Posts Tagged With: british history

Intimate Friends

Intimate Friends

Vicinus, Martha.  Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Subject:  A reevaluation of the ways in which upper class white women in Britain and France expressed and sought to define their love for other women.

Main Points:  The main objective of Vicinus’ book is to complicate or replace a linear understanding of the historical development of “the” lesbian identity.  In this new, piecemeal, kaleidoscope view, medical discourse is downplayed and she focuses on the “lesbian-like” women themselves.  By using diaries, letters, essays, fiction, newspapers, and even court cases, Vicinus discerns how these women understood themselves, their relationships, and their connection to society.  By approaching the subject from this angle, Vicinus succeeds in showing that these women employed many different discourses at different times to describe themselves, thus achieving her goal of complicating the emergence of a singular “lesbian” identity.

In fact, in her introduction, Vicinus explicitly questions the usefulness of “identity” in historical analysis.  Is it too simple to assume individuals were motivated by an impulse to construct an identity for themselves?  Perhaps these women never saw themselves as embodying only one identity (“lesbian” for example), and moreover, perhaps they never wanted to.

Her book is divided into four parts, each of which discusses a particular type of arrangement between intimate women.  Part 1 looks at “husband wife couplings,” though I think it could be more generalized simply as “coupling,” because the pairs of women discussed in these chapters aren’t necessarily trying to mimic the heteronormative marriage of masculine husband and feminine wife.  They simply lived together in monogamous (for the most part) relationships, in the countryside, separated from the rest of society.  It was society that then forced the “husband and wife” rubric on to them.  Part 2 discusses what Vicinus calls “queer relationships” in which complicated love triangles were formed between a husband, his wife, and the woman that the wife still loved.  Far from the traditional understanding of these triangles, which posits that the man viewed his wife’s desire for another woman as trivial, Vicinus paints a portrait in which the relationship among all three is deeply entangled.  In some cases, the man respected his wife’s desire and used his marriage to her as a shield, protecting his wife’s same-sex relationship from the view of society.  His role then shifts from lover to “male mother” who gives a platonic and paternalistic love (132).  Part 3 then addresses “cross age” relationships; in other words, the ones that were built upon an age difference and took on the role of mother/daughter, aunt/niece, or teacher/pupil.  “Whereas same-sex marriages could be more equal than heterosexual marriages, cross-age love accentuated inequalities…disparities of age and power increased the opportunities for intense emotional dramas between women” (109).  These cross age relationships were not always physical, but they often led to ‘husband-wife’ marriages.  And part 4 discusses the “modernist refashioning” of these erotic friendships into a lesbian identity.  At the same time, the medicalization of sexuality provided a wider array of vocabulary with which these same-sex desiring women could express themselves, but it also offered fewer roles for them.  Vicinus highlights the ways in which these emerging, modern lesbians (those who embraced that identity) did not simply subscribe to the medical identities, but negotiated and forged identities on their own terms.

In all of these varied relationships listed above, Vicinus emphasizes that the women involved used their knowledge of family, religion, education, and nature to talk about and understand their desires.  This challenges the traditional view of same-sex relationships among women as characteristic of either romantic friendship or gender inversion (“male”/female marriages).  Her book also shows that sexual, genital contact was not always a defining factor of an erotic relationship.  In fact, sometimes it was part of the drama of self-restraint that added to the passion of the relationship.

My Comments:

The stories that she includes in the book are fascinating, but I think the obvious contribution Vicinus has made is complicating the story of women who have loved women.  Moreover, I think her book has returned agency to these women by showing how they actively maneuvered societal norms and gender roles to define their relationship with their lover.  At first I was skeptical – or just didn’t fully understand – her critique of “identity” as an analytical lens, but after finishing her book, I think I better understand it.  I wonder though, if it’s helpful at all to talk about multiple identities?  Because, I’m convinced that these women (and us today) aren’t ever trying to form a single identity, but that we utilize multiple identities depending on our situation – and one identity is no less sincere or “real” than the other.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Houlbrook: Queer London


Houlbrook, Matt.  Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Subject:  An exploration of the variety of queer identities in interwar London.

Main Points:  Similar to Chauncey’s Gay New York, Houlbrook’s work studies the myriad of queer identities that emerged and thrived in interwar London.  Central to the book is its focus on spaces.  He gives importance not only to the parks, urinals, theaters, streets, pubs, and cinemas where queer men met, but also to the city of London itself.  The sexual practices and identities of these men “do not just take place in the city; they are shaped and sustained by the physical and cultural forms of modern urban life just as they in turn shape that life” (4).  So these “queer places” acted as more than a place to hook up; they became sites where a vibrant queer scene emerged as they provided these queer men with a sense of community with others like themselves.

Houlbrook’s discussion of space also intersects with class.  Working and lower class queers (the flamboyant queans, the West End Poofs, and the tough “bad boys”) were forced to meet in public places.  This made them vulnerable to surveillance and discrimination; in fact, most of what we know about this time period comes from police records. Middle and upper class queer men on the other hand were able to capitalize on their bourgeois affluence and cultivate their identities in the privacy of their own homes, thus largely escaping persecution.

Houlbrook’s book also shows that we have to be careful not to project our own understanding of “gay” back onto the past, even when it’s “only” interwar London.  Because the characters that he reveals don’t fit neatly into the 21st century “gay” identity.  Instead, flamboyant queans and “Dilly Boys” (of Piccadilly Square) identified more with their femininity than with their object choice.  Like the “trade” men of Chauncey’s Gay New York, the rough, masculine “bad boys” of London could have sex with queans (and with women) without being ‘homosexual’ or having their masculinity called into question…as long as they were the active, dominant partner in sex.  That is because a working class man’s reputation and identity were more based on his masculinity than on whom he slept with.  Class also ties in with this: Houlbrook argues that these “normal” men had sex with effeminate men also in order to make some money.  “I do not want to suggest that all young single working-class men participated or entered into ongoing relationships with other men, but they certainly all could, and their practice would be readily understood and accepted amongst mates” (181).

Beginning in the 1940s, London’s queer community underwent a transformation.  The middleclass “respectable” queer began identifying as “homosexual” in reaction to and shaping the medicalization of homosexuality.  What defined their queerness was their object of desire, nothing else.  They used their socio-political status as middle-class men to push for certain reforms, but Houlbrook almost paints them as being selfish.  They pushed only for their model of homosexuality, and only sought the removal of the words “in private” from the Criminal Law Amendment Act.  They began using their money also to “privatize” queer spaces by opening up nightclubs and charging admission.  Gradually, by the end of the 1950s, the publically effeminate quean and poof were replaced by an “invisible” middleclass homosexual.  These men, Houlbrook writes, “came out purely so that they could retreat, constructing a respectable subject predicated upon the space of the middle-class home” (257).  This transformation also had an effect on the tough trade men.  As the model of homosexuality took hold and queerness became defined by partner choice, working class masculinity changed and assertive, dominant sex with another man was no longer acceptable.

My Comments:

I think this is a great and interesting book.  I love his emphasis on space and how class played a role in utilizing space to help form identities.  I wonder if such ideas and analytical approaches could be used for rural settings, too, or if it’s unique to urban areas.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here.

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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