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Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.1/2 (2005) 107-138

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On Mother-Love:

History, Queer Theory, and Nonlesbian Identity

New York University
Ironically, the assumption that modern homosexual identity came into being in the late nineteenth century, while so fruitful for historical research on the development of gay and lesbian communities and political action, has tended to obscure and deemphasize changes within twentieth-century gay and lesbian identities and to rigidify the boundaries between homosexuals and heterosexuals as distinct kinds of people.
—Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold

This essay takes up Kennedy and Davis's challenge to rethink the continuity and clarity of lesbian identity in the twentieth-century United States. I begin with a brief discussion of recent (re)configurations of queer genders and identities. These, it seems to me, abrade "the boundaries between homosexuals and heterosexuals" in a way that requires historians to develop a new sensitivity to discontinuity "within twentieth-century [sexual] identities." I then outline some of the insights of queer theory that I propose are relevant to such a reimagined history of modern sexuality. Finally, I turn to some early-twentieth-century sexological sources to demonstrate what such a queer history might look like. Such a history is uniquely able to address the lived experience of modern women who engaged in same-sex relationships but, by virtue of their feminine gender presentations and heterosexual commitments, are poor candidates for lesbian identity as it is and was commonly defined.

An example of such a nonlesbian sexual relationship between women appears in Lura Beam and Robert Latou Dickinson's 1934 sexological study The Single Woman. Here is a conventionally feminine white woman's brief account of her romance with a college friend: "One young woman said, 'In [End Page 107] boarding school I learned about those things but not from experience; in college I loved G—— as my dearest friend and we did have sexual relations for all of one year. After that, it seemed as if it might be harmful and we agreed not to any more—Of course we don't see so much of each other since we married but I still count her one of my oldest friends.'"1

The body of this essay demonstrates that relationships of this kind cannot be properly understood in terms of "romantic friendship" or "lesbianism," which are currently the available conceptual and social categories for thinking about white women's intimacies in the early twentieth century.2 I argue that some nonlesbian, feminine women understood their explicitly sexual intimacies with other women in terms of the love between mothers and daughters, a relational configuration I call "mother-love." I further show that "mother-love" springs into focus as a historical phenomenon only when we make the queer turn away from a lesbian history motivated by the desire for the recognition of the present in the past, a turn away from the search for continuity in the experience of same-sex love between women.

This theoretical intervention is worth making for several reasons. For one thing, it summons historians of (homo)sexuality to expand our critical address to subjects not easily recognizable as "lesbians" while we continue to foreground their erotic subjectivity in same-sex relationships. In doing so we open new possibilities for investigating the range of sociosexual experiences actually available to women in the early-twentieth-century United States. If not all same-sex acts between women worked to push their agents into the identity category "lesbian," even after the conceptual division between "homosexuals and heterosexuals" acquired a certain diagnostic firmness around the turn of the century, we ought to pay more attention to the alternative frameworks within which women understood such intimacies.

We should also ask which factors influenced women's same-sex intimacies to lead to lesbian identities. In order to address these questions we need analytic tools with which to recognize and describe sexual and relational configurations that do not map easily or completely onto those...


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