A 19th Century History of Lesbianism‏


For many years, the intensely passionate friendships between women in the Victorian era went unexplored as a form of female same-sex desire.  However, many exchanges among women in romantic friendships reveal that passion, love, intimacy, and quite likely sex did occur in these relationships.

Though marketed to heterosexual men, lesbian p...

Though marketed to heterosexual men, lesbian pulp fiction provided an identity to isolated women in the 1950s.

Romantic friendships ranged from: “the supportive love of sisters, through the enthusiasms of adolescent girls, to sensual avowals of love by mature women”.

Often, women in romantic friendships would write ardent love letters to each other, expressing their devotion and admiration for one another.

A similar phenomenon took place among school-aged girls in a behaviour termed “smashing.”  This describes the sending of flowers, gifts, notes, and other items to a girl one wanted to become intense friends with.  Often, poems and locks of hair were exchanged, and when the two girls finally became inseparable, they were said to be smashed.

Another expression of female same-sex desire included what Vicinus calls, the “occasional lover of women.”  These “free women” chose a highly varied sexuality, one that vacillated between women and men.  Regularly, their appearance might signal an erotic interest in women, while at other times they might take on male lovers when playing the role of mistress, courtesan, or prostitute.  However, they were also the first to be seen as a social problem by the vice and moral reformers, because of their gender deviance and their possible influence on male political leaders.

Taken together, these examples encompass a wide range of female same-sex desires, and should be seen less as distinct types of women, but rather as embodying general themes from the 19th century.

We cannot possibly detail or know all the articulations of same-sex desire among women, but we can point to patterns and cultural scripts visible during this time.  These women formed loving and passionate relationships with other women during a period when their behaviour was increasingly becoming pathologized.  In a very real way, they are images of early lesbian desire, as well as highly courageous and often unrecognised women.

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