I. Lesbian history and identity|
- Difficulties in reconstructing the history of the lesbian:
- lack of agreement about what constitutes a lesbian
- does sexuality have to be tied to personal identity?
- personal life and 'roles' as a defining element?
- no consensus about when a lesbian identity arose
- Thus, there are many lesbian histories, open to multiple interpretive strategies
II. 17th and 18th centuries
- Four dominant societal roles ('scripts') ascribed to lesbians:
- transvestite: the 'passing woman' or 'female warrior' - working class
- some acceptance in society, but sexual dimension was often ignored
- mannish (or androgynous) woman
- seen as a freak of nature or cursed by the stars - not a social construct
- the occasional lover of women: femme, often bisexual
- attacked as a danger to social and political stability (e.g. Marie Antoinette)
- romantic friend: often intellectually active - upper class
- faced family and some public opposition
- All four types remained marginal to the dominant male sexual and societal discourse
- lesbian presence was muted, and even ignored
- lesbians were only attacked when they infringed on masculine privileges
III. 19th and 20th centuries
- Greater visibility and presence of lesbians
- mannish lesbians, romantic friendships, passing women were common
- where was the femme? (often invisible)
- Societal acceptance was more widespread, but there was still a fear of excess
- e.g. George Sand or Boston marriages
- Efforts to "define, codify, and control all forms of sexuality," especially in medicine
- Havelock Ellis and Richard von Kraft-Ebbing
- identified lesbians by mannish behavior
- social deviation as "symptom and cause of sexual transgression"
- science made a sexual discourse available where none had existed
- but it was a male discourse (e.g. Hirschfeld)
- New cultural and social presence of lesbians
- nightlife in Berlin, Harlem; Paris as epitome of lesbian freedom
- efforts to create a new sexual language, with an insistence on the body
- this still reflected male discourse: the body as a male trope
- Today: a recognition of certain 'roles'
- the ongoing creation of a lesbian language
- but are we ignoring the parts of our past that seem "unattractive" to us?
- for example, femmes and friendship are seldom discussed
- Vicinus implies that the 'femme' is often ignored as a lesbian role, both historically and today:
- She speaks of the femme as "only"an occasional lover of women:
- does this somehow discredit a bisexual's sexuality, or her place within lesbian history?
- She claims that the question of butch-femme roles vs. romantic friendships is a peculiarly "American concern":
- why is this? Do Germans differ; are the stereotypes the same?
- Why does she begin her survey of lesbian "roles" in the 17th century?
- She seems to jump over the 1960's and 1970's
- she doesn't mention the development of the women's movement as a contributing factor to lesbian self-awareness.
- She calls for "multiple interpretive strategies" when examining lesbian history
- does she herself use or propose any?
- Where are the parallels here to gay male history? Are there any?
- There are also certain set 'roles' for gay men - have they helped to form a gay identity?
- If, as Halperin proposes, 'sexuality' is a "uniquely modern production,"
- how are we to understand the 17th-century (and earlier) indictments of mannish lesbians and 'free' women?
Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1995 for German 711 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Article Summary and Presentation on Martha Vicinus." Website Article. 21 March 1995. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/711Vicinus.html>.