book award program with no fee, and can submit e-books for consideration, and IF the award program has genuine prestige and no way to crowd-source the work of evaluation, it's going to burn out the judges on the first go-round. We hear a lot of bashing of "gate-keepers" these days, but gates are a way of keeping logistics to a manageable number. It's going to happen one way or another or it isn't sustainable.

If some respectable award systems require entry fees, does that mean that having an entry fee shouldn't be used when judging whether to enter your work for award consideration? Absolutely not. But it does mean you need to look at two factors.

  1. Does the award actually convey prestige? I don't mean "Could you get some publicity mileage out of being able to say your book has won an Arglebargle Award?" I mean, "Have you ever heard of any of the previous winners or their authors? Have previous winners been recogized in other contexts besides the Arglebargle? Do previous winners show any other signs of being quality books that you would be proud to be associated with?"
  2. Can you follow the money and see how it works? How transparent are the numbers involved? How many books are submitted for consideration? What percentage end up as winners/finalists/honorable mentions? Other than the entry fee, what other financial "opportunities" does the award involve? Are winners/finalists encouraged to pay for special certificates or award stickers? For publicity packages?

Yes, I'm calling out a specific awards system business model here. It's one that I see a lot of new and especially self-published authors lining up for, not realizing that experienced professionals wouldn't touch those awards with a ten foot pole. There are a LOT of awards out there that use this model. Often they identify themselves with a specific city or region, or have some other distinguishing "faceplate". But the model is so cookie-cutter one would be unsurprised to find that many are fronts for a single organization or are franchises of some sort. (Or, I know for a fact, some are set up by well-meaning but naïve people who think this model is simply an accepted practice and don't realize why they get a lot of side-eye for it.) Here are the hallmarks to look for:

  • The award has a lot of categories. A LOT. They are highly-specific categories. A single book is likely to fit into several of them.
  • The entry fee is startlingly high. Like, in the $100 range. Though you may get a "discount" for entering the same book into multiple categories at a time.
  • Each of the many categories has a single winner but may have many finalists. The award organization treats being a finalist as being almost as good as being a winner. Finalists are encouraged to think it's a great achievement.
  • There is no transparency regarding how many works were submitted to any given category. There is no way to know whether, in fact, there were any submissions that are NOT winners or finalists. The selection process for winners and finalists is opaque. This may be framed as protecting the judges' privacy, but for all you know, they drew slips out of a hat.
  • Winners and finalists are strongly encouraged to buy book-cover stickers proclaiming the book's achievement. Minimum order, 100 stickers. A brief and unscientific survey of current award programs of this sort indicate that they charge anywhere from $20-$40 for each roll of 100 stickers. A quick check of a promtional sticker printing services suggests that the award organization might be paying as little as $2 for each of thos 100-sticker rolls. Winner and finalist certificates for your wall are usually also offered at a similar mark-up. Do the math.

Rather than end on that note, I want to get back to the question of how, as an author, you evaluate whether to focus your efforts (or your hopes) on a particular award program. (And for many of the most prestigeous award programs, you have absolutely no control over whether your work will be considered. So it's a matter of "hopes" rather than "efforts".) One approach is to look at past winners and finalists of the award and ask yourself, "Is this company I would be proud to be in?" And perhaps more importantly, "Is this work that I would proud to lose to?"

This is where we circle back around to the current RITA controversy. And to similar backroom discussions about other award programs. An award program can embrace its own irrelevance if too many people look at the works being recognized--or the works being excluded--and find that the answer is "no."

I'll confess that when my debut novel came out, I put it in for consideration by a variety of award programs. (Though none of the "buy our finalist stickers" ones!) In part, it was simply the exhuberance of being a real author and wanting that experience. In part it was feeling out the landscape. But I also took a look at the results, the track records, and the contexts of those award programs and made some different choices going forward.

Only one of my books has won an award: the Gaylactic Spectrum Award given to Mother of Souls. I look at the past winners and finalists of the Spectrum and I can sincerely say that I would have been proud to have lost to any of them. That's what makes it possible for me to be proud of winning.

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Saturday, March 23, 2019 - 13:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32d - Laudomia Loves Margaret

(Originally aired 2019/03/23 - listen here)

This week, I’d planned to do the next installment discussing the various ways people in history created definitions and categories for gender and sexuality. But I’m in the middle of novel revisions and came down with a miserable head cold during a critical free weekend, as you may be able to tell from my voice, and I simply don’t have the time or brain power to write a new show. So instead I’m going to reprise another of the early episodes. I hope you enjoy this essay, whether you’re one of the lucky people who’s heard it before or whether this is your first time. This show originally aired on December 31, 2016.

[Note: I have not transcribed the poems that are quoted in the podcast for copyright reasons. The translations I used are from: Eisenbichler, Konrad. “Laudomia Forteguerri Loves Margaret of Austria” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (ed. By Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn), Palgrave, New York, 2001.

In Plato’s myth of the origin of love--a myth that accounts for both opposite-sex and same-sex love--he describes how all people were originally part of a double body, split from each other and eternally seeking their other half. In his 1541 dialogue titled “On the Beauty of Women”, Italian philosopher Agnolo Firenzuola expands on this, saying: "Those who were female in both halves, or are descended from those who were, love each other’s beauty, some in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Forteguerra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as in ancient times Sappho from Lesbos, and in our own times in Rome the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana. This type of woman by nature spurns marriage and flees from intimate conversation with us men.”

Now I’m curious to know a lot more about Cecilia Venetiana, but alas this is the extent of her footprint in history. However we know a great deal about Laudomia Forteguerra and Margaret of Austria. Firenzuola was a contemporary and friend of theirs and no doubt was careful in how he described their relationship. The Seigneur de Brantôme, writing half a century later in France, and knowing only rumor and gossip, asserted that their love fell in the lascivious category. What evidence do we have to search for the truth between these two claims?

Laudomia was a member of the ruling families of the republic of Sienna in Italy. You must understand that 16th century Italy was far from a unified country. It was made up of a lot of separate states, often at war with each other. Large chunks were ruled by the Vatican, known collectively as the Papal States. Other chunks were ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor, who controled lands in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, and elsewhere, in addition to Italy. Other parts of Italy were independent, such as Florence under the Medicis or Mantua under the Gonzagas.

Sienna was another one of these states, ruled by a coalition of noble families and struggling to maintain their independence from the greater powers all around them. Laudomia Forteguerra, as I have said, was Siennese. She was famed for being beautiful and educated--a true Renaissance woman in every sense of the term. Scholars dedicated books to her and her own poetry was highly praised. Among those poems are five sonnets, addressed and dedicated to Margaret of Austria, expressing her devotion, admiration, and love.

I’m unable to pronounce Italian well enough to give you the original version. The translation, alas, does not rhyme and scan. But here’s the sense of one of her poems.

[Poem: Alas for my beautiful sun]

But who is Margaret of Austria? And why is Laudomia writing her poetry?

In 1521, a serving woman named Johanna Maria van der Gheynst, became the mistress of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. For those not familiar with the intricacies of the genealogies of 16th century royalty, you know how Queen Elizabeth the first of England’s older sister Mary was married to King Phillip II of Spain? Well, Charles V was Phillip’s father. It gets really complicated and I’ll try to keep the political discussion simple.

So Emperor Charles had an affair with a servant and a year later she produced a daughter, who was named Margaret and placed in the care of her aunt (Charles’s sister), also named Margaret of Austria, who was serving as governor of the Netherlands at the time. (When I first encountered this description I was, I confess, a little stunned. Wait: a woman was governor of the Netherlands? So obviously there’s a lot about Renaissance history that even I, an amateur historian, have somehow missed.)

An emperor’s children are never insignificant, even the bastards--and for the first several years of her life, Margaret is referred to in the household records simply as “the little bastard”. When Margaret was three, there were thoughts of betrothing her to a bastard of the Medici family. The Medicis were extremely important in Italy at this time, not only ruling Florence, but supplying several popes. It’s also important to know that 16th century popes were not exactly a model of propriety and virtue. You’re going to meet several bastard sons of popes in this story. But I get ahead of myself.

As I said, when Margaret was three, there was talk of betrothing her to a Medici. When she was four, she was briefly betrothed to the heir of the Duchy of Ferrara. When she was seven, it’s back to the Medicis again, but a different one. This time she was betrothed to the pope’s nephew (some said, actually his son) named Alessandro, a man ten years her senior with a terrible reputation. But this was business. Margaret the bastard would become Duchess of Florence, bringing an extensive dowry of lands and the military support of the Holy Roman Empire not only for Florence but for the Medici papacy.

The year after that, the Empire occupies Sienna and establishes a military garrison there. Remember Sienna? Where Laudomia lives? They aren’t happy about this.

When Margaret is eight, her future husband, Alessandro dei Medici travels to the Netherlands to meet her. This is also the first occasion when she meets her father the emperor face to face. The marriage is scheduled to take place four years later and preparations are made for a grand procession to convey Margaret to Italy. She settles in Naples for the interim.

And then the pope dies. He is succeeded by a member of the Farnese family who ruled in Parma. Now the Medicis aren’t looking like quite the same hot property that they were before. There is some dithering about the marriage but the Florentines apply pressure and Margaret marries Alessandro when she’s 13. Although she is installed as Duchess of Florence it’s quite likely that this is still a marriage in name only. Child marriages among medieval and Renaissance nobility often came with an understanding that the marriage wouldn’t be consummated until the bride was a reasonable age--something that isn’t always understood from the bare facts.

Whatever the nature of Margaret’s marriage, it didn’t last long. Alessandro, as I’ve said, had a terrible reputation, both personally and politically. Half a year later, he was assassinated by his own cousin to the cheers of the citizens of Florence.

Margaret doesn’t have long to enjoy her widowhood. The next year she is betrothed to Ottavio Farnese. Remember that the new pope is a Farnese? This is his grandson.  Margaret is sixteen and this time she’s older than her future husband, by four years. She’s on record as despising him and trying all sorts of things to get out of the marriage. But she is taken to Rome in preparation, and as she travels to Rome, she passes through Siena and spends three weeks there.

Remember Siena? Where Laudomia lives? At this time, Laudomia is 23. She is married and has produced a son. And we know that Laudomia and Margaret meet on this occasion.

A contemporary of theirs says they also met three years earlier and describes it this way:

At their first meeting, “as soon as Laudomia saw Madama [that is, Margaret], and was seen by her, suddenly with the most ardent flames of Love each burned for the other, and the most manifest sign of this was that they went to visit each other many times.” On one of those subsequent meetings he describes, “They renewed most happily their sweet Loves. And today more than ever, with notes from one to the other they warmly maintain them.”

Alas none of this correspondence has survived, only the poems. Here’s another one of the poems that Laudomia wrote for Margaret.

[Poem: Happy plant]

Margaret continued on to Rome and set out to win the hearts of the people of Rome (who weren’t all that fond of the Farnese pope, and by association, of her future husband Ottavio). She has her own villa there in Rome, which she fills with scholars and artists. Although she tries to delay the marriage, she is tricked into receiving a ring that is then held to be a token of her acceptance. Relying on the support of the people of Rome and the political indifference of her father the emperor, she refuses to consummate the marriage.

By this time, Laudomia has finished writing her sonnets to Margaret.

Political satires at the time accused the Farneses of all sorts of sexual vices and Margaret was accused of being a lesbian in this context, an accusation that may have been mere mud-flinging or may have been based on actual knowledge. What was definitely noted was that, although Margaret did obey her father’s ultimatum and produced twin sons for her husband, she returned to living separately from him after that. And in an age of sexual scandal, her name is never associated with any male lover and at least one political commenter notes that she has no interest in men. (He intended it as a positive comment on her virtue.)

Italian politics are getting even more violent. Margaret takes up her position as Duchess in Parma and finds herself besieged by her neighbors the Gonazagas. Ironically her father the emperor supports them in this because Margaret’s husband has started playing political footsie with France. Let’s skip the details of what France is doing in all this, except to note that Siena--remember Siena?--is also calling on French support against the Holy Roman Empire and it, too, comes under siege as a result.

During the siege of Siena, Laudomia is recorded as having valiantly organized the women of the city to help strengthen the city walls. But eventually the combined forces of Florence and the Empire win out and Sienna falls.

Laudomia never appears by name in any records after that date. The only tantalizing clue we have is that 18 years later, Laudomia’s second husband makes a will that makes reference to a living wife. (It is possible, of course, that he has remarried.)

After all the political uproar settles down for a bit, Margaret and Ottavio make peace with the emperor and Margaret travels to the Netherlands with her one surviving son to place him in the guardianship of her half-brother Phillip, in whose favor Charles has just retired from the imperial throne. Margaret ends up staying in the Netherlands and even serves a couple of stints as governor there before eventually returning to Italy to spend the rest of her life.

This is all a great deal about politics with not quite so much about the love between Laudomia and Margaret. But we know a great deal more about the former than we do the latter. We do know that they met and that they loved each other, by some understanding of the word “love.” We know that contemporaries who admired them considered their love to be that of two souls finding their other half. We know that Laudomia wrote poems to Margaret that used the language and imagery of romantic love--imagery that would be considered to imply sexual desire if used from a man to a woman. And we know that Margaret was notorious for disdaining and avoiding sexual relations with her husband, even when that avoidance caused significant personal difficulties.

That seems quite enough as a basis for imagining what a love affair between two Renaissance noblewomen might look like. I have *ahem* imagined just such a thing in my short story “Where My Heart Goes” which is included in the historic romance anthology Through the Hourglass, edited by Sacchi Green and Patty G. Henderson. And I even dared to imagine how to give them a happy ending.

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Where My Heart Goes
Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 10:08
Cover image for Floodtide

Things move very quickly once we get into discussions of cover design! What do you think?

(I confess I do feel left out of "cover reveal culture", which doesn't seem to be a thing among lesbian presses. I always find out what my cover looks like when it pops up online.)

ETA: Almost forgot -- I also have cover copy!

The streets are a perilous place for a young laundry maid dismissed without a character for indecent acts. Roz knew the end of the path for a country girl alone in the city of Rotenek. A desperate escape in the night brings her to the doorstep of Dominique the dressmaker and the hope of a second chance beyond what she could have imagined. Roz’s apprenticeship with the needle, under the patronage of the Royal Thaumaturgist, wasn’t supposed to include learning magic, but Celeste, the dressmaker’s daughter, draws Roz into the mysterious world of the charm-wives. When floodwaters and fever sweep through the lower city, Celeste’s magical charms could bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor of Rotenek, but only if Roz can claim the help of some unlikely allies.

Set in the magical early 19th century world of Alpennia, Floodtide tells an independent tale that interweaves with the adventures.

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Monday, March 18, 2019 - 10:00

I’ll confess that I thought this article was going to be a lot more relevant to lesbian history than it was, given the inclusion of “Tommies” in the title. I’m including this brief summary because I already had the article scheduled, but the content is solidly focused on male issues and topics. In that context, it’s a fascinating look at shifting images of masculinity and the part that institutionalized male homoerotic encounters and relationships played in those images. But the reference to "tommies" is minor and entirely in relation to male desires.

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Full citation: 

Neff, D. S. 2002. “Bitches, Mollies, and Tommies: Byron, Masculinity, and the History of Sexualities” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 11:3 pp.395-438

Neff looks at shifting concepts and images of masculinity in England through the lens of Lord Byron (1788-1824) who stands in for an era when both masculinity and aristocracy were receiving increased scrutiny as privileged classes. Interpretations of homoerotic elements in Byron’s biography have been contested ground as he fails to fit neatly into the modern categories of sexuality. Neff declines to take a position on categorization and instead looks at the details of Byron’s life that raise the question in the first place.

In Western concepts of gender and sexuality, the 18th century is viewed by some historians as the era of a shift between the view that male and female represented a continuum of a single category, to a view that they represented entirely distinct categories and, in that case, what the definite distinctions were. In parallel was the development of a distinct category of “adult men with homosexual desires” as an identity rather than part of a continuum of behavior. [Note: The timepoint when we see this shift from “acts” to “identities” has been moved around by different historians, with the identification of new types of evidence. Neff gives a nod to some views that “identities” can be identified much earlier than the early modern period.]

Part of the older system included traditions of homosocial environments (such as all-male educational institutions) creating “male” and “female” roles, that could have sexualized as well as gendered aspects. Within these contexts, age or status influenced the acceptability of “female” roles, but participation in the system did not change men’s self-perception in terms of gender identity.

Prior to the emergence of the “molly” identity for men with homosexual desires, the performance of masculinity could encompass the “fop”--the man who delighted in exaggerated or sophisticated esthetics. But it later came to be associated with femininity and cast suspicion on the fop’s sexuality.

Byron’s public reputation took hits from this shift (though it was scarcely the only hazard) as he continued to operate within the older model where such flamboyance was unrelated to assumptions about one’s sexual role.

[Note: There is a fascinating digression about coded language in Byron’s correspondence that referred to sexual desire for, and encounters with, young men. It’s a useful reminder of contexts in which non-normative sexuality can be erased or denied in the records simply by taking textual evidence ruthlessly literally.]

The discussion of “tommies” (typically understood as referring to women with homoerotic desires) occurs in the context of Byron’s relationships with women who engaged in masculine cross-dressing, with the suggestion that they provided a bridge to Byron’s underlying preference for male partners.

And...that’s pretty much the point when I gave up on the article and skimmed to the end without finding anything else that made it more relevant. Sorry. You can’t win them all.

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Saturday, March 16, 2019 - 10:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32c - Book Appreciation with Katharine Duckett - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/03/16 - listen here)

(Transcript pending)

In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.

In this episode Katharine Duckett recommends some favorite queer historical novels:

Links to Katharine Duckett Online

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Monday, March 11, 2019 - 07:00

I sometimes make joking reference to the "industry of Anne Lister studies" but it's hard to exaggerate the value of Lister's candid diaries for disrupting theory-based understandings of 18-19th century female homosexuality. We need to be careful not to assume that Lister's experience is universal, nor to treat it as unique. Many women, no doubt, wrote candid private diaries and correspondence that may have expressed their negotiation of homoerotic desires. Vast amounts of women's private writing have been deliberately destroyed by their families after death "to preserve their privacy and reputation." We know for a fact that Lister's diaries came close to being destroyed at various points in their transmission. And, as noted in this article, we know for a fact that Lister was deliberately dishonest in her public presentation with regard to same-sex desires.

But conversely, we see Lister considering and choosing amoung a variety of possible understandings of her own life and desires. And we shouldn't assume that all women would have had the same understandings and made the same choices in how they modeled their lives. If anything, the individual agency in constructing a self-identity that Clark examines here--and the absense of "official" public models for that identity--argues for the likelihood that women who desired women would have had a variety of understandings and identities.

I sometimes get nervous about the "Lister Studies Industry" and the way that modern pop culture has fixated on specific aspects of her performance and re-framed them in modern terms. (For example, I've encountered Lister fans interpreting her "masculine dress" as meaning she wore trousers, even though it's clear from the diaries themselves that this was not the case.) Surely one of the lessons of the treasure that is Lister's diaries is that we need to enjoy the complex contradictory variety that is historic lesbian experience, rather than trying to envision women in the past as being exactly like us.

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Full citation: 

Clark, Anna. 1996. "Anne Lister's construction of lesbian identity", Journal of the History of Sexuality, 7(1), pp. 23-50.

Clark presents the early 19th century example of Anne Lister, not only as a fairly unambiguous example of lesbian identity--despite never using that term for herself--but as an illustration of the function of representation and agency in the history of sexuality. A contradiction of sorts to the social constructionist position that sexual identities are shaped or even determined by the surrounding societal discourse, rather than by the personal experience of desire.

The 19th century paradigm of “passionate friendship” between women encompassed emotional bonds and romantic expression but--as described by modern scholars--was considered to be unable of conceiving of sexual desire, much less acting on that desire. Under this paradigm, it is posited that early 19th century women could not develop a “lesbian identity” because no such concept existed for them to claim.

The social constructionist position is strongly associated with Michel Foucault, who held that until the late 19th century, a man who engaged in sex with men was regarded as sinful or criminal but was not considered to have a “homosexual” personality. Rather, that the ability to identify such a man (or to identify oneself) as “homosexual” was only possible after sexologists and psychiatrists invented the concept. And that the idea of homosexual identity was only then adopted by men and women whose desires aligned with those psychological models. Having an articulatable identity then made it possible for homosexual men and women to develop subcultures centered around their sexual orientation. This model made little or no allowance for individual agency in the development of identity.

The Foucaultian model has been eroded in recent decades, in part because more extensive historic research has contradicted the chronologies it relied on. Subcultures of homosexual men have been extensively documented in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, and sources such as Anne Lister’s diaries clearly show that women could be aware of the sexual nature of their desire for women and were acting on those desires. Extensive studies by Vicinus, Castle, Trumbach, Moore, and Donaghue regarding 18th century cultures point out that people in general--not just the women involved--could conceive of lesbian desire and recognize social roles associated with it.

An alternate theory from social construction is “sexual scripts”, in which sexual desires are learned rather than innate. This idea has problems in eras when homosexual desires or activity are strongly stigmatized. What is the attraction of adopting a negative script? It also suggests that homosexual desires could not be experienced in a vacuum--that they could only be acquired by encounters with those already familiar with the “script”. In contradiction to this are examples of isolated individuals who express a self-recognized same-sex desire without such a social context.

In the case of Anne Lister, although there is some evidence for lesbian subcultures among entertainers and sex workers in 18-19th century Paris, there is no similar evidence in England. So Lister could not have been “socialized” into a familiarity with lesbian desire, even by rumor. In England, Sapphic references seem to have been largely confined to sophisticated cosmopolitan intellectual circles. Circles that Lister encountered only after she had recognized and identified her own orientation.

Lister requires an understanding of sexual identity that allows for individual agency in constructing the self. Clark traces this act of construction based on three elements: her recognition of her own experiences and desires, her material circumstances, and the cultural representations she had available. For this, we have the abundant evidence of her detailed and candid diaries. One feature of Lister’s diaries was the use of a cipher code based on Greek  that enabled her to record explicit details of her relationships. She shared the code with some of her romantic correspondents.

Lister’s social and economic circumstances both enabled and restricted her expression of desire. Having recognized her interest in women in the context of a boarding school romance, she made an early decision not to marry. Family circumstances offered her the wealth necessary to avoid marriage. This was not entirely a matter of passive luck. Lister’s financial savvy was one motive for her being named the heir of her aunt and uncle (who were siblings, not spouses) rather than the property going to her father. But until that inheritance was realized, she didn’t have the financial standing to support a life partner in appropriate style. This threw obstacles in the way of several of her initial romances when her lovers succumbed to the pressure to marry for financial security. Lister did, eventually, find a life partner once she had obtained financial stability and control over her inheritance.

Lister’s records indicate that she was well aware of the variety of sexual morality that prevailed, not only in the upper levels of British society, but among her neighbors and peers. She also shows an awareness of the limits of tolerance and the need for discretion, while revealing an awareness of the transgressive nature of her own desires. She shows an awareness of the need to play multiple roles and to accept the contradictions between public and private identity.

That public identity, however, was constrained in the available roles for women at her time. Having declined that of wife and mother, she explored the possibility of the role of “passionate friendship,” including a visit to the famous “Ladies of Llangollen” who exemplified the role. But her commentary on that visit suggests that she viewed passionate friendship as not allowing for the sexual aspect that she enjoyed with her lovers (even when speculating that the Ladies themselves had a sexual relationship). Lister also explored a public role that adopted masculine motifs, particularly in the style of her clothing and accessories, as well as her vigorous physical behavior.

Another source of identity construction came from sparse references to sex between women that could be found in classical literature, such as Martial and Juvenal, as well as the more plentiful references to male homosexuality. Lister’s education included Latin and French, making this material linguistically accessible to her, though obtaining the publications required significant effort. She documents her interest in tracking down references to Sappho’s sexual interests, either through her work or allusions by other classical writers. The layers of misogyny and bowdlerism present in the material required substantial work to interpret, via a sort of double vision, consuming the negative treatment of lesbian desire and transforming it into a recognition of the existence of her own identity. Lister’s diary also traces how she tried to reconcile this identity with conventional religious (Anglican) attitudes toward sexuality. In this area, she developed a personalized morality that enabled her to use forms of religious experience (such as formalizing her relationships with women by taking the sacrament together) without considering her behavior to be uniquely in conflict with traditional moral principles.

Lister negotiated a similar ambivalence to Romantic literature, indulging in the power of authors such as Byron to offer intense emotional experiences, while recognizing that trying to follow their example in her own relationships “got her into scrapes.” But as with the classical authors, she simultaneously identified with writers like Rousseau while needing to sidestep his misogyny and negative attitude toward homosexuality. Lister used oblique references to these authors as coded overtures to women she was interested in, lending them books of poetry to observe their responses. Her diary follows in detail how she sounded out the nature of the relationship between the learned Miss Pickford and her good friend Miss Threlfall, while pretending to the former that her own relationships did not “go beyond...friendship.” A deceit that she directly acknowledges in a related entry.

In addition to these external sources that informed Lister’s construction of identity, the work of negotiating and articulating it often came in her interactions and discussions with other women. She developed covert and coded overtures that would enable her to determine the other women’s desires and attitudes before making any irrevocable confession. Included in this was her practice of discussing her interest in one woman with her other friends and lovers, while playing coy about her true desires.

[Note: It strikes me as highly relevant for interpreting the writings of Lister’s contemporaries that she records herself as publicly denying the possibility of sex between women, and denying the substance of her own desires as part of her negotiations with women she was considering as lovers. With Lister, we have the contradiction of her private commentary and the details of her sexual relationships. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to accept as literal truth similar public protestations from women who did not leave private records. Just because a woman of that era says she can't imagine what two women would do in bed together can't be taken as proof that she wasn't doing those "unimaginable" things herself.]

Lister synthesized her understanding of her own sexuality into a belief that it was “natural” and perhaps even biological. Not in the sense of considering herself to have an underlying masculine physiology, but in the sense of concluding that male and female sexual biology was far more similar than was generally believed, and therefore there was no biological argument for a greater “naturalness” of sexual response to one sex over another. In this context, she had a fascination for androgyny.

Lister’s own pursuit of androgyny and performative masculinity encompassed both projecting “masculine” roles on her female lovers (calling her first lover “husband”) and later adopting masculine style jackets (in part, as an economic gesture to opt out of the pursuit of feminine fashionability) and viewing her active pursuit of potential partners as reflecting a masculine social role. She notes that she models herself on being “gentlemanly” rather than “masculine”, but also sometimes expresses the experience of sexual desire as being masculine in nature. She envisions the desire for women as partaking of some sort of inherent masculinity, without expressing any desire to be a man. Masculinity represented her desire for women and for the male privilege that would enable her to live the life she envisioned with one particular woman. This imagined male privilege does not seem to have been expressed in sexual performance. Although Lister preferred to take an active role in sex there are no indications that she used a dildo or in other ways enacted a masculine role in bed.

It’s clear from the various references to dress that Lister did not cross-dress completely. She wore specific male-coded garments, but always in combination with skirts. There are a couple of references in the diaries to fantasizing about passing as a man, but she rejects it as an option, not only because it would have meant leaving behind her comfortable position as a respectable heiress, but because the rules of homosociality would then bar her from the ordinary company of women, which she greatly enjoys. “It would not have done at all. I...should have been shut out from ladies’ society.”

During Lister’s lifetime, the blurring of gender boundaries created an anxiety expressed in caricatures of dandies in corsets and “female sailor boys”. But there was not a strong social stereotype linking overt female cross-dressing with lesbian desire. The multitude of stories of passing women and “female husbands” most often presented them as heterosexual, using flirtation or “fraudulent” marriage only as a part of the disguise and not an expression of sexuality or gender identity. Only on the stage were there allusions to the potential for overtly cross-dressing actresses to attract the desire of female spectators, though this was always accompanied by the opinion that this desire could not be fulfilled due to the absence of a penis between the couple.

In this context, Lister’s adoption of specific masculine signifiers, both in dress and behavior (her style of walking was noted as “masculine”) was viewed as threatening to convention and provoked hostile reactions from men, including the use of the probably derogatory nickname “Gentleman Jack”. But her economic position gave her some share in masculine privilege and her political activity seems to have wavered between feminist ideals and a more reflexive conservatism of the landowning gentry.

When Lister finally achieved her domestic ideal of an equal intellectual and economic partnership with a neighboring heiress, another Anne (Walker), it isn’t clear exactly what they both understood as the nature of their relationship. It had a sexual component, though Walker seems to have been uneasy about that aspect. It had a romantic component, though Lister at one point suggests that she was playing a romantic part to secure Walker’s affection rather than entirely expressing her true feelings. They lived and traveled together for a number of years, cut short by Lister’s death of a fever while traveling in the Caucasus.

In summary, Lister’s testimony in her diaries makes it clear that she didn’t adopt an existing sapphic role, despite there being at least scattered references to such a concept in contemporary society. Rather it was something she constructed from bits and pieces--from literature and her own experience--and negotiated covertly, being constantly aware of the need for discretion. She did not inherit the libertine understanding and philosophy of the 18th century, but looked for her identity in classical and Romantic literature. Her identity was, to some extent, compartmentalized between the private and public spheres, and she regularly recorded the duplicity she used to maintain the distinction. She was familiar with the concept of passionate friendship but didn’t consider the role to fit her own desires. She used masculine performance to express her sexual desires and longing for male social power, but rejected the idea of having an underlying male gender identity. She can’t be considered to have participated in a lesbian subculture, but did establish a personal network of women with same-sex desires that was surprisingly extensive. One of the bars to turning this network into a subculture was Lister’s chronic use of deception and mendacity to maintain the upper hand in her relationships and dodge the public scrutiny that she feared would put them in jeopardy. In part, this was a facet of Lister’s unique personality, but in part it was a reflection of the social realities of her time.

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Saturday, March 9, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32b - Interview with Katharine Duckett - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/03/09 - listen here)

(transcript pending)

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about

Publications mentioned:

Links to Katharine Duckett Online

Monday, March 4, 2019 - 07:00

I've met women like Linton, as she is depicted in this article. You probably have too. The woman who despises other women for the same traits and behaviors she herself displays. The woman who goes on the lecture circuit telling women they should stay in the home. The woman who simultaneously wants to be "one of the guys" but mocks women as a class--whether for their femininity or for their unfemininity. The woman who has clawed her way into economic independence then argues against women's rights. And just perhaps, if her writings betray what they seem to betray, the woman who hides the recognition of her own homoerotic desires in an outspoken homophobia. If you will forgive me the completely anachronistic language.

But in being at the same time so outspoken and so candid in writing about non-conforming women, Linton also gives us a valuable chronology of public conceptions of lesbian-like identities in 19th century England. Her novels provide a useful counterpoint to the "official" stereotypes of women's identities and roles in the Victorian age. People are messy and self-contradictory. And that's an important lesson to take away from history.

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Full citation: 

Meem, Deborah T. 1997. “Eliza Lynn Linton and the Rise of Lesbian Consciousness” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 7:4 pp.537-560

Meem looks at the development of a public understanding of lesbian identity in 19th century English society through the life, journalism work, and novels of Eliza Lynn Linton. Linton was a contradictory figure, described by one historian as “a radical conservative, a militantly feminine antifeminist, a skeptical idealist, and a believing atheist.” Her journalism was shot through with misogyny and a belief that women should stick to the domestic sphere, while claiming economic and social independence in her own life. In her fiction, she depicted complex and sympathetic emancipated women who can easily be interpreted as proto-lesbian figures, even if she didn't give them happy endings. Also noteworthy is that when Linton wrote a fictionalized autobiography, she used a male persona to represent herself.

While showing a familiarity with the rising self-conscious lesbian presence in England in the later 19th century and giving strong evidence for homoerotic desires herself, Linton publicly condemned feminists and “mannish women”. And three key novels from her body of work show shifts in her attitude toward her proto-lesbian characters in parallel with the increasing public awareness of lesbian possibilities. In significant ways, Linton embodies a counter to the position long popular in academic circles that there was a rapid and drastic shift only at the end of the 19th century between rigidly prescriptive gender roles that relegated men and women to “separate spheres” in which women might safely enjoy non-sexual “romantic friendships”, and the appearance of the image of the “mannish lesbian” and her association with women’s emancipation. The association of both feminism and women’s same-sex desires with masculinity had two faces: for some, masculinity was a symbol of empowerment, while for others it represented the breakdown of society and a threat to traditionally female spheres of social power.

As a journalist, Linton was solidly reactionary and became the anonymous spokesperson for the anti-feminist movement in the 1860s with the publication of “The Girl of the Period”, an attack on young women whom she saw as rejecting Victorian domestic ideals. The misogyny running through Linton’s work is not simply an interpretation of modern readers. Linton is quoted from correspondence as saying, “I hate women as a race...I think we are demons. Individually we are all right, but as a race we are monkeyish, cruel, irresponsible, superficial.” For the use of the term “monkeyish”, keep in mind that this was the era when Darwin’s theories were gaining visibility. Another dog-whistle term that crops up in her writing is “hybrid”, as in a characterization of feminists as, “the women’s-rights woman, with her hybrid costume and her hard face.” The word “hybrid” not only invoked a horror of the blurring of gender boundaries, presaging the use of “third sex”, but probably had racist overtones as well. Linton used Darwinian imagery often in her writings and in the 1890s hopped on the social Darwinism bandwagon, suggesting that differentiation of the sexes was a mark of evolved civilization, and thus that attempts to erode gender difference would contribute to society’s downfall.

Linton was also a novelist, and Meem traces shifts in her attitudes and possibly her self-image via three key works focusing on homoerotically-tinged relationships between women. Sowing the Wind (1867) is a sensational story in which the naive young wife Isola struggles with her wealthy and possessive husband’s descent into poverty, perversion, and insanity. The revealing character is Isola’s cousin Jane: a journalist [note: can we say “self-insert”? I knew we could], unmarried, plain, who uses masculine signifiers such as wanting to be called “Jack” and socializing primarily with men while wanting to be treated as a “chum”. But despite Linton’s journalistic scorn for similar figures in real life, Jane is in many ways the strongest and most positive character in the novel. She is unfailingly loyal and supportive of the protagonist and encourages Isola to follow high moral principles rather than focusing on personal survival. Jane is not an overtly lesbian character, but exhibits features that later would become part of the “mannish lesbian” archetype.

The second novel in this series is The Rebel of the Family (1880) appears at a time when the myth of the “sexless woman” that had been promoted heavily in the earlier part of the century was fading in the face of recognition not only that women had erotic desires but that they could feel such desires for each other. The literary motif of decadent lesbian sexuality was appearing from authors such as Diderot, Gautier, de Balzac, and LeFanu. Linton had left England for Italy in 1876 to escape what Meem calls an “ill-advised relationship with a woman” who appears as a character in Linton’s fictional autobiography. She traveled to Italy in company with another female friend, and while in Rome they socialized with well-known lesbians Harriet Hosmer, Matilda Hays, and Adelaide Sartoris. [Note: for the social context of the first two, see the LHMP podcast on Charlotte Cushman and her circle.]

In The Rebel of the Family, the protagonist looks to be a continuation of the “mannish” Jane from the earlier novel, now named Perdita Winstanley. Again, she is single, unconventional, not traditionally attractive, and is male-identified in behavior and ambitions. But now Perdita, rather than maintaining these traits across the novel, is depicted as a rebellious “New Woman” tamed by love and returned to domesticity. The position of feminist icon is again taken up by a supporting character, Bell Blount: the president of a women’s rights organization, “handsome but bold and confident-looking,” dressed flamboyantly and vulgarly. Bell woos Perdita to the feminist cause with an overt undertone of sexual seduction. When exposed to Bell’s persuasions, Perdita feels “as if about to be initiated into those hidden mysteries where the springs of human history are to be found” and is simultaneously attracted and repelled when Bell embraces and kisses her “with strange warmth.” Perdita is susceptible, due to feeling unloved and out of place at home, and is attracted by the image of Bell’s world where women work out in the world and come home to female companionship. Bell has a female partner who is introduced as her “good little wife” and who treats Perdita as a romantic rival.

The plot involves the battle between Bell’s attractions of a purposeful life and freedom from the constraints of traditional femininity, and the more conventional path offered by the hyper-masculine Leslie Crawford. In contrast to the supportive but non-erotic friendship that Jane offers Isola in Sowing the Wind, Bell’s overtures are unmistakably sexual and she moves in a world of “mannish” feminists who are unambiguously coded as lesbian. Perdita flees back to conventionality, not only because she learns to embrace “the loving woman’s instinctive glory in acknowledging her own comparative inferiority” but because Bell reveals herself as hypocritical and controlling. Her feminism is intended to support only those like herself and “does not include democratic equality or communistic mishmash in any form.” This hypocrisy is braided together in Linton’s mind with her lesbianism and feminism, rather than being coincidental traits.

The third novel further explores the rising image of the “New Woman” who was viewed as antithetical to the British social structure in her desire for independence and equality. In The New Woman in Haste and At Leisure (1895) we find a mirror-character to Bell Blount from the earlier work in the protagonist Phoebe Barrington. Here it is not so much a physical resemblance as situational aspects of their characters: both are separated from their husbands and active in the women’s rights movement, both are “handsome but vulgar”, and both inhabit a world of women’s clubs that engage in smoking, drinking, speechifying, and flirtation. Unlike Bell, Phoebe doesn’t have a wife waiting at home, but surrounds herself with a variety of lesbian archetypes. Phoebe’s female friends encourage her to become a feminist orator, much to her estranged husband’s shame. This husband becomes Linton’s voice in the work, expressing a horror for “manly woman and effeminate men” (explicitly using the term “third sex”). The book’s crux comes when Phoebe’s husband seduces her back to domesticity.

Taken as a whole, Linton’s fictional output trace the development of the 19th century British awareness of lesbianism from a vague, unnamed (but strongly sympathetic) image of strength and independence, to the “invert” of the sexologists, for whom a woman’s erotic desire for women could only be visualized as an essential masculinity and sexual aggressiveness. But in depicting this shift, Linton struggles against the realities of her own life and expresses what can only be viewed as a self-hatred for her own feminist and homoerotic impulses.

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Saturday, March 2, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32a - On the Shelf for March 2019 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2019/03/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2019.

I am getting a bunch of really great interviews lined up for the next several months! I love how this podcast gives me both an excuse and the courage to reach out and talk to authors who are doing work that I love. I’m always looking for people who want to join us on the show. Whether you’re an author who writes queer women in historic settings, or a reader who has enthusiastic opinions about historical fiction, or a publisher who wants to talk about the field, or a historian who wants to talk about researching queer history, I’m open to almost anyone whose work intersects the themes of this podcast.

Fiction Series

Last month, you may remember that I was feeling a bit pessimistic about submissions for the 2019 fiction series on the podcast. I did have a bunch of submissions come in on the very last day of the month and I’ve selected a line-up that I think you’re really going to enjoy. But I’m still thinking about whether to continue the series in 2020. It’ll make a difference if people let me know that they’re enjoying the fiction series and consider it valuable, whether you’re a listener, or as an author looking for new venues for your work. Promote the heck out of the podcast and let all your friends know what we’re doing here.

Publications on the Blog

The blog has been looking at some articles about the rise of the study of sexology in the late 19th and early 20th century, and especially the ways in which women’s experiences were marginalized in the construction of modern theories of sexuality. But moving forward, I’ll be turning back to the earlier material that’s my first love, with yet another article from the growing academic industry of Anne Lister studies, another of Sahar Amer’s excellent looks at studying lesbian-like themes in medieval Arabic sources, and the hazards of expecting them to align with the European experience, and then a couple of articles that touch on medieval transgender concepts and how they intersect with historic sexuality.


That last topic is also relevant to this month’s essay, which is part of my current series on interpreting the interrelationship between models of gender and sexuality in historic sources. Last month I played with approaches to breaking down our accepted notions of how gender and sexuality features get bundled into complex categories, and how those categories can vary enormously across cultures in terms of how gender and sexuality are understood.

This month, I’m jumping from the general and theoretical to the very specific. I’ll be looking at a handful of case studies of individuals whose existence challenged their cultures gender and sexuality categories, and how the outcome of those challenges give us information, not only about the structure of the cultural categories that people had available to them, but how people found ways to articulate identities that failed to match those categories, and tried to negotiate a modus vivendi even when their culture had no place for them.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be Katharine Duckett, whose debut novella, Miranda in Milan tells a possible story of what happened to Miranda, from Shakespeare’s supernatural drama The Tempest, after her father returns with her to 16th century Milan. Within the mysteries and dangers she encounters, she finds an unexpected connection with a woman with roots in the suppressed Moorish community in Spain.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

The new and forthcoming book list this month has some interesting coincidental categories. As usual, I’ve collected up some books I missed from the last couple of months. So starting with January releases we have several books set during the world wars of the 20th century.

January Books

How to Talk to Nice English Girls by Gretchen Evans (Carnation Books) looks like a nice traditional romance.

In the aftermath of The Great War, everything is changing. But not for Marian Fielding. Marian’s life is quiet and predictable in the solitude of the English countryside, where she plans to remain and care for her parents. But Marian’s world is turned upside down when she meets brash, confident Katherine Fuller. Katherine arrives at the Fieldings’ estate for the wedding of Marian’s sister and immediately shakes things up. Instead of keeping an eye on the ill-mannered American girl and keeping her out of trouble, Marian finds herself magnetically drawn to Katherine’s vivacious nature, and they are swept into a whirlwind romance that will change both of their lives. But will Katherine’s unconventional behavior ruin their chance at happiness? Can Marian leave her old life behind? Will two women from different worlds find a way to be together against all odds and expectations?

As War Goes By by Aimée (Amazon digital) picks up on the recent surge of interest in the women code-breakers of Bletchley Park.

1940, England. War has a way of engineering the most unlikely encounters. When Penelope Lowes sits next to Clarissa Cartrew in the packed train, she has no idea they are both going to the same place, about which they’ve both been sworn to secrecy. Nor that her journey will take her much further than her original destination, Bletchley Park. As World War Two wreaks havoc in the world, it also makes people grow up faster. Penelope’s initiation to love during her stint as a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force has not been the most auspicious, and if anything has made her even shyer and more gauche than before. Meanwhile, Clarissa enjoys the social scene, and does not lack admirers. She is decided to make the most of her opportunities, away from the constraints of her aristocratic background. When Penelope – Penny – is recruited by the Special Operations Executive to become a Special Agent, she doesn’t hesitate long before agreeing. Only the thought that she may not see her friends ever again could make her waver between heart and duty – a young driver has recently shown her the power of a simple kiss, and her friendship with Clarissa is blossoming. Duty wins, and life and war go on…No one knows what the future entails – will they get a second chance?

This next book looks like an oddball alternate history. It’s quite short -- I’d guess maybe a novelette or short novella in length -- and currently only available from Amazon. It sounds like my sort of catnip, so maybe if it’s ever released more widely I’ll check it out.

By Royal Lottery by M. Wyllie (Amazon digital)

It is the late Victorian era and, by a tradition of the country of Brittany and Greater Cornwall, a lottery has been run to find a common man of good education and standing to wed the widowed Princess Louise. Only, a young woman named Alice is chosen. While Alice does her best to act her part in all this, she is soon troubled by Louise raising the mystery of what exactly happened to her late husband, as well as troubled by her own feelings as she spends more time with the somewhat mischievous princess. All along Alice thought this would be a ‘pretend’ marriage, only to begin to wonder how far Louise wishes to take this game of pretend. It will be a long month for her until the ceremony.

February Books

The February releases start out with what look like some complicated relationships.

Sophistries of Summer Days by Jenny Lofters (Amazon digital)

Two women forge an extraordinary friendship during a time of instability, deception, treachery, and loss. Even the British West Indies are no refuge from the rising political tensions of the 1930s, but fourteen-year-old islander Cherrimina is much more interested in Dove, a pretty red-haired American who has mysteriously appeared in her remote hometown. Dove takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, and as a devastating hurricane blows in, she commits a crime—one seen only by Cherrimina. An unlikely friendship forms between the two young women, but when the storm finally abates, Dove disappears from Cherrimina’s life. Then World War II breaks out, and during those terrible years, Cherrimina witnesses uprisings, homelessness, and betrayal. Choosing to escape the nightmare that her home has become, Cherrimina flees to New York, where she is reunited with Dove. But her friend is not the woman Cherrimina remembers. As Dove and Cherrimina struggle to reconnect, they must determine whether friendship and love can weather the storms of life.

Memoirs of a Triangle by Christine Twigg (NineStar Press) is somewhat vague about how the titular triangle will end, so read at your own risk.

When Edith instigates a new game with her two best friends, May and Peter, on a warm spring day in 1869, she ignites sexual awakenings that will influence and shape the rest of their lives. Although Edith lusts for Peter, she is aware that May’s desires are directed toward her, and when their triangular involvement begins to splinter, she leaves her two best friends to begin a career in Boston. However, even after choosing what they thought was the more stable path, they learn that the past is not so easily left behind. On their separate, yet connected paths, they find themselves drawn together, experiencing eroticism, love, confusion, trust, and grief throughout the course of their lives.

The Highwayman by Eleanor Musgrove (Amazon digital) follows familiar pathways in taking its inspiration from Alfred Noyes poem of the same title. This is another very short work, somewhere in the novelette range, and leans heavily on its source material, but with a queer twist.

Bess lives a simple existence as the daughter of an innkeeper – or so it seems. But she and her forbidden lover, the notorious highwayman plaguing the area, have more secrets to keep than just their clandestine moonlit meetings. Even one overheard conversation could change both of their lives forever. Inspired by Alfred Noyes' tragic poem of the same name, this adaptation reimagines the story of the ill-fated lovers with an LGBT+ twist – and a touch of hope...

March Books

The March releases are dominated by novels from mainstream presses and especially by historic fantasy. Though this is in part a side-effect of the difficulty of hearing about small-press and self published books in advance of release. Remember that if you have, or know about, an upcoming book that falls in the scope of this podcast, drop us a note with the information. Especially if you’d like to have it included before it gets released.

The first up is by this month’s author guest:

Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett (

With Miranda in Milan, debut author Katharine Duckett reimagines the consequences of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, casting Miranda into a Milanese pit of vipers and building a queer love story that lifts off the page in whirlwinds of feeling. After the tempest, after the reunion, after her father drowned his books, Miranda was meant to enter a brave new world. Naples awaited her, and Ferdinand, and a throne. Instead she finds herself in Milan, in her father’s castle, surrounded by hostile servants who treat her like a ghost. Whispers cling to her like spiderwebs, whispers that carry her dead mother’s name. And though he promised to give away his power, Milan is once again contorting around Prospero’s dark arts. With only Dorothea, her sole companion and confidant to aid her, Miranda must cut through the mystery and find the truth about her father, her mother, and herself.

The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino (Touchstone) looks like a complex mix of history, adventure, and forbidden romance.

By day, Mary Ballard is lady’s maid to Charlotte Walden, wealthy and accomplished belle of New York City high society. Mary loves Charlotte with an obsessive passion that goes beyond a servant’s devotion, but Charlotte would never trust Mary again if she knew the truth about her devoted servant’s past. Because Mary’s fate is linked to that of her mistress, one of the most sought-after debutantes in New York, Mary’s future seems secure—if she can keep her own secrets… But on her nights off, Mary sheds her persona as prim and proper lady’s maid to reveal her true self—Irish exile Maire O’Farren—and finds release from her frustration in New York’s gritty underworld—in the arms of a prostitute and as drinking companion to a decidedly motley crew consisting of a barkeeper and members of a dangerous secret society. Meanwhile, Charlotte has a secret of her own—she’s having an affair with a stable groom, unaware that her lover is actually Mary’s own brother. When the truth of both women’s double lives begins to unravel, Mary is left to face the consequences. Forced to choose between loyalty to her brother and loyalty to Charlotte, between society’s respect and true freedom, Mary finally learns that her fate lies in her hands alone. A captivating historical fiction of 19th century upstairs/downstairs New York City, The Parting Glass examines sexuality, race, and social class in ways that feel startlingly familiar and timely. A perfectly paced, romantically charged story of overlapping love triangles that builds to a white-knuckle climax, this is an irresistible debut that’s impossible to put down.

I still haven’t gotten to reading the first novella in the following series, but it gets the nod from reviewer Liz Bourke and that’s usually good enough for me. The queer content isn’t obvious from this blurb (which is a repeating theme in some of the following descriptions) but take it as given.

Alice Payne Rides (Alice Payne #2) by Kate Heartfield (

After abducting Arthur of Brittany from his own time in 1203, thereby creating the mystery that partly prompted the visit in the first place, Alice and her team discover that they have inadvertently brought the smallpox virus back to 1780 with them. Searching for a future vaccine, Prudence finds that the various factions in the future time war intend to use the crisis to their own advantage. Can the team prevent an international pandemic across time, and put history back on its tracks? At least until the next battle in the time war…

The True Queen by Zen Cho (Ace) is another historic fantasy where the queer content has to be taken on trust from the rumor mill. Although in this case, the rumor mill includes direct from the author. (Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I have a recording date to interview her.) This is a sequel to Zen Cho’s acclaimed Regency fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, and like that book it examines themes of colonialism and the place of people of color in Regency England.

When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic. If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she's drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed.

Levitate: A Spy Novel by Geonn Cannon (Supposed Crimes) takes us back to the mid 20th century with its spies and international intrigues. Many of Geonn Cannon’s books include supernatural elements. I can’t tell from the blurb whether this one does as well.

To Cassiane Jurick, there is nothing in the world as important as The Mission. As a covert agent for Greek intelligence, she disappears into whatever role she's given. Her latest mission ends in failure and nearly costs Cassiane her life, but she is rescued and nursed back to health by her handler, Timothea Riddock. Adrift between assignments and still recuperating from her injuries, Cassiane begins a physical relationship with Timothea. Their relationship is put on hold by the arrival of another agent, Constance Grimaldi, who brings them a new mission: a Soviet chemist has arrived in Berlin with a new strain of anthrax which they believe he plans to sell to one of their enemies. As Cassiane disappears into her latest identity, Timothea finds herself drawn to Constance. From a ghost station in the shadow of the Berlin Wall to hidden strongholds hidden deep inside dark German forests, the three agents must learn to trust one another because this mission's failure would mean certain death.

And that’s it for the new crop of books. Check them out and let us know what you thought.

[Sponsor Break]

Ask Sappho

This month’s Ask Sappho question is from Eh Stevens, on the Lesbian Talk Show facebook group, who asks, “With the new release of Hick I was wondering if you’ve ever talked about the relationship she had with Eleanor Roosevelt. Truth to the rumors or just wishful thinking on our part that Eleanor found some happiness in her life.”

There have been a number of works in recent years covering the relationship between journalist Lorena Hickok and First Lady and prominent diplomat and activist Eleanor Roosevelt. Given the very close and warm relationship between the two women, there has been a lot of speculation whether the friendship was also romantic and possibly even erotic in nature.

The long supportive marriage between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt is not, in itself, an argument against this possibility. As the daughter of a socially and politically prominent family in the early 20th century, opting out of marriage would have been tricky. The Roosevelts--Eleanor was a Roosevelt by birth, not just by marriage--were American aristocracy. Eleanor was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt and he gave her away at her marriage. And as with Europe’s hereditary aristocracy, marriage was not considered a bar to romantic and sexual relationships outside the marriage. At least, for the men in the family. Eleanor and Franklin married against his mother’s wishes after a secret correspondence, but Eleanor had few options other than marriage in terms of a career. She is on record as having disliked the sexual side of marriage, and when she discovered that Franklin was sexually involved with her secretary Lucy Mercer, the only thing that kept their marriage together was Franklin’s political prospects, which divorce would have destroyed.

But the failure, for all intents and purposes, of her heterosexual marriage isn’t the same as concluding that Eleanor was inclined for the ladies. So what is the positive evidence on that side?

One of the things to keep in mind is that Eleanor Roosevelt was born in 1884. She lived at the tail end of the era that considered Romantic Friendships and schoolgirls crushing on each other to be utterly normal and even expected. So even if the evidence never went any farther than writing long daily personal letters to a woman with sentiments like, "I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth,” I think it would be perfectly reasonable to conclude that this constitutes a “romantic relationship” with a woman. Me? I’m not particularly hung up on defining the nature of people’s relationships based on the precise catalog of which of each other’s body parts they’ve touched.

But the evidence does go further than that.

Lorena Hickok was widely known to be a lesbian. She had an eight-year relationship with a fellow female journalist in the 1920s. Her orientation is not the slightest in dispute. She was not the only known lesbian in Eleanor’s life. (One can’t exactly say “out lesbian” given the times, but “known” is sufficient for the purpose.) Eleanor was greatly influenced in her teen years (and later) by the headmistress of the finishing school she attended, Marie Souvestre. A known lesbian. Eleanor was close friends with two female couples active in women’s suffrage and political activism: Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, and Esther Lape and Elizabeth Fisher Read. So she had solid models for women sharing marriage-like partnerships based on mutual romantic love. This makes it highly unlikely that when Eleanor wrote to Hickok expressing a desire to kiss her and hold her close, she was naive about how such sentiments might be understood and responded to.

The intense scrutiny that Eleanor came under as First Lady contributed to their eventual separation, but even the nature of their conflicts and correspondence around that era have far more of the shape of a romantic breakup than friends drifting apart. Eleanor had close emotional relationships with other people in addition to Hick, both men and women. It’s common for people of a certain mindset to fasten on any attachment by a woman to a man as a basis for negating even overwhelming evidence for attachments to women. Hopefully we’re past the era of bisexual erasure and can accept that one person’s life can encompass love for both men and women. Most historians who are not blinded by willful denial have concluded that Eleanor and Hick’s relationship was clearly romantic and erotic. At this point, for me, it isn’t really even a question.

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