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.
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.