In chapter one of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman wrote mostly about middle-to-upper class women and their “romantic friendships” which were popular and accepted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In chapter two she focuses on working class women and the sexologists’ reactions to them. Unfortunately there are no diaries or letters to read from 19th century working class women since they were mostly illiterate, so we cannot read about their lives in their own words. But the sexologists of the late 19th century were writing about “sexual inverts,” (their term for homosexuality,) and they based their theories on the women of the lower class. The theories of the early sexologists on sexual inversion had a huge impact and have stayed with us ever since, although the terminology has changed.
It was not uncommon for working class women at this time to dress as men because this allowed them greater freedom and opportunities. Wages for women were so low that the best way to earn a living was to pass as a man and get a man’s job. There were women passing as men for most of their lives and doing men’s work, without anyone finding out they were really women.
“Charles Warner,” an upstate New York woman who passed as a man for most of her life, explained that in the 1860s: “When I was about twenty I decided that I was almost at the end of my rope. I had no money and a woman’s wages were not enough to keep me alive. I looked around and saw men getting more money and more work, and more money for the same kind of work. I decided to become a man. It was simple. I just put on men’s clothing and applied for a man’s job. I got it and got good money for those times, so I stuck to it.
A transvestite woman who could actually pass as a man had male privileges and could do all manner of things other women could not: open a bank account, write checks, own property, go anywhere unaccompanied, vote in elections. The appeal was obvious. Even those passing women who denied they were “women’s-righters,” as did Babe Bean, had to admit, “As a man I can travel freely though unprotected and find work (p36).”
When the sexologists studied the “sexual deviants” of the lower class, they completely missed the fact that women who did not wish to marry men had to dress as men in order to survive, and instead concluded that women behaved this way due to their own abnormal nature, because they were men trapped in women’s bodies. The sexologists were quite willing to label working class lesbians as deviants while accepting romantic friendships between women of the middle and upper class. One of the reasons for this is that the working class women were more masculine in appearance. Upper class women were able to present themselves as “ladylike” but working class women did hard physical labor and wore men’s clothing. Another reason is that the sexologists were often studying women who were in prison or insane asylums and had been labeled as “hysterical,” which means they were already prejudiced toward thinking that these women were deviant. At this time, the theory of evolution was popular and a eugenics movement was going on, so the classification of sexual inverts occurred in the context of labeling poor people as having bad genes that should not be passed on.
Sexual inversion is “the inborn reversal of gender traits” or, in other words, the refusal to perform one’s sex role. It is clear from reading this chapter that what really bothered the male establishment is not the fact of women loving each other, but the fact of women refusing to perform the feminine role. They had no problem with the upper class women who presented as ladylike and asexual and had close friendships with each other. What they had a problem with was women who dressed as men and behaved in a “masculine” way by working in men’s jobs and displaying sexual desire. Instead of observing that women can, in fact, do hard physical labour and experience lust for other women, the sexologists concluded that women who behave in such ways are sick and that they have male minds. Feminists were also labeled as sexual inverts because they wanted to overthrow the feminine sex role. The hatred for lesbians and the hatred for feminists comes from the same desire to maintain traditional sex roles.
The writings of the sexologists on female sexual inverts eventually entered the public consciousness. This brought with it a fascination with female perversions and advice to women warning them against close female friendships. Women who were in romantic friendships had to denounce sexual inversion and insist that their relationships were not like those relationships. When American writers started writing lesbian characters in fiction, they were presented as masculine, perverted and dangerous. Although the sexologists described sexual inverts in very unflattering terms, calling them “pathological in nature,” “psychopaths and neurotics,” and “degenerative and abnormal,” some lesbians accepted the theory that their homosexuality was an inborn trait, like a birth defect. To present their condition as a genetic anomaly meant that it could not be viewed as a perversion or a crime.
“If they were born into the “intermediate sex,” no family pressure or social pressure could change them. Their love for women was mysteriously determined by God or Nature. If their attraction to women was genital and they failed to keep that a secret, they could not in any case be seen as moral lepers. They were simply biological sports, as Natalie Barney, an American lesbian, wrote in her autobiography, reflecting the sexologists’ influence on her conception of her own homosexuality: “I considered myself without shame: albinos aren’t reproached for having pink eyes and whitish hair; why should they hold it against me for being a lesbian? It’s a question of Nature. My queerness isn’t a vice, isn’t deliberate, and harms no one.” The sexologists had provided that ready-made defense for homosexuality (p45).”
We are still using this excuse today. Society still thinks it’s unacceptable when women fail to perform femininity and when we express our homosexuality, especially if we do both at the same time, and we still have to claim “born this way” to keep homophobes off our backs. It’s amazing how little has changed in a hundred years.
Women were assumed to have no sexual desire of their own, and to have a passive role in sex, so when women displayed sexual desire this was considered proof of her having a male brain.
“For the woman who was caught up with notions of gender-apppropriate behavior, the sexologists’ views of the lesbian as a “man trapped in a woman’s body” could be turned in her favor sexually if she wished: she could give herself permission to be sexual as no “normal” woman could. In her essay “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian,” Esther Newton suggests that the congenital inversion theory must have appealed to some women because it was one of the few ways a woman could “lay claim to her full sexuality.” The “normal” female’s sexuality was supposed to be available for procreation and her husband’s conjugal pleasure only. But if a female were not a female at all but a man trapped in a woman’s body, it should not be condemnable nor surprising that her sexuality would assert itself as would a man’s. Newton suggests that for decades the female invert was alone among women in her privilege of being avowedly sexual. Frances Wilder is an example of a woman who took that privilege. In a letter she wrote in 1915 to Edward Carpenter, a leading promoter of the congenital theory, she confessed that she harbored a “strong desire to caress and fondle” another female. Hoping to justify her sex drive, she explained that she experienced such a desire because she had within her not just “a dash of the masculine” but also a “masculine mind.”
Well, if a strong desire to caress and fondle another female is a sign of being a man in a woman’s body, then I guess everybody better start calling me Bob with pronouns he/him!
The one benefit of the sexologists naming of sexual inverts is that women who loved other women began to realize there were others like them and began to seek each other out, and this led to lesbian subcultures forming in cities.
It was the sexologists who created the social category of the “lesbian” and named us as abnormal people whose gender traits were reversed. Decades later, there is finally a cure for sexual inversion: surgery and hormones to make the sexual invert appear as the opposite sex.
I had to laugh reading through this, because according to the early sexologists, I meet the definition of a pervert. However, according to the early sexologists, I also meet the definition of frigid. How amusing that I am frigid and perverted at the same time! Silly sexologists!
I am now going to start a rock band called “The Frigid Perverts.” Who wants to be the bass player?