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Mary Wollstonecraft

18th century English feminist and writer. Both her life and her writings included passionate female frienships.

LHMP entry

A number of historians have concluded that there was a major shift in attitudes toward sex in western Europe in the last decade of the 18th century. Binhammer lays out some of the underlying forces and manifestations of that shift. Although the article largely concerns English attitudes (and any unmarked references can be assumed to concern England) the shift can also be observed in France and other western European cultures.

Turning from literary descriptions of Romantic Friendship to how the concept was reflected in real life (although the two are hard to separate entirely), Faderman comments on how modern scholars seem to find it even harder to accept the nature of the latter than the former. Correspondence, such as that between Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Anne Wortley is filled with expressions of love, esteem, and protestations of devotion.

In France in the later 18th century there arose the motif of secret societies of sapphists "more mysterious than the Freemasons" that existed to initiate women into lesbianism, to serve the pleasures of their members, and to achieve unsavory political ends. The existence of these formal organizations was purely fictitious. Their alleged membership typically included unpopular political and social figures. And their alleged purpose was ostensibly to disrupt the heterosexual organization of society, as an allegory for disrupting other social frameworks.

In this chapter, Donoghue addresses the concept of “romantic friendship”, both as the term was use in the 18th century, and as applied by modern historians in situations when no irrefutable evidence of genital sexual activity is available. In both cases, the use of the term “friendship” tends to dismiss the strength of the bond (which frequently involved a lifelong partnership) and set up a false dichotomy between these relationships and more overtly sexual ones identified as “lesbian”.

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