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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #100b Donoghue 1996 - Passions Between Women (Chapter 1)

Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4

Publication summary: 

A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.

Chapter 1: Female Hermaphrodites

Donoghue's texts is packed full of references to publications and quotations of relevant material. To a large extent, the best I can do here is to provide an index to the most significant ones.

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Chapter 1: Female Hermaphrodites

The combination of the phallocentric model of sex and a heteronormative model for desire contributed to an early modern fixation and anxiety about physical hermaphroditism. If an apparent woman desired another woman, and particularly if sexual activity were involved, it raised a suspicion of the presence of a penis, or at the very least of an enlarged clitoris capable of penetrative sex. While unfamiliarity with normal variation in the size of genitalia may have inspired some part of this idea, and true intersex individuals may have contributed in some way, the magnitude of this preoccupation can only be understood as representing social anxieties about female sexuality far more than anatomical reality. This model of female same-sex passion served, among other things, to portray lesbians as a physically separate and identifiable class, driven by anatomical destiny rather than desire.

Several Classical texts were available as models for the idea of hermaphorditism: Ovid’s “Iphis and Ianthe”, Martial’s Epigram 91, and Lucian’s fifth courtesan dialogue. (These have been touched on in other entries so they will only be referenced here.) English writers of the 18th century discussed these as ancient texts but also interpreted them in relation to contemporary figures and practices.

Beyond these classical references, most serious mentions of hermaphrodites occur as case histories in “medical” texts (often barely-disguised sensational titillation), of which an index is given here:

Nathaniel Wanley's Wonders of the Little World (1678) was a book of “curiosities” that includes a list of “magical” sex-changes, all but one being female to male. Wanley followed an older classical model that saw the newly-appeared organ as a sort of prolapsed vagina, often appearing due to trauma or violent activity.

Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671) takes note of women with an enlarged clitoris which is thought to lead to sexual deviance with other women. As is common in literature of this vein, the phenomenon is exoticized, being described as rare in England but common in places such as Asia or Africa. As with many of the other references to foreign examples, female genital mutilation is described as being a response to this enlargement.

Joannes Benedictus Sinibaldus (mid 17th century) translated among others by Richard Head as Rare Verities (1687) described enlarged clitorises as the result rather than the cause of “feminine congression” (sex between women).

The English translation of Nicholas Venette’s sex manual as The Mysteries of Conjugal Love Reveal’d (1707) discusses “unnatural” sexual practices as a warning, as well as the acceptable ones the manual is intended to instruct in. He discusses the use of an enlarged clitoris in “vice” between women (citing “the Lesbian Sappho” as one practitioner), but is ambiguous as to cause and effect. He also lists five types of “hermaphrodites” with a range of variation in genitalia and functionality.

Thomas Gibson’s 1682 anatomy textbook takes as a given the existence of enlarged clitorises and their association with lesbian sex, as does John Marten’s early 18th c. treatise on venereal disease which cites him. The phenomenon is once again displaced into “exotic” locations such as Arabia, Ethiopia, Florida, and Virginia.

Richard Carr’s Medicinal Epistles (1714) notes the story of two nuns, examined due to suspicion, who were determined to have developed enlarged clitorises (presumably due to sexual activity) and were ejected from the convent, after which they took to living as men. But Carr dismisses the notion that size necessarily indicates “wanton practices” as he notes the enlargement may be seen in very young children and may, he asserts, be due to chafing clothing.

Anti-masturbation treatises such as The Onania (1708) saw enlargement both as a consequence of “self-pollution” and then as a means of enabling lesbian activity.

Several publications offer stories of a person originally understood to be a woman who, on official reconsideration of anatomy, was re-classified as male and required to wear masculine clothing. This reclassification may later be reversed with a corresponding required reversal of presentation. But desire as well as anatomy might be the trigger for such reclassification, as in the story of Anne Grandjean of Grenoble who, on confessing her desire for girls, was told by her confessor that she must therefore really be a boy and should dress and act accordingly.

The Onania (an anti-masturbation periodical) included a “letters column” of the true confessions type. Among many rather formulaic examples, there is one purporting to be from a woman who, after having her mind expanded (he says “debauched”) by Martial, Juvenal, and Ovid, began enjoying a sexual relationship with her mother’s chamber maid and as a result developed an enlarged clitoris. Somewhat refreshingly, the persona of the letter seems rather joyful and unashamed of her history and, although she has left off her sexual practices due to the enlargement, is still living in an affectionate relationship with her former lover.

Giles Jacob’s A Treatise of Hermaphrodites (1718) clings to the “anatomy causes desire” model but believes that the well-endowed woman can only give sexual pleasure and not achieve it herself due to the lack of an ability to ejaculate. This last position is countered by several literary examples representing pairs of sexual women who alternate in providing gratification to each other. In the examples above, taking on a masculine social role has been mentioned as something imposed by authorities, but Robert James’ Medicinal Dictionary (1745) gives the example of Henrikje Verschuur of Holland who, impatient with a female social role, crossdresses and enlists as a soldier, later enjoying sexual relationships with several women who apparently were aware of her original sex.

Samuel Tissot’s Onanism (1766) focuses primarily on the evils of mutual sexual stimulation between women, but includes a somewhat unusual note on the emotional side: “Women have been known to love girls with as much fondness as ever did the most passionate of men, and conceive the most poignant jealousy, when they [the girls] were addressed by the male sex upon the score of love.” [Note that the relationship is being portrayed as an older jealous aggressor and a younger object of affection who evidently is receptive to the affections of both men and women.]

Literary texts that include the motif of either physical or metaphoric hermaphroditism include Anthony Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Life of Count Grammont (1713); The Toast (1736) a vicious satirical piece by William King against the Duchess of Newburgh after failing to prevail in a lawsuit against her; and more positively, Aphra Behn’s 1688 poem “To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More than Woman”.

Time period: 

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