Female homosexuality without identity

The varied meanings of lesbian since the early 20th century has prompted some historians to revisit historic relationships between women before the wide usage of the word was defined by erotic proclivities. Discussion from historians caused further questioning of what qualifies as a lesbian relationship. As lesbian-feminists asserted, a sexual component was unnecessary in declaring oneself a lesbian if her primary and closest relationships were with women. When considering past relationships within appropriate historic context, there were times when love and sex were separate and unrelated notions.[68] In 1989 an academic cohort named the Lesbian History Group wrote:

Because of society’s reluctance to admit that lesbians exist, a high degree of certainty is expected before historians or biographers are allowed to use the label. Evidence that would suffice in any other situation is inadequate here… A woman who never married, who lived with another woman, whose friends were mostly women, or who moved in known lesbian or mixed gay circles, may well have been a lesbian. … But this sort of evidence is not ‘proof’. What our critics want is incontrovertible evidence of sexual activity between women. This is almost impossible to find.[69]

Female sexuality is often not adequately represented in texts and documents. Until very recently, much of what has been documented about women’s sexuality has been written by men, in the context of male understanding, and relevant to women’s associations to men—as their wives, daughters, or mothers, for example.[70] Often artistic representations of female sexuality suggest trends or ideas on broad scales, giving historians clues as to how widespread or accepted erotic relationships between women were.

Ancient Greece and Rome

History is often analyzed with contemporary ideologies; Ancient Greece as a subject enjoyed popularity by the ruling class in Britain during the 19th century. Based on their social priorities, early Greek scholars interpreted Greece as a westernized, white, and masculine society, and essentially removed women from historical importance.[71] Women in Greece were sequestered with each other, and men with men. In this homosocial environment erotic and sexual relationships between males were common and recorded in literature, art, and philosophy. Hardly anything is recorded about homosexual activity between women. There is some speculation that similar relationships existed between women and girls. The poet Alcman used the term aitis, as the feminine form of aites—which was the official term for the younger participant in a pederastic relationship.[72] Aristophanes, in Plato’s Symposium, mentions women who love women, but uses the term trepesthai (to be focused on) instead of eros, which was applied to other erotic relationships between men, and between men and women.[73]

Historian Nancy Rabinowitz argues that ancient Greek red vase images portraying women with their arms around another woman’s waist, or leaning on a woman’s shoulders can be construed as expressions of romantic desire.[74] Much of the daily lives of women in ancient Greece is unknown, specifically their expressions of sexuality. Although men participated in pederastic relationships outside of marriage, there is no clear evidence that women were allowed or encouraged to have same sex relationships before or during marriage as long as their marital obligations were met. Women who appear on Greek pottery are depicted with affection, and in instances where women appear only with other women, their images are eroticized: bathing, touching one another, with dildos placed in and around such scenes, and sometimes with imagery also seen in depictions of heterosexual marriage or pederastic seduction. Whether this eroticism is for the viewer or an accurate representation of life is unknown.[72][75]

Women in Ancient Rome were similarly subject to men’s definitions of sexuality. Modern scholarship indicates that men viewed female homosexuality with hostility. They considered women who engaged in sexual relations with other women to be biological oddities that would attempt to penetrate women—and sometimes men—with “monstrously enlarged” clitorises.[76] According to scholar James Butrica, lesbianism “challenged not only the Roman male’s view of himself as the exclusive giver of sexual pleasure but also the most basic foundations of Rome’s male-dominated culture”. No historical documentation exists of women who had other women as sex partners.[77]

Early Modern Europe

A front and back illustration of a Renaissance-era hermaphrodite showing a person with female facial features, breasts, and what appears to be a small penis or large clitoris. She wears a small hood and open robe tied multiple times around the legs. Where it opens in the front, the apparent rear appearance shows it to be perhaps a shell of some kind, as one with her body Two squares are missing from her the back of her head and torso. She has no buttocks.

Lesbianism and hermaphroditism, depicted here in an engraving circa 1690, were very similar concepts during the Renaissance.

Female homosexuality has not received the same negative response from religious or criminal authorities as male homosexuality or adultery has throughout history. Whereas sodomy between men, men and women, and men and animals was punishable by death in Britain, acknowledgment of sexual contact between women was nonexistent in medical and legal texts. The earliest law against female homosexuality appeared in France in 1270.[78] In Spain, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire, sodomy between women was included in acts considered unnatural and punishable by burning to death, although few instances are recorded of this taking place.[79] The earliest such execution occurred in Speier, Germany in 1477. Forty days’ penance was demanded of nuns who “rode” each other or were discovered to have touched each others’ breasts. An Italian nun named Sister Benedetta Carlini was documented to have seduced many of her sisters when possessed by a Divine spirit named “Splenditello”; to end her relationships with other women, she was placed in solitary confinement for the last 40 years of her life.[80] Female homoeroticism, however, was so common in English literature and theater that historians suggest it was fashionable for a period during the Renaissance.[81]

Ideas about women’s sexuality were linked to contemporary understanding of female physiology. The vagina was considered an inward version of the penis; where nature’s perfection created a man, often nature was thought to be trying to right itself by prolapsing the vagina to form a penis in some women.[82] These sex changes were later thought to be cases of hermaphrodites, and hermaphroditism became synonymous with female same sex desire. Medical consideration of hermaphroditism depended upon measurements of the clitoris; a longer, engorged clitoris was thought to be used by women to penetrate other women. Penetration was the focus of concern in all sexual acts, and a woman who was thought to have uncontrollable desires due to her engorged clitoris was called a Tribade (literally, one who rubs).[83] Not only was an abnormally engorged clitoris thought to create lusts in some women that led them to masturbate, but pamphlets warning women about masturbation leading to such oversized organs were written as cautionary tales. For a while, masturbation and lesbian sex carried the same meaning.[84]

Class distinction, however, became linked as the fashion of female homoeroticism passed. Tribades were simultaneously considered members of the lower class trying to ruin virtuous women, and representatives of an aristocracy corrupt with debauchery. Satirical writers began to suggest that political rivals (or more often, their wives) engaged in Tribadism in order to harm their reputations. Queen Anne was rumored to have a passionate relationship with Sarah Churchill, who became Duchess of Marlborough based on her rapport with the queen. When Churchill was ousted as the queen’s favorite, she purportedly spread allegations of the queen having affairs with her bedchamberwomen.[85] Marie Antoinette was also the subject of such speculation for some months between 1795 and 1796.[86]

Female husbands

Painting of a Renaissance-era woman dressed as a man, standing and looking away, as a woman dressed as a woman holds the other's hand to her breast, looking imploringly at the other, set against a bucolic backdrop

Gender masquerade as a dramatic device was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, such as this scene from Twelfth Night painted by Frederick Pickersgill.

Hermaphroditism appeared in medical literature enough to be considered common knowledge, although cases were rare. Homoerotic elements in literature were pervasive, specifically the masquerade of one gender for another to fool an unsuspecting woman into being seduced. Such plot devices were used in Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night (1601), The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser in 1590, and James Shirley’s The Bird in a Cage (1633).[87] Extraordinary cases during the Renaissance of women taking on male personae and going undetected for years or decades have been recorded.[note 6] If found, punishments ranged from death, to time in the pillory, to being ordered never to dress as a man again. Henry Fielding wrote a pamphlet titled The Female Husband in 1746, based on the life of Mary Hamilton who married women on three separate occasions, and was sentenced to public whipping in four separate towns and six months in jail. Similar examples were procured of Catharine Linck in Prussia in 1717, executed in 1721; Swiss Anne Grandjean married and relocated with her wife to Lyons, but was exposed by a woman with whom she had had a previous affair and sentenced to time in the stocks and prison.[88] Queen Christina of Sweden’s tendency to dress as a man was well-known during her time, and excused due to her noble birth; she was brought up as a male and there was speculation at the time that she was a hermaphrodite. Even after Christina abdicated the throne in 1654 to avoid marriage, she was known to pursue romantic relationships with women.[89]

Some historians view cases of cross-dressing women to be manifestations of women seizing power they would naturally be unable to enjoy in feminine attire, or their way of making sense out of their desire for women. Lillian Faderman argues that Western society was threatened by women who rejected their feminine roles. Catharine Linck and other women who were accused of using dildos, such as two nuns in 16th century Spain executed for using “material instruments”, were punished more severely than those who did not.[88][78] Two marriages between women were recorded in Cheshire, England in 1707 (between Hannah Wright and Anne Gaskill) and 1708 (between Ane Norton and Alice Pickford) with no comment about both parties being female.[90][91] Reports of clergymen with lax standards who performed weddings—and wrote their suspicions about one member of the wedding party—continued to appear for the next century.

Outside of Europe women were able to dress as men and go undetected. Deborah Sampson fought in the American Revolution as a man named Robert Shurtleff, and pursued relationships with women.[92] Edward De Lacy Evans was born female in Ireland, but took a male name during the voyage to Australia and lived as a man for 23 years in Victoria, marrying three times.[93] Percy Redwood created a scandal in New Zealand in 1909 when he was found to be Amy Bock, who had married a woman from Port Molyneaux; newspapers argued whether it was a sign of insanity or an inherent character flaw.[94]

Re-examining romantic friendships

Black and white photo of two women sitting in a hammock in turn of the 20th century dresses; one reclines and the other sits on her lap and wraps her arm around the other, both staring at each other

Intimacy between women was fashionable between the 17th and 19th centuries, although sexuality was rarely publicly acknowledged.

During the 17th through 19th centuries, a woman expressing passionate love for another woman was fashionable, accepted, and encouraged.[91] These relationships were termed romantic friendships, Boston marriages, or “sentimental friends”, and were common in the U.S., Europe, and especially in England. Documentation of these relationships is possible by a large volume of letters written between women. Whether the relationship included any genital component was not a matter for public discourse, but women could form strong and exclusive bonds with each other and still be considered virtuous, innocent, and chaste; a similar relationship with a man would have destroyed a woman’s reputation. In fact, these relationships were promoted as alternatives to and practice for a woman’s marriage to a man.[95][note 7]

One such relationship was between Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who wrote to Anne Wortley in 1709: “Nobody was so entirely, so faithfully yours … I put in your lovers, for I don’t allow it possible for a man to be so sincere as I am.”[96] Similarly, English poet Anna Seward had a devoted friendship to Honora Sneyd, who was the subject of many of Seward’s sonnets and poems. When Sneyd married despite Seward’s protest, Seward’s poems became angry. However, Seward continued to write about Sneyd long after her death, extolling Sneyd’s beauty and their affection and friendship.[97] As a young woman, writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft was attached to a woman named Fanny Blood. Writing to another woman by whom she had recently felt betrayed, Wollstonecraft declared, “The roses will bloom when there’s peace in the breast, and the prospect of living with my Fanny gladdens my heart:—You know not how I love her.”[98][note 8] Wollstonecraft’s first novel Mary: A Fiction, in part, addressed her relationship with Fanny Blood[99]

An engraved drawing of two stout Englishwomen sitting in a private library with their hair up in buns and wearing smoking jackets. They are seated at an ornately carved table with various objects on it. A cat sits in the foreground in a chair.

Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby had a relationship that was hailed as devoted and virtuous, after eloping and living 51 years together in Wales.

Perhaps the most famous of these romantic friendships was between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, nicknamed the Ladies of Llangollen. Butler and Ponsonby eloped in 1778, to the relief of Ponsonby’s family (concerned about their reputation had she run away with a man)[100] to live together in Wales for 51 years and be thought of as eccentrics.[101] Their story was considered “the epitome of virtuous romantic friendship” and inspired poetry by Anna Seward and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.[102] Diarist Anne Lister, captivated by Butler and Ponsonby, recorded her affairs with women between 1817 and 1840. Some of it was written in code, detailing her sexual relationships with Marianna Belcombe and Maria Barlow.[103] Both Lister and Eleanor Butler were considered masculine by contemporary news reports, and though there were suspicions that these relationships were sapphist in nature, they were nonetheless praised in literature.[104][105]

Romantic friendships were also popular in the U.S. Enigmatic poet Emily Dickinson wrote over 300 letters and poems to Susan Gilbert, who later became her sister-in-law, and engaged in another romantic correspondence with Kate Scott Anthon. Anthon broke off their relationship the same month Dickinson entered self-imposed lifelong seclusion.[106] Nearby in Hartford, Connecticut, African American freeborn women Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus left evidence of their passion in letters: “No kisses is like youres”.[107] In Georgia, Alice Baldy wrote to Josie Varner in 1870, “Do you know that if you touch me, or speak to me there is not a nerve of fibre in my body that does not respond with a thrill of delight?”[108]

Around the turn of the 20th century the development of higher education provided opportunities for women. In all-female surroundings, a culture of romantic pursuit was fostered in women’s colleges. Older students mentored younger ones, called on them socially, took them to all-women dances, and sent them flowers, cards, and poems that declared their undying love for each other.[109] These were called “smashes” or “spoons”, and they were written about quite frankly in stories for girls aspiring to attend college in publications such as Ladies Home Journal, a children’s magazine titled St. Nicholas, and a collection called Smith College Stories, without negative views.[110] Enduring loyalty, devotion, and love were major components to these stories, and sexual acts beyond kissing were consistently absent.[109] Women who had the option of a career instead of marriage labeled themselves New Women, and took their new opportunities very seriously.[note 9] Faderman calls this period “the last breath of innocence” before 1920 when characterizations of female affection were connected to sexuality, marking lesbians as a unique and often unflattering group.[109] Specifically, Faderman connects the growth of women’s independence and their beginning to reject strictly prescribed roles in the Victorian era to the scientific designation of lesbianism as a type of aberrant sexual behavior.[111]


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