Tommy (as slang for lesbian)
The existence of masculine women throughout the ages challenges assumptions about the nature of masculinity and why the connection between men and masculinity has remained so secure. While some hold that the phenomenon of the “virile woman” is recent, and tied to feminism, or as a sign of the loosening of gender conformity, these positions overlook the history of masculine women. [Note: H says, “a character who has challenged gender systems for at least two centuries”, but of course it’s been happening much longer than that.]
This article examines the history of inclusion--or more to the point, deliberate exclusion--of vocabulary relating to lesbians and lesbianism in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the “reference of record” for the history of word usage in English. When publication after publication repeats the false statement that vocabulary for lesbians didn’t exist before the late 19th century, one of the reasons is that people are using the OED as if it were simply factual, and not part of the long tradition of erasing women’s same-sex sexuality.
Neff looks at shifting concepts and images of masculinity in England through the lens of Lord Byron (1788-1824) who stands in for an era when both masculinity and aristocracy were receiving increased scrutiny as privileged classes. Interpretations of homoerotic elements in Byron’s biography have been contested ground as he fails to fit neatly into the modern categories of sexuality. Neff declines to take a position on categorization and instead looks at the details of Byron’s life that raise the question in the first place.
The chapter opens with a tantalizing personal history that suggests, but never clearly demonstrates, lesbian possibilities. In 1722, Ann Carrack, a 30-year-old spinster set up in business as a milliner in London with Mary Erick. They rented a shop together and lived together above the shop. Several years later, they moved together to another location. After 7 years sharing a business and living quarters, they parted: Ann to work as a needlewoman and Mary to set up a shop in Chelsea. But 10 years after that, Ann resumed the partnership, moving in with Mary in Chesea.
[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article.
Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.
Rictor Norton has assembled an on-line sourcebook of primary documents relating to homosexuality in 18th century England. (He also has several other pages on related historic topics.) He notes: “All the documents faithfully reproduce the spelling, punctuation, capitalization and italicization of the original sources." As is typical for sites covering homosexuality in general, male-related material vastly overwhelms female-related material (which represents less than 10%).
There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends.
The introduction begins with a contradiction that inspires the book’s title. In twenty years of correspondence between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (who were famous for their close and loving friendship), the two closed letters with phrases in which the words “passionate” or “passionately” figured prominently. And yet a comment by Sarah regarding a somewhat scandalous pamphlet described it as including “stuff not fit to be mentioned of passions between women”. Did the word “passion” have distinct and separate meanings in these two contexts?
Like Gonda’s article on Scott and Charke, Donoghue’s examination of the Anne Damer points out the artificially polarized popular view of affection between women, where very intense romantic friendships were acceptable and even praised so long as they avoided even the rumor of erotic activity. Damer failed to avoid those rumors, but it is unclear whether her refutation of the label of “Sapphist” lay in truth or definition.