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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).

* * *

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.

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Book Review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

This is an intricate, sprawling (if that isn’t self-contradiction) alternate history of how key aspects of African politics might have evolved differently in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, given the right nudges. One might call it “steampunk” it one also pointed out the ways in which it critiques the oft-unexamined colonialism in that genre and makes the point that technology and gadgets do not change essential human nature and human relations.

The basic story is that British Fabian socialists raise the money to buy a chunk of the Belgian Congo to try to set up a political and social utopia, as well as a foothold for undermining what they (rightly) see as the exploitive hellscape King Leopold has created. This planned utopia, christened Everfair by its British founders, rapidly becomes central to a broad struggle that eventually wins against Belgium and shifts the balance of power in Africa against colonialism. This is made possible, in part, by the introduction of several of the darlings of steampunk: dirigibles, creative use of small-scale steam power, mechanical prostheses. But these are assisted by a few less standard elements, such as what is clearly meant to be some sort of small-scale nuclear power, the assistance of a reluctant god-ridden warrior, and spying talents enabled by spirit transfer to animal bodies.

The worldbuilding is ambitious and stunning, as well as being refreshing. I felt that certain aspects of plot and characterization were weaker. There’s a very wide array of viewpoint characters, some of whom had so little page time I still have no idea what their internal motivations were. One of the strong points of characterization was the unflinching look at how racism touched every interaction, and how difficult it is to step outside of the attitudes and assumptions one is raised in. The European and American residents of Everfair struggle to get past a literal “white savior” approach and to accept when they are no longer welcome to steer the land they’ve made home.

The plot…was as diffuse, rambling, and slow-moving as a history book. (It reminded me of some of the aspects I struggled with in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.) I never really felt the shape of what it way trying to do. Characters moved from one event to the next through time…and then the book ended. And even when it ended, it trailed off for several chapters of “what are they doing now?” sort of like an engine dieseling down to a coughing finish. The book gets my bonus point for normalized romantic/sexual relationships between women (in a solidly historically grounded way--look up the "free love" movement), but not my bonus point for “kept me on the treadmill past my exercise target. I struggled a bit to keep going to the finish.

This is an ambitious book and achieved some of those ambitions very well, but for me it fell short of "blowing my mind".

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Random Thursday: Revising the Classics

I put out a call for blog prompts on facebook and had this suggestion: "If you could have any piece of classic literature but with explicitly canon queer character, which would you pick?"

The thing about asking this question of an author is that it isn't exactly rhetorical. You can be sure that if we have a favorite story that needs queering, we've contemplated making it so (and may even have it on the writing schedule). And with the current acceptability of classics/genre-crossovers, such projects don't need to be confined to "just for fun to circulate among friends." But I suspect the "classics" that come to my mind may be a little more obscure than most. Here are some stories that I've run across in my research and reading that I either have or plan to write my own versions of that turn faint suggestions of queerness into main-text.

The Romance of Silence - A lesser-known work in the Arthurian mythos, involving a girl raised as a boy who becomes a famed knight but gets in hot water when the queen tries to seduce "him". I've actually written a short story heavily adapted from one of the episodes in this story, with Silence coming to terms with non-binary identity in the midst of peril and adventure. The story has been collecting rejections for the last couple years and I'm running out of places it seems logical to submit it.

L'Escoufle - Another lesser-known medieval romance that is part of one of the French genealogical cycles. I like that the implied romantic connections between women arise out of women's spaces, rather than being enabled by cross-dressing and gender confusion. It is, in essence, a quest adventure with a female protagonist. I have solid plans to write a medieval fantasy based on this, but have a lot of background work to do first.

The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu - This 18th century picaresque novel (well, it's a bit more complex in genre than that) needs almost nothing except a little character self-awareness to bring out the love story between the two protagonists, who go romping across Europe together disguised as men and are constantly teasing each other about how, "If I were really a man, then I'l marry you and we'd live happily ever after." And then--at the end of the adventures--they settle down together and live happily ever after. The story doesn't need much at all to make it queer (they just need to stop with the no-homo thing all the time!) but it does need some drastic editing to make it readable for modern tastes. My plans for it are a bit more complicated than that, involving a sort of modern/historic crossover...well, let's not give too much away.

Yde and Olive - This may be the best-known and most widely adapted medieval same-sex marriage story. It's one of the several medieval romances where a cross-dressing woman gains recognition as a knight and ends up in romantic entanglements with a woman as a result. The fact that there are several variants of the story make it ripe for further adaptation.

There are also a number of older works of literature that I have plans to extract bits and pieces of, but not re-write the original story itself. (Hervor's Saga lends a significant chunk of inspiration to a Viking-era story that I've had sketched out for a couple decades.) So, not "classics" in the sense of widely-read best-sellers, perhaps. But they're all stories that, to me, call out to turn subtext into main-text and turn the queer themes from covert hints into overt plot.


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).

* * *

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.)


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).

* * *

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.


In the second half of Chapter 18, we finally have the satisfaction of seeing Miss Minchin receive her just desserts, though it's a very self-inflicted and forgiving comeuppance. Miss Minchin, having heard from one of the housemaids that Sara had gone into Mr. Carrisford's house, comes in high dudgeon to fetch her back, only to find her worst nightmare has come true: Sara has turned out to be a "princess" after all, with a wealthy benefactor who knows the whole sad story of Sara's degradation. We see Miss Minchin's worldviews come crashing into each other. She tries to lay claim to being Sara's friend--after all, she didn't throw her out on the street when she could have!--and attempts to slip back into the role of flattering wealth and power. But Sara is having none of it, and Carrisford has no reason to follow any lead but Sara's. (Though this is, perhaps, less believable in the real world, where adults often reflexively support each other against the testimony of children.) When Sara holds fast to her own truth, Miss Minchin tries to turn and bite, threatening Sara with the loss of access to her friends and telling Carrisford that his new ward is "neither truthful nor grateful." It's a last stab and falls short.

And now we see Miss Minchin's edifice of control tumble down. Just as she failed to maintain her chosen narrative against Sara, she now fails to maintain control over her household. Miss Amelia challenges her version of the truth and makes it clear that she won't subordinate her conscience to her sister's lead in the future. The pupils are in an uncomtrolled uproard, knowing only that something is up, until Sara resolves their confusion in the form of a letter to Ermengarde, explaining the whole matter. There is an intimation that Sara's sudden good fortune will rub off on Ermengarde, not only via access to Sara's fabulous new/restored life of privilege, but by conveying status as Sara's friend that will fortify Ermengarde in her relations with the other girls.

Now we get to the episode where the possible realities of the story seem utterly unfair to me. And where analysis by Moral Accounting indicates that the fact of being born into a life of hard labor and uncertainty is not treated as a "credit" (and therefore inherently worthy of being balanced by reward) in the same way that being born to a life of wealth and privilege is treated as a "debt" (and therefore a state that requires balance by going through trials.)

Becky realizes that Sara's escape and the restoration of her "princess" status means the loss of her own access to Sara's friendship and the pretend worlds that had made her own life worth enduring--as well as the loss of the magical transformed attic. For nobody would continue mysteriously providing food and heat and comfort for an ordinary scullery maid. And--to a certain extent--Becky's fears are correct. Recall that Becky was only given second-hand inclusion in The Magic, and only because Sara automatically included her in every part of the good fortune. If it had been left entirely to Mr. Carrisford, no doubt Becky would have been forgotten. But Sara didn't forget her. Sara sends Ram Dass across the attic roof one last time to give Becky reassurance. Becky is to come join her at Mr. Carrisford's house...as her personal maid.

Somehow it seems a betrayal. Sara could have continued to see Becky as "just another little girl like me". They had shared all their sorrows and small comforts for two years. Sara had made sure that Becky was included in every piece of fortune she received, whether it was sharing Ermengarde's food hamper or enjoying the gifts of her mysterious benefactor. But now, when Sara has the wealth and power and freedom to do pretty much anything she wants, the most she can find to offer Becky is a slightly higher position in service? It wouldn't occur to Becky to question the arrangement. She always knew that their apparent equality was an illusion. Sara never stopped being "miss" to her. But it seems an unexpected failure of Sara's imagination not to suggest adopting Becky as a sister and an equal, now that she has the power to do so.

To be sure, it might not be the kindest thing to do in the long run. It's unlikely that Becky would ever be comfortable being elevated to such a status. When I brought up this issue at the begining of this series, some commenters pointed out that raising a working class girl up to the middle class would have been a much less possible thing than a middle class girl falling nito poverty. But I wish Sara had thought to try, because it makes me think less of her.

Next week I'll look at the somewhat different fate of Anne, and how she demonstrates the lasting effects of Sara's example. And I'll do some sort of sum-up of why I've done this series. It's been an interesting project.

Magic in the world of Alpennia is elusive to the senses. Someone with the right talent may see the workings of the mysteries in visions--though no two will see exactly the same thing--or may hear it in "angel voices", like one young woman who appears in Mother of Souls, and many who have no other special sensitivity will experience the Great Mysteries as a shiver like the feel of someone walking over your grave. I not only have to convey how each character perceives is, but to convey how they understand what they're perceiving. Serafina struggles with that same thing, as she and Luzie work over their compositions: how do you describe the workings of magic to someone who can't see them, and do it well enough for that person to shape the mystical effects? Here's a little window on that struggle.

* * *

Chapter Fifteen - Serafina

Serafina leaned on the end of the fortepiano and watched Luzie’s hands move over the keyboard. She never tired of watching those hands, of imagining what other tunes they might play. No, that was too soon. Too soon. Issibet was on the sofa with her sewing, constantly in Serafina’s awareness. Even a touch that might once have seemed harmless now burnt like a coal. Guilt magnified everything.

Light filled the room in swirls and eddies. Serafina kept up a quick commentary on what she saw, using the code words they had slowly developed between them. When they spoke of music, they fell into Italian together, in a jumble of dialects that still failed to hold the words needed to describe what they were attempting. They fumbled and stretched to find a meeting point.

“The third time through is weaker,” she said. “It needs… It needs to start from a different place but move toward the same finish. Not like the call and response of a tutela mystery. More like a castellum where the echoes are the same but different each time, and build up layer on layer. Or like a painting.”

She thought of watching Olimpia at work: the sketches, the underlayers, the glazes, the highlights. Each utterly different and yet all shaping the figure on the canvas.

Luzie paused and then tried the strain again with the chords modulated to a wilder, more mournful sound.

“Yes,” Serafina said slowly. “That might work. Now again from the beginning.&rdquo

It was a slow, tedious process, this working out of Tanfrit’s aria. And it was only the first of the major songs they’d tackled. The mystic undertones could only be seen in the structure as a whole. With each revision they went back to the beginning—the beginning of that song, at least. Heaven knows how long it would take if they needed to play the entire sequence to see the success of each change!

Luzie was endlessly patient. She might not be able to see the details of the fluctus, but she knew music. Serafina marveled at how Luzie turned her frustrated, incoherent suggestions into exactly the right structure of sound that filled the house with power and made the hairs along her arms stand on end.

I may need to get a new copy of this book. Extensive note-taking does horrible things to the spine. (Of the book, not me!)

* * *

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 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.


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).

* * *

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?


I chatted a bit about the history project in an interview with Elizabeth Andersen for her radio show The Tenth Voice which aired yesterday. We also talked about my books and writing. The Project has also been added to the set of Resources links under Writing Characters with Different Sexual Orientations. Writing the Other offers a wide variety of resources, including links, articles, videos, and classes.

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LHMP #137j Faderman 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men II.A.1 The Asexual Woman

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).

* * *

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.]


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