Includes Colonial America in what would become the USA. May also be used generally for North America if sources were not specific. See also separate tag Native America for discussions of indigenous North American cultures.
This book is a glossy, photo-filled companion volume to a museum exhibit on lesbian and gay history in Boston, for a fairly broad definition of those terms. Due to this connection with a museum exhibit, there is a natural focus on material objects, accompanied by a relative minimum of explanatory commentary. The exhibit emphasized the importance of making a historic connection for modern visitors--a “usable history”.
Introduction – Esther D. Rothblum and Kathleen A. Brehony
This summary will cover only the Introduction and the chapter by Lillian Faderman on the history of Romantic Friendship. The remainder of the book is primarily personal memoirs of psychologists and some of their patients around the topic of non-sexual lesbian relationships.
This book looks at how Catalina de Erauso’s story has been “constructed, interpreted, marketed and consumed” in the 17-20th centuries. Velasco identifies Catalina as a “transgenderist” (that is, someone who engages in transgender performance without necessarily having transgender identity) and uses she/her pronouns as the book is examining how Catalina’s image was used (the image of a woman performing masculinity) rather than interpreting what Catalina’s own understanding might have been.
This book is an extensive catalog of literary references to women who challenge heteronormativity in some fashion, although it would be misleading and anachronistic to apply the label “lesbian” in most cases. Approximately 20% of the book covers the entirety of literary history up to the late 19th century. Another 20% is speculation on the sexuality of a handful of pre-20th century women, primarily writers. The remainder covers the 20th century, or more broadly the “post-sexology” era.
This is a very brief chapter, summing up the book’s overall thesis. “Passionate romantic friendship between women was a widely recognized, tolerated social institution before our century. Women were, in fact, expected to seek out kindred spirits and form strong bonds. ... It was not unusual for a woman to seek in her romantic friendship the center of her life, quite apart from the demands of marriage and family if not in lieu of them. When women’s role in society began to change, however...society’s view of romantic friendship changed.
This chapter surveys positive lesbian literature of the 20th century and the circumstances that allowed for its publication at various times, including a lot of ambiguity. This is well outside the scope of the LHMP and involves a great many literature citations. I’ll just note that there’s a lot of material there for those who want to see what else was available besides the depressing stuff. [It feels like the book has lost some of its through-line in the 20th century chapters.
Faderman moves into the modern political era with a consideration of the parallel movements for women’s rights and gay/lesbian rights starting in the mid-20th century. Both the strength and the weakness of attempts to associate feminism with lesbianism was the underlying truth of the association. Historically, feminism had arisen among women who directed their primary reform efforts and emotional connections to other women. Those connections ranged along a continuum from friendship to romance to sex.
Women who loved women in the early to mid-20th century no longer lacked public models for their relationships--the problem was that all the public models they now had were toxic. With the voices of authority insisting that they were deviant, the women who dared to be “lesbian in public” tended to be those who had little to lose, or whose living relied on notoriety: bohemians, courtesans, and the like. And it is these individuals that Faderman considers in the current chapter.
The 20th century saw the rise of new genres of fiction that demonized lesbian relationships and inextricably linked them to social structures that had historically nourished women’s friendships, such as single-sex schools. Curiously, it has been revealed in retrospect that many lesbian novels of the 20th century were written by women who were, themselves, lesbian.