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Martha Vicinus:"They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong": The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity

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

IV. Discussion:
  • Vicinus implies that the 'femme' is often ignored as a lesbian role, both historically and today:
    • do you agree?
  • 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>.