- “I May Be Seized by Curiosity”: Echoes of Lesbian Desire in a Spanish Letter from Smith College in the 1920s
In the context of conservative early twentieth-century Spain, Lillian Faderman’s classic question—“who hid lesbian history?”—could produce a wide range of responses.1 While the subject of passionate female friendship and same-sex relationships at the beginning of the last century has received considerable attention in English and American studies, we know far too little about this aspect of Spanish history.2 In addition to a [End Page 179] certain neglect of gay and lesbian issues within Hispanism, another reason for this gap could be the dearth of documentary evidence. A letter in Spanish that mentions what we would today call “lesbian desire” is therefore of exceptional historical value. In 1921 Juana Moreno, a Spanish schoolteacher who was an exchange student at Smith College, wrote to her Spanish mentor, María de Maeztu. This letter found its way into a Madrid archive but is now reported missing there. Fortunately, it was photocopied by a researcher before it vanished. With the permission of the author’s estate, the letter is published in Spanish and in an English translation and analyzed here for the first time.
In her highly influential essay, Faderman denounces the way that lesbian history has been systematically hidden, and she expresses hope that these stories may yet be found. She calls for a thorough search for archival materials of this kind, their recovery and proper assessment, and she “pray[s] that they have not already been expurgated by some well-meaning heterosexist hand.”3 This article answers Faderman’s call. Indeed, this newly uncovered source represents a significant contribution to the endeavor to establish the social history of homosexuality, “the categories used by ordinary people to interpret sexual relations, and the patterns of homosexual behavior in everyday life.”4 This essay also engages with Sally Newman’s ideas about tracing “lesbian desire” in historical papers. More specifically, I will heed her warnings about the implication of the scholar in the elaboration of meaning. It is indeed vital to avoid “archival fever,” the risk of becoming so involved in a document as to construct a whole narrative about it without enough evidence.5
Juana Moreno (1895–1971) was an exchange student and teaching fellow at Smith College (Northampton, Massachusetts) during the 1921–22 academic year. Her mentor in Madrid, María de Maeztu (1881–1948), was a prominent educator and the director of the Residencia de Señoritas (Young Ladies’ Residence), where Moreno had lived for some time before her trip to the United States. Like its better-known male counterpart, the Residencia de Estudiantes (Students’ Residence), which had housed cultural luminaries such as the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, the [End Page 180] painter Salvador Dalí, and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel, the Residencia de Señoritas was much more than simply convenient student accommodation. Founded in 1915, it was funded by the Junta para Ampliación de Estudios, a government body for the promotion of education and research in Spain, and it was inspired by American women’s colleges. While not able to award academic degrees, it offered its own courses, lectures, sports, and leisure activities for its Spanish and international residents. The institution also organized exchange programs with foreign educational establishments, such as the one with Smith College, which allowed Juana Moreno to spend a year in Northampton. Significantly, given the strong influence of the Catholic Church on education in Spanish traditional society, there was neither a chapel nor compulsory religious instruction. In brief, the Residencia played a fundamental role in giving women access to higher education in a country where they had not been admitted to university until 1910. The Residencia de Señoritas was closed by the dictator Francisco Franco at the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), and residents and employees with liberal or progressive sympathies were persecuted or forced out of their jobs, as happened to Juana Moreno. María de Maeztu died in Argentina in 1948.6
Moreno’s letter was written from Smith College’s Baldwin...