Gay History and Literature: Essays by Rictor Norton  

The Nature of Lesbian History


Should lesbian history and gay male history be separately considered? Male homosexuality and lesbianism are completely unrelated in Chinese eyes, and this seems to be the view of some modern queer historians. Lesbian history is usually presented as an appendage to gay history, which may be inevitable for the premodern period because of the paucity of material available. Simply from practical considerations it is more satisfying to read a study devoted entirely to lesbian history than to intersperse lesbian evidence chronologically with male gay evidence. References to lesbianism throughout history are so sparse that it is difficult to incorporate them into any large overview of queer history without them being overwhelmed by the references to gay men’s history.

Almost every theory about homosexuality is essentially a theory about male homosexuals, with a footnote containing a reverse-theory about lesbians, mutatis mutandis, in accordance with the requirements of abstract logic rather than observation. Lesbianism may be an altogether different matter from male homosexuality, and may require a separate line of enquiry which recognizes that gay and lesbian experiences are significantly dissimilar, perhaps even incompatible. Lesbian historiography may require a concept of sexuality more broadly based than narrow genital sexuality, with a greater focus upon isolated pair-bonding than upon subcultural networking, and a greater necessity for employing hypothetical models due to the censorship of male indifference.

The claim that ‘The differences between men’s and women’s power and the qualities ascribed to them in a male-dominated culture were so significant that the social and spatial organization of gay male and lesbian life inevitably took very different forms’ (Chauncey 1994) seems to me to be too broad, however. Whatever their differences, lesbians and gay men nevertheless share many social and cultural values. Particularly for the modern period, it is important to consider lesbian history and gay male history within the overarching field of queer history. It may be true that the gay male subculture is more visible and more extensive because men earn more money and act more independently from family life, and have more freedom of movement than women. Alternatively, it may be that women are innately more drawn to pair bonding and groups of small networks, which do not require a subculture. Whatever the case, modern queer historians do not seem to fully appreciate that there has been a great deal of ‘spatial’ overlap between gay men and lesbians; for example, lesbians were often the major MC’s and organizers and entertainers in gay clubs, which Chauncey observes but does not address directly as an issue. Lesbian enclaves developed in Greenwich Village and Harlem in the 1920s for exactly the same reasons that these became gay male residential centres: because they were the major centres in New York for inexpensive furnished-room housing for single men and single women. In some New York apartment buildings in the 1930s gay men occupied whole floors, but lesbians also had small groups of apartments located on one of the floors. Many speakeasies were managed by lesbians and had lesbian performers, and many Harlem clubs attended by gay men were famous for performances by lesbian or bisexual artists such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley. Culturally identified gay men like Leonard Bernstein, and countless others, constantly listened to records by these women. Modern studies of queer semiotics need to appreciate that there are general queer signals as well as specifically gay or lesbian signals: for example, until very recently pinky rings and monocles were worn by both men and women who wished to signal their queer identity.

Anna P., who lived for many years as a man in Germany, photographed for Magnus Hirschfeld's book Sexual Intermediates in 1922.

Lesbian entrepreneurs played an important role in the commercialization of queer culture in the 1940s: ‘Spivy, an enormous lesbian famous in the elite gay world, sang for her gay following’ in the back room at Tony’s bar; in 1940 Spivy opened her own penthouse nightclub, Spivy’s Roof, and employed performers such as Mabel Mercer, Thelma Carpenter, Liberace and Paul Lynde (Chauncey 1994). Gay men and lesbians mixed together in the speakeasy clubs of Greenwich Village and Harlem, some of which had lesbian proprietors. Eva Kotchever, a Polish Jewish émigré who used the pseudonym Eve Addams (alluding to Adam and Eve) and who was called the ‘queen of the third sex’ by a local newspaper, in 1925 opened a tearoom with a sign at the door announcing ‘Men are admitted but not welcome.’ In 1926 police raided her club and she was charged with writing an ‘obscene’ collection of short stories, titled Lesbian Love, and disorderly conduct, for which she was sent to the workhouse and then deported the following year. She proceeded to open a lesbian club in Montmartre. She was fondly remembered in the Village, where in 1929 a theatrical group performed a play based upon Lesbian Love which Variety reported drew ‘mainly an audience of queers’ (cited by Chauncey 1994). In England, Ralph Skinner, a working-class man, in the 1930s went to see the lesbian play Children in Uniform (adapted from Christa Winsloe’s Mädchen in Uniform), with two friends of his family who he was convinced were lesbian lovers; they went together to see the movie three times. In New York, gay men dominated the cruising grounds, the YMCA and the baths, but nightclubs, restaurants, and cultural institutions such as drag balls and the theatre had a mixed lesbian and gay clientele.

There is an important overlap in the fields of queer literature and art by gay men and lesbians, which goes back at least to the late nineteenth century. The gay Victorian painter Simeon Solomon painted a large portrait of Sappho and Erinna — who actually were separated by centuries — as part of the lesbian community of Mytelene (exhibited for the first time in 1980, at Sotheby’s in London). The intermingling of male and female homosexuality is a key element of Decadent literature. Djuna Barnes later imitated the style of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley in her poems, plays, and stories. Pierre Louÿs’ Les Chansons de Bilitis (1894) created the archetypal lesbian Bilitis, an entirely fictional creation, unhistorically placed within the lesbian literary tradition, supposed to have been a Phoenician woman who settled on the isle of Lesbos where she became part of the circle around Sappho. It became a ‘classic’ of lesbian literature, lending its name, for example, to the first lesbian political organization in the United States, the Daughters of Bilitis, founded in San Francisco in 1955. James Barr, author of Quatrefoil, in 1954 wrote an article for ONE Magazine on ‘Sappho Remembered’ — using the female pseudonym Jane Darr.

Marguerite Yourcenar (real name Crayencour; 1903–87), the first woman elected to the French Academy, who lived with her lover Alice Frick for forty years, dealt with male homosexuality in many of her writings. Her first novel, Alexis (1929), consists of a letter from a gay musician to his wife explaining why he had to leave her; two men find self-fulfilment in Coup de Grâce; Zeno and his male lovers are the subject of The Abyss; Yukio Mishima and Masakatsu Morita are the subjects of her essay Mishima: A Vision of the Void; and the archetypal love relationship of Hadrian and Antinous is the subject of her masterpiece Memoirs of Hadrian. She also translated into French many works by queer novelists and poets: James Baldwin, Constantine Cavafy, Henry James, Thomas Mann, Yukio Mishima and Virginia Woolf. Mary Renault (real name Mary Challans; 1905–83) similarly dealt with male homosexuality in numerous novels set in ancient history, notably portraying the love of Alexander and Hephaestion (in her history Life of Alexander as well as the novel Bagoas). Male homosexuality is central to most of Carson McCullers’ novels, not as lesbian encoding but because she liked gay men and went with them (dressed as a male) to their gay hangouts, and in some genuine sense identified herself as a gay man trapped in a female body: as have Camille Paglia and Poppy Z. Brite. All these novels are not indirect ways of dealing with lesbianism. Male homosexuality was no more easier to portray than lesbianism in the period when Yourcenar and Renault and McCullers were writing: it is just that many lesbians personally identified with the larger queer cultural tradition rather than a specifically lesbian tradition. Lesbians and gay men often take delight in one another’s gender transgressions, and both groups would lose something of value if they pursued totally separate interests.

The Nature of the Evidence

It the field of lesbian history, the problem is not so much how to interpret the evidence, as finding the evidence to begin with. Until quite recent times ‘history’ was invariably chronicled by men, and women feature in historical sources ‘either as property or as objects of sexual desire’ of men (Boswell 1994). Female same-sex unions do not fall into these categories and therefore go unrecorded. Activities of ‘the weaker sex’ are felt to be beneath serious notice by men; women, like children, are felt to be naturally affectionate toward one another, and even in the mid-eighteenth century it was recognized that this helped to obscure our perception of lesbianism: the author of Satan’s Harvest Home (1749) condescendingly admits that ‘Woman Kissing Woman, is more suitable to their natural Softness.’ Men harbour surprisingly few suspicions about intimate relations between women: the idea that they might have sex with one another without a penis is laughable.

Although the lives of women in general have always been carefully regulated (and subordinated), specifically lesbian sexuality has been subject to very little social control, with the result that lesbian identities have arisen from within lesbian culture rather than been culturally determined by patriarchal society. Students of lesbian history constantly have to remind ourselves that lesbian culture is more likely to be ignored than absent. Chinese literature was controlled by men, and lesbianism was never part of a sustained literary tradition in Imperial China — nevertheless references to lesbian relations do exist from as early as the second century. According to Ying Shao (c. 140–206), ‘When palace women attach themselves as husband and wife it is called dui shi’, or ‘paired eating’. Other ancient records document specific sexual practices such as pudendal rubbing, nicknamed ‘grinding bean curd’, and the use of double-headed olisboi, made of wood or ivory or silk stuffed with bean curd. Outside of court circles, lesbian group marriages are recorded, and ‘Golden Orchid Associations’ in southern China survived into the twentieth century, involving formal marriage ceremonies with an exchange of gifts between ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, female companions acting as witnesses, and the marriage feast. Women who married one another could even adopt female children who could inherit property from the couple’s parents’ area. In other words, although lesbian relations were institutionalized and part of a culture, they were seldom deemed important enough to be recorded.

Emma Donoghue (1993) suggests that heterocentric critics and scholars are not careful readers of homosexual material: they ‘miss th[e] quiet documentation of love between women’. She establishes cases in which data has been misread, through carelessness, or, rather, ‘lack of interest in such things’. Passion between friends is generally treated as ordinary friendship, and ‘Stories about women-only groups have not so much been ignored by scholars as under-read. Feminist historians often celebrate them as examples of solidarity and sisterhood, ignoring the eroticism that pervades them.’

Judy Grahn (1984) points out that ‘The earliest poetry signed by an individual in any literature’ is by a lesbian, Enheduanna, who lived in present-day Iraq around 2300 BC. Enheduanna was a priestess and her hymn exalts the omnipotence of the goddess Inanna. Whether or not the poem bears evidence of a transition from ‘matriarchy’ to ‘patriarchy’, Grahn’s inference about its lesbian nature seems just: ‘Enheduanna’s lushly sensual descriptions of Inanna’s physical beauty, her unbridled love of her fierceness, the complete absence of heterosexual references, and her accounts of Inanna’s undertaking of ceremonial Gay rituals — all make it highly probable that Enheduanna was a Lesbian. That she describes herself a "spouse" of the goddess makes it nearly certain that she was a Lesbian, and expressing a Lesbian office.’

Lesbian prehistory is even more speculative than the prehistory of proto-Indo-European pederasty. The nineteenth-century theory that a prehistoric ‘matriarchy’ preceded the historical establishment of ‘patriarchy’ is the cornerstone of much feminist history, but is unsupported by archaeological evidence. Palaeolithic cave paintings and rock carvings of men with erections dancing together (i.e. patriarchal virility rituals) precede Neolithic carvings of ‘Venus’ figures (i.e. matriarchal fertility rituals) by about 10,000 years (Greenberg 1988). ‘This fantasy — for little conclusive evidence has been offered for a universal horizon of matriarchy in humanity’s past — has returned today among some anthropologists, who search for traces of a lost system of social organization which probably never existed’ (W. R. Dynes, ‘Anthropology’, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality). In several ancient and modern non-Western cultures women are allowed to own property and wealth, and this independence from men can sometimes facilitate lesbian relationships. For example, among Mombasa women there are open social networks of lesbian patron/client couples. The existence of matrilineal inheritance of status and property in some indigenous societies certainly demonstrates that there is an alternative to patriarchal systems, but the modern use of such terms as ‘matrifocal’ and ‘gynocratic’ prejudges some very problematic issues. Lesbian-feminist prehistory is dominated by the construct of a proto-lesbian Amazon nation. Thus Susan Cavin in her book Lesbian Origins ‘theorizes that all-women Amazon tribes evolved from the high-female/low-male ratio of primary kinship groups that are still seen today in primates, our nearest relatives. These Amazon tribes spanned the globe and preceded the heterosexual, patriarchal society of equal female-to-male kinship groups that we know today’ (Richards 1990).

Advancing into history proper, lesbian relations are documented, however sparsely, for most historical periods, ranging from lesbian initiation rituals in ancient Greece (notably Sparta), through the visual representation of lesbian Tantric erotic positions on ancient Indian temples (Thadani 1996) and lesbian relations in Eastern harems, to at least one example of lesbian Provençal troubadour verse. Erotic verse letters were written by one twelfth-century Bavarian nun to another, ‘recall[ing] the kisses you gave me, / And how with tender words you caressed my little breasts’ (trans. Boswell 1980). Some medieval rules prescribed forty days’ penance for nuns who ‘rode’ one another or caressed another’s breasts, unless there was a ‘flow’, in which case two years’ penance were required (Boswell 1994). Many penances seem to be logical categories rather than observations — the outcome of the intellectual hothouse of monasticism — but the slangy characterization of nuns ‘riding’ one another suggests the reality of lesbian intercourse. And there is the famous case of Sister Benedetta Carlini fully documented by Brown (1986), an early seventeenth-century abbess of a convent near Florence who had sex with many nuns while impersonating an angel called ‘Splenditello’, until she was placed in solitary confinement for the remaining forty years of her life.

The Lesbian and the Law

Trial records, an otherwise rich repository of material about gay men, produce only fragmentary evidence about lesbians. It is often said that there are no legal records because there have never been any laws against lesbianism, but that is not true. There have been no laws against lesbians in England and America, but ‘In Europe before the French revolution, however, notably in such countries as France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, lesbian acts were regarded as legally equivalent to acts of male sodomy and were, like them, punishable by the death penalty. On occasions, executions of women were carried out’ (Crompton 1980). But such instances were rare, and laws which formally existed on the statute books were seldom enforced in practice.

The earliest legal reference to lesbians seems to be the French law code Li Livres di jostice et de plet, about 1270, prescribing that a man who engages in homosexual relations shall, on the first offence, lose his testicles, shall lose his member (penis) on the second offence, and shall be burned to death on the third offence; and that a woman ‘shall lose her member each time, and on the third must be burned’. It is not clear how a woman can ‘lose her member’ (perdre membre) twice — obviously the law is a purely formal example of mutatis mutandis. No prosecutions under this law are known, although Crompton calls attention to the fact that in an early fourteenth-century romance two women suspected of bougrerie are threatened with burning, so the possibility of such a punishment was part of the popular imagination. In Spain Las Siete Partidas, compiled about 1265, provided for the death penalty for men; a gloss prepared in 1555 interpreted the law as applying equally to lesbians, but there is no indication that it was so applied during the intervening three centuries. Around 1645 there was a report that in Russia, women ‘are burned alive’ for sodomy, but it is not clear if this refers to an actual prosecution or just to a statute. Treviso, near Venice, had statutes providing for the burning of lesbians (fregatores) as well as buggers (buzerones), but there seem to have been no prosecutions of them.

The earliest lesbian execution seems to have occurred in Speier in 1477 when a girl was drowned for lesbian love. Two nuns in Spain were executed in the sixteenth century for using ‘material instruments’ (i.e. dildos). In 1549 a woman was banished from Saragosa, in Aragon, for ‘imperfect sodomy’ (i.e. unnatural sexual relations without penetration by a penis). In Bordeaux in 1533 two women were tortured at their trial but acquitted for insufficient evidence. A woman from Fontaines was burned alive around 1535 for disguising herself as a man and marrying a woman. Montaigne in his diary records the hanging in 1580 of a weaver named Marie, convicted of dressing as a man and marrying a woman and using a device for intercourse. In the mid-sixteenth century in Granada some women were whipped and sent to the galleys for using sexual instruments, and in Geneva in 1568 a lesbian was put to death by drowning — the only case found after extensive search of the Genevan archives (Monter 1974). The lesbian Isabel Galandre was burned as a witch at Neuchâtel in 1623. The Puritan settlers in New England made lesbianism a capital crime in the mid-seventeenth century, but there are no known capital prosecutions, and hardly any non-capital prosecutions. In March 1648/9 a woman was publicly chastised and given a warning to amend her lewd behaviour with another woman. In 1792 a Dutch woman was convicted for having murdered her girlfriend out of jealousy over her affair with a third woman. These are not ‘representative’ cases: they are practically the only cases we know.

English law ignores lesbianism, although women cross-dressers were sometimes prosecuted under laws penalizing vagrancy or fraud or other ambiguous misdemeanours (cross-dressing as such was not illegal). Anthony Wood in 1694 reported that a woman was tried at the King’s Bench for impersonating a man and marrying a maid to obtain her dowry and was about to marry a second wife, noting that ‘her love letters were read in court, which occasioned much laughter’; she was sentenced to be whipped and to serve at hard labour (Donoghue 1993). The next earliest case was that of Mary Hamilton, who was discovered to have married a woman and used a dildo to have sexual relations with her, who in 1746 was prosecuted under a clause of the vagrancy act, ‘for having by false and deceitful practices endeavoured to impose on some of his Majesty’s subjects’, for which she was publicly whipped in four market towns and sent to prison for six months. Ann Marrow was convicted of fraud in 1777 ‘for going in man’s cloaths, and personating a man in marriage, with three different women, . . . and defrauding them of their money and effects’, for which she was sentenced to three months in prison, and to stand in the pillory at Charing Cross, where she was pelted so severely, primarily by the female spectators, that she was blinded in both eyes (Norton 1992).

This is nearly a complete list of all known cases of prosecution. Some extensive research in French and Italian legal records has drawn a blank regarding lesbian trials, so although further research will undoubtedly make more discoveries, we can predict that these cases will be very localized and not representative of any national practice. It can readily be seen that there is no historical evidence of widespread systematic legal persecution of lesbians. It should also be appreciated that these sporadic instances of prosecution will not support any theories about lesbianism being perceived as a threat to the body politic, or lesbians being subjected to social control by state authorities. Certainly we should continue to search for lesbian prosecutions — not for statistical evidence of homophobia, but for the insight they offer into the daily lives and personalities of lesbians.

Female Husbands and Cross-dressing

Male impersonation (women dressing as men and pretending to be men) is a major theme of lesbian history (cf. Richards 1990). Cross-dressing has been a central feature of lesbian culture in Britain from the seventeenth century onwards (Donoghue 1993). There is the very curious case, perhaps fiction (in The Life and Adventures of Mrs Christian Davies, the British Amazon, perhaps by Daniel Defoe, 1741), of a woman who dresses as a man in order to follow her husband into the army, whose disguise is completed by a silver ‘urinary instrument’ which once belonged to a colonel who was herself a woman in disguise, which suggests a kind of secret tradition of cross-dressers. Many names could be cited, including the first English woman doctor James Miranda Barry (c. 1795–1865); the American doctor Mary Edward Walker (1823–1919) who wore her hair in curls to keep her gender visible; Dr Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945); Jim McHarris (Annie Lee Grant, fl. 1940), black short-order cook, gas station attendant and preacher discovered to be a passing woman when she was given a traffic ticket; Dr Eugene C. Perkins, married to another woman for twenty-eight years, discovered to be a female on her death in 1936.

Hedwig W. (left), accompanied by a friend with an ever stronger butch identity. Hedwig was a friend of Magnus Hirshfeld, and lived for two years in Berlin under the name Herbert. From Hirschfeld's Sexual Intermediates, 1922.

The numbers of passing women (and men) must be very much higher than the ones we know about, who have been discovered only because they became seriously ill (or died) and were subject to a medical examination and hence came to public attention. Billy Tipton the Big Band musician who married and adopted sons, was discovered to be a woman at her death in 1989. Presumably there are still such women who lead this kind of secret existence.

The tradition of female husbands, women who not only passed as men but who married women, existed in Europe from the seventeenth century; they are labelled after the famous case of ‘George’ Hamilton which was reported by Henry Fielding in The Female Husband (1746). There are innumerable examples: James How (Mary East, fl. 1750) ran a pub with her wife; Nicholas de Raylan (d. 1906) fought in the Spanish-American war, and had two wives, the first of whom ‘divorced her for her flings with chorus girls’; Charley (Charlotte) Wilson (b. 1834) and her niece passed as man and wife until Charlotte had to enter the poorhouse; Katherine Vosbaugh (b. 1827) who married a woman wasn’t discovered until she entered hospital for pneumonia; Charles Winslow Hall (Caroline Hall) (fl. 1901), according to her Italian wife, decided to live as a man after ‘brooding over the disadvantages of being a woman’; Peter Stratford (Derestey Morton, d. 1929) emigrated from New Zealand to America where she married the screenwriter Beth Rouland. American medical journals in 1901–06 reported on several married men discovered to have been women upon their deaths, including George Greene, William C. Howard (she and her wife adopted two children), and Nicholas de Raylan, who had married twice and who at her death in 1906 was discovered to have had an ‘elaborately-constructed artificial penis’. Joseph Lobdell (Lucy Ann Lobdell, b. 1829) wrote an autobiography, The Female Hunter of Delaware and Sullivan Counties. In fact a surprising number of cross-dressing women have written their autobiographies: Mary Frith 1662, Jean de Préchac 1713, Christian Davies 1740, Maria ter Meetelen 1743, Hannah Snell 1750, Maria van Antwerpen 1751, Charlotte Charke (1755), Mary Anne Talbot 1809, Renée Bordereau 1814, Françoise Desprès 1817, and Anne Jane Thornton 1835. The number of women who cross-dressed who are generally believed to have had lesbian relations is extensive.

From about 1865 many Chinese women, gaining some measure of economic independence due to employment in silk factories, rejected heterosexuality, called themselves tzu-shu nii, ‘never to marry’, and established ‘sister societies’, communes of ‘sworn sisters’, shuang chieh, of pairs or trios; the slang term for them was sou-hei, ‘self-combers’, because they adopted the married woman’s hairstyle. These associations declined during the 1930s economic depression, and were put down by the Communists as examples of decadent feudalism. Many sworn sisters fled to Singapore, Malaya and Hong Kong, where some groups were still in existence in the 1980s. Similarly, in the early 1800s in Eastern Europe (parts of Albania and the former Yugoslavia) women could become ‘sworn virgins’ and wear male clothing, and take wives.

When dealing with romantic friendship we must not ignore the possibility that such women hid the sexual nature of their relationship, just as thousands of ‘passing women’ kept their real sex secret throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During the American Civil War some 400 women masqueraded as men and fought in the ranks (Miller 1995). This involved very extensive secrecy of the most calculated sort. The New York politician Murray Hall (born Mary Anderson) impersonated a man for twenty-five to thirty years. She married two women, one for three years and one for twenty years, and had an adopted daughter. ‘According to neighbors, both her marriages broke up because Hall paid too much attention to other women’ (Miller 1995). Her adopted daughter did not realize (or claimed not to realize) that her father was really a woman. She died of breast of cancer in 1901, and was thus discovered to be a woman. The very many women who lived together as apparent man and wife and even married women in civil and church ceremonies throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provides ample evidence of deceit and ‘lesbian survival’.

Early lesbian history seems to be made up largely of pair bonding rather than larger networks, for example numerous female/female marriages can be documented back through the seventeenth century. Nevertheless we occasionally find evidence of what might be called lesbian ‘quasi-subcultures’. In the early 1730s, Lady Frances Brudenell, the bisexual widowed Duchess of Newburgh, is supposed to have ruled a social circle of tribades in Dublin, her primary lover being Lady Allen, and there were ‘small groups of tribades in 1790s Amsterdam’ (Donoghue 1993). In France, the lesbian Sect of Anandrynes was founded in 1770 by Thérèse de Fleury; it was mostly the subject of gossip and journalism but several documents survive. Apparently there was an internal dispute as to whether or not effeminate male homosexuals should be admitted as members, which brought about its dissolution in 1784. The leader of the group was the actress Raucourt (Françoise Marine antoinette Joseph Saucerotte), who was imprisoned by the Jacobins in 1793 but released; Napoleon was an admirer. When she died in 1815 the curé of St Roch ‘refused to admit her body to the church. A mob of over 15,000 persons broke in bearing her coffin, and an order of Louis XVIII assured her the last rites’ and she was buried in Père Lachaise (L. Senelick, ‘Raucourt’, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality).

Johann Wilhelm von Archenholtz who travelled to England in the 1780s says there was a club of lesbians or Anandrinic Society in London, one of its presidents being the famous actress Mrs Y, whom Donoghue identifies as the Drury Lane (bisexual) actress Mary Anne Yates (1728–87). Much earlier in England, Delarivière Manley in her Secret Memoirs . . . from the New Atalantis (1709) describes the ‘new Cabal’ of lesbians, society ladies who met regularly to indulge their lesbian ‘inclinations’, who included: Margaret Sutton, Lady Lexington and her daughers Elenora-Margareta and Bridget; Anna Charlotte, Lady Frescheville, a founder member who fell in love with Mrs Pround, an attendant to Queen Anne; Lady Anne Popham and her favourite Ann Gerard, Countess Macclesfield; Lucy Wharton, wife of a Whig minister, and her lover Catherine Tofts the opera singer; Catherine Colyear, Duchess of Portmore and Dorchester, and her favourite Catharine Trotter the playwright, who is describing as having male lovers purely for financial security. Manley’s work was a political attack, and therefore little effort has been expended upon proving or disproving her assertions concerning this lesbian ‘Sodality’ or network.

Romantic friendships between women are the more refined, middle-class versions of working-class sapphism and upper-class anandrynism. I suspect that the idealization of romantic female friendship was used to mask lesbian love in the same way that Oscar Wilde idealized ‘Greek love’ to defend himself in the dock. From the mid-eighteenth century genteel women began living together and pooling their resources. The rise of the women’s movement in the later eighteenth century provided homosexually inclined women the opportunity to work together towards a cause that helped to legitimate and refine their desires by channelling them towards intellectual and cultural goals, within a ‘homosocial’ environment. Most of the Bluestockings were unmarried (usually spinsters by choice) or widowed or separated, who set up all-female establishments. By the late nineteenth/early twentieth century the contiguity of lesbianism and feminism was recognized by contemporary observers. This was the first-hand perception of Edward Carpenter: ‘It is pretty certain that such comrade-alliances — of a quite devoted kind — are becoming increasingly common, and especially perhaps among the more cultured classes of women who are working out the great cause of their own sex’s liberation.’ This was also the view of the American temperance leader Frances Willard, who herself had romantic attachments with women:

The loves of women for each other grow more numerous each day, and I have pondered much why these things were. That so little should be said about them surprises me, for they are everywhere. . . . there is no village that has not its examples of ‘two hearts in counsel’ both of which are feminine. Oftentimes these joint-proprietors have been unfortunately married, and so have failed to ‘better their condition’ until, thus clasping hands, they have taken each other ‘for better or worse.’ These are the tokens of a transition age. (cited by Miller 1995)

They were the outgrowth of the nineteenth-century American institution called the ‘Boston marriage’, in which two financially independent women lived together and worked to further feminist or philanthropic or cultural causes. Henry James, himself homosexual, described the union between his lesbian sister Alice and Katharine Loring in his novel The Bostonians (1885), albeit with his usual coded allusions. Sarah Orne Jewett characterized her Boston marriage to Annie Fields as ‘a union — there is no truer word for it’. The non-genital aspects of such female friendships has been very much exaggerated. Many of these romances were certainly physical, if not strictly genital. For example, Louise Brackett in Boston wrote to Anna E. Dickinson, American actress and political activist in the 1870s: ‘How much I want to see you: as your letter gave me such exquisite pleasures indeed! I will marry you — run off any where with you, for you are such a darling — I can feel your soul — if not your body sweet Anna — do I offend your delicacy?’ Dickinson was also loved by Susan B. Anthony the suffrage leader, who wrote to her: ‘Now when are you coming to New York — do let it be soon — I have plain quarters — at 44 Bond Street — double bed — and big enough and good enough to take you in — . . . I do so long for the scolding & pinched ears & every thing I know awaits me — what worlds of experience since I last snuggled the wee child in my long arms. . . . Your loving friend Susan.’ Miller (1995) argues that to assume that such passages imply sexual unions ‘is to impose the ideas of the late twentieth century on a far more reticent era’. I disagree: I think we should not be so condescending towards the past.


(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This article may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, "The Nature of Lesbian History", Lesbian History, 1 August 2003, updated 12 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/lesbians.htm>


Return to Lesbian History