Lesbian history, part 1

Big thanks to commenter Jinxie Lynx for sending me a PDF of the book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century-America by Lillian Faderman. This book is excellent! I didn’t realize how interested I was in lesbian history until I started reading it.

The first thing I learned is that lesbian history doesn’t go back very far. The identity “lesbian” didn’t even exist until the second half of the twentieth century! Of course, that doesn’t mean that there were no women who loved women before then, just that there was no identity category to label them with.

“That identity is peculiar to the twentieth century and owes its start at least partly to those sexologists who attempted to separate off women who continued to love other women from the rest of humankind. The sexologists were certainly the first to construct the conception of the lesbian, to call her into being as a member of a special category. (p11)”

In the 19th century there are lots of examples of “romantic friendships” between women, which were in fact encouraged and not taboo, although they were not seen as being sexual. These consisted of passionate friendships between women, sometimes while living together, which would continue only if the women could support themselves. Sometimes they had to eventually marry men because women couldn’t earn enough wages on their own. However, wealthy women had the opportunity to live with women throughout their lives. Historians have found love letters written between women, but there is often no proof of a sexual relationship. Romantic friendships had an air of innocence because this was before the time of the sexologists who said that lesbians were abnormal and sick and before the time of Freud who said everything was sexual. Sometimes the wealthy women who lived in romantic friendships with other women actively denied that anything sexual was going on, but occasionally love letters were found with distinctly erotic writing in them.

Women’s colleges were an important development in lesbianism. Upper class women were able to escape from marriage and domestic life by going to college and pursuing a career, and in these colleges lots of same-sex relationships flourished.

“But it was not the facts of their education alone that permitted those who wanted an alternative to domesticity to create one. Rather, it was that the young women’s relationships with one another while away at college helped to make them new people. With or without the administration’s or their families’ blessings, college allowed them to form a peer culture unfettered by parental dictates, to create their own hierarchy of values, and to become their own heroes and leaders, since there were no male measuring sticks around to distract, define, or detract. In those ways the early women’s colleges created a healthy and productive separatism such as radical lesbian-feminists of the 1970s might have envied. (p. 20)”

This last quote I find enthralling! How absolutely beautiful that college provided a place for women to form their own culture and become their own heroes in a safe environment away from men! This is what the lesbian separatists are talking about when they say that female-only feminist space creates lesbians. While reading this section I pondered whether this bit about colleges creating lesbians was true for me. I did have attractions to other girls right from childhood, but since I was drowning in heteronormativity I ended up dating men anyway in young adulthood. When I first had a relationship with a woman it was in college, of course—it was when I had an opportunity to live away from the watchful eyes of my parents and spend lots of quality time with female friends. The time I was able to spend with a close female friend is what gave me the opportunity to develop feelings of love for her and to act on those feelings.

“Although romantic friendships were not yet uncommon outside of women’s colleges, such passions were encouraged even more strongly in an academic setting, since females could meet each other there in large numbers and the colleges afforded them the leisure necessary to cultivate those relationships. With men living in a distant universe outside of their female world and the values of that distant universe suspended in favor of new values that emerged from their new settings, young women fell in love with each other. They became academic, athletic, and social heroes to one another; they shared a vast excitement and sense of mission about their mutual roles in creating new possibilities for women; they banded together against a world that was still largely unsympathetic to the opening of education and the professions to women. How could such excitements not lead to passionate loves at a time when there was not yet widespread stigma against intense female same-sex relationships? (p21)”

After reading this section, I realize how lucky I am, for so many reasons. I’m lucky I was born at a time when it was possible for the average girl to attend college, I’m lucky I can work and support myself without relying on a man, I’m lucky I was able to name myself as a lesbian while still young and find other lesbians, and I’m lucky that I am able to live with a female partner. A few decades ago this would not have been possible. I owe it to the feminists who came before me, the suffragettes and the first women to have careers instead of families, who made it all possible for the following generations. Thank you, women!

If I try to imagine what my life would have been like if I married a man, the overwhelming feeling I think of is resentment. I would have resented having to clean up after a man, having to be a maid and a housekeeper, having to submit to sex acts that do nothing for me, and being impregnated. I would have drowned in resentment and I would have never felt comfortable in my own home. I don’t know how women can live with men. To me, living with a man sounds absolutely dreadful. I don’t think I’d ever be able to relax and be myself, I’d always be on guard.

This section focuses on wealthy women because there are historical records available about them. Working class women in the 19th century were often illiterate so there are no love letters to read by them, and they likely did not have the leisure time required to form the types of romantic friendships that wealthy women had. The wealthy women discussed in this chapter were often feminists as well as lesbians, and they often pioneered new avenues for women in education and professional work. I felt very proud reading about them. Although the term “lesbian feminist” didn’t exist back then, they certainly fit the description!

In the last section of the chapter are some erotic letters written between 19th century women. What a delightful surprise! Check out this letter that Almeda Sperry wrote to Emma Goldman:

“Dearest. … If I had only had courage enuf to kill myself when you reached the climax then—then I would have known happiness, for at that moment I had complete possession of you. Now you see the yearning I am possessed with—the yearning to possess you at all times and it is impossible. What greater suffering can there be—what greater heaven—what greater hell? And how the will to live sticks in me when I wish to live after possessing you. Satisfied? Ah God, no! At this moment I am listening to the rhythm of the pulse coming thru your throat. I am surg[ing] along with your life blood, coursing thru the secret places of your body. I wish to escape from you but I am harried from place to place in my thots. I cannot escape from the rhythmic spurt of your love juice. (p.30)”

This book is absolutely fantastic so far—and not just because of “I cannot escape from the rhythmic spurt of your love juice,” which is now my favourite sentence, but because the history of lesbians is fascinating and beautiful, in many ways.

If you’d like to read this book I can email you the PDF.

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18 thoughts on “Lesbian history, part 1

  1. Uh, yes, please! I will take one!
    I LOVE history, ESPECIALLY the kind you can’t find in HIStory books. I remember reading The Well of Loneliness when I was a teenager and being completely enthralled. I crave stories about women, written by women, without any concern for a male audience.
    P.s. I am convinced SBA and ECS were romantically involved. They absolutely loved each other but the documentary I watched about suffrage TOTALLY glossed over it. Typical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Even Goldman herself didn’t consider herself a lesbian. In the book is written: “But women did not necessarily perceive themselves as lesbians simply because they lived such experiences and wrote and received such letters. Some even dismissed entirely the significance of those experiences in identifying their sexual orientation. Several years after Emma Goldman’s relationship with Almeda Sperry, in 1928, the same year the famous lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness was published, Goldman wrote of her shock that a woman friend had run off with Djuna Barnes: “Really, the Lesbians are a crazy lot. Their antagonism to the male is almost a disease with them. I simply can’t bear such narrowness.” Although she had held
      another woman to her “unconfined bosom” and shared her “love juice” with her, Goldman did not hate men, so she felt she was not “one of them.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “If I try to imagine what my life would have been like if I married a man, the overwhelming feeling I think of is resentment. I would have resented having to clean up after a man, having to be a maid and a housekeeper, having to submit to sex acts that do nothing for me, and being impregnated. I would have drowned in resentment and I would have never felt comfortable in my own home. I don’t know how women can live with men. To me, living with a man sounds absolutely dreadful. I don’t think I’d ever be able to relax and be myself, I’d always be on guard.”

    Well, this is probably because you are not by inclination heterosexual. For those of us who are, these events carry entirely different meanings and emotions, of course.

    The events you relate here are fascinating! Thank you for posting all this “hidden” history!

    Like

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