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"A pantry full of ingredients"
June 22, 2014 10:51 PM   Subscribe

My goal here -- beyond the selfish utilitarian aspect of organizing my research -- is much in parallel with that of sites like the Medieval People of Color blog, or Kameron Hurley's award-nominated essay "We Have Always Fought". I want to help change the unexamined assumptions about the place and nature of lesbian-like characters in historic fact, literature, art, and imagination. I want to do it to help other authors find inspiration and support for the stories they want to tell. And I want to do it to affect the reception of my own writing. My project will be flawed in that it will privilege topics and interpretations of personal interest to me. (A geographic focus on Europe and it's neighbors. A temporal focus that ends before the 20th century and focuses strongly on the pre-modern. An examination of the data through a lesbian lens even when other lenses, such as transgender ones, are equally valid.) This is a caveat but not an apology. If I weren't doing it for selfish reasons, I wouldn't be doing it at all.
The Lesbian Historica Motif Project is a series of posts at The Rose Garden looking at source material about lesbian women throughout history.
posted by MartinWisse (14 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
i do not doubt that women had sex with women throughout history, however because sexuality is constructed via societal norms, the term lesbian is a western one from the 19th century onward. there were not lesbians in history. (a problem i also have with the brilliant terry castle anthology of lesbian literature)
posted by PinkMoose at 10:58 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]


Meh. That's a definition question and the woman behind this project has defined it differently.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:08 PM on June 22 [6 favorites]


[A couple of comments deleted; let's maybe not derail the entire discussion immediately by making this all about whether anyone is allowed to use the word "lesbian" to describe pre-19th century female homosexuality?]
posted by taz at 2:12 AM on June 23 [3 favorites]


There are so many lesbian saints! I had no idea how many women who passionately (whether sexual or not) loved other women were until I started reading more queer church history prompted by the frustrating and wonderful blog, Jesus in love. They are some of the more visible historical women and their own written records are so interesting to read. Thanks for the post.
posted by viggorlijah at 2:28 AM on June 23


These links are great, thanks. I've made a start on a little list of soldiers, tyrants, scientists, emperors and so on who happen to be women or people of colour or bodies thereof, which I add to when something like Metafilter points them out (though I'm only at six, hmmm). So I can casually drop them into conversation with my son, now eighteen months, as he grows older. (This will probably be ineffectual, but I think narratives and examples are better than statistics or arguments...)
posted by alasdair at 4:39 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]


What a great project, alasdair! Kids love stories, and I remember reading about Deborah Sampson, Hannah Snell, and James Barry. The stories were all the more exciting because they were real. Besides being interesting stories, it was just great to know about these women who had been saying "screw you" to the status quo for centuries.

I say, the earlier you can disabuse a kid of the notion that there used to be a magic time when everybody lived like the Cleavers and society was the better for it because nobody stepped out of the box, and that if we could all live and think and look like the rich old white men in the suits feel comfortable with us living and thinking and looking like, the happier that kid will be. And he or she'll probably be more interested in history and in figuring out how people and society ACTUALLY work.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:03 AM on June 23 [2 favorites]


And how am I supposed to get any work done today?
posted by rtha at 6:28 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]


The difficult part many blogs and tumblrs and the like devoted to this topic have to deal with is that in many eras of the past in Western society, platonic friends were far more expressive of affection physically and in writing than modern eyes are used to seeing. It only seems to be in the twentieth century that people started expressing themselves so much more differently with their non-romantic friends.

Now, this one looks really promising; the author is a good writer and her previous essays were so well-done and well-researched that I’m very excited to read more.

(I used to visit a tumblr of Victorian/Edwardian photos that the blogger felt were of same-sex couples, but so many of the female couples were CLEARLY sisters (similar faces and hair, dresses cut from the same fabric) that it started to weird me out a little. And there were a lot of young men palling around with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and not a few sets of obvious brothers. Given the context of society at the time, and the lack of context about the subjects, it's a real challenge to know if you're looking at a picture with modern eyes, the eyes of the times, or modern eyes seeing through a code.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:28 AM on June 23 [6 favorites]


> The difficult part many blogs and tumblrs and the like devoted to this topic have to deal with is that in many eras of the past in Western society, platonic friends were far more expressive of affection physically and in writing than modern eyes are used to seeing. [...]

Now, this one looks really promising; the author is a good writer and her previous essays were so well-done and well-researched that I’m very excited to read more.


Yes, exactly! It's so easy to do this sort of thing badly (an enthusiastic but untrained amateur is going to find so many false positives their efforts will be worthless) and so hard to do it well that it's exciting to see someone doing it right. Great post!
posted by languagehat at 7:42 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Considering much of Medieval POC is based on wishful thinking, rather than actual research, I'm hope for better from this.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:05 AM on June 23


alasdair, I've got a similar list for the 11-year-old I babysit, who claims that history is boring. She thought Julie D'Aubigny and Mary Bowser were cool, and talking about them led to bigger conversations about the time periods they lived in.
posted by nonasuch at 8:42 AM on June 23


The Underpants Monster: (I used to visit a tumblr of Victorian/Edwardian photos that the blogger felt were of same-sex couples, but so many of the female couples were CLEARLY sisters (similar faces and hair, dresses cut from the same fabric) that it started to weird me out a little. And there were a lot of young men palling around with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and not a few sets of obvious brothers. Given the context of society at the time, and the lack of context about the subjects, it's a real challenge to know if you're looking at a picture with modern eyes, the eyes of the times, or modern eyes seeing through a code.)

A code that you are also failing. A pair whose their dresses are cut from the same fabric - in an age when certain classes bought cloth by the bolt to make clothing for the whole household - doesn't mean anything except that they probably live together.

I agree two guys with arms around each other means very little about their implied sexuality (especially in times past). I'm just not buying into your "CLEARLY sisters" certainty.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:09 AM on June 23


so many of the female couples were CLEARLY sisters (similar faces and hair, dresses cut from the same fabric) that it started to weird me out a little. And there were a lot of young men palling around with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and not a few sets of obvious brothers.

Yes, this kind of thing is incredibly difficult to get a solid handle on, even when you're pretty steeped in the history of the period. Certainly in the C18th and C19th it was perfectly normal for two male friends--even if they weren't particularly close friends--to walk down the street together hand in hand or arm in arm. It was also common for friends, male or female, to set up house together. And it was common for men and women to use what we would consider a language restricted to romantic love in their protestations of friendship to each other. There's a kind of automatic "nudge nudge, wink wink" thing that goes on nowadays with reference to any same-sex affection or companionship in the past which is so often hopelessly anachronistic. And yet at the same time it's clear that there must, in fact, have been a certain amount of gay coupling that went on, conveniently masked by those social conventions. I'm always struck by Tennyson's In Memoriam as a provoking case: to a modern reader it's impossible not to read it as going beyond friendship into a protestation of romantic love for the dead Hallam; but the book was one of the monuments of the Victorian era, read and praised by almost everyone, including--famously--the Queen herself. If contemporary readers had suspected it of commemorating any kind of "improper" connection between Tennyson and Hallam it's hard to imagine it been granted that kind of status.

A similar kind of point, of course, can be made about Shakespeare's sonnets. I'm always amused at how surprised and even shocked students are to discover that "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" was written to a man, but once you know that it's still not clear exactly what an Elizabethan contemporary would have made of the fact.
posted by yoink at 11:07 AM on June 23 [2 favorites]


A code that you are also failing. A pair whose their dresses are cut from the same fabric - in an age when certain classes bought cloth by the bolt to make clothing for the whole household - doesn't mean anything except that they probably live together.

I'm a historical costumer, I've studied both textile and costume history both formally and on my own, and I'm the heir of a rich oral tradition in dressmaking going back in direct matrilineal descent to the nineteenth century, so I'm not totally in the dark about how yard goods were purchased and used in Victorian times.

The dresses of the same cloth, taken completely by themselves with no other context, may not be smoking guns, but taken in conjunction with the physical resemblance between the subjects, add another layer of likelihood to a familial tie.

Here's just one example in the literature of the time:
The anxiety about sister Priscilla, which had grown rather active by the time the coral necklace was clasped, was happily ended by the entrance of that cheerful-looking lady herself, with a face made blowsy by cold and damp. After the first questions and greetings, she turned to Nancy, and surveyed her from head to foot - then wheeled her round, to ascertain that the back view was equally faultless.

"What do you think o' these gowns, aunt Osgood?" said Priscilla, while Nancy helped her to unrobe.

"Very handsome indeed, niece," said Mrs. Osgood, with a slight increase of formality. She always thought niece Priscilla too rough.

"I'm obliged to have the same as Nancy, you know, for all I'm five years older, and it makes me look yallow; for she never will have anything without I have mine just like it, because she wants us to look like sisters. And I tell her, folks 'ull think it's my weakness makes me fancy as I shall look pretty in what she looks pretty in. For I am ugly - there's no denying that: I feature my father's family. But, law! I don't mind, do you?"

...

"Sister," said Nancy, when they were alone, "you've offended the Miss Gunns, I'm sure."

"What have I done, child?" said Priscilla, in some alarm.

"Why, you asked them if they minded about being ugly - you're so very blunt."

"Law, did I? Well, it popped out: it's a mercy I said no more, for I'm a bad un to live with folks when they don't like the truth. But as for being ugly, look at me, child, in this silver-coloured silk - I told you how it 'ud be - I look as yallow as a daffadil. Anybody 'ud say you wanted to make a mawkin of me."

"No, Priscy, don't say so. I begged and prayed of you not to let us have this silk if you'd like another better. I was willing to have your choice, you know I was," said Nancy, in anxious self-vindication.

"Nonsense, child! you know you'd set your heart on this; and reason good, for you're the colour o' cream. It 'ud be fine doings for you to dress yourself to suit my skin. What I find fault with, is that notion o' yours as I must dress myself just like you. But you do as you like with me - you always did, from when first you begun to walk. If you wanted to go the field's length, the field's length you'd go; and there was no whipping you, for you looked as prim and innicent as a daisy all the while."

"Priscy," said Nancy, gently, as she fastened a coral necklace, exactly like her own, round Priscilla's neck, which was very far from being like her own, "I'm sure I'm willing to give way as far as is right, but who shouldn't dress alike if it isn't sisters? Would you have us go about looking as if we were no kin to one another - us that have got no mother and not another sister in the world? I'd do what was right, if I dressed in a gown dyed with cheese-colouring; and I'd rather you'd choose, and let me wear what pleases you."


-- George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), Silas Marner (1861)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:36 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


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