Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3
A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.
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This book addresses the question of why, given the attention paid (if patchily) by historians to women’s friendships, the subject of erotic F/F friendship is strikingly absent from study. This erasure makes it possible to argue for the absence of lesbians in the past, but the erasure goes beyond the erotic. In 1867, a male-authored book on The Friendship of Women took for granted “the small number of recorded examples of the sentiment among women and… the commonness of the expressed belief that strong natural obstacles make friendship a comparatively feeble and rare experience with them.”
Vicinus traces the period from 1778 when Eleanor Butler eloped with Sarah Ponsonby, to 1928 when The Well of Loneliness was published, to identify those obstacles, and how women’s friendships of all types were marginalized and erased.
These forces included economic barriers to establishing an independent household, expectations regarding family obligations placed on unmarried women, and the expectation that marriage would supplant same-sex friendships.
This book focuses on the women most likely to leave a documentary record, so: white, educated, and (perhaps due to the author’s resources or intetests) Anglo. Vicinus looks at representative examples of several different modes of F/F erotic couplehood, including the place of gender presentation.
The 19th century saw an ongoing debate about normative sexuality, which shows the effort required to maintain the primacy of heterosexual marriage. The approved nature and place of women’s friendships was only one part of that. But the trajectory was never as simple as a correlation of increasing visibility producing increasing suppression. There was a sense of division across women’s friendships between the acceptable sensual, sentimental, romantic friendship, and the more dangerous sexual sapphism.
Women’s sentimental friendships were considered more solid and lasting than heterosexual passion. 18th century novels exploring the elevation of sensibility and feeling touched on the possibilities of marriage-like relationships between women as, perhaps, superior to those between men and women, as in Julie: ou la Nouvelle Heloise. This was the case even when the novels turned away from those possibilities to resolve in a conventional marriage plot. Even pornography intended for male consumption depicted F/F relations as having an extra closeness and tenderness not possible when a man was involved.
But only when desexualized could women’s friendships be safely integrated in respectable society. The contrast to this was the licentious sexual freedom of the French court in the late 18th century. Expressions of F/F friendship in bourgeois circles begin to avoid celebrations of physicality, in favor of sentiment. (A parallel shift was happening in representations of M/F relationships.) The rhetoric of friendship shifted to a focus on the spiritual, a view that both elevated and trivialized same sex friendships. F/F friendships came to be depicted in the 19th century as “practice“ for marital love, rather than taking its place, as it often had in earlier eras. But the very emphasis put on this distinction suggests that the divide between spiritual and erotic love was seen as dangerously permeable.
Vicinus looks at how specific women took elements from both romantic friendships and sapphic sexuality to create identities and relationships that rejected that barrier. Whether or not they used a specific label such as “lesbian” to identify themselves, they recognized and analyzed the erotic component of their relationships.
"Erotic" did not necessarily mean that they acted on their desires in terms of what we would consider sexual acts. And a choice not to name their desires didn’t mean there wasn’t language available. In many cases, it could be a deliberate protective strategy. We know they used codes. They left instructions regarding the destruction of private correspondence and memoirs. A refusal to apply stigmatized labels was another part of those strategies. Definitions of what constituted sex or sexual fidelity could be another part of that strategy. A woman could remain sexually respectable despite romantic relationships with women as long as society defined women’s activities as inherently non-sexual. In this context, buying into the position that “what women do together doesn’t matter” can be seen as self-protection rather than self-denigration. The gender-segregated nature of society provided many opportunities for homoerotic flirtation, teasing, and acts of affection.
Lesbian historiography has spent a lot of energy on defining exactly what falls within lesbian sexuality. Arguments about categories and definitions have sometimes dominated the discussion. At the same time, historians outside the field of queer history have often worked to deny or erase lesbian possibilities to “protect“ their subjects. A subject could not have been a lesbian, because lesbians didn’t exist then. And lesbians didn’t exist then, because historians successfully found reasons to exclude lesbian interpretations. The deliberate destruction of counter-evidence--either by their subjects, or by those who came after them--makes the denial easier. Given this (perhaps deliberate) avoidance of category labels by historical subjects themselves, is it presumptuous for a modern historian to categorize them as lesbian?
Historians have often focused exclusively on a mythic moment when a self-aware, self-proclaimed “lesbian identity“ became evident, and each historian identifies the mythic turning point in terms of the focus of their own study. While the avoidance of the word “lesbian” by historians such as Judith M. Bennett helps destabilize the idea of a single monolithic concept of sexual identity, or implications projected by modern usage and definitions, these hedges tend to prioritize the “unknowable“ aspect of women’s lives. And yet, using the term “lesbian“ for a wide variety of relationships, behaviors, and experiences prioritizes the modern focus on anatomical similarity in a way that may be far less relevant in the historic context being studied. Less relevant than things such as age difference, gender performance, or class membership.
The terminology that was used, especially in the context of unmistakably erotic relationships, reminds us of the coded and judgmental nature of the boundaries to acceptable behavior. Words such as “mannish,” “morbid,” “languid.” The use of a broad-brush application of words like lesbian can create a false coherence out of a diversity of identities, but the avoidance of words invoking unifying concepts can create a false erasure of the common experiences those terms circle around.
Rather than seeing identity as unstable and contextual, Vicinus argues for it as complex and layered. These layers and complexities can be explored from a variety of angles--as Halberstam does with performative masculinity--without defining one aspect as paramount, or even defining sexuality as the most important aspect of an individual’s identity.
Vicinus focuses on connections and commonalities, rather than timelines or defining moments. this book looks at exemplars--specific complex intersections in which women who loved women created “family.” Though society might view such arrangements as “a substitute for love” or as a matter of making do, it’s clear that the participants didn’t usually view it as such. That “family” might be expressed in the language of sisters, without that word excluding in a erotic component. But it might be expressed in the language of husband and wife, or that of mother and daughter, again without excluding the erotic. [Note: There are heterosexual marriages in which partners refer to each other as brother and sister, or as mother and father without any sort of implication of incest. So I think it’s important to allow a similar freedom of reference to same-sex couples.]
Each of these metaphorical framings comes with its own implications and hazards. The use of mother-daughter language could reflect or encourage a view of F/F relations as a transient life-stage experience. The use of husband-wife language might reflect or encourage power differentials between the partners. What other models were there for female homoeroticism outside the familial? The 18th century featured the female rake, but similar figures are harder to find in the 19th century, certainly in any respectable form. Some individuals might fit this model at certain stages of their life—Anne Lister and Natalie Clifford Barney come to mind--but usually among women with class privilege. All these roles were mutable, and women might shift between them even within the same partnership.
The remainder of the introduction outlines the content of the book and discusses the nature of the source materials.