- (More than) Intimate Friends
Reading Martha Vicinus’s latest book two summers ago seemed quite timely as the country was engaged with gay marriage debates (if you can call them that). Bewildered with the current political climate around this topic, I find myself wondering again if we knew more of our history, would Americans look at “current” events differently? If we as a society knew of the many women (and men) in the past who loved others of the same sex, and struggled to make legitimate or legal these partnerships, would our current policies and prejudices be different? This new book by Vicinus tells the stories of women who loved women from the eighteenth century to the twentieth, and the ways that they managed often to thrive. Those in this study almost always managed not to suffer from mainstream scrutiny or to threaten the status quo.
Vicinus is an accomplished and prolific scholar of women, Victorian sexuality, and gays and lesbians in history and literature. An earlier book, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850–1920 (University of Chicago Press, 1985/1988), is one of the only full-length studies of unmarried women in the United States or England. Intimate Friends mines the archives and, for the second half of her study, unpacks twentieth-century fiction for lesbian women. Here she looks at educated and largely independent English and American women over a 150-year period, up through the publication of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall in 1928 (a landmark novel for lesbian fiction). She writes about all-female communities, (female) husband-wife couples, relationships between older and younger women, the female rake, and even erotic mother-daughter affection. Using diaries, letters, other manuscript records, and in the case of two chapters, court documents, she paints a rich and varied picture of same-sex relationships over time.
Central to this study and her argument is erotic desire among women. Here she is correcting scholars’ assumptions that women probably did not have sexual desires for each other and did not act upon the same-sex desires that they did have, at least not until relatively recently. In fact, Vicinus claims that the knowledge of mutual desire, and mutual recognition of desire, are more important (for the women, their identities, and her study) than specific acts. (She finds ample evidence of acts, too.) Vicinus is arguing fundamentally that lesbians did exist in the past, despite silences in women’s records or in contemporaries’ observations. Again correcting [End Page 142] historians’ assumptions (including those of this one), she insists that silence did not indicate a lack of sexual feeling, even though these women lived in a pre-Freudian and probably less self-analytical world. She has plenty of evidence of self-awareness and self-consciousness. Perhaps also, she suggests, silence on the subject of same-sex desire might mean a refusal to name that which would likely invite censure. Silence, then, does not mean an absence. Indeed, the lack of language gave women a veil, protection from intrusive questions about erotic liberties.
This clear and strong argument has been a useful corrective for me. In talking about my recent book on unmarried women in the nineteenth– century American South, I was somewhat dismissive of suggestions that my Southern single women were secretly lesbian. I was struck that this aspect of women’s identities was what people wanted to know about. Such queries issued chiefly from non-academics who, I thought, did not understand the nineteenth-century world of the sexes or were simply looking for something illicit and sexy in my otherwise academic exercise. I always gave what I thought was the standard, even-handed, scholarly reply: “Probably not.” After all, these women did not have the same delineations between homosexuality and heterosexuality that we have today, or at least since Freud. Plus, my women were Southern! So, no, I would say, my single women would not have identified themselves as lesbian; with a couple of interesting exceptions, there was...