Skip to content Skip to navigation


Monday, August 17, 2020 - 12:00

It occurs to me that it might be useful to add a tag for "history of sexualty textbook" now that I've included a handful of items in that genre. I have doubts about how useful they are to my imagined target audience, though it's hard to tell without feedback. All I know is that, in general, I've found them of minor use and interest to me personally. This means I'll try to deprioritize them in my reading--the problem being that it isn't always possible to identify something as being a textbook until I start reading.

After assembling a massive number of blog entries in advance back in the Spring, I'm now coming to the end of that cushion and need to assemble my planned reading for the next couple months. This will run smack dab into the disruption of my reading habits caused by quarantine and working from home. It's not that I don't have time--I have more "free" time than ever before--but my rhythms and habits haven't settled down into new patterns yet. I used to do most of my reading and note-taking during my lunch hour or on the commute train. Now I ride my bike on my lunch hour and the commute is only a few meters. But we keep on keeping on and it's time to wrangle this part of my life back on track.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Phillips, Kim M. & Barry Reay. 2011. Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Polity Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-7456-2522-5

Have you ever come out of a book wondering, “Was there actually a gap that this book was needed to fill?” This work is a perfectly reasonable survey of the topic of pre-modern sexuality, but having read through it, I don’t feel like I learned a single new thing. If it had been published in, say, 1990, it would have been a treasure. But in 2011 it’s just assembling material that is easily available in other general surveys. Nor did it feel like there was any new theoretical approach or synthesis involved. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad book! Not at all. Just an unnecessary one.

No, I take that back. I do feel that the book is flawed in certain essential ways. The authors work entirely too hard to establish their premise that there is no such thing as “sexuality” before the 19th century. But on a number of points, it feels like they’ve gotten too hung up on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis--the idea that if you don’t have language to talk about a thing, the thing doesn’t exist. Even if it were true that nobody ever used the word “lesbian” before the later 19th century (which isn’t true), how does it follow that nobody before then had a concept of a woman having a strong--perhaps even exclusive--preference for women as sexual or romantic partners? Ah, but they address that. Individual people may well have had preferences, but that was an incidental individual taste, like disliking cilantro.

Let’s think about that idea of taste as applied to food. Were there vegetarians before someone invented the word “vegetarian”?

Note: As I was writing this up, I found myself writing a lot of “the authors argue” or “the authors discuss” in order to distance myself a bit from the content. It got really awkward and I went back and rewrote everything. Just take it as given that this is summarizing their positions and not an endorsement.

Introduction: Sex before Sexuality

The text opens with a manuscript illustration of the concept of sexual temptation and resistance to that temptation to introduce various themes relating to how sexual objects and desires were understood in “pre-heterosexual” culture.

Examples are given of how a culture might have all the themes that are today understood as comprising the concept of (male) homosexuality, without compiling them into a concept parallel to that one. A culture could embrace male-male bonds and male beauty while proscribing specific sex acts between men. The attitudes in Ottoman and ancient Athenian cultures toward active/passive roles in m/m sex are compared. How can we say homo/hetero-sexuality didn’t exist in a culture that encouraged homosocial and homoerotic themes, but that valorizes m/f courtship/marriage/reproduction as a distinct sphere of experience?

Consider the gender dynamics of stage cross-dressing interacting with cross-dressing plots in the plays. How did people understand the sexual dynamics and all the layers? Is this an “undifferentiated sexuality” that treats boys and women identically? (Note that this assumes the point of view of a dominant male.) If adolescent boys were considered to fall in the same sexual-object category as women, can relations with them be considered truly “homosexual” if that concept is defined as sexual desire between people of the same gender? Similarly (with less concrete data offered) can we apply this question to desire between female-presenting women and cross-dressing ones?

One framing is that the pre-modern position was that it was the culturally determined gender role of one’s partner that mattered, not their biological sex. [Note: but this ignores the question of how they conceived of same-sex relations when there was no cross-gender element.]

It was in the 19th century that people invented the terms heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, sadist, masochist, and sexuality. [Note: They are simply factually wrong on “lesbian” and related terminology.] The period covered by this book (1100-1800) had sex, but no “sexuality” in the sense of orientations and identities. Foucault is cited in connection with this. [Note: At the same time, the book notes pre-1800 examples of descriptions reaching toward the concept of masochism and other “perverse” sexualities.] One should not use the words “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” “lesbian,” or “pornography” for anything before the late 19th century, as the use of the words will distort understanding of the topic. Historic theories must embrace a clear pre-modern/modern separation. and any sort of “continuity” position with regard to sexual identities is suspect.

The rest of the introduction is a summary of the contents of the book. There is a survey of the major schools of thought regarding the history of sexuality. They don’t hold to a black-and-white “acts vs identities” position, and acknowledge the pre-modern conception of identifiable sexual preferences, but only object to applying modern names to these preferences. That it is the idea of connection between pre-modern/modern preference concepts that they object to. Pre-modern people should not be “forced” to occupy our modern categories retrospectively. They also have issues with defining “sex” [acts] and whether any sort of erotic behavior is included under “sex.” Within this context, they point to contemporary shifts in some cultures away from organizing around “identities” to focusing on “tastes.”

They note that the focus of the book is on Western Christian culture from 1100 to 1800, more or less excluding the colonies. They also prefer to avoid organizing around a medieval/early modern divide around 1500.

Chapter 1: Sin

This chapter discusses the history of the association of sex and sin--how the allowances for sex were hierarchically related to acceptable procreative sex within marriage. There are many details about what acts are better or worse than others, revealing the underlying value systems. The context of the discussion is from laws, penitentials, and popular culture.

Chapter 2: Before Heterosexuality

“The power of heterosexuality resides in a strange combination of ubiquity and invisibility.” The authors object to historians pointing out that heterosexuality, in being considered the silent default, thus “owns” history, claiming that this is an invalid take as it assumes a concept (heterosexuality) that didn’t exist. They critique historians who treat heterosexuality as a historic constant while discussing nuances of homosexuality.

[Note: While I agree in principle, I think we can’t escape the influence of modern assumptions of the fixed universality of heterosexuality.]

The authors discuss how the language of desire didn’t necessarily distinguish the sex of the desired object, but used similar terminology for all. Varied terms were used for different types of love, not for different objects. Homoerotic or homosocial bonds were considered of no consequence, even when using similar vocabulary to heteroerotic bonds. Marital affection was not automatically equated to “amor”. But at the same time, people accepted the centrality of marriage and procreation to society.

There is a discussion of types of illicit male-female sex, of marriage patterns, and of acceptable types of pre-marital sex. Marriage was considered “normative” even in contexts where there were significant numbers of never-married adults. There is a discussion of theories of differences between men and women in the experience of sexual pleasure.

In differentiating categories of sexual objects, female domestic servants were treated as naturally “available” to dominant men. There were double-standards for the sexual activity of unmarried men and women (men expected to be active, women expected to be not). Legal systems demonstrate how adultery was treated as a “property” crime as opposed to a form of fornication.

Chapter 3: Between Men

The authors ask the question, If all men are considered to potentially engage in male-male sex as an ordinary thing (even though certain acts might be proscribed) how can it be considered a distinct identity/orientation? They make a clear distinction between male-male sex as a functional category and sodomy as a historic concept (especially when defined narrowly as anal sex between men). But the complex history of the concept of sodomy makes the equation of the two problematic. There is a detailed discussion of how “sodomy” was defined and used across the centuries. This chapter focuses on how the ability of elite men to take sexual pleasure with objects of all types cannot be equated with a particular sexuality as an orientation.

At the same time, examples throughout the centuries are offered of men clearly expressing a preference for male partners. And male-male sex might be ignored by the community if no other factors were involved. There was a geographic distinction to some degree between the south/Mediterranean patterns where age/power-differentiated male-male sex was considered normal, and the north where all types of male-male sex were condemned equally.

Close male-male friendships might have an erotic component without being sexual, but examples are given of parallel erotic language used between men and from men to (non-sexual) female friends. On the other hand, the intersection of close male friendships and sex was a site of anxiety.

Evidence in the 18th century shows that language and concepts for preferences for male-male sex were commonly available. Yet the authors maintain that this was all processed under the concept of “personal taste” not identity.

Chapter 4: Between Women

[Note: As I summarized this chapter, I mostly found myself writing up a catalog of historic fact-lets and persons mentioned briefly in the text, all of which are covered in more detail in other publications. I’ve listed them briefly in the context of the topics of discussion, but for details use the topic links.]

There is general agreement on a progression in the early modern era from increased representation of female-female desire, to the “female husband” phenomenon, to romantic friendship. While the word “lesbian” was used in pre-modern times, it was not used to identify a stable sexual orientation. The authors discuss various strategies that historians have used to refer to f/f desire to get around an anachronistic use of “lesbian”.

Traub demonstrated a proliferation of f/f erotic representation that disproves the claims of medieval “silence” on the question of f/f erotics, but the topic is a contested site with questions of definitions and boundaries. Is “genital sexuality” the sine qua non? How do passionate friendships fit in? Do we reach for a concept that encompasses all situations of women outside of relations with men? Or do we start from the premise that heterosexuality “far from being compulsory, did not exist”?

Thirteen cases of “female sodomy” are discussed in Bennett, Crompton, Boone, but examples are few compared to records of male sodomy. (Examples: Bertolina/Guercia, Katharina Hetzeldorfer, Jehanne & Laurence)

[Note: in reading the discussion here on how to discuss “sex” if what you really mean is “penetrative sex acts” it occurs to me that maybe the authors could provide clarity by simply saying “fucking.”]

More sources of data on f/f erotics: penitentials, the medical texts of William of Saliceto, poem by de Fougeres, treatise against sodomy by Peter Damian, Benedetta Carlini, the two erotic poems between nuns in the Tegernsee manuscript, the writings and personal relationshps of Hildegard of Bingen, passionate friendships among the Beguines, the troubadour poetry of Bieris de Romans, the romances of Yde and Olive, and Silence.

The Renaissance added new f/f tropes to medieval performative mascuinity: female husbands, tribades, hermaphrodites, passionate friendship, Sapphists. We see the rise of “warrior woman” and cross-dressing ballads, but these typically depicted women who ended up in relationships with men. Gender disguise/transgender performance becomes a context where records focus on the use of a dildo for sex, and where f/f erotics were viewed as a vice that was potential in every woman: Amy Poulter & Arabella Hunt, Comical News from Bloombury, Fielding’s Female Husband, Catherine Vizzani.

There are few court records focusing on sex between women. Cases of “female husbands” generally involved charges of vagrancy [note: also “fraud”]. In a set of Dutch prosecutions involving sex between women it can be hard to determine what the actual charge was. Sex between women was often imagined in terms of “hermaphrodites,” suggesting a physiological cause for f/f desire. This is often connected to the 16th century “rediscovery” of the clitoris. As an analogue of the penis, the clitoris became the emblem of female erotic transgression and was merged with the image of the tribade such that the latter word came to be associated with clitoral penetration rather than the original sense of “rubbing.”

The use of “Sapphic” and related terms for f/f sex did not arise until the late 19th century despite the popularity of the image of Sappho in the Renaissance.. [Note: wrong. This vocabulary range can be documented in the later 18th century.] Art was a significant site of f/f eroticism, especially in the context of mythic images that incorporated the figure of a disguised or transformed man. The use of “Diana and her nymphs” as a context for depicting f/f erotics appears as early as the late 14th century.

Pornography--or professional literature that was barely distinct from pornography--was another site for depicting f/f erotics. Examples include: Jacob’s Tractatus de Hermaphroditus, Venus in the Cloister, Satyra Sotadica, Brantôme, and political pornography about Marie Antoinette.

Female friendship is rarer in the sources when compared to literature about male friendship. An early exception is the writings of Katherine Philips. Women adopted the discourse of male friendships but the topic was most commonly expressed in private correspondence rather that public documents. Convents expressed concerns about “particular friends.” The Maitland Ms poem XLIX uses a list of famous m/m friendships to frame desire between women. Anne Lister is discussed in this context as an outlier in being overt about her search for a “wife” rather than a “friend.” She recorded her suspicions about the sexual nature of the Butler/Ponsonby friendship, as well as her negotiations of sexual knowledge with her lover Mrs. Barlow. Lister’s sexual vocabulary for f/f activities was eclectic and extensive. The authors suggest that because Lister framed her desire for women in masculine terms, her relationships were not truly “same” sex relationships, and that Lister did not have the same sexual preference as her partners--that they had qualitatively different experiences.

There was a shift from attributing the cause of f/f desire to deviant physiology to attributing it to deviant gender (i.e., masculinity). The authors assert that it is anachronistic even to use the term “sapphist” for Lister as the word wasn’t used in that sense at the time. [Note: This is simply inaccurate. Hester Thrale described Butler and Ponsonby as “damned sapphists” in a context where the meaning is quite clear. And all of them were contemporaries of Lister.] Lister herself used the adjective “sapphic” in a context where it seems she associates it specifically with the use of a dildo (which Lister disdained).

A distinction is made for “situational homosexuality” (a woman who prefers men but is open to sex with women). [Note: this section of the discussion entirely erases the concept of bisexuality and ignores social pressures for m/f marriage regardless of personal identity/preference.] An example is given in the play The Antipodes where f/f sex is a “made do” when men fail.

In summary, there were actual pre-modern women who desired each other and acted on it. But the authors claim that none of these specific examples can be identified as “lesbian” under the definition of: a woman who has an exclusive desire for men, where there are no elements of trans-masculinity, and where neither partner has been involved sexually with men. [Note: It can easily be noted that under this definition a great many modern people who identify as lesbians would not meet the bar. In which case, are we actually comparing pre-modern cases with a “modern lesbian identity” or with a straw-women definition?]

The chapter concludes by claiming that only by renouncing all category labels and categories can “lesbian” desire be properly situated in a historic context.

Chapter 5: Before Pornography

[Note: Ok, at this point, I’ve rather lost my patience for summarizing this book in detail.]

This chapter continues the approach of “Topic-X did not actually exist in the pre-modern period because it doesn’t exactly match the way in which we, the authors, are going to define it. Also: history is complicated and we’re looking for a simplistic definition that doesn’t exist. But they have some valid points about how bawdy literature in pre-modern times had a different social purpose than the modern understanding of “pornography” as media intended to create and satisfy sexual arousal in the consumer.

Epilogue: Sex at Sea?

The epilogue discusses colonial encounters with non-Western cultures who had entirely different approaches to sexuality and how Westerners recorded their reactions to those encounters.

Saturday, August 15, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 171 (previously 49c) - Book Appreciation: Artemis/Diana in Fiction - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/08/15 - listen here)

As part of this month’s focus on the Goddess of the Hunt, whether as Greek Artemis or Roman Diana, I thought I’d do one of my thematic book lists. I have not, alas, had a chance to read though most of the works I’ll be mentioning. So this isn’t a review show, but simply a look at what’s out there. And in a change from my usual book lists, this time I’m not filtering by any particular representation or sexuality. This list isn’t exhaustive, by any means. Some works were suggested by readers on Twitter. Some I found through Goodreads lists. And some I encountered through having their authors on my show.

The works discussed here may have the goddess herself as a protagonist, or may focus on one or more of her followers. One of the features of the Artemis or Diana of myth is that she was attended by a community of women who, like her, had sworn off relations with men.

The books that sparked the idea for this month’s theme are in Rick Riordan’s young-adult Percy Jackson series. The series as a whole tells the adventures of a group of half-mortal offspring of the Greek gods who get caught up in the political machinations of Olympus, as well as being in a somewhat uncomfortable position of neither mortal nor gods themselves -- a theme that is prominent in the original mythology. Artemis and her band of hunters appear prominently in the third book, The Titan’s Curse, as supporting characters who assist the protagonists, and two of the central secondary characters join the Hunters. The rules the hunters have about associating with men are a minor plot point. Based on various references in the books, it appears that Rick Riordan’s version of the followers of Artemis involves them swearing off romantic relationships entirely, not only heterosexual relationships, and there is one reference to a female couple who had left the Hunters when they fell in love so that they could live as a couple. Riordan is on record as saying that the Hunters are an attractive career option for women who are aromantic and asexual, though it isn’t an absolute requirement. The Twitter discussion that sparked my theme this month revolved around his portrayal of Artemis herself as aromantic and asexual, not simply as rejecting love and sex with men.

While Riordan’s series is aimed at the YA readership, Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams have a middle-grade series based on Greek mythology, with a couple of titles featuring Artemis as one of the students at the Olympus Academy. So, sort of a magical school for young deities. One might think that a series aimed at much younger readers might stick with Artemis’s initial “yuck, boys” approach and leave it at that, but Artemis the Brave decides to fix on the one Greek myth that gives the goddess of the hunt a crush on a boy, and sets her up to fall for the mortal foreign exchange student, Orion.

The image of Artemis and her Huntresses in Elizabeth Tammi’s Outrun the Wind is similar to Rick Riordan’s. Those who follow the goddess are pledged not to fall in love with anyone, but when Kahina the Huntress saves the daring Atalanta, she begins to find that pledge hard to keep. Atalanta needs help to devise an impossible task for her unwanted suitors, and Kahina is handed the job of helping her. When both of them face hazards from their past, the gods aren’t the only shadow hanging over them. Elizabeth Tammi was a guest on the podcast to talk about her book, which views the women-only followers of the huntress as a fertile ground for same-sex romance, even if Artemis herself doesn’t partake.

Another aromantic and asexual take on Artemis can be found in the poetry collection Goddess of the Hunt by Shelby Eileen. I got a pointer to this one from @mizelle on twitter. Artemis herself is the focus of the poems, rather than being a background figure. Rather than viewing the goddess’s life of chastity as a renunciation, the poems reveal it to be an expression of her true self, maintained against those who want to change her.

The webcomic series Theia Mania by Li Österberg is a sardonic take on the family drama of Mount Olympus and includes not only a same-sex romance involving Artemis, but one between Demeter and Hecate as well. They aren’t necessarily the central characters but the relationships are treated as ordinary ... well, as ordinary as the Greek gods ever really get. The art is fabulous and shows a deep familiarity with ancient Greek styles as well as reflecting modern sensibilities. I got a pointer to this one on twitter as well, from @SerenaJenk this time.

Also turned up on twitter is a very short story Olympic Hearts by Madeline Kelly which pairs off Artemis with the goddess of love, Aphrodite herself. Aphrodite gets around to be sure, but once or twice she’s fallen for a woman. A quick and bite-sized romance.

The huntresses of Artemis were sometimes conflated with the similarly man-shunning Amazons, and K. Aten’s Arrow of Artemis trilogy blends these themes in a classical-mythic setting. The focus is on the human followers of Artemis-the-goddess rather than bringing Artemis into the story as a character herself, but the series comes down solidly on the side of Artemis as lesbian icon. K. Aten came onto the podcast a while ago to talk about the series so check out her interview.

So there we are: not as many stories as I thought I’d find, but a diverse buffet of interpretations of the role and character of Artemis. I didn’t find any modern novels that interpreted her through the Roman version as Diana, though I mentioned several older works in last week’s show that have characters either corresponding to, or meaning to evoke, the goddess by that name. And next week I’ll talk more about the mythic stories and historic re-workings of the goddess that speak to how her sexuality was interpreted across the ages. If you know of any other books that would fit this category, drop a comment at the website. The link, as always, is in the show notes.

Show Notes

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.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Monday, August 10, 2020 - 20:00

I had a moment of panic when my iPad (which had the highlighted version of this article ready for writing up) decided that it didn't have enough memory to open the relevant app. Because it's been downloading new versions of the iOS since forever but hasn't had the elbow room to install them. I temporarily deleted a bunch of apps to get things freed up, but the big problem is that I can't export the marked-up versions of the files and what the iPad really needs is to be restored to factory setting so I can start fresh. Or upgrade to the next iPad or something. Or something. Well, I've got everything sorted out for now. And I managed to get the blog posted on Monday, as planned!

I'm working on some new promotional contexts for the blog and podcast. The LHMP now has its own Twitter account ( so I can churn out more regular posts without spamming my personal feed. And because I had to set up a Discord account for the recent online Worldcon, I decided to set up my own server to explore hosting chats, etc. for the LHMP and for fans of Alpennia and my writing. I'm doing a "soft roll-out" by inviting people who express interest, and will experiment with doing some live chats and events there in the future. So if you'd like a head start, drop me an email or a twitter DM or any other non-public channel and I'll give you an invitation.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vanita, Ruth. 2005. "Born of Two Vaginas: Love and Reproduction between Co-Wives in Some Medieval Indian Texts" in GLQ 11:4 547-577.

I’ve covered several other articles where Ruth Vanita touches on the motif of reproduction by a female couple in Indian mythological literature. This is a deep dive into the specific texts and contexts for that motif.

Ruth Vanita does an in-depth comparative study of several texts concerning the birth and life of the legendary hero Bhagiratha. The specific focus is a set of three 14th century Bengali texts (also reproduced in later 16-17th c collections) in which the hero is the result of the sexual union of two co-wives, queens of the late King Dilipa whose had died without fathering the son who was foretold to bring the sacred river Ganga to earth from heaven.

These texts are examined in two contexts: other versions of the hero’s birth and life that do not include the same-sex motif, and ancient and medieval Hindu ideas around co-wives, same-sex sexual relations, same-sex co-parenting, and miraculous or monstrous conceptions. She continues to discuss essential differences in law and society between the Christian concept of sodomy and the Hindu concept of ayoni (non-vaginal) sex.

Vanita’s previous studies on same-sex themes in Indian history points out that looking for evidence specifically of genital intercourse may overlook other types of evidence that are taken seriously within cross-sex relationships. In the context of modern debates over same-sex relations in India, it is important to identify canonical Hindu texts that accommodate (if not necessarily promote) genital same-sex relations within a neutral treatment of lovemaking in general. Here we find a contrast between prescriptive texts, such as legal and medical works, and narratives that are more concerned with emotional and inter-personal contexts.

The story that is the focus of this article can be read as celebrating sexual love between co-wives as being divinely sanctioned, as part of kinship structures, and as contributing to family and community. In addition to these factors, the relationship may be presented as providing physical and emotional fulfillment for the women.

The idea that sexual intercourse between two women can result in pregnancy and childbirth occurs independently of Bhagiratha’s story, at least as early as a 1st century medical text, the Sushruta Samhita. This union is said to produce a “boneless” child, as the father’s seed was thought to contribute bones to the fetus. This motif, and an explanation for how it was overcome, is present in two of the focal stories.

The “born of two mothers” motif is not the only version of the Bhagiatha story, and Vanita connects this motif specifically with medieval Shakta or goddess worship traditions current in 14th century Bengal, although the texts are more overtly part of the Vaishnava tradition, glorifying Vishnu. Another potentially relevant feature of this subgroup of texts is in presenting them as a conversation between the primal serpent, Sheshanaga, and the sage Vatsyayana (who is the assigned author of the Kamasutra, an erotic treatise that discusses same-sex relations in a fairly non-judgmental manner).

The core story of these three texts goes like this: after King Dilipa dies childless, his two widows have sexual relations and produce a child, Bhagiratha, who carries on Dilipa’s lineage and heritage. There is no question about his lineage because any child born to Dilipa’s wives (even after his death) is assigned as his child.

The reproductive context varies between the three stories. In one, the two widows go to a priest for help to continue the family line, who instructs them to eat a special type of rice and then to have sex, after which the elder becomes pregnant. The child is born “boneless” but an encounter later with the deformed sage Ashtavakra results in his body being transformed.

In the second version, the gods are the driving force due to their concern for the disruption to divine plans for the line of Dilipa. Shiva is sent to the widows and tells them to have sex with each other to produce the required heir. With the gods’ blessing, “the two women lived together in extreme love ... they enjoyed love play, and one of them conceived.” Again, the child is boneless and the women are advised to leave him on the roadside, where the sage Ashtavakra encounters him and is again the means of transforming his body to a heroic state.

In the third version, a more detailed context is provided for the women. They are provided with names (!), Chandra and Mala, and after Dilipa’s death they make love spontaneously, inspired by Madan the god of love, with the child being an unanticipated byproduct rather than the purpose of the activity. “Burning with desire induced by Madan, Chandra and Mala took each other in embrace, and each kissed the other. Chandravati played the man and Mala the woman. The two women dallied and made love. The god’s blessing had enabled the two women to play the game of love, and the energy of Madan entered the womb of Malavati. This is how Malavati became pregnant.” Mala is distraught and plans to drown herself, thinking people will assume she had been with a man, but the gods intervene and tell her that the pregnancy was by divine will to fulfill the prophecy. In this version, Bhagiratha is born perfect and beautiful.

A common factor among these versions is the intervention of the gods to sanctify the women’s relationship and the resulting birth. The women not only express devotion to the gods and their divine plans, but are concerned for their late husband’s lineage and the fate of the kingdom. But in addition to these more traditional concerns, they are shown feeling and expressing love and desire for each other.

The audience is primed to accept this as the divine plan, although there are occasional bows to expected conventional reactions: to a widow’s pregnancy, to the possibility that their actions result in pollution, to the motif that a child born of two women will be “monstrous” in some way. These anxieties are acknowledged, then resolved by how the events are reframed. In the most detailed version (the third described above), the women’s sexual encounter is placed in a traditional context for acceptable romantic and sexual pleasure: occurring during the monsoon season, characterized by kisses and burning desire, and inspired by the presence of Madan/Kama, the god of love.

The intervention of the god Kama provides license for the women’s desire for each other. When one is targeted by Kama, one is helpless. Same-sex targets may be rare, but an example is given of an 11th century statue with two women, embracing, as Kama shoots love-arrows at them.

Indian medieval legal discussions of sex between women point out that there it doesn’t represent a simple, unified concept. Rather, attitudes and penalties revolve around the desire to protect women’s premarital virginity. Digital penetrative sex between women, when one is a virgin, is proscribed and punished similarly to the same act involving a man, but there is no penalty indicated if both women are non-virgins.

The article discusses the contradictory attitude toward ayoni (non-vaginal) sex, with some stories presenting it as the origin of heroic offspring, while others treat it as an impure condition. Vanita suggests that these are two faces to the concept of “taboo” -- that what is sacred in one context is forbidden in others. But when ayoni sex is discussed in law books, the punishments are usually trivial and equivalent to those provided for heterosexual sex in impure, but not forbidden, contexts. The types of acts covered by the term are pretty much anything not involving a woman’s vagina, so the discussion is not limited to homosexual contexts.

The article then moves into a discussion of how British colonial attitudes and laws replaced earlier attitudes. There is a consideration of how different cultures treat the relationship of (and expected attitudes between) co-wives in polygamous societies. Within Indian traditions, women might use the co-wife relationship to bring a beloved friend (or lover?) into the marriage. Other medieval Indian narratives include the motif of loving bonds between co-wives, though not necessarily overtly sexual. The motif of pairs or groups of women co-mothering a child, either in legend or history is also touched on.

[Note: I’ve only briefly skimmed over these last several topics, which take up a substantial portion of the article.]

Time period: 
Saturday, August 8, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 170 (previously 49b) - Reprise - Diana and Callisto: The Sometimes Problematic Search for Representation - transcript

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

This episode is a reprise of a show that originally aired two years ago. This month I’m doing a series of shows around the theme of the mythic Artemis or Diana and how her sexuality has been portrayed, both in historical contexts and in modern fiction. The theme was inspired by a wide-ranging conversation on twitter discussing what I see as an entirely unnecessary conflict between works that represent Artemis as lesbian and ones representing her as asexual. But I’ll save that discussion for the week 4 episode. For now, let’s revisit the rather complicated and sometimes problematic story of Diana and Callisto.

* * *

The search for representation in history and historic art and literature is, in one sense, always doomed to failure because our identities are a complex product of a specific historic and cultural context. We can find echoes of individual details of our identities, but never the exact whole. And sometimes, to find those echoes, we need to excavate the features we identify with from a pit of stereotypes, disapproval, and hostility.

Today’s show looks at a topic that offers both some surprising examples of representation and some uncomfortably problematic features of how that representation was framed.

Ovid, Diana and Callisto, other mythic themes

The Roman goddess Diana (and her Greek counterpart Artemis, as well as other divinities treated as equivalent or related) is a complex figure with several prominent attributes. She is associated with the moon (corresponding to her brother Apollo’s association with the sun). She is associated with hunting and with wild spaces. She is associated with virginity or chastity and famous for harsh treatment of male intrusions into her all-female circle of followers, which makes it interesting that she was also associated with childbirth and was petitioned to assist both with becoming pregnant and with an easy delivery. Diana was often depicted in male-coded hunting garments, wearing a short tunic and boots, while carrying a bow and quiver and accompanied by hunting dogs or by a deer.

The artistic and literary treatments of Diana that had the most significant presence in later Western culture revolve around two stories, both of which are relevant for Diana as a lesbian icon. One is the story of the hunter Acteon and his fate. Acteon was out hunting and came across Diana while she was bathing naked. In punishment for this transgression, she changed Acteon into a stag and set his own hounds on him to hunt and kill him. This is part of a continuing theme depicting Diana’s band of followers as constituting a women-only space and enforcing that requirement with harsh penalties.

The other story, about Diana and Callisto, is more complex. In brief, Callisto was one of Diana’s followers, one of a band of nymphs who were sworn to reject men just as Diana herself had. Jupiter had the hots for Callisto--as he did for so many women in classical mythology--but there was no way to get close to her because of Diana’s big sign on the clubhouse saying, “No Boys Allowed.”

So Jupiter got around this problem by disguising himself as Diana. A number of the medieval and early modern versions of the story go into great detail about how Callisto became persuaded that a sexual relationship with the goddess Diana was not only ok, but was a great idea, though other versions depict her as being more consistently reluctant about it. At some point, of course, Jupiter revealed himself, but it was too late for Callisto to protest at that point. She became pregnant as a result, and although she tried to conceal the fact, her condition was discovered one day when the nymphs were bathing together. There’s that “naked nymphs bathing together in the woods” motif again. Callisto was expelled from Diana’s band and transformed into a bear, although the details of just who performed the shape-change vary depending on the version of the story. In any event, we aren’t so much concerned with that point.

The key aspects of these two stories that created resonances through the medieval and Renaissance periods were the following. The goddess Diana rejected romantic and sexual interactions with men and expected her followers to do the same. Both stories involve scenes of women bathing naked in wilderness settings. And Jupiter’s seduction of Callisto assumes a context in which Callisto responds positively to what she believes is same-sex desire. These motifs combined to create an unusually public culture of depicting female homoeroticism in a context where, if not exactly approved of, it was safely removed from everyday life enough to be acceptable.

It is undeniable that the popularity of artistic depictions of the story were, in large part, driven by the male gaze and an appetite for female homoerotic scenes created for men’s consumption. But at the same time, the depiction in both art and literature of a separatist society of women who resisted marriage or any other relations with men and who openly embraced physical affection and pair-bonding between women, created a conceptual space that welcomed women who desired women not only as consumers but as producers of those stories and images.

The concept of chastity and heteronormativity

A key feature to understanding the reception of Dianic art and literature is the shifting interpretations of the concepts of chastity and virginity. Diana was a virgin goddess and one whose followers were sworn to chastity, but for much of western culture these concepts were understood within a heteronormative framework in which “sex” was defined as what happened between men and women. During many historic eras in the west, erotic activity between women was not seen as threatening to society because it wasn’t categorized as “sex”.

Within this framework, there was no inherent conflict between Callisto swearing to be chaste and Callisto accepting the erotic advances of someone she believed to be a woman. This position is laid out explicitly in texts based on the Diana myths. For example, in William Warner’s poem Albion’s England written in 1586 Jupiter’s assault on Callisto is described as follows:


And Nymph-like sits him by the Nymph, that took him for no man,

And after smiles, with nearer signs of Loves assault began.

He feeleth oft her ivory breasts, nor maketh coy to kiss;

Yet all was well, a maiden to a maiden might do this.


From a similar era, Thomas Heywood’s play The Golden Age, lays out the expectations for the women in Diana’s band. When Callisto arrives begging to join them, Diana asks the hero Atalanta, “Is there no princess in our train as yet unmatched to be her cabin fellow and sleep by her?” And Atalanta answers, “Madam, we are all coupled and twinned in love, and hardly is there any that will be won to change her bedfellow.” So Diana tells Callisto, “You must be single till the next arrive: she that is next admitted of our train must be her bed-companion; so ‘tis alotted.” It is this uncoupled state that leaves her vulnerable to Jupiter’s advances when he arrives pretending to join Diana’s band. There’s an ironically humorous scene where Diana lays out the rules for her followers, which the disguised Jupiter has no problem promising to:


You shall vow chastity.

You never shall with hated man atone,

But lie with woman, or else lodge alone.

With ladies only you shall sport and play,

And in their fellowship spend night and day.

Consort with them at board and bed,

And swear no man shall have your maidenhead.


But despite this talk of bedfellows and sporting with the ladies, Callisto takes some convincing when the false maiden gets her alone and begins kissing and fondling her, asserting, “so a woman, with a woman, may.” This type-scene of a man in disguise working to convince a woman that same-sex erotics are perfectly acceptable also shows up in works not directly involving Callisto or the goddess Diana, such as Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure or Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia.

In an expansion of the specific myths involving Diana’s maintenance of an all-female band, she became a key symbol of marriage resistance in general. There are many literary examples of women being depicted as being “followers of Diana” in the context of rejecting marriage as a life path. For example in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically in the Knight’s Tale, the character of Emily prays to Diana for help in avoiding marriage to either of the two men competing for her hand. Chaucer took this tale from Boccaccio--or at least from the same source as him--who also feature Diana as the patroness of marriage resistance. The same story shows up in Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, and in several plays Shakespeare’s characters make regular references to Diana as a symbol of a voluntary unmarried state. But it is a state in which love and even physical affection may flourish as long as only women are involved.

The problem of Callisto-type stories for transgender representation

The myth of Diana and Callisto and they ways in which it was represented in medieval and early modern culture--as well as other stories with similar tropes, such as The Convent of Pleasure and the Arcadia--highlight two examples of the pitfalls of reaching into history to find representations of modern identities. One hazard is illustrated by viewing the Callisto story through a transgender lens, the second hazard comes from recognizing the key role of male objectification in depictions of female homoeroticism.

In looking through western history for transgender representation, it is inescapable that pervasive misogyny makes examples of transfeminine representation far more problematic than examples of transmasculine representation. Female-bodied persons who took on a masculine presentation were, historically, treated as admirable. Both in medical theory and in literary representation, the motif of the spontaneous change of physiological sex is nearly always from female to male, and philosophers argued that this was as expected because nature would only support a change from less perfect to the more perfect--that is, from female to male. In contrast, western literature treated male-bodied persons who take on a feminine presentation almost invariably as engaging in deceit, often for the purpose of sexual predation, with the exceptions to this generally being when the feminine presentation is either done for comic effect or as humiliation.

This is an expected consequence of a cultural context in which being female is considered lesser than being male. There was no framework in western culture prior to the 20th century in which to view a transition from male to female as a positive and desirable thing. Therefore when done deliberately, the assumption was that it was from ulterior motives.

Plots and motifs like these were considered edgy and amusing in early modern literature, but they are problematic when viewed from the point of view of modern audiences. And since the organizing principle of this podcast is to look at history and literature as inspirations and sources for modern historical fiction, we need to deconstruct this motif a bit more deeply to map out the minefields.

Within the historic context, gender-disguise stories--whether of a woman disguised as a man or a man disguised as a woman--could create a context for imagining and visualizing homoerotic relationships, but with a “safety valve” in which they normally resolved into heterosexual couples at the end. Occasionally, this safety valve was in the form of a magical sex change, as in the myth of Iphis and Ianthe and its many descendents such as Yde and Olive or the play Gallathea. But at the heart of these motifs lies the erasure of the reality of queer experiences. Female couples were allowed to achieve a happily-ever-after ending, but only if one of them became a man. However much a story like Gallathea may tease the audience with the possibility of a committed romantic relationship between two women, in the end it erases the validity of that possibility to restore mandatory heterosexuality. But just as importantly, such stories erase the validity of the transgender experience even while appearing to support a transgender reading of the story.

A magical physiological sex change may have resonances with modern hormonal and surgical approaches to addressing gender dysphoria, but the motif doesn’t address the realities of trans experience any more than stories about miraculous cures of the blind and lame address the realities of people’s experience of disability. Characters such as Iphis, or Yde, or Gallathea and Phyllida, or Blanchandine in the romance of Tristan de Nanteuil do not express gender dysphoria prior to their physiological transformations. Iphis and Ide and the dual protagonists of Gallathea express frustration at not being able to imagine how to successfully carry out their erotic desires within a same-sex relationship. And Blanchandine is looking for an escape from the predicament that gender disguise has led her into precisely because her desires are heterosexual and because she experiences life as a woman, whatever her outward appearance. Conversely, the few female-bodied characters who are described in terms that suggest gender dysphoria, such as the knight Silence in the romance of that name, have their stories resolved by being maneuvered back to living conventional female lives and, as always, being married off to men.

So just as there is historic cross-dressing literature that can provide touch-points for lesbian identification, there is historic cross-dressing literature that can provide touch-points for transgender identification, but in neither case do the motifs, the character motivations, and the story resolutions align for fully satisfactory representation.

I should emphasize that I’m talking specifically of self-consciously fictional representation here. There are plenty of real life biographies involving cross-gender behavior that evoke transgender interpretations--lives such as Catalina de Erauso or Eleno de Céspedes. But literature took a less nuanced and less ambiguous approach to the question because it was concerned with making the characters make sense within the social framework of the times.

In considering transgender intersections with characters and themes that have lesbian resonance, I’m almost always talking about transmasculine figures. When physiologically male characters appear in literature presenting themselves as female, it is almost universally within one of two contexts: for the purpose of humor, or for the purpose of gaining illicit sexual access to a woman in a gender-segregated society.

These two contexts not only erase the validity of transgender identity but reinforce two of the most hurtful myths about trans women that are present in modern culture: that transfeminine identity is inherently ridiculous, and that claims of transfeminine identity are made by cis men in order to sexually assault women in gender-segregated spaces. In other words, Jupiter’s rape of Callisto is the defining myth of the modern “bathroom panic” issue.

In searching through history and literature for scraps of identification and representation, I can get a bit numb to the stuff one has to slog through in order to find those scraps. But I think it’s important to examine the question of representation from many angles. Not just looking at motifs both from the context in which they were produced and from the context in which we are now examining them. But also looking at them from all the different angles of potential identification and representation.

Even though pre-modern literature could accept that a “chaste Diana” might engage in same-sex erotics, chastity most often implied an avoidance of all erotic activity. The fact that images of Jupiter-as-Diana seducing Callisto offer a superficial representation of lesbian desire doesn’t negate the fact that they also reinforce a pernicious stereotype of transgender motivations.

The same contradictions and ambiguities that offer the fleeting chance for identification for some readers and viewers, can remove the chance for identification for others. I don’t have any answers here, only the reminder that not only is history never neutral, but the study of history is never neutral. If I often seem to embrace only interpretations that address lesbian representation in history, it’s because this project was never intended to be a neutral presentation of historic fact. If, indeed, there is such a thing as a neutral presentation. But I will regularly acknowledge the specific filters I bring to this topic and remind my audience of other possible ways of engaging with the same material.

Female homoerotic art and the male gaze

This same honesty requires me to acknowledge that pretty much all the female homoerotic art we have from the medieval and early modern period was inspired by the fact that some men get off on seeing two women getting it on together.

Depictions of the goddess Diana and her followers in art can be found in a variety of standardized genre scenes, but by far the most popular were those that included the two bathing scenes: Acteon coming across the bathing Diana, and the pregnant Callisto being found out when the nymphs were bathing together. These scenes dwell lovingly on the revealing of naked female bodies in a public space, showing the women embracing or tending to each others’ physical needs. The scenes invite the viewer to become Acteon in his forbidden act of spying on the virgin goddess, without invoking the fatal penalty that was imposed on that figure.

Given the economics of artistic patronage in the medieval and early modern periods, when the majority of professional artists and the majority of those paying for their work were male, it’s an inescapable conclusion that these two scenes were popular mostly for their pornographic appeal. Not that artists necessarily needed much of an excuse for depicting naked female bodies.

Scenes from the Callisto myth can be found in western art beginning as early as the 14th century, in illuminated manuscripts that re-told stories from Ovid with commentary that gave them a Christian moralizing spin. Due to this moral angle, the illustrations often focus on the disgrace of Callisto’s pregnancy and her expulsion from Diana’s company, but there are also images of Jupiter’s seduction of her that provide the superficial appearance of two women in erotic embrace. In addition to kissing and embracing--which could be depicted without erotic intent--often the figures are shown with the disguised Jupiter holding Callisto’s chin--a formalized symbolic gesture known as a “chin-chuck” that always indicated romantic or sexual desire.

[Image: Woodcut in Giovanni dei Bonsignori's Ovidio Metamorphoseos vulgare (1497). Br. Lib. IB.23185]

Myth of Callisto - 1497 woodcut from a commentary on Ovid

In contrast to Rennaissance depictions, often the pair are clothed during these seduction scenes, while the bathing scenes involve nudity. Book art was not the only context for depictions of the Callisto myth. It seems to have been a popular topic for decorating Italian wedding chests in the 14th and 15th centuries.

As we move into the 16th through 18th centuries, the seduction scenes are depicted with more overt eroticism. In 1613, the painter Peter Paul Rubens--who gave his name to the lush depiction of curvaceous women as “rubenesque”--shows a naked Calliso receiving the embrace of a semi-clad false Diana who uses the same “chin-chuck gesture” used in medieval art to convey eroticism.

["Jupiter and Callisto" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1613. From Wikimedia.]

"Jupiter and Callisto" by Peter Paul Rubens 1613

François Boucher, working in the mid 18th century, painted several versions of Jupiter-as-Diana seducing Callisto, including the one used as a logo for this podcast. The figures are either nude or semi-clad to expose torsos and legs, and lie entwined on draperies in a natural setting. In one of Boucher’s paintings, Diana again uses the chin-chuck gesture to make the sexual nature of the interaction clear.

["Jupiter and Callisto" François Boucher 1743, from Wikimedia]

"Jupiter and Callisto" François Boucher 1743

Even when painters of the early modern era are depicting the bathing scene where Callisto’s pregnancy is discovered, the homoerotic context is shown in how Diana and the other nymphs are in close flesh-to-flesh contact, draping arms across shoulders, or washing and drying each others’ naked bodies. Some of the famous artists depicting these type-scenes include Titian in the 15th century and Rembrandt in the early 17th century.

["Diana and Callisto" Titian 1556, from Wikimedia]

"Diana and Callisto" Titian 1556

It’s hard to talk about artistic depictions on a podcast, but if you’re really interested, I’ve included a selection of examples in the transcript of this podcast on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project website. Follow the link in the show notes to see them.

Diana as lesbian literary symbol

As noted earlier, references to being a follower or worshipper of Diana were sometimes used in early modern literature to indicate a disinterest in marriage or even active resistance to marriage as a life path. Continuing through western literature, Diana becomes a code-word for love between women that is exclusive of men--either using a clear reference to the goddess, or simply by the use of the name.

Jorge de Montemayor’s romance Diana from the mid 16th century uses the goddess’s name to set the stage for a Callisto-like tale of desire between women in a pastoral and mythic setting and gender disguise, but with the twist that this time the seduction really is between two women, but where one of them later claims to have been a man in female disguise in order to play a trick on the other.

Several 19th century works pair the name Diana with motifs of separatist female households. The novel Diana Victrix, published in 1897 by Florence Converse, has an unusually happy ending for two women engaged in a Boston Marriage--as the author herself was. Neither protagonist in the story is named Diana, so the “victorious Diana” of the title may be understood as the goddess’s ideal of a women’s separatist society. Louisa May Alcott’s unfinished story “Diana and Persis” may be making this allusion as well, telling the story of two women artists who pledge to support each other in ways that a heterosexual marriage never could. But while the story’s Diana remains unmarried and dedicated to her work, Persis succumbs to a man’s proposal and even though he promises not to interfere with her artistic career, the daily grind of marriage and motherhood leads her to abandon her art. A similar story of two devoted and loving friends whose happiness is destroyed by the intrusion of marriage occurs in George Meredith’s novel Diana of the Crossways, published in 1885.

And, of course, the choice of the name Diana for the superhero Wonder Woman is an obvious reference to her origins within the women-only Amazonian society of Themyscira.

Despite some of the uncomfortable aspects of the use of the goddess Diana as a symbol of marriage resistance, of a female separatist society, or of same-sex erotics between women, she has remained an enduring symbol across two millennia, standing beside Sappho as an icon of lesbian possibilities, even when those possibilities were otherwise hard to imagine.

Show Notes

Ovid’s myth of Diana and Callisto had lasting popularity through the medieval and early modern periods and provided a context for some unexpected representation of erotic interactions between women. But hoo boy are there some problematic aspects to this topic!

In this episode we talk about:

  • The goddess Diana and her attributes
  • The myths of Diana and Acteon, and of Diana and Callisto
  • Virginity and chastity and what they have to do with lesbians
  • Why the Callisto story has some major issues when considered through a transgender lens
  • Female homoerotic art and the male gaze
  • The goddess Diana as a symbol of women’s separatist lives in literature
  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Wednesday, August 5, 2020 - 14:00

As the saying goes: what even is time? I was on New Zealand time for most of last week, and I'll blame that for being discombobulated on Monday and forgetting to post this blog. But better late than never.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Hatem, Mervat. 1986. "The Politics of Sexuality and Gender in Segregated Patriarchal Systems: The Case of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Egypt" in Feminist Studies vol. 12, no. 2 250-274.

I pulled this article in part to see if it had lesbian-relevant content (it does) but even more as deep-background research for my Franco-Egyptian character in Mistress of Shadows (Alpennia #5, in process). Triangulating on the everyday material and behavioral culture of an unmarried working-class Egyptian woman, living in a very mixed-culture Franco-Egyptian community first in Marseilles and then in Paris is proving to be quite a challenge. So every bit of research I can find that speaks to various aspects of her identity is valuable. For this reason, the summary of this article covers more details outside of sexuality than I might ordinarily cover because it’s doing double-duty.

Hatem looks at systems of institutionalized male control of female sexuality in 18-19th century Egypt, considering issues of class and ethnicity, as well as large-scale political shifts and disruptions. Moreover, patriarchal systems are not only about relations between men and women, but about how relations among women and relations among men support or resist power structures.

Although patriarchal cultures present themselves as idealizing heterosexuality, and engage in varying degrees of homophobia, the dynamic structures are more complex. Moreover, close relations between men are crucial to maintaining patriarchal control, but that doesn’t mean that such relations necessarily involve genital homosexuality. Even rivalry between men can be a form of homosocial bonding that includes as its purpose the maintenance of male solidarity.

On the female side, patriarchal structures are often designed to disrupt and undermine alliances among women, often by fracturing them along class lines and requiring women to compete with each other for localized power and security.

As a social system, patriarchy can be understood to have two primary concerns: the ideal of heterosexual intimacy, and the domination of one sex (women) by the other (men). These concerns are in constant tension.

Hatem’s study here uses this understanding of patriarchy to discuss and compare various types of patriarchal systems in 18-19th century Egypt, focusing on three distinct periods: 1760-1798, the French expedition to Egypt in 1798-1801, and the post-expedition era from 1805-1860. (The period immediately following the French departure was marked by chaotic transition and so is excluded.) Within this framework, Hatem identifies one possible interpretation of the social and sexual dynamics of women’s lives in Egypt.

18th Century Egypt

18th century Egypt had a sexually segregated culture that dated back in some form to pre-Islamic times, though the segregation is often associated in popular imagination with Islam specifically. But segregation was largely a feature of the sedentary parts of society, while the more mobile tribal groups featured less segregation, in part for practical reasons. The need for freedom of movement and for greater cooperation between the sexes for communal work made strict segregation unworkable. In addition, both women and men were viewed as identifying primarily with the larger clan, rather than smaller family groups, which meant less direct and individual control of women by immediate male family members.

As societies became more settled, responsibility and control of families was taken over by individual male heads of household, with women understood as belonging to them. In this context, segregation was a more practical and inexpensive means of controlling women as well as protecting them. Under traditional Islamic law, the family patriarch had legal control over family members and women’s modesty was emphasized.

Although this sexually segregated system still held in 18th century Egypt, it was also shaped by economic and social forces. Several identifiably distinct parts of Egyptian society experienced patriarchal control in different ways. These divisions included a significant agricultural peasant population, an Arab mercantile class integrated with broader regional trade networks, and the de facto ruling class of Mamluks, who managed the military and administrative functions of Ottoman rule.

These divisions involved distinctions of ethnic origin that affected sexual dynamics. The Mamluks were Turco-Circassian in origin, originally freed slaves, who operated as a military caste and worked to maintain their ethnic distinctiveness. Urban centers were dominated by an ethnically Egyptian merchant class which also was the primary source of scholars and intellectuals. As Egypt re-focused its economy on export and the provision of tribute to the Ottoman Empire, an alliance was formed between the Mamluks, merchants and intellectuals to implement and maintain control.

Gender segregation was affected by these divisions, as the political balances meant that social and sexual control was largely devolved onto individual family heads, including those in the large peasant class. Different structures and patterns of gender control manifested in the different social divisions.

Three gender-related institutions cut across these class lines to cement patriarchal ties: family, slavery, and sexual segregation. Segregation and the seclusion of women was, in theory, universal, but was more strictly practiced by the upper and middle classes.

The Mamluks originally came to Egypt as an enslaved military caste that was racially distinct from the Egyptian population. To maintain this distinction (Mamluk men who married Egyptian women lost their status), there was a constant influx of Turco-Circassian slaves, generally brought in as children. Men were given military training while women generally joined the harems of high-ranking Mamluk men and were only freed if taken as wives or when they bore children. While the wives and upper-class concubines of Mamluk men were generally of Turco-Circassian origin, their households also included Ethiopian and African slaves.

The position of women in these households was mobile and depended on their relations to men. Divorce was easy (for men) and might be used as a means of control, as well as creating power struggles among women. Generally if a woman bore a son for her owner she would be freed, and often would become a wife, whereas concubines who had not borne children had fewer rights. This made sexuality a political matter within households: a concubine was motivated to do anything possible to become pregnant, while men were motivated to avoid producing children except by their wives, to reduce their financial responsibilities.

Slavery was another context where sexuality was a source of conflict. Slaves could marry, and enslaved women could even marry free men, though their children would remain enslaved. This meant that multiple men might be involved in negotiations around the welfare of an enslaved woman and her children.

Men’s role within household dynamics was minimal, but the women of the household related to each other in hierarchical ways that often put their priorities in conflict, undermining potential sources of solidarity. At the same time, connections between the women of extended families created a large, female-dominated social world in which women were expected to be each other’s primary emotional and social support. Sexual segregation created incentives for same-sex relationships among both women and men, although homosexuality was, in theory, condemned in Islamic society. [Note: as other papers on this topic show, “condemnation” is a vastly oversimplified understanding of the multiple dynamics.]

Women’s same-sex relations were threatening to patriarchal control (to the extent that they had the capability of subverting heterosexuality). There are a few historical accounts of lesbianism within Mamluk harems of the 14th century which are instructive (though well removed from the time period of this article). [Note: I’ve seen references to this topic before and have identified the reference cited for further follow-up.]

Hatem has a discussion here of the ability of lesbians among the Mamluk harems to disrupt patriarchal structure by refusing the participate in the male traffic in women to create ties. But her discussion here seems to assume two things: that such women would necessarily have exclusively lesbian identities (i.e., that they considered their interest in women to exclude the possibility of accommodating heterosexual power dynamics), and that they had the agency to refuse to participate in such structures. I don’t know that either of those requirements has been demonstrated in this thought-experiment. In any case, Hatem identifies this as a potential cause for why male homosexuality was accepted among Mamluks and the Egyptian middle class, but lesbianism “remained underground and was viewed with contempt.” [Note: as if misogyny alone couldn’t account for the distinction? I think this is another case of “not proven.”]

Mamluk society involved a great deal of internal instability due to the mechanisms by which power was acquired and passed on. One practice addressing this was for Mamluk men to legally transfer property to their wives to protect it under law, which became a means for women to amass economic power. It also meant that women were drawn into open political maneuvering that had previously been the domain of men (with women participating in more indirect ways). This experience later became useful during the French expedition when Mamluk women were involved in direct negotiations with the French.

Middle class Egyptian households were comparable in size and internal dynamics to the Mamluk households, at least at the upper end. The dynamics of wives vs. concubines and the use of marriage and divorce to exert power over women were similar as well.

Veiling and seclusion were other practices where Mamluk and middle class Egyptian practice aligned. For female slaves in wealthy households, veiling was justified as protecting valuable property, but for free Egyptian women it was rationalized as an expression of modesty. Veiling and seclusion were associated with the need to protect women’s chastity and thereby the honor of the men responsible for them.

Cross-class cooperation among women included interactions with working class women outside the household that supplied essential services (mystics, matchmakers, beauticians, messengers, or peddlers of luxury goods). These women, in turn, used access to upper class women in order to obtain political favors or services for their families.

Among wealthy middle class families, women might be privately educated and have access to religious lectures. Inheritance rights of women in this class were respected due to the use of dowries in marriage negotiations. And there is evidence that some women managed their own property, or even in some cases their husbands’ property.

Accounts of working class women’s lives are scarce in the 18th century, but there is evidence that they did not follow the same rigid requirements for veiling and seclusion as the other classes. Peasant women did agricultural labor as well as household crafts. On the other hand, they had less control over personal property and marriages were generally arranged within the extended patrilineal family to maintain control of resources.

In general, working class women interacted more freely with men and leveraged legitimate reasons for mobility, such as religious festivals, to stretch the bounds of control. Urban working class women had even more mobility and engaged in occupations that made them key elements in larger women’s social networks--occupations such as midwives and entertainers, as well as those mentioned previously. In these roles, they had contacts with more secluded middle and upper class women and expanded their social networks by that means.

The French Expedition

Napoleon’s presence in Egypt was relatively short in objective terms--only three years--but is seen as a turning point in Egyptian history due to the disruption of the existing political systems. The successful French invasion not only disrupted the Mamluk military system directly, but undermined its authority as a bulwark against Christian power. The French introduced a new administrative structure that was inherited by the state introduced after their departure by Muhammed ‘Ali. But some historians argue that this phase may not have been the causal factor in the observed changes, only perhaps an accelerating one.

With regard to sexual dynamics, the French presence was disruptive while not being feminist in any meaningful sense. The requirement to billet French soldiers in private homes resulted in social mingling of the sexes and both formal and informal relations between French soldiers and Egyptian women had lasting consequences, including a violent, conservative backlash against women following the French departure.

During the course of the occupation, the Egyptian society incorporated French participation in patriarchal structures, with some French officers converting to Islam to marry women from prominent middle class Egyptian families. On other points, the culture clash was notable. French husbands expected their Egyptian wives to unveil in public, but that didn’t mean they supported women’s independence, and there were other aspects of sexuality where the French felt Egyptian women took liberties.

The French presence affected women of different classes differently. Some middle class women saw French interactions with women as encouraging greater freedom and social mobility and (vainly) petitioned Napoleon to support women’s interests. Upper class Mamluk women turned their political experience to direct negotiations with the French to support their families’ interests--to some extent, an extension of pre-existing dynamics made more overt--but as part of the older establishment they did not see the French as allies. Working class women clashed with, or benefitted from the French presence in a variety of contexts.

The 19th century

The French presence in Egypt ended rather abruptly with a British naval blockade. In the aftermath, there was a strong backlash against women who had “collaborated” which resulted in a conservative social climate in following decades. Women were executed for associating with the French and the threat of this violence helps explain why social segregation continued even as the practical basis for it eroded under the half-century of rule by Muhammed ‘Ali. [Note: the political dynamics of post-Napoleonic Egypt are complex and should be reviewed if you really want to investigate this era.]

The administrative and economic systems were overhauled in ways that affected all levels of society and all genders. Skimming over the details, some results included extended geographic separation of men and women due to economic dynamics, which resulted in raising the age of marriage for women, creating new hazards for women’s chastity before marriage, failed attempts to improve public education for girls and an accompanying interest from upper class women in private schools run by missionaries.

But overall, the patriarchal power systems were resistant to change and resilient. In shifting ways, women were defined as essentially sexual creatures, and that theme colored every social change.

Time period: 
Saturday, August 1, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 169 (previously 49a) - On the Shelf for August 2020 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2020/08/01 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2020.

We’re all allowed the occasional frustrated regrets of quarantine. I was supposed to be in New Zealand right now, attending the World Science Fiction Convention. I’ve still been attending it through the magic of online media, but believe me, it isn’t the same. I really enjoy using the peripatetic nature of Worldcon as an excuse to travel. Last year in Ireland, three years ago in Finland, and this should have been my first visit to the southern hemisphere.

But there are other things to celebrate. August means the turning of another year of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. We’ve finished up four years now, which is a quite a while in podcast-years. Every year I’ve added or changed something about the show: whether it’s expanding to weekly or adding the fiction series. There are definitely some changes coming down the pike, but it’s a little too soon to talk about them yet. I’m always interested in hearing what listeners most enjoy about the show, or what you’d be interested in having me add.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog was all over the map in July, quite literally, starting with a 17th century Armenian astrological illustration of two women having sex, then a brief look at a sourcebook of texts on the history of sexuality designed to be readings for a college course. Next there were two articles venturing outside the usual western European stomping grounds of the blog, with a set of case studies of lesbians in 19th century Russia, and a study of women’s same-sex relationships in 1930s Japan. This theme continues in August with an article on sexuality and gender in 18-19th century Egypt, which I confess is more deep-background research for a character in the next Alpennia book than strictly for the blog. Then we go to India for another of Ruth Vanita’s fascinating articles on women’s same-sex relations within the context of historic patriarchal systems. And then...oops, I realize that I’ve come to the end of the material I already have written up for the blog and I’m going to need to hit the books again!

Book Shopping!

No exciting history book acquisitions for the blog this month, alas. The only things that have arrived on my doorstep in the last month are a couple of collections of papers on medieval textiles and clothing, and more closely related to my writing projects, Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833by Daniel Livesay. I’ve made a personal pledge that, when writing historical fiction, I will strive to make my casts and settings diverse. But diversity can’t just be tacked on -- it has to come from familiarity with the historic realities of marginalized people. So I often pick up books like this with the purpose of populating my imagination with just who the non-white people in my settings were, how they got there, and what they were doing. That way the characters will be there waiting for me when the story strikes.

Author Guest

I didn’t have an author guest lined up for this month, so when inspiration struck for my essay topic, I decided to work backwards to set it up.


My essay inspiration was some discussions on Twitter on the theme of artificial scarcity of representation and how it’s possible to write fiction based on historic persons or characters from historic literature that explores one interpretation of their identity without that being an erasure of other equally valid interpretations.

One of the threads that sparked this topic was interpretations of the Greek goddess Artemis variously as asexual or lesbian. It would be lovely if I could make it a roundtable with a couple of guests. That’s very hard to pull off when I don’t have anyone specific in mind to ask, but I can dream.

So to set up the topic, I plan to reprise my show on the myth of Diana and Callisto, and then follow it with a book appreciation show on books with mythic Greek and Roman legendary settings, especially featuring Artemis or Diana. Then the discussion of representation will finish it off.


It’s a month with five shows, so the end of August will feature another piece of original fiction. This time it’s “Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink” by Jeannelle M. Ferreira. Jeannelle was a guest of the podcast two years ago, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for the promised sequel to her Regency romance The Covert Captain. But I’m happy to have some short fiction to fill in the waiting.

Remember that in January we’ll be open for fiction submissions again. It’s never too soon to start looking for inspiration. There’s a link in the show notes to the call for submissions with all the details on what we’re looking for.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

The recent, new, and forthcoming book list is very short this month. Only four titles! Surely there must be more? If so, I hope they turn up in my search next month before they miss the window for inclusion. I’m always adding older books to my database when I find them, but this podcast segment focuses on publications that have come out within the last few months.

There’s one additional July book: The Miseducation of Evie Epworthby Matson Taylor from Scribner UK. The cover copy only hints a little at the queer content promised by the Amazon keywords. A couple of Goodreads reviews confirm it’s there, though vaguely enough that I’m not sure that the title character is the queer rep. This evidently is a BBC radio book club pick, so I suspect you should expect a story on the literary side.

July, 1962 Sixteen year-old Evie Epworth stands on the cusp of womanhood. But what kind of a woman will she become? The fastest milk bottle-delivery girl in East Yorkshire, Evie is tall as a tree and hot as the desert sand. She dreams of an independent life lived under the bright lights of London (or Leeds). The two posters of Adam Faith on her bedroom wall (‘brooding Adam’ and ‘sophisticated Adam’) offer wise counsel about a future beyond rural East Yorkshire. Her role models are Charlotte Bronte, Shirley MacLaine and the Queen. But, before she can decide on a career, she must first deal with the malign presence of her future step-mother, the manipulative and money-grubbing Christine. If Evie can rescue her bereaved father, Arthur, from Christine’s pink and over-perfumed clutches, and save the farmhouse from being sold off then maybe she can move on with her own life and finally work out exactly who it is she is meant to be.

The August books start with another literary book: All Men Want to Knowby Nina Bouraoui (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) from Viking. The book traces a fictionalized account of the author’s childhood:

...a blissful childhood in Algeria, a wild, sun-soaked paradise, with hazy summer afternoons spent swimming, diving, and driving across the desert. Her mother is French, her father Algerian; when racial tensions begin to surface in their neighbourhood, her mother suffers an unspeakable act of violence that forces the family to flee the country. In Paris, eighteen-year-old Nina lives alone. It's the 1980s. Four nights a week she makes her way to The Kat, a legendary gay nightclub, where she watches women from the sidelines, afraid of her own desires, her sudden and intoxicating freedom. In her solitude, she starts to write - and finds herself writing about her mother. All Men Want to Know is a haunting, lyrical international bestseller about mothers and daughters, about shame and sexuality, about existing between two cultures and belonging to neither. A phenomenon in France, this is a defining portrait of womanhood from one of Europe's greatest living writers.

The other two August books fall more solidly in the traditional historic romance genre. Guarding Heartsby Jaycie Morrison from Bold Strokes Books, part of her World War II series.

Sergeant Bett Smythe and Lieutenant Gale Rains are building a life together, despite the risks in the tightly closeted world of the Women’s Army Corps. When another couple, Captain Kathleen Hartley and Lieutenant Victoria Whitman, invite Bett and Rain to a dinner party, they’re introduced to the lesbian underground on the base. Kat and Whit have had a turbulent relationship, and as a budding friendship deepens, Kat’s attraction to Rain threatens both couples’ futures. When Whit’s friend is accused of sexually assaulting a recruit, the ensuing investigation impacts them all, professionally and personally. As the Battle of the Bulge rages overseas, the bounds of love and friendship are tested. Whit will do almost anything to preserve what she has with Kat, but who is the real threat? And can Bett protect her relationship from the very real dangers close to heart and home?

And in a grammatical coincidence of titles,Guarding Heartsis followed by the last August book, Keeping Secretsby McGee Mathews from Sapphire Books, also set during wartime, but the Civil War in this case.

What would you do if, after finally finding the woman of your dreams, she suddenly leaves to fight in the Civil War? It’s 1863, and Elizabeth Hepscott has resigned herself to a life of monotonous boredom far from the battlefields as the wife of a Missouri rancher. Her fate changes when she travels with her brother to Kentucky to help him join the Union Army. On a whim, she poses as his little brother and is bullied into enlisting, as well. Reluctantly pulled into a new destiny, a lark decision quickly cascades into mortal danger. While Elizabeth’s life has made a drastic U-turn, Charlie Schweicher, heiress to a glass-making fortune, is still searching for the only thing money can’t buy. A chance encounter drastically changes everything for both of them. Will Charlie find the love she’s longed for, or will the war take it all away?

What Am I Reading?

So what am I reading? I’m still mostly in my reading slump. I read a short story in Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson series that circles back to Janet’s youth via her love of journaling. It’s always fun to see the roots of a favorite character before they hit the crises that will change them forever.

Since my coping mechanism has shifted over to Netflix and Needlework, I’ve seen a couple of shows with queer female interest. The violent thriller The Old Guard, featuring Charlize Theron as leader of a near-immortal mercenary squad gives us some glimpses of historic settings and Theron’s character Andromache fighting side by side with another female immortal with a very strong girlfriends vibe. The show is definitely more focused on extended fight scenes than I tend to prefer, but the character actions in between are definitely worth it. And given that two other characters are very much openly a male romantic couple, you know that wherever they go with the show if it continues, they won’t shy away from queerness.

My other delightful Netflix surprise was in Anne with an E, the most recent and rather loose interpretation of Anne of Green Gables. While female friendship is a core element of the story, one of the additions in this interpretation is a clearly signaled Boston Marriage type couple involving the spinster aunt of Anne’s friend Diana. We see it only after the aunt’s partner has died, but not only is the nature of their lifelong partnership clearly laid out for the viewer, the aunt discusses it with Anne and gives her some broader ideas of possible life paths. It was very sweet and feminist and utterly unexpected.

What have you been reading or watching lately that gave you a window on queer women in the past?

Show Notes

Your monthly update on what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been doing.

In this episode we talk about:

  • The podcast is four years old!
  • Recent and upcoming publications covered on the blog
    • Armenian astrology text (British Library Ms. Or. 6471)
    • Kuefler, Mathew (ed). 2007. The History of Sexuality Sourcebook. Broadview Press, Ontario. ISBN 978-1-55111-738-6
    • Engelstein, Laura. 1990. "Lesbian Vignettes: A Russian Triptych from the 1890s" in Signs vol. 15, no. 4 813-831.
    • Robertson, Jennifer. 1999. "Dying to Tell: Sexuality and Suicide in Imperial Japan" in Signs vol. 25, no. 1 1-35.
    • Hatem, Mervat. 1986. "The Politics of Sexuality and Gender in Segregated Patriarchal Systems: The Case of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Egypt" in Feminist Studies vol. 12, no. 2 250-274.
    • Phillips, Kim M. & Barry Reay. 2011. Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Polity Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-7456-2522-5
    • TBD
  • This month we have a theme focusing on the mythological figure of Artemis/Diana:
    • Reprise: Diana and Callisto: The Sometimes Problematic Search for Representation
    • Book Appreciation: Stories involving Artemis/Diana
    • Asexual Artemis/Lesbian Diana: Artificial Scarcity and Representation
  • Original Fiction: “Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink” by Jeannelle M. Ferreira
  • New and forthcoming fiction
  • Call for submissions for the 2021 LHMP audio short story series. See here for details.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Monday, July 27, 2020 - 16:00

What even is time? I have entirely lost track of it being Monday, today. A large part of that is because I'm attending the virtual Worldcon in New Zealand where it's tomorrow already. My entire week is going to be like this.

I've been keeping my eye peeled for data in my reading for the blog that might be useful to readers, but that doesn't fit well into the blog format. I want to find more "bonus content" to provide for my patrons on Patreon, and this type of information seems to fit. So Patreon members will have access to a vocabulary list of Japanese terms relating to same-sex relations and relationships, as extracted from Robertson's article. If you'd like to become a patron of the blog and podcast, you can sign on here.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Robertson, Jennifer. 1999. "Dying to Tell: Sexuality and Suicide in Imperial Japan" in Signs vol. 25, no. 1 1-35.

When I was originally sorting out the current crop of journal articles into thematic groups for scheduling purposes, I’d put this one (like last week’s) into a “tragedy and crime” group. But in each case, once I started reading, I realized that those aspects were the smallest part of the thematic content. My planned “tragedy and crime” grouping has evaporated, while the “non-European topics” group has benefitted. I feel like that isn’t entirely coincidental. There’s a message in there somewhere about the intersection of sexual, social, and cultural othering. Maybe about how we are most likely to hear about marginalized identities when the people behave in what are considered antisocial ways? Or that no matter what marginalized people do, they are only considered worthy of note if they can be framed as antisocial? Or that we are most likely to have access to information about marginalized people in non-Western cultures when their own cultures consider them to stand outside normativity? Or just perhaps, it was my own knee-jerk stereotypes that interpreted suicide as falling within a tragedy/crime theme rather than a “culturally significant behaviors” theme? In any case, the present article wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

[Note: I was a bit concerned when I started reading about an author with a non-Japanese name tackling a subject as culturally fraught as suicide in Japan. But my impression is that Robertson is aware of those hazards, and the variety of resources listed in the bibliography gives me confidence that this isn’t a drive-by lookie-loo approach. In fact, she starts off by quoting another author stating, “To mention suicide and Japan in the same sentence is to bring to bear a set of stereotypes that continue to shape Western perceptions of non-Western culture.” At the very least, there’s a self-awareness of the pitfalls.]

The article is centered around a relationship between two women in Japan who planned a double suicide to address what seemed like unresolvable problems in their lives. Both survived the suicide attempt and appear to have continued their relationship more successfully afterward. This study also focuses on the various popular culture and media responses to the suicide attempt, to “love suicides” in general, and to the question of women’s same-sex relationships in Japanese culture.

The article opens with a number of satirical and mocking commentaries on the women’s suicide attempt, illustrating the deep and complex cultural context for the event, and then moves on to the cultural and historical context of 1930s Japan and how it contextualizes the event.

Early 20th century Japan was in the midst of a cultural crisis around positive and negative attitudes to, and effects of, Westernization. One way in which those conflicts were balanced was to gender Westernization as belonging to men, while women were assigned the role of maintaining traditional culture. Thus the same issues prevalent in the West around the “New Woman” (emancipated, pushing for full citizenship and voting rights, rejecting or renegotiating marriage) were also overlaid in Japan with this burden of preserving traditional culture against the Westernization that men and the national economy were embracing.

Saijo Eriko was a performer in an all-female revue company, taking “feminine” roles in the context of theatrical presentations where women played both the male and female roles. Masuda Yasumare (her chosen name) was from an upper class family and sported male-coded clothing and hair styles. Masuda initially began courting Saijo as a “fan” of her performance and this moved on to a romantic relationship.

We digress now for a lot of cultural background.

Double suicides of heterosexual couples were an accepted motif, inspired not only by Japanese attitudes toward suicide as a form of social protest but also by a culture of arranged marriages and generational obedience. If marriage was impossible, then suicide together was viewed as the ultimate proof of love. Female couples, however, were not granted the same acceptance or praise for such a choice. In the Saijo/Masuda suicide, Masuda was portrayed as being the casualty of a broken and disfunctional family, and Saijo as the victim of an overzealous fan obsession on the part of Masuda.

Robertson provides a detailed background on intersections of gender and sexuality in Japanese culture, including both traditional Japanese, and borrowed Western, terminology for different types of identities and relationships. [Note: I’m not going to list the terminology here because individual terms should be understood within a much more complex web of social nuances that it’s possible to explore here. But this article looks like a rich source of leads for understanding coded language as well as those with more literal use. For those who are interested, a fairly simple vocabulary list drawn from this article is available on Patreon.] There was a recognition that gender and sex were linked but separate axes, but reactions to those who crossed gender lines varied depending on context and sex.

Among the social changes with the shift to the Meiji era (1868-1911) and later was a developing understanding and vocabulary for women’s same-sex relations, which were considered distinct from men’s same-sex relations for which there was a longer history of acceptance. With the introduction Western sexological ideas, there was conflict over how those might be interpreted with respect to the long tradition of male-only theater in which men played women’s parts.

As it fell out, those were “grandfathered” as part of Japanese traditional culture, while the growing visibility of women’s same-sex relations and “masculinized” modern-leaning women were viewed as the embodiment of destabilizing Western depravity. “Traditional Japanese womanhood” was in the process of being invented as part of the stabilization of Japanese national identity, and these women represented the most extreme rejection of what was considered women’s proper role. Gender ambivalence was discouraged on a state level and increasing militarization also pushed for a distinct separation of gender roles. Women were the primary targets of this gender-policing.

Within this context, Western and European cultural influences were framed as “feminizing” in a negative sense (i.e., in their influence on men) even as the “feminine” was equated with positive aspects of Japanese tradition.

Robertson now turns to a discussion of the place of suicide, and especially double suicides, within Japanese culture. Within the context of relationship-driven male-female double suicides (which were considered noble and admirable--as a vast oversimplification), for female couples to enact “love suicides” was seen as a “public claim for sexual citizenship”. It was in this context that such actions were sensationalized and mocked, as a rejection of that claim.

There is a detailed exploration of the history, context, and dynamics of “love suicide” as well as other multi-person suicide pacts. General cultural anxieties in the 1930s are a possible driver for a general increase in both solitary and paired suicides in Japan, and the prominence of female couples engaging in “love suicide” is to some extent only a special case of the general trend.

We return now to the specific case of Saijo and Masuda. The press treated Saijo more leniently, not only because she was the “female-presenting” member of the couple, but because, as a professional entertainer, there were lower expectations for her sexual behavior. Masuda, in contrast, not only was viewed as more transgressive and threatening as the “masculine-presenting” member, but was blamed for breaking the social rules for an upper class woman, whose assigned role was the be a traditional “good wife and mother.”

Their initial courtship in the context of Saijo’s theater performances gave rise to a passionate correspondence, and then to traveling together as a way of spending time alone and enjoying a sexual relationship. When Saijo pressed to return home, Masuda became increasingly anxious and shared the story of her unhappy family life. Saijo became ill, which concluded the struggle between then, but on returning to Tokyo, Masuda began discussing suicide, initially as an individual intention.

Meanwhile, Masuda’s mother had hired an investigator to find them, viewing Saijo as a gold-digging instigator of the relationship, and this along with public interest in Saijo as an entertainment figure brought the attention of the press.

Their families separated them, but they arranged by phone to meet at a hotel and there (as is indicated the resulting events) took sleeping pills together to attempt suicide. Masuda left several suicide notes for various parties (as was typical for love-suicide events). It appears to have been the intrusive interest of the press that interrupted the attempt and brought medical help.

In the aftermath, Saijo wrote a personal (and somewhat self-serving) account of the relationship and suicide that disavowed romantic investment on her part--she was “just looking after her friend”--although it’s clear that she also took the sleeping pills. And once the dust had settled, Saijo negotiated with Masuda’s family to allow her to set up an independent household (as if she were a man). Saijo left the live revue to become a film actress and continued with a successful (but lower profile?) career.  [Note: the article is unclear on whether they continued as a couple. Saijo vows  to “keep a close watch” on Masuda, which could imply cover for a continuing romance.]

Robertson discusses Japanese familiarity with, and use of Western sexological literature. As in Western interpretations, it was not the fact of a relationship between women that was seen as problematic, but the usurpation of a masculine social role by one of the women, or the way in which such a relationship might interfere with expectations for marriage. Relationships between feminine-presenting women that were considered transitory or life-stage were not treated as deviant. But also, in Japanese engagement with sexological studies, there seems to have been a certain intentional overlooking of practices that were felt to be at odds with the image Japan wanted to project. When Japanese researchers claimed not to be aware of any female homosexuals, they may have been classifying familiar practices in ways that avoided that category.

Robertson presents a survey of other well-documented cases of female “love suicides” in the early 20th century, showing a variety of backgrounds and interpersonal dynamics. In one case, one suicide survivor published an autobiographical account that not only pushed back against the sensational versions of her story that had appeared in the press, but argued for the validity of women forming independent households together, and against the tendency to assign a “man’s role” to one participant. Robertson comments on how the “cultural intelligibility” of suicide in Japanese culture created an effective means to make such arguments as part of public discourse.

Time period: 
Saturday, July 25, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 168 (previously 48d) - Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/07/25 - listen here)

Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality.

Today’s topic explores two fields in which people in Western history and adjacent cultures expressed ideas that connect in some way to our modern idea of inherent sexual orientation. But the ways in which those concepts in the past differ from our ideas about homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality are just as fascinating as they ways in which they overlap.

These two topics certainly aren’t the only theories that Western people have had about sexual preference--they appear side by side with theories based on anatomy, moral concepts, among many others. But the fields of humoral theory and astrology intersect in interesting ways. Besides which, it’s hard to resist an alliterative title.

Both astrological and humoral theories of sexual desire arose within an understanding of sexual categories often called the “one-sex theory”, that is, a framework in which male and female existed on a continuum rather than being discrete categories, and where one’s gender identity could exist anywhere within that continuum or could shift within it. While this may sound very modern and progressive, we shouldn’t mistake it for an understanding of gender as subjective and value-neutral. At the same time that the one-sex continuum was an established philosophical concept, people were also quite certain that male and female were qualitatively different things, that male was better than female, and that stepping outside the part of the gender continuum one had been assigned to was a Bad Thing.


I’m going to tackle astrology first because it’s likely to be more familiar to my listeners. I would make a guess that most of you know the basics of astrology. It’s still common for newspapers and magazines to have a regular feature with simple advice or predictions based on the zodiac sign one was born under. And you’ll hear a lot of perfectly rational people talk about personality types associated with zodiac signs with sincerity--if not always actual belief. The basic idea is that the relative positions of the stars and planets at the exact time of one’s birth--sometimes also at the time of conception--will have an influence on one’s character, one’s strengths and weaknesses, and one’s life path. Apparent contradictions in the reading can generally be explained as secondary influences or conflicting forces: rising signs, waxing and waning planetary influences, and so forth.

For someone who takes astrology seriously -- and many people throughout history have done so -- it would seem fairly obvious that the alignments at one’s birth could influence what type of person one would desire sexually, or what type of sexual activity one would most enjoy. What is less obvious is what forms that influence would take.

Types of Astrological Influence

As an example of the sorts of topics that might be considered relevant, here’s a passage from a 4th century astrology manual by the Roman author Firmicus Maternus which shows the complicated web of factors that were considered to affect one’s life. One should understand that the default client indicated in these texts is male unless otherwise specified and when the text references a “native” it means the person whose nativity--whose birth--is being analyzed.

“Those who have Venus in [the second] house by day will have great reverses of fortune and also late marriage; they will have lawsuits over another woman. Some will be several times widowed. If the Sun or Saturn are in opposition, square aspect, or conjunction with Venus the natives will be sterile, never successful in sexual activity, will never marry, and always be lovers of boys. The misfortunes are less if Venus is in the house or terms of Saturn, Mars, or Mercury.”

That’s quite a variety of different effects that don’t have an obvious connection. But if we can understand the connections that the authors saw in these systems, then we can gain a key to how they structured sexual experiences within their societies.

The reference to a man being a “lover of boys” is set in parallel with being sterile or impotent, not marrying, or perhaps marrying late, or being widowed multiple times. These are all disruptions of the social ideal of a successful male life. Note that loving members of the same sex--which we might consider a sexual preference--is set in parallel with being sterile (which we would consider a medical condition), or with not marrying, which might be due to economic circumstances. And these are all identified as “misfortunes.”

In a different passage, still focusing on men, a particular conjunction “often makes them lovers of boys or of women from the stage, or they become manager of houses of prostitution.” Again, we see that the categories don’t align simply with gender of the sexual partner but follow an entirely different common thread, perhaps having to do with sexual options that are incompatible with marriage, or a desire for partners from a specific occupational class.

When Maternus addresses how women are affected, there is less complexity in his description. “If Saturn is in opposition, in square aspect, or conjunction with Venus, located as we have said with Mars, women who have this combination make love impurely and unchastely to other women.” Or, for a different conjunction, “If a woman has this combination she will always imitate the behavior of men,” a description that can imply sex with women, although it can also imply other male-coded behaviors.

The earliest astrology manuals we have are from an era when the practice was already long established, and it’s clear that each era interpreted and framed the material according to its own culture. Astrology manuals in circulation in Europe during the middle ages had often made their way from classical Greek and Latin origins through the Arabic tradition, picking up interpretations along the way. And classical texts were translated, adapted, and republished in the Renaissance and later. So as we take this tour through some interesting passages, we shouldn’t treat them as belonging to a unified, coherent, logical system, even though they all operate within a relatively continuous tradition of practice.

Stars that Make a Woman Masculine

Astrological alignments that cause women to “act like men” sometimes indicate pursuing sex with women, but sometimes it is a more general comment on assertive and dominant behavior. Such as: “If the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman’s chart, women will be born who take on a man’s character and desire intercourse with women like men.” But also, “Mars and Venus in conjunction in a morning rising and in a masculine sign make women viragosand sterile.” That is they are made unfeminine in personality, but without necessarily pursuing women sexually.

If a variety of references to same-sex behavior are analyzed together, we see that there isn’t really a unified concept of homosexuality being expressed, but something more like a notion of fixed gender roles that include expected sexual behaviors for that role. Women’s same sex desires are most often discussed in a context of being masculine in behavior, which can include desiring women as a sexual partner and taking an active role in sex--both traits that were coded as male. In contrast, influences leading to men’s same-sex activity fall into two distinct groups: men who desire to be the passive partner in sex, and men who prefer partners not suitable for marriage, which can include both male partners and women of an unsuitable class or occupation. These are key factors in understanding some of the differences from a modern concept of sexual orientation.

The Arabic Tradition

While texts in Greek or Latin or the later European languages often refer to sex between women only in terms of one partner “acting like a man”, Arabic texts had a more specific vocabulary available that didn’t necessarily imply masculinity.

A medieval Arabic translation of Dorotheos of Sidon, who originally wrote in the 1st century, translates whatever language he used with the completely unambiguous word sahaqato mean a woman who has sex with women. He writes that when Venus and the Moon are in a particular location, the female subject will be a sahaqa, while men with a similar conjunction will be “desirous of males”. But in another passage, Dorotheos discusses astrological causes of excess lust in women, giving the conjunctions that lead to adultery, to “perform the act of men with women”, or to simply to excessively indulging in sex with men. Here we see another historic view of sex between women: that it results from an excess of desire that may be expressed in a variety of ways, where the gender of the partner is simply one type of inappropriate context.

Influences other than Gender of Partner

The choice of partner isn’t the only sexual factor being influenced, not even the choice of an active or passive sexual role, which is often a more accurate way to interpret these descriptions. The stars can affect your preference for sexual partners of a specific age, social status, or race. It can cause you to prefer specific sexual positions, as in a text by Guido Bonatti that claims that if a male child is conceived with Venus in a certain position, he will later participate in sex with the woman on top.

The stars also determine whether you will pursue illicit sex secretly or openly, which is one of the factors discussed in the following passage by Claudius Ptolemy, who wrote in 2nd century Egypt. He also combines discussions of astrology with humoral theory, a common feature in the early texts, as the planets were often thought to have their effects through changing one’s humoral balance. But more on that in a moment.

We see in Claudius Ptolemy’s system that conjunctions that reinforce “natural” sexual behaviors in men are thought to cause unnatural behavior in women because they have caused her to be more masculine in nature, and vice versa. “If the luminaries are unattended in masculine signs, males exceed in the natural, and females exceed in the unnatural quality, so as merely to increase the virility and activity of the soul. But if likewise Mars or Venus as well, either one or both of them is made masculine, the males become addicted to natural sexual intercourse, and are adulterous, insatiate, and ready on every occasion for base and lawless acts of sexual passion, while the female are lustful for unnatural congresses, cast inviting glances of the eye, and are what we call tribades, for they deal with females and perform the functions of males. If Venus alone is constituted in a masculine manner, they do these things secretly and not openly. But if Mars likewise is so constituted, [they do them] without reserve, so that sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful ‘wives’.” 

Your stars may affect your personality, or your behavior, or your body. So it would be a mistake to focus too narrowly on the passages that talk about same-sex interactions as if that were the most salient feature of the astrological influence. Astrology couldinfluence you to prefer partners of a specific type, or to prefer certain types of sex acts, but gender was only one of many possible features involved, and even when gender was involved, it might be as part of a gender system that considered age and social class to be categories as important as male versus female.

Astrology in Other Texts

So were astrological explanations of sexual preference purely an intellectual game? A literary genre? Or simple superstition? Evidently not, because we can find astrology offered as a possible cause for desire between women in specific cases during the middle ages and later. The 16th century German Zimmern Chroniclerelates the story of a young working class woman who courted and loved other women. The chronicler considers several possible reasons for her behavior, working through popular theories of the time. Perhaps she had masculine-leaning physiology and that caused her to desire women? No, the local women checked her out and found her to conform to expected female norms. Perhaps she was born under a “perverted, unnatural constellation”? Or perhaps her desire was just something that happened sometimes given that “according to the learned and well-read one finds that the same was frequently met with among the Greeks and Romans.” Though the Zimmern chronicler comes to no solid conclusion, he considers the stars to be a possible causal factor alongside the others.

[sponsor break]


There wasn’t a bright dividing line between how humoral theory affected human lives and the effects of astrology, for the latter was sometimes described as operating by changing the balance of heat and cold, wet and dry.  Unlike astrology, humoral theory has largely fallen out of popular familiarity in modern Western culture, though its roots were just as long and deep. Westerners today may be more familiar with the basic principles via similar philosophies in various Asian traditions. The last trace of the Western Galenic tradition of humoral balance that people are likely to have heard of is the medical practice of blood-letting, either by direct bleeding or through the use of leeches. But the philosophy was far more complicated than that.

Most later writing on humoral theory traces to the works of the 2nd century Greek physician Galen, although he simply codified ideas that were in common circulation at the time, including a large body of work attributed to Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE. And humoral theory was only one part of a larger philosophical system that focused on the principles of balance and imbalance, moderation, and characteristics that existed in polarity. Hot, cold; wet, dry; living, inert. Specific combinations and gradients of these factors defined the nature of everything in existence. These principles applied in chemistry, where a specific balance of principles determined the nature of the elements. But of more immediate interest today is the application of humoral theory in biology and health.

In this context, “Humoral theory” visualizes the two binaries of hot/cold and wet/dry in terms of bodily fluids: blood (hot and wet), phlegm (cold and wet), black bile (cold and dry), and yellow bile (hot and dry). Each living being also had an inherent humoral balance depending on their nature, as can be seen in the alternate names for personalities reflecting the humors: sanguine, phlegmatic, choloric, and melancholic. Humoral balance could be affected by diet, by environment, and by behavior and activity. Health, well-being, and proper function according to one’s nature come from having the humors in the proper balance. Medicine is designed to correct an imbalance. 

In addition certain humoral balances were associated with the genders, with life-stage, and with many other human characteristics. Thus, for example, male human beings are, by nature, considered to be “hotter” than female human beings. Certain sexual differences are considered to be a consequence of this supposed “fact.”

So, for example, under this theory women experience menstruation and men don’t because menstruation is the female body’s attempt to rid itself of an imbalance of properties specific to the condition of being female, while in turn that specific imbalance is part of what defines femaleness. Humors were generated by the body’s metabolism and could change in nature. For example, blood could be converted to milk when a woman was nursing, which provided the explanation for why lactation suppressed menstruation and fertility.

Humoral Theory and Sex

Fertility--and of course, sex--were always of interest when considering health. The general theory of humoral dynamics during sex goes something like this. The constant accumulation of certain humors in the body increases heat in the genitals, which causes irritation and draws moisture. This irritation motivates a person to engage in sex to relieve it, which results in the entire body heating up, which transforms the residues into semen. The expulsion of seed during orgasm then removes the surplus of heat and moisture and--if conception occurs--provides nourishment for the fetus. One interesting feature of medical theory at the time was that both sexes ejaculated seed at orgasm and therefore women’s sexual satisfaction was necessary for conception.

This cycle was considered to contribute to proper balance and good health, but sex was not the only means of achieving that balance. The accumulation of the humors that caused desire (and therefore the degree to which the body desired sex to expel them) depended on diet, as well as other personal factors. The sex of a resulting child depended on the mixing and strength of the seed of both parents, the woman’s being more cold and wet and the man’s being more hot and dry.

One Italian medical treatise of the 13th century shows the detailed and convoluted reasoning by which humoral theory was thought to cause particular sexual habits. It describes how virginal women are continually aroused, because the narrowness of their womb prevents emission of their seed, therefore they can’t rid themselves of excess heat in this way. The heat drives them to stimulate themselves, which draws moisture to the genitals, but cannot be expelled and they are in a constant state of frustration.

Humoral Influences on Same-Sex Desire

But how do same-sex activities come into the question? Now we get a diversity of answers. The theories for why certain imbalances of humors might cause a man to get pleasure from being the passive partner in male-male sex are fascinating, but not relevant to this essay. And note that no argument was needed for what motivated the insertive partner in a male couple because the dynamics followed the usual expectations for male metabolism.

The most straightforward explanation for how humors could drive a woman to same-sex love is simple lack of satisfaction with a male partner. If the women is not brought to orgasm, her humors remain out of balance causing continued irritation and, as Avicenna argues, they may “have recourse to rubbing with other women in order to achieve amongst themselves the fullness of their pleasures” and rid themselves of the build up of seed caused by arousal.

Indeed, some medical manuals, such as that of Nicholas Fontanus in mid-17th century England, prescribed that if a woman suffered from an “abundance of the spermatick humor” and has no husband to help relieve her, balance might be restored by “the hand of a skilfull midwife and a convenient ointment” rubbed into the genitals to achieve orgasm.

Humors and Gender Identity

But outside of this situational desire, humoral balance was considered to affect desire through a heteronormative model of innate nature. As with astrology, the effects of the humors on sexual behavior were often interpreted as being due to their influence on one’s gender expression. Men were considered to have a more hot and dry nature, women tended to be more cold and moist. As a high degree of sexual desire was considered to be a masculine characteristic, excess sexual desire in women was associated with conditions that made them more “hot”, and this was thought to result in a variety of male-coded characteristics. For example the medieval author Michael Scot claims that a woman with a hot nature, as well as being more lustful, will have small, hard breasts, smaller periods, and an excess of pubic hair.

If a woman had more of a hot, dry nature than was typical for women -- a more masculine nature -- it would affect both her ability to conceive and her personality with regard to sex, making her more bold and aggressive and inclined to take a masculine role in sex with other women. European texts are less obsessed with a precise mechanism of how this would work than they are for what might motivate a man to desire a passive role in sex.

But one exception is a 16th century Spanish text by Juan Huarte de San Juan who discussed how, if a fetus that began as one sex was subjected to the temperature that caused the other sex early in development, it could result in a contrast between nature (based on conditions at conception) and body (influenced by conditions during development). So a female fetus influenced by heat to develop male physiology, would still have a feminine personality and desire for sex with men, while a male fetus subjected to cold would develop a female body but have masculine behavior and desires, including sexual desire for women. In modern terms this description fits more with how transgender identity is envisioned, but this sex-change version isn’t the only process that can result in same-sex desire. Elsewhere Huarte discusses how a woman whose humors tend toward the hot and dry (that is, a masculine balance) will have an assertive personality, a low voice, will be more muscular, and will have difficulty becoming pregnant. (Though, in this passage, a tendency toward same-sex desire isn’t mentioned.)

Same-sex Desire Unrelated to Gender Identity

Although discussions of the influence of the humors on sexuality in the European tradition tended to be relatively value-neutral to the extent that they approached it as a medical topic, Arabic texts could be even less judgmental about sexual matters, as well as being more explicit.

The 9th century Muslim philosopher al-Kindi wrote, “Lesbianism is due to a vapor which, condensed, generates in the labia heat and an itch which only dissolves and becomes cold through friction and orgasm. When friction and orgasm take place, the heat turns into coldness because the liquid that a woman ejaculates in lesbian intercourse is cold whereas the same liquid that results from sexual union with men is hot. Heat, however, cannot be extinguished by heat; rather, it will increase since it needs to be treated by its opposite. As coldness is repelled by heat, so heat is also repelled by coldness.”

As a mathematical equation, this explanation requires a premise that female same-sex desire is a different physiological process than a woman’s desire for a man. Arousal makes her hot but orgasm results in the production of a cold liquid that cools the heat, whereas a man’s orgasm produces a hot liquid that cannot cool her. (Presumably heterosexual sex included some other means of balancing the woman’s hot/cold nature.) Al-Kindi’s explanation was quoted in the 13th century by Tifashi, who included it among a longer list of reasons why a woman might prefer sex with women over men.

But humoral explanations are not always consistent. A 12th century Arabic writer, al-Maghribi--again, among other unrelated reasons for preferring same-sex love--claims that a woman “whose womb is dominated by coldness” finds more pleasure in sex with women because the friction increases temperature, which evidently sex with men didn’t, in his system. Don’t be too distracted by apparent conflicts between texts regarding the underlying principles. A strict logical consistency was not always a feature of humoral literature.

Advice from Health Manuals

Health manuals based on humoral theory offered extensive catalogs of the nature of items in everyday life that could affect one’s humoral balance, from food, to activities, to clothing, to sensory experiences. Eating cherries is cold and wet in the first degree. The season of summer is warm in the third degree and dry in the second. Roses, gathered for their scent, are cold in the first degree and dry in the third. Linen clothing is cold and dry in the second degree while woolen clothing is warm and dry.

In addition to sexual appetite being influenced by one’s humoral balance, the sex act itself could change one’s humors, as discussed previously. Sexual arousal increased heat and orgasm took heat away. Therefore, both abstinence or excessive sexual activity could cause a harmful imbalance. One health manual notes that it may be harmful to those who are cold and dry.

The goal in changing one’s diet and habits was to achieve the balance proper to one’s nature. An imbalance could cause disease or inappropriate behavior. But that “proper balance” wasn’t the same for all people. As discussed previously, gender was considered to be a byproduct of different humoral balances. But further than that, the desired humoral profile for a military leader would be different from that of a clergyman, the proper balance for a young unmarried woman who was expected to be chaste would be different than that of a married woman hoping to conceive a child. The use of sexual pleasure to adjust one’s humoral balance could be considered a type of medical treatment, even when it didn’t conform to accepted moral principles.

Humors and Horoscopes in Historical Fiction

How do the topics of astrology and humoral theory speak to queer historical fiction? It is always tricky to represent how a character in a historic novel understands their own nature and desires, or how those around them perceive them. The models that people in history had for understanding themselves were far more complex than the image of sin and immorality one finds in Christian literature, or the psychological model we’ve inherited much more recently from the sexologists. While not everyone had access to the learned texts that I’ve quoted in this essay, the basic principles were part of popular culture and familiar to people at all levels of society. Within those complex and contradictory models, there can be room for a fictional character to understand their same-sex desires as being an innate and predetermined feature of their personality, even if that understanding differs in significant ways from modern ideas of orientation and identity.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Monday, July 20, 2020 - 19:00

I'm always delighted to get my eyeballs on material from outside western Europe and Anglophone cultures. This article is particularly interesting for letting us into the everyday details of language and domestic arrangements around female couples. One does, however, need to filter out the judgmental commentary, even though it's milder than what we might see in western European sources.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Engelstein, Laura. 1990. "Lesbian Vignettes: A Russian Triptych from the 1890s" in Signs vol. 15, no. 4 813-831.

While the study of homosexuality was developing in Europe in the later 19th century, theories and publications on the topic made their way to Russia, but did not necessarily shape how Russian culture and medical/psychological professionals viewed people in same-sex relationships. Direct evidence about female homosexuality in Russia is scanty, but a collection of three case studies were written up by a Russian gynecologist in 1895, based either on direct contact or on documentary evidence.

This article summarizes those cases and notes ways in which the Russian attitudes revealed in the document differ from those of Western Europe. In the few 19th century Russian texts that discuss homosexuality (e.g., in a criminal context), references to lesbianism are even rarer than they are in Western texts. The Russian commentaries (including these case studies) appear to discount the idea of connections between lesbianism and criminality that are made in European studies. The case studies also make a significant point of excluding either physical, intellectual, or psychological abnormalities as being associated with the specific individuals being discussed. The case studies make a point that homosexuality is found among all social classes and that the women engaged in it were “normal” by all other measures. One peculiarly Russian attitude that he contradicted was the idea that the “common people” were free of sexual excess or “corruption” that was thought to be characteristic of the urban elites, influenced by Western (foreign) values.

This is not to say that the doctor approved of the women he described. His attitude is inconsistent in some areas, considering homosexuality to be “abnormal” while a the same time emphasizing the normality of his subjects. Engelstein notes that the resistance to overtly stigmatizing homosexuality may be due to a discomfort among Russian medical professionals to being co-opted as part of authoritarian practices by the government.

Case 1: the peasant Shashnina (1886)

[Note: the narrative is somewhat circuitous and follows the revelations of the legal investigation, but I’m going to reorganize it somewhat for brevity.]

In a rural community, Mariia Pavlovna Shashnina was popularly known to be “double-sexed” or “double-rigged” (dvukhpolaia, dvukhsbruinaia), i.e. with both types of sexual organs, and that she associated only with girls and avoided men. She had some masculine habits, such as smoking, and resisted the authority of her mother and brother. She engaged in sexual relations with women by tribadry (techniques are discussed in detail) and several of her lovers testified that she had penetrated them with a sexual organ similar to a penis.

Shashnina had engaged in sexual relationships with multiple women, including one named Ekaterina prior to the latter’s marriage and Ekaterina testified that she had lost her virginity to Shashnina by means of “something resembling a male member”. After Ekaterina’s marriage, Shashnina began encouraging her to poison her husband, arguing that she was a better partner because she would never get Ekaterina pregnant, as well as being richer and more clever than the husband. Together they procured poison and killed him.

While in prison for this crime (or maybe before trial?) Shashnina began a love affair with another prisoner, courting her with gifts and pledges of affection. This led to a physical examination in the prison hospital, which was one of several examinations recording contradictory evidence, meant to determine if there were some physical explanation for her behavior. Although the various examinations differed on some details (such as whether Shashnina was a virgin), they all concluded that there was no evidence of abnormal genitalia, in particular no penis analog as described by her lovers. In view of these conclusions, she was released from the hospital. [There doesn’t seem to be any discussion of her legal fate, but that may not have been of interest to the author.]

Case 2: the prostitute (1888)

[Note: again, I’m condensing and rearranging the case study from it’s original rambling structure.]

Pelageia Kuritsyna was living in a brothel run by a man named Neiman in the area of St. Petersburg, accompanying her friend Ida Chernova. (There seems to have been a form of debt-servitude involved.) The two women were discharged shortly thereafter due to complaints that the two were lovers and were neglecting their clients in favor of each other, with Pelageia playing “the man’s role.” [Note: the text says that the two were called koshki, she-cats “as such women are usually called.” I believe this is an ordinary term for a cat, so the slang term may not have been overtly vulgar.]

While Pelageia was employed at the brothel, Nikolai Krasavin (one of the clients?) fell in love with her. When she was discharged, he paid her debt to Neiman and installed her in his apartment until, a year and a half later, he decided to marry her. The marriage broke up shortly thereafter and Pelageia returned to one of Neiman’s brothels, this time as a housekeeper. In her initial position, the tried to initiate a relationship with some of the other prostitutes unsuccessfully, but after being transferred to a different location, she began a sexual relationship with a prostitute there named Mania. Evidently her erstwhile husband, Nikolai, was still visiting her there and the other women said that Pelageia would pay them off to entertain him while she spent her time with Mania. This was all reported to Neiman who fired her, after which Mania quit as well.

Nikolai seems to have been in denial about his wife’s sexual preferences, despite the fact that Pelageia and Mania had moved in together with one of Mania’s relatives. But he became convinced when he intercepted letters between the two which “were filled with tender names and expressions of love.” [Note: I wish we could have transcripts of the letters, which were later presented as legal evidence. But I get ahead of myself...] Pelageia offered to earn money for her husband by renting an apartment and taking in some coincidence including Mania and another prostitute. Nikolai would visit her there and sometimes spend the night until, suspicious of how his wife would go to bed with Mania (and not him) he spied on them and saw them engaged in sex.

Nikolai thereupon decided to murder his wife and--after bolstering his intent with significant amounts of alcohol--stabbed her to death, also wounding Mania which she came to Pelageia’s defense.

Pelageia was autopsied as part of the investigation and a detailed description of her physiology and sexual organs is included, pronouncing her anatomy to be that of a normal woman. The author adds his commentary that she “was not a stupid woman but crafty and completely in command of her mental faculties... All her actions...were entirely expedient and rather well thought out.” That is, he concluded that her homosexuality was not due to anatomical, mental, or psychological defects.

Case 3: the widow and her lover (1889)

[Note: Based on the description of the behavior and reactions of the person identified as N, I would suggest that N might identify today as a trans man, rather than a lesbian. Or perhaps not, if N had access to other social models for their experiences and identity, though I think the transgender case is much stronger. The Russian author of the original account, and the author of this article use female language to refer to N. I am going to follow the practice I have been developing and use they/them for N in order to highlight the uncertainty. But read my summary with the understanding that I am both misrepresenting the text and probably misrepresenting N’s gender with this compromise. As with the previous two cases, I’ve rearranged the narrative somewhat.]

The doctor met this couple through V (N’s partner) who came to him for treatment of a gynecological issue. The case study of V (at the end of the article) describes her as a “passive tribade” who had always presented in a feminine manner. At school, she had fallen in love with a number of girlfriends, and at age 15, one of those girlfriends had "taught her to masturbate” [note: a common way that f/f sex was described in historic literature] V was attracted to N at their first meeting and soon fell in love. V has also been attracted to men and felt that she was capable of falling in love with a man and getting married, but since she is completely happy and satisfied with her relationship with N, she has no intention of doing so. V saw the doctor (author) for an infection of the vulva. When he suggested that it might be due to masturbation, V became embarrassed but was eventually pursuaded to answer questions about it in writing, explaining her relationship with N.

The doctor procured an introduction to N and treated them for a non-gynecological issue, then pursuaded N to write a detailed autobiography in response to questions. The doctor notes that N is “well-educated, sensible, dependable, and serious,” that they are feminine in appearance but has some mannerisms that are considered masculine. Later in the article, the doctor notes that he was able to examine N’s external genitals and found them small but otherwise normally female. N refused to allow any more invasive examination. [Note: Good for N!]

The rest is based on N’s reported autobiography. N enjoys reading and literature and attending the theater and opera, but doesn’t care for needlework or attending public balls, though they enjoy private dancing among friends in which they always take the male role. N dresses in feminine garments but doesn’t follow stylish fashions and chooses garments that have slightly masculine overtones in style.

As a child, N preferred the society of boys and active play. They disliked dolls and thought girls were timid and listless. When N was 9 their mother died, leaving three children: N and two younger boys. After this N’s father included them in masculine activities such as riding and hunting and N acquired the masculine nickname “Misha” rather than feminine “Masha”. [Note: “Misha” is a nickname for Mikhail, “Masha” for Maria. The doctor’s shorthand of N is presumably from their surname.]

N was then sent to boarding school and attached themself to an older girl who had a reputation for daring active escapades. Later N acquired a girlfriend who enjoyed kissing and caressing, which N found pleasant and reciprocated such that they became known as “the inseparables.” Their affection evolved into sexual activity, but the girlfriend developed emotional problems and was taken home by her parents. N enjoyed relationships with several other girls after that and began wondering if they might be a man.

While N was at school their father and brothers died within a short period and N went to live with their aunt. At first N’s girlfriend visited and they shared a bed in a separate room, but N was inconsolable when the girlfriend had to leave. N met another young woman and fell in love again. (This was V.) N’s aunt encouraged the relationship as N’s emotional outlook was much improved and V was encouraged to join their household.

N’s aunt tried to encourage male suitors for N but N rejected them. One refused to be put off and gained the friendship of N and V over conversation and intellectual pursuits. When N’s aunt began a fatal decline she urged N to marry the man in order to stabilize her future, as life for a wealthy unmarried woman would be precarious. N initially disagreed but then concluded it was good advice. N laid out the necessary conditions: it would be a friendly relationship but not sexual. N and V would continue to share a bedroom and N’s husband would have a separate bedroom and study.

N’s husband agreed and the marriage proceeded, but he soon began initiating physical affections which “enraged and irritated” N who was frustrated that the situation had become dissatisfactory. Then one evening N’s husband accidentally(?) walked in on N and V in the middle of making love. He withdrew in embarrassment and confusion. N and V spent that night discussing the situation and concluded the only answer was for them to leave. But on rising, they found that N’s husband had committed suicide, leaving a note for the police and a separate note telling N “I was convinced that my happiness was impossible; I am removing myself in order not to interfere with yours.” Now N was a (wealthy) widow and free to continue life with V.

N dicusses their gender identity. [Since this is a direct quote, it uses female pronouns.] “When only fifteen she first became aware that she was made to be a man, though mistakenly endowed by nature with female sexual organs. She experienced a man’s attraction for girls and women but none at all for men, whom she merely found pleasant and intelligent to talk to. She long ago recognized her peculiar condition, as she calls it. Though she realizes she does not resemble other women, she does not consider herself a monster but only an error of nature. All her feelings are exclusively masculine; she unconsciously, instinctively does everything in a masculine way. She would very much like to dress as a man and restrains herself only for the sake of propriety. She does not wear her hair in a feminine way and always dreams of herself as a man, sometimes even with whiskers. In the company of women she knows well, she feels entirely manly and is always in excellent spirits. In the company of men, by contrast, she feels shy and constrained, like a school child in the company of preceptors and teachers.”

N notes that all their acquaintances are women, though she only feels love for some of them. Since their husband’s death, they interact with men rarely and only for business. “She has tried several times to imagine herself involved with a man, in particular with her late husband, but is seized each time by a horrible, repulsive, unbearable feeling of disgust.” When asked whether they wanted to be “liberated” from their condition, N answered, “What for? I am happy the way I am. Transformed into an authentic woman, I might not be as happy; indeed that would be impossible. To change in that way, I would have to be reborn in either body or soul.”

Time period: 
Saturday, July 18, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 167 (previously 48c) - Book Appreciation with Luci Dreamer

(Originally aired 2020/07/11 - listen here)

Transcript pending.

Show Notes

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 we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Luci Dreamer Online

Major category: 


Subscribe to Alpennia Blog