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Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture
Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture. Laura Doan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Pp. 284. $49.50 (cloth); $19.50 (paper).
The term "fashioning sapphism" refers to the self-fashioning of the modern lesbian who refashions (rather than replicates) the discourses of sexology. It also refers to the masculine fashions of the modern woman that made it possible to read her not as sexual invert but as fashionable. Laura Doan, in her extraordinary historical study, does for the obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) what a small industry--including Ed Cohen, Talk on the Wilde Side (1993) and Allan Sinfeld, The Wilde Century (1994)--has done for the trial of Oscar Wilde. She represents the moment of the trial as one of discursive indeterminacy whereby sexual meanings, formerly in flux, suddenly cohered into a modern sexual subculture. What was originally read as fashionable modernity became, after 1928, a sign of female sexual inversion. What we now read as the sign of the "butch" remained, during the 1920s, open to multiple interpretive possibilities. Thus Hall, the iconographic "mannish" lesbian, once embodied, quite simply, the essence of modern chic.
By seeking to correct past mistakes, Doan rewrites the history of the emergence of an English lesbian subculture. She addresses mistakes made by historians who ignore national specificity, by biographers who read photographs out of context and by cultural critics who reduce multiple effects to a single incontrovertible meaning. These faulty interpretive practices do not produce history; they produce myths that fail to recognize lesbianism in terms of a negotiated settlement rather than a reified iconicity. There is the myth that Hall was part of Paris-Lesbos, having spent only three weeks there between the years 1921 and 1925; the myth of the moral panic instigated by the trial, when lesbians were not yet an identifiable social group, and therefore could not be targeted for attack; the myth that "boyishness" always meant lesbianism. Doan challenges these myths by investigating alternative historical records: literary reviews, parliamentary proceedings, personal papers and private libraries, women's magazines. These in turn make visible new historical subjects including the Women's Police Service, Bryer as novelist, and Mary, in The Well, as "normal intermediate woman." The question that informs her inquiry is, Who knew what when? What was the relationship between those who knew, those who knew nothing, and those who wished they didn't know about sexology, sexual inversion, and women's same-sex desire, in the years following World War I?
The result is both a different history and a different way to tell it. The new historical narrative stages the masculine woman as protagonist. Valerie Barker (alias Colonel Victor Barker), who passed as a man by donning an officer's uniform, is not the same as Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein), a painter who wore male clothing fashioned by a tailor, is the not the same as Hall, a woman who wore masculine clothing in order to be fashionable. Thus the project also contributes to the growing scholarship on female masculinity, which includes most notably Judith Halberstam's Female Masculinity (1998) and Jay Prosser's Second Skins (1998). To understand the confusion elicited by this discursive indeterminacy one might, for instance, consider the ambiguous referent of "it" as that vice between women that must be suppressed by the 1921 Criminal Law Amendment. Doan concludes that this "it" proves not to be lesbian sex, but the sexual abuse of children. The reason for the introduction of such a bill is not a conspiracy against lesbians, but rather the desire on the part of one expert witness, a magistrate sympathetic to female suffrage, to create equality under the law by criminalizing the corruption of girls by adult women. The desire on the part of the opposition, in turn, is not to hunt lesbians but to destroy the Women's Police Service (WPS), so that the London police can create...