Image of two men kissingA Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


Just as queer history in general often spends too much time trying to define ‘homosexuality’, so lesbian history in particular has been plagued by the problem of defining ‘the lesbian’. Dell Richards introduces her compilation of Lesbian Lists (1990) thus:

Should I use a contemporary, twentieth-century definition? And if so, which one? Women who are sexually attracted to other women or women who became lesbians through feminism? Or should I use a much broader definition, one that includes the romantic friends movement – women who were women-identified, who had affectionate and loving relationships with other women but may not actually have had sex due to the repressive nature of the era? Should I include sworn sisters [as in China] and berdaches? Should I include transvestites? Should I include spinsters? . . . My own bias is toward women-identified women, whether they call themselves lesbians or not, whether they had sex or not. To impose today’s standards on earlier eras limits our vision and our history.

The problems raised by Richards are due largely to a social constructionist agenda that is content to remain historically ignorant. She wrongly claims, for example, that the first time ‘lesbian’ was used to denote a woman-loving woman was in a medical journal in 1883, and the first time it was used this way in a newspaper was in 1892. In fact ‘lesbian’ has been used in its modern sexual sense for many centuries, as previously discussed (see 'the lesbian'). In France, the modern theorist Joan DeJean has similarly been led by the nose of social constructionist dogma, arguing that the pornographic and scholarly perceptions of Sappho were entirely separate, ‘sapphic without being Sapphic’, until the late nineteenth century. But in fact Saphao was the most common French generic term for ‘lesbian’, and it is not likely that French literature was much different from English literature in this respect. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries scholarly works often discuss Sappho’s possible lesbianism or bisexuality, and fictional and biographical accounts of contemporary lesbians and bisexuals often refer to their foremother Sappho. In fact ‘most British references I have found to the real Sappho at least mention rumours about her sexual deviance. There was, then, a long-standing Sapphic tradition of lesbian culture; this is not a twentieth-century invention’ (Donoghue 1993).

The Lesbian History Group (1989) calls attention to ‘the standard of proof’ which stands in the way of identifying lesbians in history: 'What our critics want is incontrovertible evidence of sexual activity between women.' Most historical figures and subjects of biographies are assumed to be heterosexual without the necessity of providing evidence of genital acts. The birth of children itself provides only limited evidence of heterosexual frequency or desire. Whole biographies have been written about bachelors and spinsters, even those who shared their lives with other bachelors or spinsters, without raising the suggestion that they might not be heterosexual. Only historians of homosexuality have been required to dig up the dirt. As Sheila Jeffreys points out:

The history of heterosexuality – and that is the only history we have been offered to date – does not rely on proof of genital contact. Men and women are assumed to be heterosexual unless there is ‘genital’ proof to the contrary. Women who have lived in the same house and slept in the same bed for thirty years have had their lesbianism strongly denied by historians. But men and women who simply take walks together are assumed to be involved in some sort of heterosexual relationship. (Jeffreys 1984)

In order to avoid this kind of genital-based debate, lesbian feminists in the 1970s constructed a political definition of the lesbian. In 1971 ‘The Woman Identified Woman’ was published by the New York Radicalesbians which identified the lesbian as a woman politically committed to women. In 1978 Adrienne Rich contended that there was a ‘lesbian continuum’ encompassing all woman-identified experience (Rich 1993). This was intended to firmly bring lesbians into the mainstream feminist discourse. But a frequently observed corollary was the definition of lesbianism as not-heterosexuality. Dell Richards, compiler of Lesbian Lists (1990), not only includes as lesbians ‘the women who have done everything in their power to escape heterosexual dominance’, but defines her own lesbianism in these negative terms: ‘For me, becoming a lesbian was a conscious political decision, the logical extension of feminism. . . . I decided to see what I would be like in a mirror that reflected me at my natural size. The only way I could think to do that was by ridding my life of men – or at least ridding my personal life of heterosexual men.’ Sexuality is here being defined as power rather than desire, and it is revealing that far more feminists countenance the homosexual choice than men: for women homosexuality is a choice to become powerful, while for men it is a choice to become weak.

However, this political definition has been perceived to diminish the lesbianism of lesbian-feminist discourse, and is now much disputed (Griffin 1993). Sheila Jeffreys (1984) argues, though still within the political context, that

Lesbianism cannot be subsumed beneath the good feelings of hand-holding sisterhood. This leaves no space to talk about specifically lesbian oppression and gives us little chance to build up the history and culture of lesbianism which we need for our pride and our survival. In this context Adrienne Rich’s idea of the lesbian continuum is problematic; her argument that all women’s friendships with women are some shade or gradation of lesbianism inevitably confuses attempts to analyze lesbian oppression. Women who simply have ‘best friends’ who are women share neither lesbian oppression nor lesbian experience.

By the mid-1990s the lesbian aspect of lesbian feminism has reasserted itself. Nicki Hastie in her essay 'Lesbian BiblioMythography' (1993) rejected Rich’s 'lesbian continuum' theory because "it seems to deny the sexual and erotic side of being a lesbian, to make what is a powerful identification for some women (myself included) virtually meaningless, and to deny the quite separate oppression which these women face.’ Hastie prefers the straightforward definition of the lesbian made by the cultural theorist C. R. Stimpson in 1988: ‘She is a woman who finds other women erotically attractive and gratifying . . . Lesbianism represents a commitment of skin, blood, breast and bone.’ (This last phrase, incidentally, is used verbatim in Christine Crow’s remarkable lesbian novel Miss X.) Emma Donoghue, by choosing the term ‘passions between women’ for her historical survey, similarly reemphasizes the erotic component of lesbian experience and identification, and specific lesbian markers such as cross-dressing and ‘mannish’ behaviour.

The trend for the future should be to put the sex back into lesbian history – an essentialist position. The study of spinsters and the study of friendship networks among women have an uneasy place in lesbian history. There are economic reasons why women choose to be spinsters and to live with other spinsters, and emotional reasons why women enjoy friendship networks with other women. These are important fields within the feminist history of women-identified-women, but they cannot occupy the foreground of lesbian history except in those instances where a case can be made for sexual expression (including sexual suppression and sublimation). We must be careful not to attribute romanticized desire to all female friendships, or we connive with the ‘frustrated spinster’ stereotype. But ways can be found to distinguish the sheep from the goats, the feminists from the lesbian feminists.

The social constructionist theory depends largely on the mistaken belief that 'the lesbian' and 'the homosexual' were created by nineteenth-century medical discourse. Twenty or thirty years ago it was common to categorically state that ‘there is no evidence’ of lesbian relations in a particular premodern period, but as the very idea of lesbianism becomes less ‘inconceivable’ and as more queer or gay-friendly historians pursue research into the subject, evidence has come to light and more evidence may yet be discovered. Since Faderman’s study was published in 1981, 'many texts have emerged from obscurity or been read with a new eye. Suspicions expressed in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century publications about the eroticism and threat to society posed by attachments between women have turned out to be neither "slight" nor "rare"' (Donoghue 1993).

Randolph Trumbach (1994) has himself begun to revise the views he held in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the light of more research. In his most recent work, the development of the lesbian ‘third sex’ role has been pushed back from the nineteenth century to the mid-eighteenth century. Nevertheless Emma Donoghue takes Trumbach to task for unsupported generalizations. What Trumbach still sees as a steady development from a sin to a psychological perversion, Donoghue sees as constant overlapping of the two ideas throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Words suggesting special peculiarity occur quite early, e.g. ‘genius’ in 1709, ‘singularity’ of loving only women in 1714, an exceptional ‘Cast’ of personality in ‘Lovers of their own Sex’ in 1741. ‘I can discern no point at which one explanation gave way to another’ (Donoghue 1993). As late as 1989 Dekker and van de Poll’s study of female transvestism ‘suffers from some startlingly unwarranted conclusions’, e.g. that most people were ignorant of the existence of tribady, that no women knew examples of sexual relations between women, that the common people had never heard of such things, that women who loved women logically thought themselves to be like men. All these claims are historically incorrect. Since the late seventeenth century there were in fact ‘songs, court cases, pornographic pictures, medical and literary books and endlessly retold anecdotes about that very subject’ (Donoghue 1993). The evidence presented by Donoghue convincingly demolishes the social constructionist view that there is a datable ‘profound shift’ from a lesbian ‘role’ to a lesbian ‘identity’:

When seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts are full of women loving each other and playing a variety of roles, it makes no sense to try to track down the birth of a single ‘lesbian role’ . . . it is nonsense to represent the variety of lesbian culture as a parade of types, each one replacing the last.

‘Romantic Friendships’

Anne Lister, who was herself a lesbian, and who recorded her many lesbian affairs in her coded diaries, visited the famous Ladies of Llangollen in 1821 and recorded in her diary: ‘I cannot help thinking that surely it was not Platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself & doubt.’ I shall not rehearse the well-known story about how Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) eloped together in 1778 and set up house together at Plas Newydd, Wales, where they were visited by all the writers and celebrities of the Romantic age. A newspaper in 1790 described them in terms that implied they were indeed lesbian, and they took it seriously enough to ask their friend Edmund Burke the famous orator and MP whether or not they should sue for libel (he wisely advised them not to sue). Donoghue suggests that Elizabeth Mavor in her biography of the Ladies ‘resurrected the phrase "romantic friendship" in 1971 specifically to shield the Ladies of Llangollen from being called lesbians. It has become a popular term among historians, often invoked to neutralise and de-sexualise textual evidence.’ Lillian Faderman followed Mavor’s lead in her 1981 study of ‘romantic friendship between women’, Surpassing the Love of Men, arguing that their contemporaries all agreed they were merely female friends. But in 1992 Liz Stanley discovered an unpublished diary by Hester Thrale (whose daughter once visited the Ladies) which describes the Ladies as ‘damned Sapphists’ and which claims that women were reluctant to stay the night with them unless they were accompanied by men.

Of course none of these views establishes whether or not the Ladies of Llangollen enjoyed sex together. But the fact that two women – one of them a self-conscious lesbian – contemporary with the Ladies felt that they probably were lesbians, thoroughly demolishes the view that it is ‘anachronistic’ for us to view them as lesbians. The entire body of literature of female ‘romantic friendship’ has been too cavalierly dismissed as being ‘homosocial’ (a favourite phrase of queer theory) rather than homosexual. Unfortunately Faderman seems to have been unaware of the work of Donoghue or Stanley when she compiled her anthology of lesbian literature from the seventeenth century to the present, Chloe Plus Olivia (1994), wherein she continues to base her non-sexual interpretation of romantic friendship specifically upon the error that Hester Thrale considered the Ladies to be only ‘fair and noble recluses’ and ‘charming cottagers’ rather than sapphists. Faderman must have been aware of Lister’s remark, because she includes some selections from her diaries, but she ignores it. Faderman’s anthology exhibits enormous breadth and scholarship, but the material is arranged so as to reinforce her theory that the sexologists called ‘the lesbian’ into being, undermining the earlier ideology of romantic friendship. In the section on ‘The Literature of Sexual Inversion’, selections from Krafft-Ebing and Freud precede selections from Charlotte Charke, Maria Edgeworth, Anne Lister, and others, allowing uncareful readers to form the mistaken impression that these women were influenced by the theories of Krafft-Ebing and Freud, when in fact the writings of these women predated Krafft-Ebing and Freud by a good many years. A strictly chronological arrangement of the entire anthology would in fact undermine the view that lesbians imitated male-generated models of themselves.

Sheila Jeffreys (1989) also criticizes Faderman for devoting too much energy to proving in The Scotch Verdict that the two teachers accused of lesbianism in 1811 (who won their case for libel) did not have genital sex, and could not possibly have had sexual relations because that is an ‘anachronistic’ modern view, when in fact the study demonstrates ‘that girls at "nice" boarding schools in 1811 seem to have been as keenly aware of and as likely to chatter about lesbians as they are today. They talked of lesbianism with maids and nannies who all seem to have known something about it.’ Faderman treats merely as ‘amusing’ the memorandum prepared by the senior counsel citing the ‘authorities’ – with extensive quotations – to prove to the Lords of Council and Session that ‘the practice of tribadism’ exists. Faderman should have appreciated this as a substantial summing up of the lesbian cultural tradition – and a full awareness of it in 1811.

The Butch

Masculine women dominate the history of lesbians even more noticeably than effeminate men dominate the history of gay men. Most of the women in Rose Collis’s (1994) collection of lesbian portraits were mannish. In the 1920s Mercedes De Acosta frequented the Paris café Chez Fischer, which she described in her memoirs as being a club where the women tried to look masculine and the men tried to look feminine, ‘Which after all proves once again that there is nothing new under the sun.’ She had an affair with Greta Garbo from 1929, beginning with a six-week holiday alone at Silver Lake in California: ‘De Acosta claimed credit for introducing Dietrich to the sartorial style sported by her in the 1930s: white flannel trousers and silk shirts, cream polo-neck jumpers and berets, complete with short, boyish haircuts.’ The artist Rosa Bonheur claimed to wear trousers out of necessity rather than a desire to shock; ‘Eventually, she was issued with police certificates – permission de travestissement – renewable every six months, which allowed her to wear male clothes in public places.’ In 1943 when the composer Ethyl Smyth was deaf and old and had to go into a nursing home for the last year of her life, her nurse insisted in dressing her in ‘most unbecoming lady-like clothes’. Eve Balfour (1889-1990), who lived on a farm with her companion Beryl ‘Beb’ Hearnden from 1919 to about 1951, and then lived with Kathleen Carnley until her death, ‘discovered the freedom of breeches’ in the First World War; Elizabeth Lutyens remembered ‘She had an Egyptian face of great strength and charm, with cropped hair and masculine manners, in spite of a feminine heart.’ The mannish lesbian, the butch dyke, is found as a ‘given’ across many centuries. The great nelly queens of history are matched by the great Amazons of history, of which Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89) was an example. As Leopold von Ranke observed, she was ‘the greatest princely woman from the race of intermediate types’. She was big-boned, large-featured, masculine in deportment and temperament; even as a child she was often thought to be a handsome little boy. She was a classic lesbian type.

Butch/femme role-playing was a very common feature of lesbian culture in the 1950s. In the 1970s, under the influence of gay liberationist political ideals, butch/femme roles were rejected by lesbian feminists as being a retrogressive legacy of patriarchy and an aping of heterosexist roles. However, in the late 1980s there began a revival of butch/femme role-playing that is still on the increase. As Jeffreys (1987) points out, ‘They were not only adopting roles cheerfully but reclaiming roleplaying in lesbian history as well as the lesbian present as revolutionary and positive. . . . Butch and femme identified lesbians today criticise feminists for having disapproved of roleplayers, and most importantly, for having distorted lesbian history by playing down the importance of roleplaying or recording it in a negative light. Some lesbian historians who are chronicling lesbian roleplaying in history treat roleplayers with unqualified admiration.’ Lesbian feminist Merrill Mushroom is not untypical in simultaneously holding three contradictory attitudes towards butch/femme role-playing, that it is forced upon women, that it is freely chosen, that it is innate: ‘Over the years, I have worn different tags and taken different images, and by now I can take them or leave them. But as I think back through all of the roles I have played and either kept or left behind, I know that deep down in my most secret heart of hearts . . . I am still the butch.’

Jeffreys may be justified in subjecting role-playing to a political analysis, but considered strictly from the historical view, the claim that butch/femme roles are part of lesbian heritage is well documented. Jeffreys’ attack is marred by the lack of a historical perspective and by her dogmatic reliance on the social constructionist model. She claims quite incorrectly that Havelock Ellis’s sexological depiction of the ‘mannish’ lesbian is based on such things as male erotica. In fact his case studies were provided by his lesbian wife Edith Lees, who had persuaded half a dozen of her lesbian friends to contribute their life histories. Such self-selected material may be unrepresentative, but it is not ‘mythological’ as Jeffreys claims. Mannish lesbians were a commonplace reality throughout Europe and America by the 1820s, long before they were used as the model for the ‘invert’ by the sexologists, who ‘did not so much define a lesbian identity as describe and categorize what they saw about them’ (Vicinus 1993). Jeffreys typically constructs a straw-man reductionist model of essentialism in order to knock it down:

The recorded experience of 1950s roleplayers lends no support to a biological determinist explanation. The motivations mentioned are much more prosaic. . . . [Ethel] Sawyer’s informants [in Missouri] make it clear that stud and fish [the butch/femme terms among black lesbians] are social roles that were quite consciously chosen:

One fish expressed the desire to turn stud but had certain reservations. Her reasons for wanting to turn stud were that she wanted ‘to be the aggressor, to pick and choose, and to do the protecting’. On the other hand, she felt that she could not live up to the idealised social role of a stud. ‘I don’t feel that I would be able to support someone. I feel that a stud should be the provider and protector and right now, I’m not able’.

This is the only example Jeffreys cites to prove that social roles are ‘quite consciously chosen’. But notice that, on the contrary, it presents a woman who felt unable to choose the role of stud even though she wanted to. Jeffreys’ patent mis-reading of the evidence illustrates the kind of wish-fulfilment found in politically motivated history. It may be true, as Jeffreys argues, ‘that both the butch and femme roles had serious disadvantages attached to them which make the revalidation of these roles today particularly difficult to understand.’ But this in itself suggests that social roles are not consciously chosen. The evidence that Jeffreys cites and the argument she puts forward contradict the social-choice theory that she is advocating.

Many butch lesbians wore a breast band (some still do, and many now wear tight T-shirts) to preserve a masculine shape, and such devices are of course ‘artificial’. But tomboy identities almost invariably precede the development of the breasts which threaten to weaken that identity. That is: the butch identity in itself is not a construct. It is quite mistaken to see butches as simply aping men: ‘to recognize their masculinity and not their "queerness" is a distortion of their culture and their consciousness’ (Kennedy and Davis 1992). The acclaimed research of Kennedy and Davis into the lesbian community of Buffalo, New York demonstrates that butch and femme role-playing is a case of authentic lesbian sexuality rather than internalized oppression or an imitation of heterosexual sexism. Jeffreys seems to deliberately misinterpret Kennedy and Davis's use of the term ‘authentic’ as if they imply that role-playing is the only universally valid lesbian behaviour. It seems to me that Davis and Kennedy are using the word ‘authentic’ in its most valid meaning: indeed, it parallels the Marxist use of real as opposed to false consciousness.

Joan Nestle in several essays argues that upper and middle-class feminist historians have exaggerated the importance of ‘romantic friendship’ while neglecting working-class lesbians. The earliest lesbian-feminist organizations the Daughters of Bilitis in America and the Minorities Research Group in England both debated the issue of ‘trousers versus skirts’. Clearly diversity and flexibility of clothing were not the goal; the goal was to hide from public view the butch lesbian just as gay male reformers wished to eliminate the fairy. This concern with image comes primarily from the middle class, be they gay liberation activists or feminists. Jeffreys counters that Nestle’s approach is bad because it ‘could lead to the creation of false stereotypes of the working-class butch or femme. . . . There has been an unfortunate tendency amongst the detractors of feminism over the last few years to exploit the issue of class in inappropriate ways to support anti-feminist ideas and practice.’ Jeffreys’ argument is patently a case of the politically correct approach to history. Jeffreys is so committed to the social constructionist dogma that homosexuality is entirely a reaction to heterosexuality (both being ideological phenomena) that she cannot intellectually comprehend Nestle’s position that butch/femme relationships arise specifically from within queer culture.

Lesbian feminism in the early 1970s consciously and undisguisedly endeavoured to sever lesbians from their cultural roots (Case 1993). In The Persistent Desire (1992) Joan Nestle amply documents the ‘forced disinheritance’ of the lesbians of the 1940s and 1950s by ‘liberated’ lesbian feminists. The experience of an entire generation of black and working-class lesbians was erased from politically correct lesbian history. By 1975 butch/femme couples simply stopped going to the gay bars, and were wrongly thought to have ‘disappeared’ (MacCowan 1992). The enforced silencing of lesbian culture by lesbian feminists shows the true face of social constructionism.

I am sure that Joan Nestle, who founded the New York Lesbian Herstory Archives, is correct in her view that ‘feminist writings have distorted lesbian history through their unwillingness to recognise the existence of roleplaying’. In their views of history, ‘Passing women, Lesbian sex workers or working class Lesbian "married" couples were either completely missing or dismissed as examples of victimisation’ or internalized oppression. For Nestle, butch/femme roles are ‘complex erotic statements, not phony heterosexual replicas. . . . filled with a deeply Lesbian language of stance, dress, gesture, loving, courage, and autonomy.’ Amber Hollibaugh, a founding member of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, similarly reclaims butch/femme role-playing as ‘a developed, Lesbian, specific sexuality that has a historical setting and a cultural function’. That cultural function is almost certainly to establish the existence and visibility of lesbian cultural unity. Judy Grahn (1984) points out that in the 1950s,

For all our boyish clothes and mannerisms . . . we women did not pass as men or boys. . . . our point was not to be men; our point was to be butch and get away with it. . . . A dike learns much of her social function from other dykes . . . . Whether she ever has the chance to enter a Gay bar or not, she imitates dykes, not men. She may identify with traditionally dyke figures: Diana the Huntress, Beebo Brinker, Gertrude Stein, Bessie Smith, Natalie Barney, Queen Christina, Joan of Arc, Amy Lowell, Oya, St Barbara, modern athletes, and other leaders. . . . the social message she bears and is delivering is not ‘I am a man’ but rather ‘Here is another way to be a woman.’

Feminists like Jeffreys are trapped in the social constructionist model and cannot conceive how the butch/femme model could arise from within queer culture independently without being an inversion of heterosexual stereotypes. But as Grahn points out, the dyke cuts her hair short, ‘shorter by far than any men are wearing it, because short hair is a dykish thing.’ We may not agree with Grahn’s theories about the dyke cosmology, or her view that butch/femme roles are closer to our tribal roots, but it is nevertheless true that the Eton crop is not a man’s hairstyle, but part of the butch cultural heritage.

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CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Political Definitions of 'The Lesbian'," 23 August 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

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