Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).
The book opens with an examination of female homoerotics in “libertine” literature of the 16-18th centuries, that is, books written almost exclusively by men that depict women in erotic encounters with each other, primarily for the titillation of the (presumably male) reader. This includes works such as Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, which deals generally with the sexual exploits of women at the French court of Henri II, and includes a special section on “donna con donna” (woman with woman). The encounters he describes follow a common pattern for this type of literature where women are seen as being sexually voracious and might amuse themselves with women to avoid either the condemnation or consequences of an affair with a man, but who are eager to turn to men when the opportunity offers.
The putative frustration of women trying to sexually satisfy each other is seen in poems such as Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin’s Sonnett XXXII "Two Beauties Tender Lovers" and Pontus de Tyard’s “Elegy for a Woman who Loves Another Woman.” The latter, though, acknowledges the possibility of women seeking ennoblement through such a relationship, and not simply gratification. Other poems were more satyric in intent, such as François Mainard’s “Tribades seu Lesbia” which hints at digital stimulation, but Faderman notes an absence of the same level of vitriolic attack that is found against male homosexuals.
Some of the most popular depictions of sex between women emphasized it as “preparation” for heterosexual activity, either in the sense of learning techniques (as in Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica and John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), or as a direct prelude to a man joining the women in bed, as in the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova.
Medical manuals of the 18th century that touch on sex between women tend to treat it as a subset of masturbation. There is a brief mention of how sex between women faced more hostility if one of the women was a “transvestite”, due to the challenge to male status, but neither “passing women” nor “female husbands” appear in the book’s index (except for the inclusion of Fielding’s book The Female Husband) and this entire topic seems to have been passed over.
Faderman notes that the women in these stories “function in an amoral universe” and that the trope of initiation by an older, predatory woman does not appear until the 20th century. “Unlike in our century, it was seldom believed in earlier eras that non-procreative sexual behavior might carry over to autonomous social behavior, unless a woman flamboyantly demonstrated the connection, by transvestism for example.
In this chapter, Faderman explores the types of sexual activity between women that were portrayed in literature written by men. Authors such as Brantôme describe tribadism, with one woman atop another rubbing the genitals together, or the use of a dildo to perform penetrative stimulation.
Male authors also emphasize that when penetrative sex (whether involving a man or an instrument) is absent that other types of activities, such as kissing, caressing, and embracing, must be by definition unsatisfying. This theme comes up in Sir Philips Sidney’s Arcadia and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.
The genre of medical literature that was beginning to take note of the role of the clitoris in female sexual satisfaction echoed this interpretation in imagining that sex between women necessarily either caused or was caused by a clitoris that was sufficiently enlarged to function as a penis.
Faderman’s conclusions--though based entirely on male-authored works--are that relationships between women that involved admiration, tenderness, and mutual concern never involved genital activity; that only genital activity was considered “lesbian” regardless of what other erotic components might be present; and that women would never have conceived of a definition of lesbianism that was defined solely by genital activity and in particular by penetrative sex.
In this chapter, Faderman moves on from 16-18th c male ideas of what lesbian sex might consist of, to the stock “lesbian narratives” in which those ideas appeared, and to the social and political motivations behind how lesbian sex was used as a literary tool or weapon. She uses Mathieu François Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (1777-8) as a prototype of pornographic treatments of lesbian sex in the 18th c and later. The tropes it uses will be echoed regularly up through the 20th century: an older woman seduces a younger (both beautiful and feminine in appearance) who will eventually be “rescued” by a man; sexual practices are diverse and shade into S&M; a secret formal organized club of lesbians who gather for pseudo-religious rituals and orgiastic practices; and a derogatory association of lesbians and Catholics. Fictional treatments such as this were treated as historic documentation by later writers.
Mairobert’s story follows a girl who is obsessed with sexual stimulation, runs away from home and is taken in by a madam who discover’s the girl’s large clitoris and trains her to satisfy a female clientele with lesbian tastes. (The girl is named--with no subtlety at all--Sapho.) The goal of the work is clearly titillation for the male reader, while ending with reassurance that hetersexuality will triumph.
A secondary purpose of the book was as a roman à clef, intended to harrass and embarrass specific contemporary women with thinly-veiled characterizations. This use of lesbian sex literature appears repeatedly, as in William King’s The Toast (1736), written as revenge against Lady Frances Brudenell for besting him in a business deal. Social and legal assertiveness is attributed to an unnatural sexual appetite that reveals itself in a pansexual libido, but with undue attention turned toward interactions with other women. The goal was to inspire others to shun the target of the satire, lest their own sexuality become suspect.
This same technique had been used earlier by Anthony Hamilton against a Miss Hobart at the court of Charles II of England in the fictionalized Memoirs of the Life of Count de Grammont. A more extensive and broad-based campaign accused the French Queen Marie Antoinette of lesbian relationships with the ladies of her court. As with the other cases, the underlying motivation appears to have been hostility to female social or political power and to the potential influence of personal bonds between women. In most of these cases, accusations were not confined to lesbianism, rather that accusation was simply one feature of an indiscriminate and voracious sexual appetite.
Aside from hostility to powerful women, accusations of lesbianism were a feature of anti-Catholic sentiment, especially in England. The classic example is Diderot’s The Nun, where an innocent girl, sent to a convent against her will, is the victim of sexually predatory and sadistic nuns. While anxieties about sexual activity in all-female institutions had featured in literature back into the 16th century [and even earlier, in penitential literature of the church itself] this new genre blended religious animosity with hostility toward women with authority, such as abbesses. (In Diderot’s case, his literary hostility also may have been inspired by jealously of his mistress’s close relationships with her sister and other women, though the answer may be even simpler as his writings show a streak of misogyny that stands out even for his day and age.)
After relating this catalog of literature in which male authors use lesbianism as a means of expressing general hostility toward women with influence and power, as well as for exacting revenge against particular women, Faderman concludes, “Lesbianism itself was seldom the focal point of attack in these works. Eighteenth-century men do not appear to have viewed love-making between nontransvestite women with much seriousness. The most virulent depictions of lesbian (or rather pansexual) behavior seem to have been rooted in the writer’s anger at a particular woman’s conduct in an area apart from the sexual. Her aggressive sexuality was used primarily as a metaphor.”
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.
Beginning in the 16th century, English moralists railed against women appropriating individual male garments or styles, as in the pamphlet Hic Mulier. But in an era when clothing was, in general, strongly distinguished by gender, it was relatively easy for a woman to pass as male. Cross-dressing was not automatically associated with lesbian sex, even when it created the opportunity. Some autobiographical accounts of passing women, such as sailor Mary Anne Talbot, indicate they had no interest in female romantic attention. But when sexual activity was involved, penalties could be severe, up to and including death.
Faderman jumps back to the medieval period to contrast the story of Yde and Olive (where the cross-dressing Yde risks death for marrying Olive) and the real-life situation of troubadour Bieiris de Romans who addressed a love song to another women but who did not take on a male persona, either in text or life. Other examples of non-crossdressing women who received lenient responses to lesbian sexual encounters include Sara Norman and Mary Hammond in Plymouth colony (1649). But legal cases where passing women married or had sex with other women often resulted in execution, as in the case reported in 1566 by Henri Estienne, one in 1580 recorded in Switzerland by Michel de Montaigne, the German trial of Catharine Margaretha Linck in 1721, and the alleged Turkish example in the 1749 polemic Satan’s Harvest Home.
Although no executions are noted in England or America, similar cases made their way into sensationalist literature, as with Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband, which was based on the true story of Mary Hamilton. And if a passing woman married and lived a quiet, upstanding life--such as Mary (James) How in the mid 18th century, even later discovery might have no serious consequences. Even in countries where severe punishments were meted out, there is a suggestion that consequences might be lesser if deception were not an issue, as in the case of Henrica Schuria (told in Robert James’s Medicinal Dictionary) who had passed as a man to serve as a soldier, but whose sexual affair with a widow after returning home only merited whipping and banishment, perhaps because she did not conceal her gender and because a dildo was not involved. Similarly, the case of Anne Grandjean in Grenoble received a relatively light sentence for marrying a woman because she was thought to be genuinely in doubt about her gender.
The complex intersection of gender, sexuality, and class is noted in the case of Queen Christina of Sweden who was known for cross-dressing (although clearly not in order to deceive about her identity) and whose romantic/sexual interest in women was documented both before and after her abdication from the throne. At the other end of the social scale, actresses and other performers, such as Mary Frith in early 17th century England, and Mademoiselle de Maupin in late 18th century France could use crossdressing as part of their public persona, even in combination with sexual relations with women, and be given a pass, perhaps for not attempting a complete disguise, perhaps because of public support for their flamboyant presentations. Actress Charlotte Charke also received benefit of a forgiving public when her autobiography detailed crossdressing adventures and romantic encounters with women.
Of the many women who crossdressed to enter the military, Faderman notes Deborah Sampson and plays up the possibility that her flirtations with women while passing may have been evidence of lesbian orientation, despite her marriages to men both before and after her military service.
This chapter tackles the public discourse around intense same-sex friendships among both women and men. Male friends took as their model the concepts of Platonic friendship expressed by ancient Greek and Roman writers. The language could be quite passionate, but did not assume a sexual component. And unlike the existing models for male homosexual relationships which tended to involve differences in age and status, these ideals of Renaissance friendship focused on equality and mutuality, sharing “one bed, one house, one table, and one purse” and barely troubled when one or the other married. This emphasis on equality meant that there was a resistance to the idea that such friendships could exist between men and women. But women, too, could partake of passionate friendships of equals. The literature of female friends--whether in their own words or as characters in male-authored fiction--is directly comparable to that between male friends.
Intense statements of lifelong commitment can be found in Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, in the correspondence of French noblewomen such as Madame de Sévigné, and in the works of poets such as Katherine Philips. Faderman asserts, however, that the passionate language of seduction that Philips borrows from the work of John Donne does not mask sexual desire, as it did for Donne, but only a literal request for declarations of love. She holds that the fact that Philips’ contemporaries considered her work a model of platonic friendship meant that it held nothing deeper. And that when men expressed jealousy of women’s bonds with each other, as in Edmund Waller’s poem “On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies” (1645), they could do it in a teasing way, assured that the women would still turn to men for sexual satisfaction. Whatever sensuality existed within those expressions of friendship “must have been within the realm of the acceptable” since it was expressed publicly. And since it was acceptable, it must not have been erotic.
This general acceptance of intense romantic (but non-sexual) friendships, Faderman holds, was inherited by the 18th century and left a legacy of male unconcern for such expressions.
As the chapter title indicates, this section views particular romantic/sexual desires and orientations as reflecting or being motivated by trends of fashion. That is: the ways in which desire (both emotional and physical) were expressed--although not necessarily how they were experienced--were a reflection of what a particular culture at a particular time considered to be “normal”. “Normal” in the sense of expected and understandable, not necessarily in terms of normative behavior and condoned activities.
In the 17-19th centuries, fashion recognized women’s close emotional and romantic bonds as “normal” in this sense, and further, that fashion condoned them as desirable. Public “romantic friendships” such as the celebrated one between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (known as “the Ladies of Llangollen”) were not considered improper, as such a friendship would be between unmarried opposite-sex persons.
Opinions varied whether such romantic friendships should be viewed only as practice for the devotion a woman would be expected to give a husband, or whether they were a “natural” outgrowth of feminine nature, to which was attributed sensibility, faithfulness, and devotion. As a gross oversimplification, male writers tended toward the first opinion, while women’s accounts of their own romantic friendships tended toward the second. There is also a suggestion, in the representation of romantic friendships in literature, that they allowed a useful emotional escape valve for women trapped in dysfunctional marriages, in an era where marriage was an expected life path but divorce was next to impossible.
This benevolent view was not entirely universal. The polemic Satan’s Harvest Home deplores “two Ladies Kissing and Slopping each other, in a lascivious Manner, and frequently repeating it.” And though the text asserts certainty that Englishwomen were not capable of being “criminally amorous” with each other (as the publication describes that foreign women might be), to raise the possibility is to acknowledge it. Male authors, as in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) often portrayed close female friendships as inherently ephemeral, but other works (even by male authors) depicted such friendships as enduring and even triumphing over heterosexual bonds.
Although the above examples are primarily English, French writers of the 18th century reflected a similar recognition of intense female friendships that used the language of passion and often reflected lifelong bonds that eclipsed those of family. Such a friendship was the subject of Rousseau’s novel La nouvelle Héloise, but the real-life equivalent was seen in women who carried each other’s portraits, attended salons together, and refused social invitations unless both were invited. Although Faderman asserts that open kisses and caresses between such friends were not considered to be sexual (except, perhaps, as stimulation for a male observer), this is the historic context in which such intense friendships among Queen Marie Antoinette’s circles were fodder for accusations of lesbian activity. And the text quotes descriptions by these women of their relationships that clearly equates what they feel for each other with heterosexual desire.
But after noting that the language used is identical to that used between heterosexual lovers, Faderman returns to her thesis: “It is probable that many romantic friends, while totally open in expressing and demonstrating emotional and spiritual love, repressed any sexual inclinations, and even any recognition of those inclinations, that they might have felt for each other, since during most eras of modern history women were well taught from childhood that only men or bad women were sexually aggressive.” What does this “many” mean? The book seems continually to return to the position that if “many” romantic friends did not see any erotic aspect to their relationship, then eroticism was by definition absent from the concept of romantic friendship. As opposed, for example, to seeing the phenomenon as a continuum where public acceptance of certain aspects could allow for a more erotic relationship that was less public. And yet, “less public” how, when women in romantic friendships spoke of “wearing the chains of Eros” and of longing to be able to marry each other? Faderman states that the “sophisticated” modern scholar would see in these effusions only a sentimental literary style and discount that it came from genuine emotion, and argue as evidence that signs of heterosexuality (such as marriage and children) automatically contradicted the possibility of homosexual desire. [This entire book seems to ignore the possibility of bisexuality.]
Writers of the 18th century themselves commented on the distinction between expressions of sentimentality that were purely for the sake of fashion and those that came from genuine emotion. And these were often contrasted in literature in a way that valorized the genuine emotion.
The chapter concludes with Faderman’s conclusion that, despite the language of passion and devotion, despite behaviors such as kissing and embracing in bed together, “unless they were transvestites or considered ‘unwomanly’ in some male’s conception, there was little chance that their relationship would be considered lesbian.” And here we come back to a contradiction in the book’s argumentation. Are we considering only whether larger society would accuse them of being lesbians? Or are we to conclude that there was nothing of lesbian sexuality present in the relationship itself? Faderman herself seems to waver between the two. Just above, she has defined “lesbian” as meaning “sexual proclivity” as if lesbian identity means solely, obligatorily, and exclusively physical erotic desire. But elsewhere the argument seems to be that women in romantic friendships didn’t allow themselves to feel any erotic desire at all because “good girls don’t”.
Elizabeth Mavor, in her study of the Ladies of Llangollen, offers as a motivation for the rise of Romantic Friendship, that women could not achieve with men the ideal of equal Platonic friendship, and so turned to other women. But Faderman notes that 17th century writers (some female) considered such heterosexual equality possible. Even so, the general sense on both sides was that men and women existed in such different spheres (both by practice and because of beliefs about their inherent natures) that reaching across the divide was difficult. By the 18th century, middle- and upperclass women (and it is primarily those groups who participated in Romantic Friendship) were encouraged to be genteelly idle. Intellectual women were looked askance, as were women who indulged in active pursuits like riding. These pursuits had become considered to be inherently masculine in a way they hadn’t in previous centuries. [Or perhaps--thinking about some of the discourse around gender and intellect in the middle ages--the "masculinization" of intellectual women had now come to be considered a bad thing rather than an ideal to strive for.]
Thus the most assertive and ambitious women were the ones least likely to find satisfaction in friendships with men, even as they were celebrated in the supposedly egalitarian society of the salons. And their writings and correspondence show that they turned to each other for support, admiration, and friendship. Marriage to men was often treated as a necessary evil and no impediment to their passionate friendship with women. Successful resistance to marriage (when economically possible) was considered an ideal.
Now we get another one of Faderman’s asserted-but-not-proven conclusions: “Because women of their class and temperament generally did not engage in sex outside of marriage, it probably occurred to few of them that the intense emotion they felt for each other could be expressed in sexual terms--but that emotion had all the manifestations of Eros without a genital component. Perhaps the primary difference between the salons of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and England and the salons of Paris in the 1920’s where lesbian love was openly expressed...was that as a result of the late nineteenth-century sexologists, women in the 1920’s knew they were sexual creatures and behaved accordingly.” [It is in passages like this that I feel the work most suffers from a lack of historic depth. Social beliefs about women's sex drives have fluctuated greatly over the centuries. Chaucer's Wife of Bath didn't need a sexologist to give her permission to be a sexual creature and behave accordingly!]
There is a nod to the consideration that, although it is easiest to track the nature and development of Romantic Friendship among intellectual women who produced copies written records of their experiences and thoughts, the phenomenon of Romantic Friendship was common among non-intellectuals as well.
The eighteenth century in England, Faderman asserts, was the point of greatest female repression of passion and sexuality, with a hyper-focus on virginity and chastity in literature and life that made any social interactions with men suspect. Men might pursue women and encourage them to demonstrate their love, but--as epitomized in Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the goal was conquest, not mutual affection. A woman who capitulated might find that her lover now considered her impossible to trust with any other man. The extreme version of this war between the sexes was found in the increasingly violent misogyny of pornographic literature. Even literature about the importance of equal companionate marriages (such as Benjamin Franklin’s Reflections on Courtship and Marriage) are presented as proof that such a thing was considered rare.
What I find missing in this chapter is a sense of statistics. Anecdotal examples from eighteenth-century life and literature are presented as evidence for considering marriage and relations between the sexes to be a relentless hellhole. This, then, is presented as the context in which Romantic Friendship between women became a refuge and ideal. Marriage was desired only so far as it make it economically and socially possible to live a life independent of that husband.
This chapter examines the depiction of Romantic Friendship in literature, where the ideals and motivations can be easier to see than in biographies. Fictional characters sometimes found it easier to achieve the economic independence that let them realize the dream of setting up a life together. Novelist Sarah Scott wrote about such an ideal in A Description of Millenium Hall (1762) as well as achieving something close to it herself with her inseparable friend Barbara Montagu (once Scott had succeeded in separating from a brief and disastrous marriage). Financial privilege enabled them to share not one but two homes together and to establish the charity that inspired Millenium Hall. The protagonists of the novel--like the author and her companion--are intelligent, educated women who desire little more than to spend their lives together. A husband briefly causes an unhappy breech but he conveniently dies a short time later. The two, along with friends that include another romantic couple, set up an idyllic existence in the country and establish several charitable projects. The blissful same-sex relationships in the story are contrasted with the invariably unhappy heterosexual ones, though the characters are not portrayed as set against marriage, as such, and one of their charities is to provide dowries for poor women.
Not all such fictional friendships had happy endings, some being separated by marriage, some culminating in the ultimate act of love, a self-sacrificing death. Although a significant portion of this literature is by female authors, male authors wrote admiringly of female affection as well. Faderman speculates on why these all-consuming relationships between women were depicted positively even when clearly elevated above marriage. Perhaps, she suggests, the real-world inevitability of marriage eroded their subversive potential, and perhaps men had voyeuristic enjoyment in watching two women showing affection to each other, as some male writers suggest.
Somewhat in contradiction to the main thesis of the book, Faderman quotes from the Frenchman Moreau de St. Méry who, undoubtedly familiar with the lesbian accusations against Queen Marie Antoinette, traveled to America in the late 18th century and commented frankly on what he perceived to be the social independence of American women and their apparent lack of passion toward men, concluding that “they are not at all strangers to being willing to seek unnatural pleasures with persons of their own sex.” Faderman immediately dismisses this possibility as “doubtful”.
But if language is an indication, literary women in America saw little difference between the love they felt for each other and what they were expected to feel for men. And among the expressions of admiration and affection there are regular indications that women considered their passionate friendships to be in direct competition with heterosexual marriage, such that they would swear never to marry for each other’s sake. The intellectual pleasures they describe are not infrequently enjoyed together in bed and accompanied by embraces and kisses. “But,” says Faderman, “since decent women of the eighteenth century could admit to no sexual desires and decent men would not attribute such desires to them, the sensual aspect of their relationship goes no further in fiction, as it probably would not in life.” [Presumably, by this definition, de St. Méry was not a “decent man”.]
This assumption of innocence that is extended to literary female friends is not always offered to close male friends in literature, where the specter of homosexuality is more likely to intrude. Charles Brockden Brown left a fragment of an unfinished novel touching the “depravity” of a male character due to the nature of his friendships with other men, while raising no such suspicions in his work Ormond: or the Secret Witness (1798) which concerned female friends, which verges on the gothic with its seductively predatory villain from whom the heroine rescues herself to be reunited with her beloved friend. Further, the protagonist feels not simply a particular passion for the friend of her youth (with whom she is reunited) but regularly feels romantic attractions to other women she interacts with. And that friend’s marriage is considered easier to dispense with, if necessary, than their need to remain together.
The indistinguishability of women’s passionate friendships and the passion expected in marriage is seen in Helen Williams’s Anecdotes of a Convent (1771) in which, in a sort of reverse Iphis and Ianthe, the female protagonist discovers that the person she has developed a deep and very physical affection for while students in a convent together is actually a boy disguised as a girl (and ignorant of his own gender). Up until the reveal, the nature and intensity of their love is considered not outside the bounds of what would be normal between girls, and after his gender is revealed, their love is described as being the same as before...except now they can get married.
When men wrote of women having sexual relationships with each other (as in the memoirs of Casanova), the focus tended to be purely on genital activity and their bond is treated as ephemeral and eagerly abandoned for a man. When women wrote of women’s passionate friendships, they encompassed autonomy, economic independence, and a compete intimacy of the mind. But in summarizing this, Faderman overlooks the physical aspects of those relationships, erasing them from the equation, as if a relationship between women could either be genital or emotional, but not both.
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. Yet some later historians, interpreting such material, have asserted that these expressions of love were coded messages to a male relative of the recipient, though if no such male relative existed, a “morbid” explanation might be identified. The notion that these intense emotions might have been considered normal and acceptable in their time has been difficult for 20th century researchers to accept. [Though Faderman herself seems to find it hard to accept that the acceptance of Romantic Friendship could have overlapped with the presence of sexual activity in some set of those friendships.] Historians who studied correspondence of this type in isolation, while focused on a particular individual, often failed to understand the larger cultural context for it, and looked for particular and individual motivations.
The core elements used to express Romantic Friendship included “vows to love eternally, and to live and die together; wishes to elope together to sweet retirement; constant reassurances of the crucial, even central role these women played in each other’s lives.” In some cases, these desires were achieved, as with the most famous Romantic Friends of the late 18th century in the British Isles. Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were born into upper-class Irish families and were so devoted to each other that they eloped (disguised as men). It took a second elopement (after they were found and brought back home) before their families capitulated and left them alone. Their finances were dire, but they eventually secured pensions from the English Crown. The settled in Llangollen, Wales and became something of a pilgrimage site for the litterati, being visited by many notables of the day and inspiring a minor industry of poetry about them. Despite people using the language of marriage to refer to them (e.g., referring to one partner as “your better half”) their public image was of platonic, non-sexual partnership. Men praised them for their vituous purity; women envied their steadfast marriage resistance. Another factor in their acceptance by the public (in addition to their upper class origins) was their political and social conservatism.
It is worth noting that the belief in the “purity” of their love was not universal. The notorious (and homophobic, by modern standards) gossip Hester Thrale alternated between praising the “fair and noble recluses” and private diary entries (cited by Emma Donoghue) calling them "damned Sapphists." Faderman notes only Thrale’s general comments about “unspeakable sins” committed by some women with each other and considers those comments not to apply to the Ladies. Faderman doesn’t mention at all one of their visitors later in life: Anne Lister, who afterward wrote in her diary that she did not believe their relationship "purely platonic". Both these items undermine Faderman’s thesis that “their generally rigid, inhibited, and conventional views regarding undress and evidence of sexuality suggest that it is unlikely that as eighteenth-century women, educated in the ideal of female passionlessness, they would have sought genital expression if it were not to fulfill a marital duty.”
As evidence of their innocence, Faderman cites their reaction to an insinuating newspaper article that told how Ponsonby “was supposed to be the bar to all matrimonial union [for Butler]” and describes Butler as “tall and masculine...with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoats.” They contacted a lawyer thinking to sue for libel but were persuaded that doing so would only make them more notorious. Here we can once again make comparison with Anne Lister (whose diaries were not available to Faderman) who also looked into suing a newspaper that published references to her gender non-conformity. In Lister’s case, we have clear and direct evidence that this impulse did not stem from a “clean conscience” when it came to lesbian sexual activity.
Another relationship that is well-documented by correspondence and includes all the trappings of an intense romantic relationship is that between the intellectuals Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot. Though they never realized the goal of living together as Carter was tied to an invalid father and Talbot was an invalid herself, they deliberately chose not to marry men, despite opportunity.
Similarly Anna Seward declined many offers of marriage, ostensibly to care for her father, but researchers who attribute her life-long unmarried state to an early broken heart (on the basis of a few lines in much later correspondence) ignore the volumes of poetry and letters she wrote to Honora Sneyd, who had lived with the Sewards for fourteen years in her youth. Honora did marry--to Seward’s dismay and grief (and against her express desires)--and died before the two had any opportunity to share their lives, after which Seward mourned her extravagantly for the next thirty years until her own death.
Though these logistical separations and barriers often sparked expressions of anger and intense jealousy, Faderman returns again to her position that, “Anna seems so unguarded in her involvement with Honora, so entirely and guiltlessly public, it is difficult to believe that a woman reared in her conservative environment and continuing to be comfortable in it, would have been open about any nonmarital relationship that was sexual.”
[It has occurred to me, at this juncture, that one of Faderman’s blind spots is the assumption that the women involved in Romantic Friendships would automatically have equated sexual activity with women and the forbidden nonmarital sexual activity with men. An alternate explanation, of course, would be that the women saw no correspondence between the two spheres of activity. That--like the complacent viewpoints of male writers such as Brantôme--they saw a qualitative difference between genital activity with women (=harmless) and genital activity with men (=sinful). Faderman also seems unable to imagine women being able to dissemble and self-censor in their writings in the midst of these extreme passions. Or that Romantic Friends might not have viewed the presence/absence of genital activity as being a meaningful distinction in defining and understanding their relationships.]
Mary Wollstonecraft was on the rebound from her first Romantic Friendship when she fell in love with Fanny Blood and, after some tribulations, moved in with Fanny’s family and began a campaign to achieve her dream of extracting Fanny and their living together elsewhere--a dream that foundered on Fanny’s passive lack of dedication to the relationship. Wollstonecraft had relationships with men as well, naming her first child in memory of Fanny. As with other prominent women of letters whose lives featured Romantic Friendships, later academics took pains to invent or emphasize romances with men.
As we enter the 19th century, this chapter centers around the famous 1811 trial in which two schoolmistresses, Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, were accused by a student of lesbianism and successfully sued the student’s guardian, Dame Gordon, for libel. The focal point of the trial was the argument that proper English ladies simply were not capable of behavior of that sort, while the lawyers for Dame Gordon dug into history as far back as Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans to demonstrate the existence of the behavior that the two women were accused of.
One feature of the trial arguments that Faderman touches on is how the possibility of sex between women was displaced onto “foreign” women. The student who made the accusation (Dame Gordon’s granddaughter) was the out-of-wedlock child of an Indian mother, and suggestions were made that she was able to fabricate such a charge because women in places like India were more sexual and lascivious and the child had learned about things like lesbianism there.
But the main feature was the argument that decent women would not have the sexual drive necessary for sexual activity to take place in the absence of a man. The judge opined that the crime of which Woods and Pirie were accused did not exist--was not possible. Paradoxically, the romantic devotion of the two women to each other was offered as part of the evidence for their good character and virtue.
Their reputations were also protected by the vehemence with which the legal establishment chose to disbelieve in the possibility of lesbian sex, arguing, “a woman being in bed with a woman cannot even give a probability to such an inference [of unnatural intentions]. It is the order of nature and of society in its present state. If a woman embraces a woman it infers nothing.” This was contrasted in the legal arguments with the acknowledgment that sex between men was not only possible but could reasonably be suspected if the men showed similar signs of affection.
This determined denial of possibilities is present in a French example, also of the early 19th century, where the writer Flora Tristan wrote to her friend Olympe that she wanted a woman to love her passionately. Olympe wrote Flora in turn that she made her “shiver with pleasure” and put her in ecstasy, and yet their writing appears to indicate that they did not consider these experiences to constitute sexual passion. Faderman concludes, “if a cosmopolitan Frenchwoman...could ignore her own sensations...we may be sure that the general public had no conception of the potentials of love between women.” [The problem with this conclusion, of course, is that it can be demonstrated to be false. One hesitates to keep returning endlessly to the example of Anne Lister, but she managed to find an entire diffuse community of women in rural Yorkshire who managed to have a “conception of the potentials of love between women.” Faderman is taking an official public myth and presenting it as a description of objective reality.]
At the end of this chapter, Faderman jumps to the very end of the 19th century and presents examples of a medicalized view of lesbian sex as “morbid” and due to mental perversion, as well as an example from a novel of two women in love falling asleep “in the silent ardor of deep blissful joy” in each other’s arms, after having rejected “the impure advances of sapphists.” These bookend examples are meant to show that the entire 19th century in England was one where “decent women” were functionally asexual, where they simply could not conceive of sexual activity being present in a loving relationship. [It might, perhaps, be a little more accurate to describe it that such women re-defined any erotic activities they enjoyed as not being sex, just as the judges in the Woods and Pirie case repeated the theory that sex cannot exist without a penis. But I think there’s an important distinction to be made between women in Romantic Friendships not labeling experiences as being erotic and those women not experiencing erotic desire.]
Faderman examines the relationship between the “Cult of True Womanhood” -- i.e., the public myth-making around women’s proper role in society as the keepers of moral and spiritual values -- and the continuing focus on women’s emotional attachments to each other. As the 19th century progressed and women began to push against the limitations of this myth, they found their strongest supporters and allies in other women.
The sexes were considered almost as different species in terms of their natures, abilities, and even biology. In some American literature, the anxiety around sexual activity extended from a concern for its debilitating effects on women to considering it to be hazardous to the health of men as well. Women were expected to be so naive and ignorant about sexual matters that marital relations were expected to be a major trauma, and a woman who showed too much interest in sex, even within marriage, was morally suspect.
For middle and upper class women, the majority of their lives involved separation from men, both in the public and private sphere. Within this context, the only socially acceptable way to experience and express deep emotion was within relationships with other women. Faderman here presents excerpts from the correspondence of a number of women expressing passionate feelings for each other and focusing on descriptions of it as “pure” and “unprofaned”. [I’ve skipped citing specific publications and individuals for the most part, unless there is a more direct relevance to the themes of the Project.]
In America, one external event further strengthened the importance of women’s friendships in the later 19th century: the heavy mortality of men during the Civil War. The “surplus women” were encouraged to find solace in each other when marriage became less available as a life path. The rhetoric around female friendships in England was quite similar in the 19th century to what had been seen in the 18th, with men viewing it as harmless and unlikely to present a barrier to marriage.
Sometimes when there was a disparity of feeling between female friends we get glimpses of the depths of feeling involved. Writer and reformer Edith Simcox expressed her devotion to George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in strong terms: “my Darling, lover-wise” speaking of kissing her over and over again murmuring “broken words of love”. But we hear of this, in part, due to Simcox’s frustration that Eliot returned only a more intellectual friendship. In many similar friendships, such as that between Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Welsh Carlyle (the wife of historian Thomas Carlyle), support from a close female friend was the only encouragement an intellectual woman might receive for her own work, as husbands rarely encouraged their wives to be their colleagues (or rivals).
As the end of the century approached, there was a growing frustration among intellectual women that marriage itself was a chain to be cast off in order to fulfil their potential. Examples of such independent women appear in novels such as Florence Converse’s Diana Victrix (1897), and as in that novel, these women typically achieved success with the support of a female companion. Men, both in life and in fiction, are often at a loss when confronted with their apparent irrelevance. These are the “New Women” who will feature in the next chapter.
Novels, up through the end of the century, could still depict women in relatively sensual physical relationships, as in the description of two sisters kissing and embracing in bed together in Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market”. Only a few decades later, even much more subdued physical affection would attract censorship. In this context, Faderman discusses the beginnings of sexology in the late 19th century, contrasted with professional opinions even into the early 20th century that there could be no clear dividing line between friendship and love, but rather a continuum of emotional and intellectual passions. What was it, then, that tipped the balance and made intense female friendship suspect of being “deviant”?
Faderman concludes the chapter by examining the topic that first inspired this book: the drastic shift in attitudes that must have occurred between the period in the 1850s when Emily Dickinson could write letters to her future sister-in-law Sue Gilbert saying things like, “If you were here--and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language” or “I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you--that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast” and the period in the 1920s when Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Sue Gilbert’s daughter, felt the need to excise those passages when editing the correspondence for publication, leaving only more subdued expressions of affection. Clearly something changed, but what?
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 the mid 19th century, these ideas began to be put into practice with the opening of higher education to women (though sometimes it was necessary to create entire new institutions to do so, such as Mt. Holyoke College in America. By the late 19th century, one third of college students in the USA were women and most major European countries had at least some colleges that admitted women.
Some of the rise in feminism can be attributed directly to the gender-segregation of middle- and upper-class society which brought women together to discuss their concerns and grievances. But two other forces also drove it. One was the increasing industrialization of the economy, which affected women’s ability to support themselves as small private businesses were forced out of the market by large-scale industries that were highly sex-segregated in employment. Related to this was the focus among middle- and upper-class reformers on bettering the position of less fortunate women and creating wider opportunities for them. [I confess that the current critique of “white feminism” comes to mind as I read this--the image of relatively well-off white women swooping in to set up charities to better the lives of the virtuous impoverished.]
Organizations to promote women’s suffrage emerged in the USA, England, and France, although they had a long struggle to success. Demographics were a significant driver of feminism. Women significantly outnumbered men in both Europe and America either generally (in part due to wars) or locally (due to the differential migration of men to industrial centers and to colonial expansion movements. [OK, Faderman doesn’t say “colonial expansion”, that’s my phrasing.] This meant that many women who had been socialized to rely on marriage as a life path now found themselves needing to be self-supporting and yet cut off from both many of the traditional jobs for women (that had disappeared) and from the better-paying jobs created by the new economy.
Middle-class women began expanding their presence in intellectual and clerical work, such as teaching and office work, and found themselves agitating for equal pay in workplaces where they might earn one half to one tenth that of a man doing the same work. At the same time, we see the rise of what now are termed “pink collar” professions--jobs that were opened to women specifically because women had been socialized to accept limited working conditions for poor pay. At a more restricted level, women began demanding access to, and recognition at, professional careers such as medicine and academia.
When one surveys the women who did pursue advanced and professional studies, the vast majority never married. Cause and effect were tangled: a married woman would have less freedom to pursue such interests, as well as being subject to the time demands of motherhood. But also, women who had such ambitions may have recognized that marriage would be a distraction and roadblock. In contrast, many professional women did have close, supportive, long-term relationships with other women. Historical studies of the life-patterns of early feminists identify some clear prototypes: an only or oldest child whose father was supportive of her education and was the primary parental bond, and often a sense from the woman that she was serving as a substitute for the son her father would have preferred. This model for the “New Woman” matches fairly closely the stereotype later identified by psychoanalysts as a “cause” of lesbianism. Faderman speculates on cause and effect: was it that women who were attracted to other women responded more strongly to the opportunities of this sort of upbringing? Or did such an upbringing make the rejection of marriage and the expression of desire for women more attractive? Faderman notes, “Whether, as an independent, ambitious nineteenth-century woman, she began as a lesbian or as a feminist, it was very possible that she would end as both.”
This, then, suggests a context in which society turned from appreciation of close friendships between women to anxiety about them. And that anxiety was sometimes expressed as a perception that these close friendships were a new development, rather than a minor shift in a cultural practice that had existed for centuries.
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. Similarly to those earlier female partnerships, the phenomenon was associated with intellectual women who often were social reformers. [Though one wonders whether there’s some selection bias in which partnerships left clear records by which they could be identified.]
Faderman is now willing to grant the possibility that some of these relationships included sexual relations, though it’s more an absence of her previous negative assumptions. (“Whether these unions sometimes or often included sex we will never know.”) She gives no specific argument for this change in evaluation, any more than she gave clear arguments for why earlier partnerships were assumed to be sexless.
Literary examples of Boston marriages, such as Henry James’s The Bostonians (1885) might touch on the competition between a female partnership and the opportunity for marriage to a man, though the male lead in The Bostonians “wins” by brute force and the woman that he wrenches away from her “Boston marriage” is clearly depicted as falling into tragedy. Whatever James intended to portray with the novel, 20th century critics later interpreted the female couple as lesbians and “perverse” and the heterosexual resolution to be preferable, even if the female partner is miserable in it. Henry James may have been inspired in his depiction of the women by his sister Alice’s close relationship with Katherine Loring--though they were never able to achieve a separate household together, due to Loring’s family commitments.
A more prototypical Boston marriage was that between the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields which spanned the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. And here we can see the shift in attitudes towards such partnerships, for when Fields planned to publish a volume of Jewett’s letters after her death, she was urged to drastically edit the expressions of affection they contained, for fear of “all sorts of people reading them wrong.”
The last example in this chapter moves all the way into self-conscious denial. Author Willa Cather shared her life for forty years with Edith Lewis, but her fiction is devoid of loving supportive female friends, and the characters who are most thought to represent self-insertions of the author appear as men in her fiction. Cather was part of Jewett and Fields’s social circle but was born a quarter century later. Thus we see a chronology of the effects of this shift in attitude, though not yet the causes.
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. So is isn’t surprising that many such “new women” turned to other women for companionship and to provide the everyday support functions that a man could automatically expect from marriage. And in informal writings, it wasn’t uncommon for some professional women to refer to such a companion as a “wife”, and even to refer to themselves jokingly as a “husband”.
Some couples had a fairly egalitarian arrangement, and might collaborate on their intellectual endeavors. Several examples of such couples are offered, such as Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (who used the pen name Michael Field for their collaborations). [As we move into these discussions of turn-of-the-century literati, a great deal of the chapters concerns details of their lives and careers and quotations of their work. It's clear that we've reached the era of Faderman's greatest familiarity and expertise.] Examples of partnerships where the energy of both partners went to support one career--more like a traditional husband/wife arrangement--included novelist Marie Corelli, writer Alice French (writing as Octave Thanet), and French artist Rosa Bonheur. Author Louisa May Alcott never seems to have entered into any such relationship herself (though she never married) but she wrote of supportive partnerships between women in a number of her works, and also of how entering into heterosexual marriage would distract a creative woman from her career. Actress Charlotte Cushman is given as another example of a woman who entered into both equal and supportive partnerships with women.
Academic women in this era had a very practical reason for avoiding marriage: in many cases their teaching contracts required them to remain unmarried. But “bluestocking” women had long had a reputation for forming close friendships within their own circles. The example is given of the German women Bettine von Arnim and Caroline von Günderode. Similarly the American academics Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks. These women saw their sort of partnership come under suspicion, and there is a painful transition as they sometimes try to distance themselves from the very structures that had supported their own careers, as when Jeannette Marks wrote a pamphlet on “Unwise College Friendships” for the students of the all-female Mt. Holyoke College. [This sort of self-hating behavior is noted in a number of early 20th century women, so it’s odd that Faderman fails to suspect that a similar internal contradiction might have explained the absence of self-examination among Romantic Friends who publicly denied the possibility of women’s sexuality.)
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.
Feminism and the cultivation of women’s brains was felt to be physically debilitating as well as morally suspect. Satire and caricature were employed as well as argumentation. There was a horror not only that women were becoming more like men, but that men were being “tamed down” to being like women. [These reactions echo the same gender anxieties that produced all manner of polemic tracts in the 17th century, but Faderman doesn’t comment on this cyclic nature.]
Anti-feminist anxiety rose in parallel with the actual gains women made in breaking out of traditional roles. One particular anxiety was that the “New Women” would have no need for men at all and no reason to marry. Faderman still maintains that women were sufficiently brainwashed by the myth that women had no sex drive that the desire for sexual relations with men would not be sufficient attraction to marriage. And the desire for loving companionship could just as easily be fulfilled by other liberated women.
This, then, is the turning point in public attitudes towards women’s friendships: when they have the potential to disrupt the social fabric on a large scale. By this argument, it wasn’t the friendships themselves that were felt to be dangerous, but the greater social freedom women were achieving that eroded the need for marriage on economic and social grounds. If the only remaining motivation women might have for turning to men was the desire for romantic companionship, then any competition for that desire must be suppressed.
And only now (according to Faderman) did an awareness of the possibility of sex between women become widespread, through media such as sensational French novels and decadent poetry. These ideas prompted anxiety, but it took the contributions of the medical profession, as we’ll see in the next chapter, to provide a weapon for addressing those anxieties.
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.
As Faderman points out, these were psychiatrists whose case studies came from individuals who had entered treatment due to serious emotional or behavioral problems. The psychiatrists blamed those problems on the women’s rejection of traditional feminine behavior and on their erotic interest in women (although the former was considered to lead to the latter, even when it wasn’t already present). What they didn’t do, of course, was to study the lives and experiences of gender non-conforming or homoerotic women who were not emotionally disturbed. Ellis paid lip service to recognizing that many people were homosexual without any sort of morbid symptoms, but as his writings only dealt in the specifics of disturbed individuals, this was not the message his work left in the reader’s mind.
The general picture presented by these writers was that homosexuality was congenital, that it manifested in taking on masculine behaviors (including clothing preferences), and that within a female couple, only the one exhibiting these symptoms was the “true invert”--the other was merely confused and responding to the masculine presentation of her partner. Sexual activity, as such, was not a requirement for a diagnosis of homosexuality, though it was an unmistakable confirmation. Therefore the effusive emotional expressions between Romantic Friends that had previously found approval, now were seen as symptoms of “inversion” if one of the pair could in any way be found to have a “masculine” presentation (which could include such things as a love of active sports or seeking a profession outside the home).
The sexologists began digging up historical cases of passing women from criminal legal records to expand and confirm their theories. They identified “crushes” between girls at gender-segregated schools as simultaneously harmless and a morbid symptom if the girl then went on to continue close friendships with women after school. A great many logical contortions were gone through to counter the inherent contradictions in their bodies of evidence.
Ironically, this creation of the “true congenital lesbian” gave some women a basis for embracing this identity and claiming a right to live their lives openly.
This chapter would seem to undermine one of Faderman’s key themes: that people (especially, but not solely) women were completely in ignorance of the possibility of women engaging in sex together (however narrowly she is defining “sex”) until the writings of the sexologists educated them on those possibilities. Only then did women who had been convinced by their upbringings that they didn’t feel sexual desire suddenly begin engaging in genital sexual activity.
Havelock Ellis, in his “Sexual Inversion in Women” noted a catalog of examples of lesbianism in life and literature (making little distinction between the two categories), drawn primarily from France. These included Diderot’s The Nun (1796), Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835), Zola’s Nana (1880), Belot’s Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (1891) and other works by a variety of 19th century authors. These sensational and decadent stories--written entirely by men--become incorporated into his understanding of sexuality between women.
The rise of French novels about sexual love between women came hard on the heels of the rise of a feminist movement in early 19th century France. The trope of a transvestite lesbian, it is suggested, became popular due to notable real life individuals such as George Sand, in the 1830s. There were rumors about the nature of Sand’s relationships with women (although her famous lovers were men), perhaps inspired by the depiction of desire between women in her novel Lélia.
But apart from individual inspirations, French literature in the 1830s and later followed the war-cry “épater le bourgeois” (roughly: shock middle-class sensibilities). An entire genre of “decadent” literature emerged, often featuring sexually ambiguous or overtly lesbian characters, such as Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). This literature eschewed the egalitarian, devoted love of Romantic Friends and focused specifically on the sexual, and often on violent power differentials and seductions.
In discussing the themes of these works, Faderman notes 18th century literary depictions of sex between women, as in L’Espion Anglois (1777). [A number of other 18th century works could have been included. But I repeat my point that the existence of these works undermine the position that the idea of lesbian sex was entirely inconceivable until the late 19th century.]
Baudelaire’s 1857 collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal was originally titled Les Lesbiennes giving an explicit name to the nature of the “shocking” themes he used to gain notoriety. This literary movement, Faderman notes, was in direct reaction to the stuffy puritanism of the “Victorian” middle-class (in both England and France). And though they came later to the movement, English writers took it up, such as Swinburne’s Lesbia Brandon (1877). The title character of that work might be a prototype for the sexologists’ “congenital invert”: her father wanted a boy and gave her a boy’s education and training but, having fallen in love with a woman, she descends into alcohol and opium addiction and dies.
Pierre Loüys’s Songs of Bilitis (1894), though overtly inspired by the love poetry of Sappho, follows the decadent movement in focusing specifically in sexual activity, describing Sappho in “mannish” terms.
The narrow focus on sexual encounters and tragic fates seems to be entirely a creation of male writers. When we have glimpses into the attitudes and lives of women who provide evidence of including physical eroticism in the romantic relationships--such as the poet-actress Adah Isaacs Menken, a friend of George Sand--there is an equal emphasis on tender devotion along with the erotics.
Faderman concludes the chapter by projecting her conclusions onto the women engaged in Romantic Friendship, claiming, “Charlotte Cushman and Emma Stebbins, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, Edith Somerville and Violet Martin...had they read the works of the nineteenth-century aesthete-decadents which purported to describe love between women, ...would have thought those females as strange and terrifying as they were to their creators and heterosexual readers, since the characters of those poems and novels had absolutely nothing to do with their lives and loves.” Once again, my issue is not with whether this position is historically true for these specific women, but the confidence with which Faderman states it with no evidence presented other than her own opinion. It would be one thing if specific women who embraced Romantic Friendship wrote about their reactions to decadent lesbian themes in literature, but that isn’t what’s being said here. And “had they read” moves the goalposts from the position that these women couldn’t even conceive of sexual activity between women because they hadn’t ever been exposed to the concept.
Note: samples of many of the authors mentioned here can be found in Terry Castle’s The Literature of Lesbianism.
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. Coleridge’s poem “Christabel” (published unfinished in 1816) was declared obscene for these overtones, but although modern readers tend to see clear lesbian themes, some contemporary reviewers assumed that the antagonist was meant to be a man in disguise, and thus that the obscene content was the seduction of Christabel’s father by the antagonist, rather than the seduction of Christabel herself. [The ambiguity allows for this and speaks to one of Faderman's themes: that there are shifts over time in what sorts of sexual possibilities can be imagined, given the same external evidence.]
Most “evil lesbian” works appeared later in the 19th century and were clearly influenced by the aesthetic writers. Belot’s Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (1891) is given as a typical example. The point of view character comments on the French casual acceptance of lesbianism compared to the greater concern showed by Germans. In the story, A young married woman refuses to have sexual relations with her her husband (the protagonist) because she is sexually enthralled by a passionate friendship with a woman she’s been involved with since their school days. The narrator resolves this problem by killing his wife’s female lover, but the wife dies of a brain fever cause by excessive sexual activity.
Faderman notes that “in France, innocence regarding love between women was virtually at an end by this time” though such “innocence” persisted in England and the America for a while yet. [The cyclic nature of “innocence” regarding the possibility of sexual relations between women is not noticed. French texts of the 16-17th century were quite aware of those possibilities.] Belot’s position was that schoolgirl romances led inevitably to lesbianism, while writers in America contemporary to him were still praising school friendships as a noble ideal. This attitude persisted among some American writers as late as the 1920s.
Belot’s novel provides archetypes of the decadent “lesbian love-nest”, with its black and crimson decor, draperies that shut out the light, and bookshelves stocked with well-known lesbian-themed novels. Although Belot claimed his writing to have a moral purpose--to bring this danger out into the open and to attack the very concept of Romantic Friendship--it’s clear that his work was driven by fascination and hatred and the desire for sensationalism. Belot’s protagonist describes lesbianism as a “new vice” [a claim made repeatedly over the centuries, though Faderman seems unaware of this cyclicity] that must be countered by “a man strong enough or with enough authority” to rescue the innocent partner from the lesbian’s clutches.
The term “vice” was generally popular in sensational literature of all types in this era in France, but the specific association of lesbians with vice and evil appears regularly in French literature for the next several decades. It is speculated that one motivation for the focus on lesbianism was the falling French birthrate and anxiety about the French population being overwhelmed by foreigners.
Another regular theme in French literature of the 1880s and 1890s that uses lesbian motifs is the association of lesbians with prostitution. Faderman suggests that this might be grounded in the exposure of the (male) writers to real-life lesbian relations primarily in the context of the demi-monde, where prostitutes turned to other women as an escape from the brutality of their professional interactions with men. This demi-monde shows up in novels such as Zola’s Nana (1880). Yet another trope popular at this time is the idea of organized “cults” of lesbians, such as are seen in Guy de Maupassant’s “Paul’s Mistress” (1881), but where the practices of these supposed cults are clearly drawn from male-authored lesbian literature itself. [Compare also the accusations of organized cults of lesbians in late 18th century France, such as the Anandrine Sect.] One feature of these literary lesbians is that only the “active” partner is considered a true lesbian--and is portrayed as masculine in nature and physically ugly--but they are mysteriously attractive to “normal” women. The title character of “Paul’s Mistress” commits suicide when his lover deserts him for one of these groups of lesbians, and as he is drowning his last vision is of his mistress in the arms of a woman “as though she had found a refuge in a closer and more certain affection, more familiar and more confiding.” This description is quite similar to those found in positive portrayals of Romantic Friends but here the context turns it sinister.
If the violence, jealousies, and disfunctionality of lesbian relationships in such literature was, indeed, drawn from observations of the demi-monde, then the same conclusions about evil and vice could also be made about the heterosexual relations in that part of society, but there was no similar movement among sensational authors to treat those as universal, just as there was little recognition among psychiatrists that the disfunctions they saw among their lesbian patients were found equally among heterosexual patients.
The middle and upper-class lesbians of late 19th century France such as Rosa Bonheur and Nathalie Micas lived lives that had no resemblance at all to the lesbians in sensational literature, but their type of lives weren’t reflected in the fiction of the time.
Accusations of lesbianism became a weapon for misogynists who saw any personal rejection by a woman as evidence for that woman’s sexual proclivities. August Strindberg’s A Madman’s Manifesto (1887) was basically a screed against his first wife’s feminist tendencies and desire to continue her professional activity, couched in over-the-top accusations of sexual activity with a wide variety of women in all manner of circumstances--activity that Strindberg claimed to have personally witnessed by spying on his wife over several years. Although his wife acknowledged having close passionate friendships with women, she didn’t consider them problematic and described them using the traditional language of Romantic Friendship.
The motif of the evil lesbian appears outside France in examples like Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire story “Carmilla” (1872), which uses a subtle parody of romantic friendship themes, interspersed with the tropes of French sensational novels. Some modern critics question whether LeFanu understood that his story was referencing lesbianism in particular (though from a modern viewpoint the equation appears obvious). Another non-French writer who inserted sinister themes into a story of passionate friendship is George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin (1886). The monstrosity of the lesbian character is symbolized by physical deformity, as well as being expressed in general antipathy toward men and love for women. Her orientation is explained as being congenital, caused by her mother’s hatred for sexual activity with her father. In contrast to positive or neutral depictions of passionate friendship, her beloved is shown as being uncomfortable with her expressions of love, and this anxiety is depicted as normal and expected. The protagonist eventually accepts being rebuffed and goes into a convent. The sentiments she expresses would have been unremarkable and framed positively in other works of the same era that still took a positive approach toward women’s friendships.
In America, anxiety about love between women starts appearing occasionally in the 1890s at a time when translations of the French decadent writers begin appearing. Doctors begin repeating second and third-hand accounts of lesbian orgies, whose details are modeled after the decadent writers. The sensationalized murder in 1892 of Freda Ward by her female lover “to make it sure that no one else could get her” was treated as proof that the sexologists were right about the inherent pathology of lesbianism. In 1893 an American doctor could write about how “morbid sexual love” between women started among schoolgirls. But it took a while for these ideas to dominate the discourse. In real life, 19th century America had a tradition of being accepting of cross-dressing and passing women, even when overtly connected with feminist sentiments. But in the 1890s Romantic Friendships began to be framed in fiction as morbid, connecting lesbianism with murder and portraying lesbian villains as assertive, feminist, intellectual and sophisticated. Yet at the same time, novels such as Diana Victrix (1897) could still present female romantic partnerships in a neutral or positive light.
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. [But see also English literature of the 17-18th centuries which portrayed lesbianism through an anti-Catholic lens.] The geographic distance of America from the (German) centers of sexology probably slowed diffusion of those ideas. And American ideals of individualism may have contributed to less hostility to women’s social freedoms.
In spite of this, there are scattered examples in late 19th century America of generally anti-sex writing, including cautions against situations that might lead to masturbation or sexual activity between girls. But as a more general social reaction, suspicion of close romantic friendships between women didn’t come to prominence until the wake of World War I, accompanied by much greater female autonomy and the influence of Freud both on psychiatric thought and on popular culture.
The transition from “innocence” to suspicion of passionate friendships can be traced fairly precisely in published works. In the 1928 novel We Sing Diana by Wanda Fraiken Neff, the protagonist contrasts her experiences at college in 1913, when “crushes” between girls were widespread and considered normal, and the 1920s when she returns there to teach and finds everyone talking about Freud and assuming the stereotype of the “masculine” lesbian. A similar comparison can be made between two autobiographical publications by Mary MacLane, written in 1902 and 1917 that show the same shift. From these examples, it can be seen that the change was not in what women were feeling and doing, but in how they had been taught to understand those feelings and actions. In the later publication, MacLane admits to having kissed lesbians but is quick to assure the reader that she isn’t one herself.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the New Women were engaging in new opportunities while still holding on to old attitudes toward Romantic Friendship. Stories about college romances between women are common, and the gender-segregation of colleges encouraged these friendships to have the trappings of courtship and dating, via activities such as all-women dances. The expectation is that the women engaged in these “crushes” will move on to heterosexual marriage after graduation.
The unselfconscious publication of stories involving women in passionate friendships may have been enabled, Faderman suggests, by the relative “unsophistication” of American readers. (I.e., presumably this means they weren’t reading decadent French novels.) Many specific examples of such stories are given. [I wonder if anyone has ever considered collecting an anthology of the genre.]
Stories of passionate friendships between adult women often portrayed one or both as artists or in professions that “explained” their single state. These positive portrayals were written by both female and male authors.
By the 1920s, this unselfconsciousness disappears. Positive treatments as in the works of Gertrude Stein are now veiled in stylized poetic language and allusions. Alternately, the women’s friendship may be displaced elsewhere in time and space, as in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s play “The Lamp and the Bell” (1921). [This is an interesting parallel to the continuing theme over the centuries that lesbianism existed in a different place and time than the writer’s. Only now it is the “innocent” version of the relationship that is displaced.] There is something of a generational divide, with women raised in an earlier age still writing positively of Romantic Friendships.
The younger generation cannot ignore the potential implications. Vera Britain, writing in 1940, acknowledges the suspicions of sexual impropriety cast on the Romantic Friendship of her characters and tries to deflect suspicion with the argument of “it’s just preparation for being a good wife and mother.” This conflict of models can also be seen in debates of the possible sexual content of the friendship between Eleanor Rooseveldt and Lorena Hickok. Hickok had a history of (presumably sexual) relationships with women, but some have argued that the strongly passionate correspondence between them belongs to the earlier tradition of platonic Romantic Friendship and nothing more. [I always have a hard time around discussions of this sort because I keep thinking, why should it matter? Why would one particular set of expressions of desire turn a “beautiful friendship” into something to be ashamed of? But then, I’m a product of my own age.]
The attitude of sexologists of the 20th century was that the sex drive was the most important and central determiner of human behavior in both men and women, and this understanding was then projected retroactively to all of history. This made it difficult for women to experience love for other women without feeling the weight of social disapproval, although anecdotes can be found into the 1970s of girls experiencing same-sex love and affection “innocently” until encountering sex ed literature that assured them they were depraved and sick.
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.
Broad surveys showed that romantic and sexual relationships between women were statistically “normal” and not correlated with pathology, but the medical approach now considered all such relationships unhealthy. Freudian language and concepts became part of everyday conversation.
There were stirrings of homosexual activism in Europe, mostly by men, who latched onto the idea that their desires were “inborn” but rejected the idea that those desires were a “defect”. Some popular fiction took up the themes of “no-fault homosexuality”, sometimes urging pity for homosexuals, sometimes rejecting any sort of negative framing. Those medical theories that attributed homosexuality to “nature” rather than “nurture” provided ammunition for those who agitated for acceptance. This position countered the charges that homosexuality constituted immorality.
Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) fell in the “pity and acceptance” category. Its themes of “congenital inversion” and the framing of a same-sex couple as composed of a lesbian and a “normal” partner aligned in some ways with a transgender framing. [This echoes, in some ways, earlier medieval theories that one could determine true gender based on the object of desire. I.e., that anyone who desired a woman was inherently masculine.] There is a long discussion of the themes and implications in Hall’s novel. The Well of Loneliness, despite its publication difficulties, became a significant influence on lesbian self-perception, given the scarcity of other models written by lesbians. (As opposed to the “decadent” male-authored novels.)
There was a strong contrast between the “official” psychological framing of same-sex love and the broad-based case studies of women in such relationships when the selection of examples was not driven by medical or emotional problems. In the 1920s and 1930s, some studies found that 50% of all women had experienced intense emotional feelings for other women, and half of those had recognized those feelings as sexual. Surveys of lesbians that were not biased by physical or psychological problems found them on average to be more educated and better employed than heterosexual women.
The 1920s and later decades brought a general increase in sexual freedom (outside marriage). Self-reporting by lesbians concerning their relationships show a wide range of degrees of sexual interest, although the popular view assumed that sexual activity was the primary defining factor in their relationships. Jumping ahead to a 1978 survey, it found that women in lesbian relationships valued romance, affection, hugging, and kissing, and didn’t consider “sex acts” as the focal point of their relationship. [One wonders, given this description, what would distinguish these relationships from Romantic Friendship in terms of desires and behaviors.]
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.
Satire and caricature were major tools of the backlash, depicting independent and/or feminist women as agressive, ugly man-haters who are destined to be lonely old maids. Only abandoning their ideals for a traditional role of wife and mother can redeem them. The strongest tool was to depict independent/feminist women as “mannish” and on the road to lesbianism.
The 20th century saw several cycles of increased freedom--often associated with the economic and demographic disruptions of war--followed by social attempts to retrun women to traditional roles by stigmatizing the most assertive movements as unwomanly and deviant. In the 1970s, this tactic intersected with the “Gay Liberation” movement which undermined some of its success.
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.
The “vampiric” lesbian became established as a trope, joining with the predatory schoolmistress motif in Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women (1915). Although Faderman identifies the central character as a “vampire” it isn’t clear to me from the discussion that this is meant in the sense of literally drinking blook, rather than simply causing a physical decline in her “victim”. Faderman explains “it is not the victim’s blood that the villain lives on but her youth and energy” although in another novel mentioned in this category (White Ladies by Francis Brett Young, 1935) the word vampire is used by a character for describing this psychic effect.
In addition to the lesbian schoolmistress, scholarly and academic women come in for identification as predatory lesbians. Depictions of close, emotional, dependent friendships between women are given a sinister sexual spin in works such as Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death (1927) [Sayers also invokes the “lesbian academic” trope in Gaudy Night but there it is challenged and countered by the character Harriet Vane], G. Sheila Donisthorpe’s Loveliest of Friends 1931), of Edouard Bourdet’s play La Prisonnière (1926). These stories typically involve an older, dominant, often ugly lesbian who seduces a younger, pretty, “normal” woman who may or may not be “rescued” by a male character by the end of the story.
Some anti-lesbian literature of this era purports to present “true case history” type stories, such as D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox (1922) in which the male protagonist considers the breaking up of a female couple to be something of a masculine biological imperative, likened to hunting down prey, with marriage to the more feminine of the two little more than an excuse. Perhaps more pointedly, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women (1928) satirizes and ficionalizes a real-life circle of upper-class lesbians living on the island of Capri, whose models included Natalie Barney, Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge, Romaine Brooks and, others.
The “mannish lesbian” became a stock figure of genre novels by popular authors such as Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. And with the rise of the paperback novel, the “lesbian pulp” genre emerged, no longer veiling their characters’ sexuality with allusions, and following a contractually-required plot formula that punished lesbianism with tragedy, loneliness, or death. But out of the pulps, eventually a different type of lesbian literature emerged.
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.
Even those women authors who were known publicly to some degree as lesbian or bisexual often employed the same tropes of aesthetic decadence as male writers. Nathalie Barney, Renée Vivien, Djuna Barnes, and Anaïs Nin fall in this category, writing of intense, desperate, doomed passions. More rarely, writers such as Colette evoke an older romantic sensibility: “What woman would not blush to seek out her amie only for sensual pleasure? In no way is it passion that fosters the devotion of two women, but rather a feeling of kinship.” But her work also employed imagery of a sexual underworld.
The biographies of women like Vita Sackville-West show how the pressure to enter into heterosexual marriages combined with the lack of strongly positive models for relationships between women often led to confusion and self-hatred when the inherent contradictions couldn’t be resolved.
Supportive social circles were most possible within the dense population of urban centers such as New York and London, and the literature produced for internal consumption within these circles, such as Barnes’ Ladies Almanack, reflects a less tragic and more realistic view of lesbian communities. Natalie Barney’s salons in Paris were an open gathering place for a large circle of lesbians, including prominent writers and artists, to the point where the men who attended the salons made snide digs about it in their own writing. And--perhaps fulfilling the fears of contemporary men--her love for women was inextricably linked with her feminism and her support for the careers of women writers.
The lives of less prominent lesbians of this era are harder to trace unless they left some autobiographical record, though Faderman presents a number of speculations on what they must have thought and felt about their desires.
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. Conversely, lesbians had strong reasons to support a movement freeing women from the expectation that their social, political, and economic lives required connection to a man.
The sexual revolution of the 1950s and 1960s began eroding at the stigma of non-normative sexuality in general. Organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis and its newletter The Ladder that had originally organized as social support moved into activism and began attacking expectations that their members should consider themselves psychologically ill or that they should live lives of apology and guilt. Similar organizations and publications arose in France and Germany around the same time.
In 1970, The Ladder announced a policy shift that fully embraced feminist solidarity: rather than seeking to achieve for lesbians the same rights that striaght women had, their goal was to achieve for all women the rights that human beings should have. [Those goals were limited in some ways by the same limitations that prominent feminist organizations of the time had: they were founded by otherwise politically-moderate middle-class white women and prioritized solving the problems that they, themselves encountered.] Another way in which the two movements overlapped was in the “political lesbian”, i.e., feminists who felt that it was--at that time--impossible to live a life of true equality while in intimate relationships with men.
Overlapping concerns, however, did not prevent a wide variety of political fractures and realignments within the two general movements. But here I’m going to skip the detailed history of feminist/lesbian politics in the 1970s. It’s well outside the scope of the current project and is probably better studied from more politically-oriented sources. Suffice it to say that, in some ways, the merging of lesbian and feminist communities and interests re-invented the concept of “romantic friendship” in the sense of women whose primary emotional and romantic bond was with each other, whether or not it was also inspired by gender-directed sexual desire.
This chapter surveys positive lesbian literature of the 20th century and the circumstances that allowed for its publication at various times, including a lot of ambiguity. This is well outside the scope of the LHMP and involves a great many literature citations. I’ll just note that there’s a lot of material there for those who want to see what else was available besides the depressing stuff. [It feels like the book has lost some of its through-line in the 20th century chapters. The general theme of the place of passtionate female friendships pops up now and then, but the content has largely moved from “literature as a source of information about social attitudes” to “literature survey for its own sake.”]
This is a very brief chapter, summing up the book’s overall thesis. “Passionate romantic friendship between women was a widely recognized, tolerated social institution before our century. Women were, in fact, expected to seek out kindred spirits and form strong bonds. ... It was not unusual for a woman to seek in her romantic friendship the center of her life, quite apart from the demands of marriage and family if not in lieu of them. When women’s role in society began to change, however...society’s view of romantic friendship changed. Love between women--relationships which were emotionally in no way different from the romantic friendships of earlier eras--became evil or morbid. ... Many of the relationships that [men] condemned had little to do with sexual expression. It was rather that love between women, coupled with their emerging freedom, might conceivably bring about the overthrow of heterosexuality.... In the sophisticated twentieth century women who chose to love women could no longer see themselves as romantic friends.... They became as confused and tormented as they were supposed to be. But it was only during this brief era in history [i.e., the 20th century] that tragedy and sickness were so strongly attributed to (and probably for that reason so frequently found in) love between women. This changed with the rise of the second wave of feminism.”
That’s probably a good overall summary of the book’s conclusions. There is further discussion of some of the complexities and conflicts of modern (i.e., 1980s) lesbian feminism. Touching on the place of sex within romantic friendships, “While romantic friends had considerable latitude in their show of physical affection toward each other, it is probable that, in an era when women were not supposed to be sexual, the sexual possibilities of their relationship were seldom entertained.” And then a discussion of the variable place of sexual desire and activity within “political lesbianism” and a nod to the continuing importance of not definining lesbian relationships solely by the presence or absence of sexual activity.
Faderman concludes with an idealistic look to a future when the erasure of sexism and prejudice against same-sex relationships leaves everyone free to enter into the relationships they desire without having to weigh the social, political, and economic consequences at all.