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  • Producing Intimacy:Queer Attachments in Workingwomen's Writings
  • Emily Coccia

Mr. Lee has here turn to me he has been expecate his Affec towards me but I act so indifferently that he dont know what to make of me I like him as a Friend and nothing more then that but Dear Rebecca if I should ever see a good chance I will take it for I'm tired roving around this unfriendly world . . . I do believe by Mr. Lee action that he truly loves me I cannot reciprocate his love. . . . [I]f I only exchange this pen and paper for a seat by my loving Rebecca it is possible and must be thus separation how long how long God knows and he only my heart is breaking for you and only you good night from your sweet Affec.


—Addie Brown to Rebecca Primus, 24 May 1861 (35, 36)

For nearly a decade after meeting, Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, African American women from the working poor and a wealthy, prominent family, respectively, exchanged passionate letters. Their correspondence reflects a romantic emotional intensity similar to that found in the preserved correspondence between wealthy white women whom scholars have identified as part of a genealogy of lesbian love. In the sections quoted above, for instance, Brown makes clear that her love for Primus supersedes any sense of affection she has for Mr. Lee; although both are called "friends" in that letter, the "Affec" and love are only reciprocated in one instance. Yet unlike the romantic friendships described in much of the existing literature, Brown and Primus's relationship was subjected to additional constraints. The economic realities of Brown's life as a domestic servant in "this unfriendly world," for instance, lead her to consider marrying Mr. Lee, even though she does not love him. Furthermore, in her letters Brown invokes tropes either not seen or found infrequently in wealthy white women's writing to express her love for Primus. Despite these moments of [End Page 17] difference from the lifelong relationship of, say, the famed Ladies of Llangollen, the letters from Brown to Primus—preserved in the Connecticut Historical Society and later transcribed and published by Farah Jasmine Griffin—resonate with an undeniable passion and eroticism. Much of the scholarship on queer history minimizes the possibility of working-class women forming same-sex intimacies during the nineteenth century in America. I argue, however, that this tendency represents a failure to recognize the differing tropes and linguistic registers that mark these relationships as queer, rather than the impossibility of their existence. As Saidiya Hartman writes about African American women in the twentieth century, "Few, then or now, recognized young black women as sexual modernists, free lovers, radicals, and anarchists, or realized that the flapper was a pale imitation of the ghetto girl. They have been credited with nothing: they remain surplus women of no significance, girls deemed unfit for history and destined to be minor figures" (xv).

I do not advocate for these women and their relationships to be subsumed under the category of romantic friendship, which has, from its premise, been grounded in a vision of privileged white women's relationships, nor do I want them to be made legible only through the taxonomic confines of the white, bourgeois regimes of sexuality that Foucault argues did not "spread through the entire social body" until the end of the nineteenth century (122). However, I contend that we miss something important if we use the narrowness of such historical constructs to deny the inclusion of these non-wealthy, non-white women in a history of queer female intimacies. My use of "queer" here is meant to acknowledge how these women's class and race already marked them as deviant—whether that be the way factories placed workingwomen in a non-reproductive relationship to labor (Kent 28) or the way the system and legacy of slavery throw "into unrelieved crisis" gender roles as defined by patriarchal society and the "customary lexis of sexuality" (Spillers 76). I partner "queer" with "intimacies" as my guiding framework to stress that I am looking primarily at pairs of women, at women whose queerness stems not only from...