Skip to content Skip to navigation

women’s communities


Both in literature and life, women-only communities created a focus for speculation on (or the experience of) romatic or erotic attraction between women. This tag includes not only formal single-sex institutions such as convents, but de facto ones such as women’s charitable organizations, or fictitious ones such as amazon societies or separatist utopias.

LHMP entry

The main themes by male authors in this set of texts include original poems in the classical Greek style with a relatively neutral portrayal of lesbians, and the continuing depiction of decadent lesbian eroticism, with an additional subgroup involving the frustration of author-insertion characters who desire lesbians. We also get an example of the “queer tragic triangle” in which a man and woman compete for the affections of a woman (with the man, of course, winning).

Like Schibanoff, Weston looks at the framing of religious devotions in same-sex imagery associated with the convent of saint Radegund. An episode in Radegund's Vita in which she encounters Christ as Bridegroom is turned around and echoed more strongly in Radegund’s relationship to the female community she founded, which is expressed in the language of desire and relationship. Within the female-authored part of her Vita, Radegund becomes conflated with Christ the Bridegroom in her relationship to the Brides/nuns who venerate her.

This article looks at the language of personal love and affection between medieval cloistered women. This social context provides an interesting window expressions of female same-sex desire due to three intersecting factors: the gender-segregated nature of their communities, the relative autonomy (economic and intellectual) women enjoyed within these communities, and the high degree of literacy among cloistered women (allowing us glimpses into their lives via their own words).

While the Inseparable motif sometimes employs a male character to bridge the practical logistics of forming a female couple, it is more natural for a triangle of this sort to frame the man and woman as rivals for their shared object of desire. Sappho’s fragment 31 encapsulates the envy of a woman for the man who has the attention of the woman she loves. And in contrast to the common motif of-two men competing for a woman's love, when one of the rivals is a woman there is always an awareness that the playing field is badly uneven.

There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends.

As a a methodology article, Murray begins with the usual discussion of the problems of data on this topic, in particular the double-whammy by which women's history sidelines homosexuality, and the history of homosexuality sidelines women. Having gotten past the problems of definitions and theory, the article presents a survey of types of historic data on women's affectional, erotic, and sexual relations with each other. The material contrasts with Bennett's survey article (Bennett 2000) in that it focuses more broadly on literature and legal theory rather than specific individuals.

Chapter 6: The L-Word in Women’s History

This book as a whole is a “state of the field” analysis of women’s history as an academic discipline, and especially of women’s history (indeed, history in general) covering eras before the 19th century. This summary will cover only the chapter specifically on lesbian history.

The article looks at Venice in the 16-17th centuries. Social commentaries framed singlewomen who were not under male control as “dangerous”. Charity aimed at this sector focused on dowries and making young women more mariagable. This paper proposes that worsening circumstances for singlewomen in the16th century resulted in expanded and new opportunities, especially female communities. There is discussion of the usual problems with documentation. In the 16th c. the best source is church 'censuses’ of baptismal status.

Subscribe to women’s communities