Female sexual inverts

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?

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15 thoughts on “Female sexual inverts

  1. Very enlightening. Thank you for pointing out that there are those of us who do not wish to undergo transgendering, as I, for one, happily embrace my ‘butch femaleness’ as well as my passion for women, even though that leaves me labeled as a deviant. I would suppose, then, that you’ve just found your bass player. And I have a friend with a van…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m wondering in what subjects the book author’s primary education is. Ugh. She sounds like someone with essentially no real background in social history of women, because just this quick entry has several points that are far from historically correct for many, many American women. Am I correct to assume this was mostly about American women in the 19th and early 20th centuries?

    The second paragraph quoted from page 36 makes some downright bizarre and historically inaccurate claims that can be dispoven by a quick perusal of the major mill cities in the northeast in Federal (~1800-1840) and antebellum (1840-1860) America. In fact, even Colonial and revolutionary America hold plenty of examples which belie the claims of illiteracy and property possession.

    But sticking to 19th century forward: Working class women could and did read/write, and there are thousands of diaries extant. Working class women had bank accounts, too. Many women owned property (although each state and territory had different rules–some things never change!) and directed their own financial affairs even after marriage.

    Did the author never consider the tens of thousands of mill workers in cities like Lowell, Massachusetts? The Lowell girls had all of these things. In fact, the Lowell girls had their own newspapers, literary magazines, and banks. There was a bank which still exists in some form today which was opened specifically to encourage mill workers to save money by making it possible to open an account with just a nickel. Those accounts were marketed to “mill girls.”

    Owning property? The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed single women over 21 or female heads of household (widows or women whose husbands were declared indigent) to stake a claim and earn land the same way men could. 10% of homesteaders were single women…and they kept a lot of diaries, too. Women could also buy and sell property, especially in newer states. Though women didn’t have the vote nationally intol 1920, many local elections allowed women to vote more than 50 years earlier.

    When it comes to sexuality: most women wouldn’t even record pregnancies in letters to their own mothers until after safe delivery, so that might explain the lack of information in other aspects of sexuality. But there are hints, if one reads them closely.

    I’m disappointed in the sweeping generalizations which seem to have been made by the author. While of course, women were very much limited in their ability to earn money or manage their own affairs, in the US, women had more rights than most people realize. These sweeping generalizations rather undermine the arguments, because they remove the author’s authority when she clearly didn’t do her homework. It’s a shame. She’d have a more powerful message if she didn’t rely on tired myths about illiterate workers with zero autonomy.

    I’m not saying I’d ever trade and live in an earlier generation–women who came before my time made my way far easier than my mother had it–but for study like this to he truly impactful, authors need to get their history correct.

    *ducking*

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      • I almost want to read her book now just to see what she did or didn’t cover. It’s odd, too, that something published by a university press would be lacking in this way, but perhaps she had a lazy editor. Or, perhaps she had an editor who also doesn’t have the history chops to recognize such lapses. I would hope when it comes time for my work to be edited I will have someone who is sharp and bold enough to catch me if I made such errors. It’s no easy task to know all that we need to cover a topic thoroughly, so my criticism is guarded. Any of us can get so wrapped up in theory that we miss key points. I often check with my Classical/Medieval scholar brother when I’m working on a piece, because his perspective is from the civilizations which predate the Euro population of the Americas, whereas I’m an Americanist. He can point out traditions that were well established long before whites came to the Americas, AND he can help me compare/contrast Greek/Roman civ with Native American civ here. That background would be extremely hard for me to add to my repertoire while also increasing knowledge on my own specialties.

        Liked by 2 people

    • I think you’re making some sweeping generalizations of your own. The original mill girls had to turn most if not all of their earnings over to their fathers, often to support their brothers’ education. They were kept under strict control in boardinghouses. Families would not let their daughters leave home to work without guarantees of strict control. Over time, women began to carve out a degree of freedom and autonomy, but you’re painting a rosier picture than is strictly true.

      RE owning property via the Homestead Act, that depended where you lived. It was more common in the west when there were fewer women. Even into the early 20th century it was uncommon for a woman to acquire a farm in many places. Nebraska, where I used to live, passed the married women’s property act in 1871, but few women owned farms in Nebraska before 1940. (Source: Deborah Fink’s excellent work, Agrarian Women.)

      If I have time tonight I’ll come back to this topic. I love women’s history and have shelves of books from when I was in academia.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Lilith,
        I wasn’t trying to paint anything as rosy. Just stating facts that these things did indeed exist for women, albeit with many limitations. Women’s history is my field as well, and there is a lot of contradictory information on the surface, but the details make ot clear that exactly when, where, and in what social and familial context a woman existed was the biggest determinant as to their level of freedom. Some things never change.
        I was merely pointing out that claims of illiteracy (especially in New England, where religious dogma frequently insisted that everyone learn to read well enough to at least be able to read Scripture) and of there being no diaries of working women are just not an accurate portrayal.
        I appreciate that you probably have more experience than I do, since you worked in academia, but I’ve spent over 20 years studying a lot of primary as well as secondary sources and find that even today a lot of mythology or sweeping generalizations are taken for granted in the field, and that is what I was countering.

        As I said before, I’m well aware of the ugly battles so many generations have fought toward women’s equality, and how many are being fought all over again because they weren’t entirely won the first time around. I don’t have any romantic notions about women’s lives in the past. But, in some ways, I feel as though my freedom as a woman was more seure 20 years ago, while in others, my freedom is far more assured now that I stand independent of the need for others to approve of my choices and actions. Of course, that may actually be a function of my age (ie naivete in my 20s, even though I was paying more attention than most of my friends) or my inexperience at the time.

        In any case, I hope you don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t generalizing. I was pointing out well-documented exceptions to the stated generalizations while being fully aware of the attendant limitations.

        To your point about Nebraska: I get that. It really is situational and cultural in many ways. I’m still in awe at how many people in the south or midwest (think SW Missouri or certain regions of South Dakota) are convinced I am some kind of crazy person because I’m over 40, a solopreneur, working on a graduate degree, never married, childless, and travel some 30-50k solo annually by car. Yet where I live, those choices are all perfectly acceptable and almost the only reaction I get is joyful curiosity mixed with playful jealousy. Strangers at home don’t expect me to fit the precinceived notions of femininity and pearl-clutching traditionalism. I’m lucku to have grown up and come of age in this place and time and culture. But on almost every out-of-region journey, I meet women my own age who live much more restricted lives in a much more patriarchal community. It was quite a shock to see these societies in action as opposed to just reading about them.
        I guess my real point is that the author of that book might need to do a little more investigation and take less for granted. I hope I never stop looking for more information about my preferred areas of study, and I’m open to criticism. It makes us better academics when we are willing to listen to it, doesn’t it?
        🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’d like to join The Frigid Perverts if you have room for a toy-accordion player.
    Information like this is why I love etymology — origins are so interesting. Sometimes hilarious and /or awful! That’s why I don’t take anything at face value, I’m always questioning why…..probably why I didn’t end up straight or a Christian. Oh! I also thought it was funny that Frigid Perverts is similar to a lot of the insults thrown at feminists critical of sex-changes and the sex-work industry. I’m with ya on owning it–Red Frigid Pervert, here!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I was reading about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs the other day, after I read the first of your posts about this book. I came upon the term Urning to mean homosexual male, and his initial thoughts that they were female pschyes born in male bodies, and that brought me to sexual inversion and the idea that all of these women were inherently “masculine”… It just blew my mind that this trans shit was going on back then, and who knows how far back (probably since the existence of patriarchy). Its nothing new. And it makes me kinda angry.

    To quote Ronda Rousey, I’m “femininely badass as fuck”. Its definitely a man’s game to try and redefine women who do not conform to men’s gender mandates as “male”, “masculine”, and vice versa. “We’ve made up these gender boxes, and if you have any desire to get a job and not marry a man/don’t want to have a man’s babies and cook his dinner every night/do not enjoy our fine selection of lady clothes and receptionist positions/love women that goes against your gender…your very sex. So we need to make up new a new label for what you are so you can come fit in this other gender box.” Born wrong. Men. So silly.

    So dangerously ignorant.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This is so fascinating, as is the historically-informed commentary! Have you also read “The spinster and her enemies” by Sheila Jeffries? She also talks about the sexologists and how their ideas formed the basis for ‘sex positive’ feminism as well as transgenderism. I was shocked and
    disappointed to see how old these ideas were, especially since so often it is presented as a reaction to second wave feminism. The erasure of women’s (especially feminist) herstory keeps us reinventing the wheel.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love Lesbian sex so yes I would be considered an “invert” whatever since I am Butch, rejected the Female role my entire life and have been a highly sexual Lesbian working in a man’s field: construction.

    But it was very hard when I came out because I tried to access literature and it was all about lesbians hating themselves and the bushes or inverter whatever you want to call them what doing abusive things to their girlfriends like selling them into prostitution and smoking funny little cigarettes and doing heroin I mean really really really horrible stories because that’s what they were studying like you said criminals and those who were mentally ill but then homosexuality was seen as a mental illness and also as criminal Behavior it was until I came across a gay academic book which had many different stories including of lesbians that I found something positive I had perused the entire University of Colorado library looking for something decent on lesbians and all I found were these horror stories just like you mentioned demonizing Butch lesbians women who rejected the feminine role but loved women then I went to the leftist bookstore in town and I found positive books there this was 1981 mind you Del Martin and Phylis Lyons lesbian women and another book called sappho was a right on woman.

    Those 2 books gave me a positive association with lesbianism as well as the feminist Alliance and lesbian caucus and that book store but yes that was the stories they told about us horrible. What could a woman do but pass as male to make decent money is still fucking true men still make way better money and men’s fields than women’s which is why I got into Construction

    Liked by 1 person

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