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Surpassing the Love of Men

Yeah. The title. I know.

Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship & Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present was published in 1981, at a time when there was something of a feminist pushback. A pushback and a lot of defensiveness. I'd like to add that this is not the case in the book itself so much, because she tries hard not to use 20th century ideas when dealing with previous centuries. Quite the opposite, in fact: Lillian Faderman has been criticized by more recent scholars for NOT assuming things about historical relationships between women.

yeah, assuming that thing.

This is part I because it's over 400 pages, and is an ENORMOUS historical/literary survey (and completely awesome) and if I did just one post on it, that post would be obnoxiously long. I'm hoping to split it into two, if I feel like doing the more emotional side of things.

The book begins in the 16th and 17th centuries, discussing how there was essentially no notion of lesbianism because, psh, what could two women do together? But then there's a rather terrifying section discussing how women who dressed as men and disguised themselves for whatever reason they had (it's assumed this was at least partially to, y'know, 'have a job') were hanged, whipped or burned. 'Cause two women play-acting at a sexual relationship is hilarious, but when one of them pretends to be a man, well. Those're MY rights to own land and people, damnit.

The main criticism of Faderman's book, which she addresses in her new intro, is that she frequently states that the relationship between women in a romantic friendship was most probably not sexual. People take umbrage at this, and I get it. I do. But as she says, her point was not that it COULDN'T have been; it's that it doesn't so much matter:
"The point I wished to make was that whether or not we can find specific evidence that the women in question had genital sex together, their intense emotional and erotic (i.e. sensual) attachments to each other qualify them as foremothers of contemporary lesbian-feminists."

Let's just ignore how gross the term 'genital sex' is and focus on the intense emotional attachments women had for each other in previous centuries. Because damn, did they.

like these cats


And there are so many reasons why. One of the primary ones is that men and women moved in completely different spheres from childhood onwards. They tended to regard each other as almost different species, and sure, you'd marry each other, but true understanding and friendship? That was with your own sex. This is more in the 17th century, but separate spheres were maintained through much of the 19th. So okay. You're a lady. At a school with other ladies. And you meet another lady who is the GREATEST, and because she is awesome and you're awesome, you figure wouldn't it be great if you didn't have to get married to a terrifying and seemingly alien man and instead could move to a cottage in Wales and have important Literary Figures of the Day over for tea?

Because that's what the Ladies of Llangollen did.  And it wasn't seen as all that weird. Because it was the late 18th/early 19th century. They were allowed because they were an anomaly. Most women couldn't support themselves and had to marry. Their intense female friendships were seen as permissible because said friendships were, as Longfellow said, "a rehearsal in girlhood of the great drama of woman's life" (asshole).

Since they were no threat to men, they were indulged. Women spoke openly of their passion for each other because it wasn't seen as sick or unusual, or necessarily implying a sexual relationship. So you have novelist Charles Brockden Brown writing a 1700s epistolary novel about two girls, where one says to the other:

"What I feel for you I have not felt since I was sixteen, yet it cannot you know be love. Yet is there such a difference brought about by mere sex—my Sophia's qualities are such as I would doat upon in man. Just the same would win my whole heart; where then is the difference? On my word, Sophia, I see none." 

Faderman says that Freud fucked all this up.

Well. Freud and the 19th century sexologists (lookin' at you, Krafft-Ebing).

People in the early 1900s, beginning in Germany and France, became intensely self-aware, got into psychoanalysis, and started viewing closeness between women with suspicion. This, of course, coincided with the comparative ease with which women could now be self-supporting, thus rendering marriage unnecessary for them.

Literature turned from the sweetness and beauty of female friendships, to painting the same type of relationship as a disease:

"On the Continent, however, and to a lesser extent in England, where literature about evil lesbians was all the rage and where hundreds of doctors were turning their attention to the disease of love between women, the perception of romantic friendship as a noble institution which society had no reason to discourage and every reason to encourage, was quite dead by the end of the nineteenth century." 

This particularly angers me:

 "One wonders how many romantic friends who had felt themselves to be perfectly healthy before, suddenly saw themselves as sick, even though their behavior had in no way changed, as a result of the sexologists' formulations." 

 When this book was published, homosexuality had only been off the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders for eight years. Eight. That's like 2005 for us. And even though there's still debate (put forward by Certain Groups) about it today, this wasn't even a question until about 130 years ago. Which brings us to cultural doxa again. We have been raised KNOWING things are right because — well, because they're things everyone knows. It's just how it is. But what 'everyone knows' in our time is completely different from how those in 1750 would feel.

Even in 1890, with their 'new awareness,' they still allowed some relationships to pass unchecked, because a lesbian was 
"usually of a masculine type, or if she presented none of the 'characteristics' of the male, was a subject of pelvic disorder, with scanty menstruation, and was more or less hysterical or insane."


So if you weren't like that, and merely like Enid in the 1897 novel Diana Victrix, who, while with her romantic friend Sylvia, "had her arms about her and was saying a great many things very softly in the dark," you were a-okay. Yeah.

ESSENTIALLY, ladies have almost always been able to have longterm, passionate friendships with each other, with a blurred line between the erotic and the platonic. And no one really cared before 1900. But our 20th century obsession with labeling things both gave lesbians a more solid sense of themselves AND screwed over super-close friendships for women, because according to the new model, it's either sexual or it isn't, and if it is at all, let's make a giant deal about it.

I love surveys. I love history. I love ladies. And this was a giant historical survey about ladies. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up. Fine holiday fun.

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