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19th c

LHMP entry

The idea of “modern lesbian identity” and when it can first be identified is a question that has preoccupied many historians in the field. In this article, Vicinus tackles the question. Keep in mind that this article was written in 1992, so it was still rather early in terms of current lesbian history scholarship.

The 19th c, far from being an era of sexual repression (as the “Victorian” age is often depicted) saw an increasingly diverse and intense focus on sexuality, including homosexuality. This paper looks at depictions of homosexuality in Paris from the 1830s through the end of the 19th century, in printed and visual media. From this, we see the obsessions, anxieties, and taboos about public behavior.

This chapter looks at examples of intense, perhaps even destructive desrie that didn’t fit neatly into the available 19th century models for female love. So how did these women depict and understand their desires? One method was to displace the desire through taking on roles or working it out through fictional depictions. Some women understood their desire for a dominant position as a type of masculinity, as with the two women considered in this chapter: Eliza Lynn Linton and Vernon Lee (Violet Paget).

Part III – Cross-Age and Crossed Love

In looking for models for same-sex relationships, women drew from a number of familiar sources. The mother-daughter bond may be one that modern people find problematic, but many people used this image to express age-differentiated and asymmetrical bonds, regardless of whether the bond included an erotic aspect. [Note: Given that I’ve known heterosexual married couples in which the husband was “daddy” or the wife “mother”, I hesitate to judge female couples differently for using the same language and imagery.]

One approach to acceptance of same-sex desire was to view all love as a gift of God and therefore acceptable. This chapter looks at two examples of f/f love embedded in religious structures. Lesbians had far from a unified attitude toward religion, aligning themselves more often based on class or family attitudes, sometimes embracing them, sometimes rejecting.

Part II: Queer Relationships

This pair of chapters presents four biographies of women’s live affected by law or religion. These aren’t people with public significance but we still have a picture of how their desires conflicted with heterosexual expectations. We also get a picture of how attitudes towards women’s same-sex relationships were complicated and situational.

While chapter 1 looked at women who were able to forge exceptional lives through individual resources, whether of money or talent, this chapter looks at the options available through a supportive community. Specifically an extended community of English and American expatriates in Rome in the third quarter of the 19th century. The core of this group was formed of artists and writers, extended through their friends and partners. And at the center were actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer.

Part I – Husband-Wife Coupling

The first two chapters cover a number of couples who explicitly presented their relationships as marriage. They controlled people’s perception of the relationship by careful management of their public performance. The framing of the couples as “married” was often accompanied by one partner performing a somewhat more masculine style and perhaps attributing her attraction to women to an inherent masculinity.

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.

The introduction to this article identifies the turn of the 20th century as “a crucible of change in gender and sexual relations in the United States” and stakes a claim that the period from 1880-1920 was when the “Modern lesbian” emerged. [Note: One hears this claim about a variety of different points in the 19th and 20th centuries. So I’d withhold judgment about the accuracy of the claim.] This study focuses on the lesbian as a “desiring subject” -- a woman who considers her desire for other women to be a fundamental part of her identity.

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