Chapter 1: Sex and the Middle Ages
Covering approximately the region of modern Germany, but sometimes more generally the broader historic scope of German-speaking regions.
Chapter 1: Sex and the Middle Ages
This book is an extensive catalog of literary references to women who challenge heteronormativity in some fashion, although it would be misleading and anachronistic to apply the label “lesbian” in most cases. Approximately 20% of the book covers the entirety of literary history up to the late 19th century. Another 20% is speculation on the sexuality of a handful of pre-20th century women, primarily writers. The remainder covers the 20th century, or more broadly the “post-sexology” era.
Faderman moves into the modern political era with a consideration of the parallel movements for women’s rights and gay/lesbian rights starting in the mid-20th century. Both the strength and the weakness of attempts to associate feminism with lesbianism was the underlying truth of the association. Historically, feminism had arisen among women who directed their primary reform efforts and emotional connections to other women. Those connections ranged along a continuum from friendship to romance to sex.
The theme of evil predatory lesbians was taken up by others from the French aesthetic writers, but stripped of any hint of sympathy. In these works, the lesbian aspect may be concealed in vague ambiguity while still retaining sexual overtones.
In the second half of the 19th century, psychiatrists began identifying women who transgressed gender norms as “inverts” (i.e., homosexual) and as pathological. Carl von Westphal in Germany was an early example, although his work was not widely circulated. His followers Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis had more influence.
No sooner had an identifiable feminist movement arisen in the 19th century but it was answered by an anti-feminist movement. Men formed the majority of this reaction, seeing feminism as challenging their superior position, but women were prominent in writing anti-feminist tracts as well, often ignoring the irony that in doing so they violated the norms that they claimed to uphold.
There was a narrow list of available occupations for a middle-class woman in the later 19th century--teacher, nurse, glorified lady’s maid, or occupations that shaded more in to the questionable: seamstress, actress. But for a select few, the professions were beginning to open up: doctor, professor, social reformer. To succeed in these professions meant foregoing marriage to a man for a wide variety of reasons.
The stirrings of a women’s rights movement was starting as early as the late 18th century, inspired in part by the ideals of the French Revolution, documented in books such as Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790), Olympe de Gouges’s Declaration of Rights of Woman and Citizen (1791), and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).
In this chapter, Faderman reviews the historic and literary perception of women cross-dressing as men during the 16-18th centuries. She notes that women passing as men [or transgender men, although this framing was not typically used at the time the book was published] were considered a more serious issue than lesbian sex, as long as that sex was between “feminine” women. One difference was that sexual encounters could be framed as a transient amusement whereas passing women were engaged in a long-term transgression.