I have been reading, off and on (the way I always read!) the above book, Sheila Jeffreys’ The Spinster and Her Enemies — Feminism and Sexuality 1880-1930.
I am LOVING it. This book should be required reading for any feminist or pro-feminist, but particularly those of us who devote time or activist work to challenging destructive sexual practices, prostitution, pornography and compulsory heterosexuality. There’s a history of feminist work and activism around these issues from the 1800s of which few feminists are aware. And, given patriarchy’s amazing powers of self-healing, the work has been largely erased and so here we are, more than a century later, having to re-invent the wheel.
From the book:
There are certain basic assumptions underlying the work of historians on the history of sexuality which must be overturned if the significance of the women’s campaigns is to be understood. The most pervasive is the assumption that the last 100 years represent a story of progress from the darkness of Victorian prudery towards the light of sexual freedom. Implicit in this view is the idea that there is an essence of sexuality which, though repressed at times in the past, is gradually fighting its way free of the restrictions placed upon it. On examination this “essence” turns out to be heterosexual and the primary unquestioned heterosexual practice to be that of sexual intercourse. Despite the wealth of work by sociologists and feminists on the social construction of sexuality, the idea remains that a natural essence of sexuality exists. Another assumption is that there is a unity of interests between men and women in the area of sexuality, despite the fact that sexuality represents above all a primary area of interaction between two groups of people, men and women, who have very different access to social, economic and political power. Thus historians who concern themselves with writing the history of the “regulation of sexuality”, that is the way in which people’s sexual behavior has been restricted by repressive ideology and the state, without paying serious attention to the way in which the power relationship between the sexes is played out on the field of sexuality, can be seen to be subsuming the interests of women within those of men. …
…The propagandists of the 1920s and 1930s attacked the earlier feminists for being prudes and puritans. Contemporary historians, for whom the new ideology of the 1920s has become the conventional wisdom, have replicated this attack. When looking at the 1920s, they have been unable to be objective or critical.
…The effect of the “sexual revolution” was to cripple the feminist campaign to assert woman’s right to control her own body, and to exist, as Wolstenholme Elmy put it, “free from all uninvited touch of man.” This aim has never been given its deserved significance by historians as part of the range of political objectives of the nineteenth century women’s movement. This may be because the right to bodily integrity has not been included in the political platofrm of any male political struggle, and only those objectives which men have seen to be important for themselves have been given serious attention. …Women’s right to escape from being the involuntary object of men’s sexual desires has not earned itself a place in the pantheon of human rights. Woman’s “frigidity” became an issue in the 1920s as attempts were made to construct a female sexuality which would complement that of men. The struggle of women to assert their right to say no gradually faded into insignificance whilst male sex theorists debated astride the conquered territory of women’s bodies.
From the chapter, Women’s Friendships and Lesbianism:
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries many middle-class women had relationships with each other which included passionate declarations of love, nights spent in bed together sharing kisses and intimacies and lifelong devotion, without exciting the least adverse comment. Feminist historians have explained that the letters and diaries of middle class women in America in the first half of the 19th century frequently contained references to passionate same-sex friendships. Lillian Faderman’s book Surpassing the Love of Men details innumerable such friendships between women…
These women wrote about their feelings to each other in ways which would nowadays seem quite inappropriate to same-sex friendship. …Historians could not fail to notice the expression of such sentiments. They have tried to ignore them or explain them away so that they could not be allowed to challenge their heterosexual account of history. The commonest approach has been to say that such romantic expressions were simply the normal form of friendship at that time. They say that it was fashionable to be effusive. …the same explanation has been given for the romantic, emotional expression between men of the 16th century. In this way historians have tidied away what they found incongruous and wiped the history of homoeroticism from the slate of heterosexual history….
Today intense emotional and sensual interaction between women friends in the West is not seen as socially acceptable. …In contemporary society women are only expected to feel a controlled and non-physical level of fondness for their women friends and to wonder if they are “lesbian” if they feel more. Why and how did this change occur?
[Lillian] Faderman explains that women’s same-sex friendships came to be seen as a threat in the late 19th century as the women’s movement developed to challenge men’s dominance and new social and economic forces presetned middle class owmen with the possibility of choosing not to marry and be dependent on men. She sees the sexologists who classified and categorized female homosexuality, including within it all passionate friendships, as having played a major role in discouraging love between women for all those who did not want to adopt the label of homosexuality.
In American women’s colleges up until the late 19th century, the practice of “smashing,” in which young women would pursue their beloveds with gifts and declarations until their feelings were returned and they were “smashed” was perfectly acceptable. These friendships were gradually outlawed and rendered suspicious by college heads who were often living with women they loved in passsionate unions themselves. By the 1890s it was seen as necessary to root out these friendships as unhealthy practices.
…As part of their self-imposed task of categorizing varieties of human sexual behavior, the sexologists of the late 19th century set about the “scientific” description of lesbianism…. They codified as “scientific” wisdom current myths about lesbian sexual practices, a stereotype of the lesbian and the “pseudohomosexual” woman, categorizing women’s passionate friendships as female homosexuality..
Havelock Ellis ..classified as “homosexual” precisely those forms of behavior for which spinster feminists, the New Women of the 1890s, were criticzed by antifeminists. In the 1890s some women were trying to escape the “effeminate” stereotype of woman. Those feminists were neatly slotted into a picture of lesbian women who were neatly pseudomen.
…As a counterpart to the “butch” masculine stereotype of the lesbian which the sexologists were creating, they provided a model for “pseudohomosexual.” They made it clear that their concern about the pseudohomosexual stemmed from what they saw as the spread of homosexuality within the feminist movement. Edward Carpenter expressed in 1897 his alarm at the phenomenon of lesbianism within the women’s movement, combined with a quite obvious horror at the extent to which feminists were abandoning the constraints of the feminine sex role:
[feminists were] naturally drawn from those in whom the sexual instinct is not preponderant. Such women do not altogether represent their sex; some are rather mannish in temperament; some are “homogenic”, that is inclined to attachments to their own sex rather than the opposite sex; women are ultra-rationalizing and brain-cultured; to many, children are more or less a bore; to others, man’s sex-passion is a mere impertinence, which they do not understand and whose place they consequently misjudge. It would not do to say that the majority of the new movement are out of l ine, but there is no doubt that a large number are…
Edward Carpenter, like Havelock Ellis, is currently seen as the founding father of sexual enlightenment, and as a male homosexual who, in writing abuot men’s love for each other positively, was an inspiration to the burgeoning male homosexual rights movement. In the light of his reputation as a homosexual revolutionary, as well as a friend to feminism, such comments on lesbians and feminists strike a rather discordant note. What they suggest, like the rest of his writings, is that his view of women’s emancipation was that women should have equal rights so long as they remained different, feminine, and passionately attached to men.
…The pseudohomosexual was characterized as a woman who did not necessarily fit the masculine stereotype, had been seduced by a “real homosexual,” and led away from a natural heterosexuality to which it was hoped she would return. Real homosexuality was seen to be innate, and pseudohomosexuality a temporary divergence.
… The pseudohomosexual is shown to be not just easily led but intellectually inferior which should be enough to discourage women from “imitation.” [One writer] informs us that “original” homosexuality is much less common amongst women than amongst men, “whereas in many women even at a comparatively advanced age, the so-called pseudohomosexuality “is much more frequently met with than it is in men”. This pious hope that women are somehow more innately heterosexual than men, he supports with the explanation that heterosexual women are inclined towards “tenderness and caresses,” which make it easy for “pseudohomosexual tendencies” to arise.
For [the writer above] as for other sexologists, male homosexuality was defined by genital contact and their lack of other kinds of physical contact with each other prevented men from straying from the heterosexual path. Through the defining of any physical caresses between women as pseudohomosexuality by the sexologists, the isolation and stigmatising of lesbianism was accomplished, and women’s friendships were impoverished by the suspicion cast upon any physical expression of emotion.
…American lesbian feminist historians suggest that female homosexuality and all strong emotional expression between women was stigmatized by the sexologists in the late 19th and early 20th century in response to … social and economic circumstances which offered a real threat to men’s domination over women. …the number of women in excess of men in the population was steadily rising in the last half of the 19th century. When this “surplus” of women had the possibility of living and owrking outside the structures of heterosexuality, they became a threat to the maintenance of men’s control….This threat was particularly serious when independent women were engaged in passionate friendships with each other and were in a position to form a strong female network which could bond against men. It was this last danger that the development of a strong feminist movement appeared to be creating in the late 19th century….
…[The sexologists] saw themselves as progressive in their attempts to separate off lesbianism, which included passionate frienship, from “innocent” women’s friendships. Once lesbianism was an isolated phenomenon, it provided a much clearer target for attack and by the early 1930s the climate for women’s love was becoming increasingly hostile. Loveliest of Friends (1931) by G. Sheila Donsithorpe, an American novel, seems to have been popular in Britain and went through three editions in as many months. In the novel the innocent Audrey becomes involved in a passionate and exciting relationship with Kim. Very soon it turns sour and Audrey twice attempts suicide. At the very end of the book when the affair is over, Donisthorpe turns to pure propaganda and concludes, about the forsaken Audrey:
This, then, is the product of lesbianism. This the result of dipping the fingers of vice into a sex welter whose deadly force crucifies in a slow, eternal bleeding.
And yet there are those who hug as a martyrdom these sadistic habits, who clamour for the recognition of the sinister group who practise them, those crooked, twisted freaks of Nature who stagnate in dark and muddy waters, and are so choked with the weeds of viciousness and selfish lust that, drained of all pity, they regard their victims as mere stepping stones to their further pleasure. With flower-sweet fingertips they crush the grape of evil till it is exquisite, smooth and luscious to the taste, stirring up a subconscious responsiveness, intensifying all that has been, all that follows, leaving their prey gibbering, writhing, sex sodden shadows of their former selves, conscious of only one ambition, one desire in mind and body, which, ever festering, ever destroying, slowly saps them of health and sanity.
[Sheesh! — Heart]
To make the message absolutely clear, the dedication of the book reds, “To all the contemplating Audreys of this world the message in this book is offered.”
…Once women’s relationships might have spanned a continuum from casual friendship through intense emotional and physical involvement, to, in those cases where it seemed appropriate to the women concerned, relationships involving both lifelong commitment and genital sex. By the late 1920s a distinction had been drawn between an acceptable level of friendship and lesbianism. The middle ground had been cut out. Women were no longer in a position to engage in passionate involvements with each other without being aware that they were on the edge of a precipice which might plunge them into the stigmatised world of the lesbian. Women’s novels later than the 1920s do not provide us with portraits of love between women which is devoid of suspicion until the advent of lesbian feminist writing in the 1970s.