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USA

Includes Colonial America in what would become the USA. May also be used generally for North America if sources were not specific. See also separate tag Native America for discussions of indigenous North American cultures.

LHMP entry

Women who loved women in the early to mid-20th century no longer lacked public models for their relationships--the problem was that all the public models they now had were toxic. With the voices of authority insisting that they were deviant, the women who dared to be “lesbian in public” tended to be those who had little to lose, or whose living relied on notoriety: bohemians, courtesans, and the like. And it is these individuals that Faderman considers in the current chapter.

The 20th century saw the rise of new genres of fiction that demonized lesbian relationships and inextricably linked them to social structures that had historically nourished women’s friendships, such as single-sex schools. Curiously, it has been revealed in retrospect that many lesbian novels of the 20th century were written by women who were, themselves, lesbian.

This chapter details a variety of English and American cultural responses to feminism and to women’s greater independent present in the public sphere in the early parts of the 20th century. Women had entered traditionally masculine professions during the upheavals of World War I and suffrage movements in both England and America pushed for political equality.

By the 1920s, Freud was the primary source of attitudes in America towards same-sex love. Where Kraft-Ebing had considered sexual orientation to be inborn, Freud blamed childhood trauma and considered homosexuality to be “curable”. Both lumped men’s and women’s experiences together without considering the differences in social context.

In the first decade of the 20th century, love poetry between schoolgirls could still be published “innocently” as an expression of praiseworthy sentiments. Periodicals for women’s and children’s literature were still depicting Romantic Friendship positively. Likely there were several reasons for the delayed shift in attitudes in in the US. In Europe, images of lesbian “vice” (or “vice” in general) were closely tied up in Catholic ideas of sin and Catholic-based reactionary sensationalism.

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.

If one had any doubts about the common perception of the phenomenon of unmarried women forming stable, long-term partnerships in the later 19th century in America, those doubts could be settled by the existence of the term “Boston marriage” for such partnerships. Unlike earlier Romantic Friendships, which often had to work around the marriage of one or both parties to a man, the women in Boston marriages were normally unmarried and independent, either through inheritance or a career.

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historical