being femme is not about being feminine. it’s about reclaiming what it is to be strong.
people read as feminine have also been condemned as weak, frail, unauthentic, and incapable as long as time is old. being…
You know, for someone touting their academic credentials as if that gives them special knowledge and authority, you’re doing some really crummy historical analysis. And I want to say right off the bat that I’m bi (and so is desidere), so let’s skip the part where you act like the only people who could disagree with you are lesbians.
First let’s clear up some terminology. Yes, the word “lesbian” has changed connotations over time. “Lesbian”/”lesbianism” has described the behavior of woman/woman sexual or romantic relations (or people who engage in that behavior), just as “homosexual”/”homosexuality” has been used to describe “homosexual behavior,” without reference to “sexual orientation.” Additionally, we sometimes look back into the past and identify women as “lesbians” even though they may not have self-identified that way. For example, the document you referenced about Anne Lister and Marianna Lawton describes Anne as a “lesbian” even while acknowledging that she did not use that word herself (at least in her journals). This is all true.
However, when we use the words “lesbian” and “bisexual” today, we’re referring to people with a certain basic sexual orientation. A lesbian is a woman who desires women [and perhaps non-binary people] romantically/sexually at the exclusion of men. A bisexual person is someone who has the capacity to experience romantic/sexual desire for more than one gender. Neither of these terms refers to behavior. As is commonly said in both bisexual and gay circles, behavior does not equal orientation.
I don’t think it’s meaningless to speculate about what sexuality historical women “really” were. Even acknowledging the differences in how gender, sexuality, and social roles are constructed in different cultures and in different times, I feel safe in assuming there have been people in all times and places who meet (more or less) these basic definitions of “lesbian” and “bisexual.” Going back to Anne Lister, she wrote, “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs.” It sounds like she fits the current definition of “lesbian,” and it’s likely that if she were alive today, in our culture, that’s how she would have self-identified. I don’t even think it’s completely useless to question whether every lesbian-labeled historical woman was “actually” a lesbian. However, I don’t think your assertions about which women were “really” bisexual are well-supported, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Based on your previous response, I’m not sure that you actually know what a lesbian (as we use the term today) is.
“At that time, lesbians were not what we think of now — namely that identifying as a lesbian did not preclude sleeping with and having relationships with men.”
Nope. “Lesbian” now refers to a woman with a particular sexual orientation. This doesn’t preclude the possibility that she has slept with men. Even today (and certainly in the past), many lesbians (those who only experience romantic/sexual desire for women, regardless of how they identified or were labeled) have had relationships with or even married men for to a variety of reasons. Some possibilities include societal expectations, familial pressures, financial considerations, denial (perhaps religious/moralistic), and other aspects of compulsory heterosexuality. That doesn’t make them non-lesbians; it just makes them unhappy lesbians.
Perhaps you meant to make a distinction between “women who only desired to have relationships with women” (lesbians) and “women who desired relationships with women and men [and possibly others]” (bisexuals). This is a very different idea, and can’t be assessed based solely on past relationship history due to the reality of compulsory heterosexuality in lesbian (and bisexual!) experience. And simply because behavior =/= orientation.
“Again, the word bisexual had not yet come into common use outside of academia so there was no easy way to distinguish between a woman that had relationships with women exclusively and a woman that had relationships with men and women.”
The terms “lesbian” and “bisexual” do not describe “women who exclusively have relationships with women” and “women who have relationships with men and women.” We don’t currently have words for these concepts as far as I know. The closest to the former for lesbians is “gold star lesbian.” Additionally, some bisexual women may only date women, and no word exists for this either, except sometimes “political lesbian.” A lesbian who is dating a man out of genuine romantic/sexual desire for him is a misnomer, a closeted lesbian who dates a man doesn’t have a specific term[?], and neither does a bi woman who dates more than one gender, or men exclusively.
“It was not until the 1960’s that the word lesbian began to imply NOT sleeping with men AT ALL, i.e.being exclusively attracted to women.”
Here you are directly conflating exclusive attraction to women with not sleeping with men at any point in one’s sexual history, which, again, is wrong. Women with exclusive attraction to other women do exist, regardless of what relationship they’re in. To say otherwise is to deny lesbian existence and reduce it solely to identification with a particular word. Political lesbianism a la Shelia Jeffreys is a political ideology, one that isn’t even lesbian-exclusive. (You just have to identify as lesbian instead of bi to not be the enemy, as it were.) It’s not the actual definition of lesbianism (the orientation). In fact, the idea that lesbian sexuality is just a political stance in reaction to men, and doesn’t exist in its own right, is a harmful stereotype against lesbians. (And, of course, Jeffreys ideology is incredibly harmful to trans women, especially trans lesbians.)
Lesbianism was something one DID not something one WAS. You could be a lesbian when you were with a girl and straight when you were with a boy — all in the same evening if you liked!
… “A lesbian wasn’t something you were, therefore you could be a lesbian [conditionally].” Ok. This is nonsensical. Not even talking about historical use of this specific term anymore, but generally if [noun] is defined as [one who does verb], that person is still [noun] when not doing [verb]. So if a woman was a “lesbian” because she regularly engaged in lesbianism, she could still be a lesbian when with men, since being with men isn’t mutually exclusive with engaging in lesbianism (at other times), and the latter is the only noteworthy behavior. In any case, your statement here is just nonsensical and superfluous.
So to sum up in that regard: I don’t think that word means what you think it means.
[You also say, “… in Lister and Lawton’s time there was not such a clear-cut distinction between lesbians and bisexuals. There was only one group - what is often referred to as Same Gender Loving People.” Lol, what? Are you saying that lesbian and bi women in the 1820s all referred to themselves as “same gender loving people” and made up a single, connected community with a “shared” history? Citation needed, because that sounds incredibly ahistorical. Are you saying that people today “often” refer to lesbian and bi women together as “same gender loving people”? Are you saying that historians “often” call past women who had relationships with women “same gender loving people”? Who does this?
Additionally, the term “same-gender loving” has a specific association with the Black American community. It’s credited to Cleo Manago in the 1990s as a non-Eurocentric term for Black homosexual and bisexual men and women. The only times I’ve seen this term defined in LGBTQ resources, that was the definition. I’ve maybe seen the odd use of it in white religious LGBTQ resources, but, like, google image search “same gender loving” and you’re going to see a lot of Black people [some results nsfw]. If you’re starting to “often” use this term as a general umbrella for historical LGBQ people - especially white, western people - uh, you probably shouldn’t.]
Moving on to your historical claims:
You accept emiello’s assertion that Marianna was bisexual (as we define it today) based on… what exactly? The fact that she was married? The only way you can accept that as solid evidence is if you assume that women in the past only entered marriages out of romantic desire for their partner. While that’s the prevalent motivation for marriage today, in the west, that is hardly the case for all people, in all places, at all points in time. Marriage just isn’t always done for pure romantic desire, and it’s pretty ahistorical/inaccurate to assume otherwise. Again, societal expectations, familial pressures, and financial considerations are all factors that may motivate marriage. This is especially true for women, who may have less social/economic support as single women.
In fact, the source that emiello referenced as “evidence” that Marianna was bisexual says this about her marriage:
Anne was a member of the petit-bourgeois, and most of her sexual partners had a lower social and financial status than she. Economic considerations were as important for Anne and her lovers as for heterosexuals. […info about another lover…] Marianna had originally left Anne to get married and thereby gain a higher income — Anne regretted what she termed ‘legal prostitution’ but nevertheless encouraged the marriage because of its obvious financial prudence; Charles breaks off friendly relations with Anne when he discovers that she and his wife hope for his early death so they can live together; later Marianna reinstates her relationship with Anne when she realizes that she is not going to have a child by her husband (who seems to be infertile) and that he has not put her into his will though she has signed her income over to him, which means she would be destitute at his death. Eventually Charles reconciles himself with Anne and resigns himself to her affair with his wife, facilitating their travelling together and feigning indifference when they sleep together even in his own house. Under pressure from Anne, Charles ensures that Marianna will receive a good annual income after his death. The two women often discuss the details of pooling their resources (including the anticipated annuity from Charles) during their passionate second honeymoon.
What part of this suggests that Marianna entered her marriage out of genuine romantic/sexual desire for Charles? How is this convincing evidence of her bisexuality (ie capacity to desire women and men [and possibly others])? The account clearly states that the marriage was motivated by financial factors. Hoping for your husband’s early death so that you can take your inheritance and join your lover doesn’t sound like genuine love… But you’re just accepting as incontrovertible that since she was married, she must have loved her husband, and therefore must have been bisexual. To the extent that you’re resting your entire argument about bisexual erasure on her supposedly irrefutable bisexuality. Uhm, ok? I’m unconvinced.
Even if Marianna was “really” bisexual (which this document doesn’t provide evidence for and I think is unlikely), what does an English woman describing her lover in the 1820s have to do with butch/femme categorization/self-identification in working-class “lesbian” bar culture in 30s-40s America? Nothing! Anne is not describing her as “a femme” as a standalone English word; she’s calling her “womanly” in French. The whole phrase was “plus femme que moi" [more womanly than me]. What evidence is there that Anne meant this as more than a passing phrase, or started referring to Marianna regularly as “femme” or “a femme”? What evidence is there that Marianna ever identified as “a femme”? What evidence is there that Anne and Marianna popularized the usage of “femme” as a way to describe feminine queer women and it spread over the next hundred years to working-class bar culture in America?
There’s nothing. All you have is one English woman in the 1820s using the French word that “femme” derives from to describe a woman whom you’re ~interpreting as bisexual. And from this you’re concluding that this single instance of this description is how the “femme” of butch/femme came to us, and so was originally about a bi woman.
Just a tip: that’s not how you do history. Maybe you ought to put you BA down cause it’s not helping you out here.
A cursory look at the sources desidere provided and a little skimming of an additional source suggest that butch/femme arose together as a form of social categorization, self-identification, and visible code within the context of American working-class “lesbian” bar culture in the 1930s-40s. So far I haven’t seen (good) evidence to challenge this. The fact that these terms are from a specific cultural context is significant. Not all masculine women are “butch,” and not all feminine women are “femme,” and not all pairings of masculine women with feminine women are “butch/femme.” Since we are familiar with these categories today, we may use them as a lens for interpreting/defining the past (or present), but it’s actually ahistorical/inaccurate to apply them to women across the board. The Anne Lister article describes her relationship with Marianna as a butch/femme relationship, but this is historically inaccurate. Those simply weren’t culturally relevant terms/categories at the time.
You could also say that it’s inaccurate to apply lesbian and bisexual identity as we understand them today to historical figures that lived in cultures with different constructions of sexuality, or even designate them as “lesbian” or “bisexual.” I semi-agree with that, and I think it’s important to respect how past figures conceptualized themselves, even if they used outdated or “obviously” inaccurate terms or didn’t define themselves at all. But again, I don’t think it’s worthless to speculate on what people “really” were or how they might have identified today. It’s historically interesting, it provides representation which is politically/culturally/personally beneficial for marginalized groups, and historical figures may have cultural significance to different communities today or promote common identity within them.
The question then becomes whether women who would today identify as bisexual were present in the cultural spaces (specifically 1930s-40s butch/femme bar culture) labeled “lesbian,” taking into account the fact that people in those spaces self-identified as “lesbian” as far as it’s known. And if they were present, was their presence/participation significant enough to justify redefining those spaces as general “queer women’s” spaces, rather than lesbian-specific, lesbian-dominated, and/or lesbian-created spaces. How many bi women were actually present in “lesbian” butch/femme spaces, if any? If bi women were present, what rough percentage of the community did they make up? Of all bi women in the 30s-40s, what rough percentage was involved in “lesbian” butch/femme spaces or other “lesbian” spaces?
You seem to be starting with the a priori assumption that bi women have always been significantly involved in spaces labeled “lesbian” - you ‘remind’ us that “many” of the women in “lesbian” spaces were bi - and have always been part of a merged community with lesbians until the 1980s. I’m not sure why you think this. Maybe you’re assuming that because many bi women are involved in queer spaces today, that “many” bi women probably participated in “lesbian” spaces in the past.
But it seems to me [and it should be noted here that I am not particularly well-informed on this history] that these were spaces composed of women who were specifically seeking relationships with other women (“lesbians” I suppose, if that’s specifically how the term was defined), where they were able to socialize. If that is the demographic of women present, is it really reasonable to assume that there were “many” bi women there?
A Pew survey from 2013[?] indicated that only 9% of bi people were in same-gender relationships, compared to 99% of lesbians and 98% of gay men. (The bi statistic doesn’t have a breakdown between men and women, at least that I see, and it may be slightly higher since 4% of bi people were in relationships with trans people, who weren’t factored into the results.) That is today. I think it’s completely reasonable to assume that in the past, when compulsory heterosexuality was even more severe, when there were even less models of women/women relationships or women-loving-women identity, almost no models of bisexuality, and less accessible resources or community spaces, that not even 9% of bi women would be in relationships with other women. It would probably be a lot less. Bi women who specifically sought out relationships with other women, and who would go out of their way to participate in community spaces for such women, were probably uncommon.
I think it’s entirely possible that lesbian and bi women actually were for the most part “separate islands,” that bi women were less likely that lesbians to be involved in “lesbian” spaces (perhaps many of us were “islands” unto ourselves), and that many “lesbian” spaces actually were established and dominated by lesbians.
Again, I’m saying this as a [white, cis, American] bi woman who is speculating about her own history. This isn’t biphobia or bi erasure; it’s a sincere hypothesis based on a minimal amount of critical thought. I’m also saying it as a non-historian, who - again - doesn’t even know much about this topic, so it’s possible that there’s evidence out there suggesting that I’m entirely wrong. But you haven’t provided it. You haven’t provided anything to support your claims at all. All you’ve really done is engage in some crappy analysis, muddle the terms lesbian and bisexual, and attempted to position yourself as an authority by virtue of your degrees, all while speaking down to the other poster. :/
Personally, I’m skeptical that women who had the capacity to be attracted to men or who today might identify as bi were completely absent from “lesbian” spaces. (I think it’s also interesting that in the Pew survey, only 78% of self-identified lesbians said that were only/mostly attracted to women, which seems to implies a bit more diversity in attraction/understand of personal attraction in lesbian-identified women. In comparison, only 2% of bisexual-identified women said they were only/mostly were attracted to women.)
However, I do expect that, if they were present (which I don’t think we can ever know for sure, and therefore shouldn’t base any arguments on), their interaction with these spaces was rare. I do think that these spaces - and the cultures that arose from them - are properly described as “lesbian.” If they aren’t completely lesbian-specific, they were likely at least lesbian-dominated. And of course, as far as I can tell, these women self-identified as lesbian, which doesn’t count for nothing. If nothing else, “lesbian” spaces were lesbian for what lesbian meant at the time. Reframing them as general “queer women’s” spaces not only erases the actual historical conception/identity of these spaces as “lesbian” but also erases the fact that lesbians actually were the likely creators and major participants in some of these communities. Additionally, “queer women” is itself a category particular to our time that we’re imposing on the past (including onto earlier historians’ records of “lesbian” history), just as we impose “lesbian” and “bisexual” onto the past. It has particular implications and goals, just as “lesbian” did when earlier historians were applying it.
I do see this reframing as part of a current political project to redefine all historically “gay” spaces as “LGBT” (or even MOGAI) and say that any [specific community space] was actually a [general community space]. Specifically, we’re redefining “lesbian” and especially “lesbian history” as an umbrella term that that always and automatically includes bi women, and “really” just means “queer women” and never specifically “lesbian.” I think that’s really microaggressive and can easily erase lesbian communities and contributions. It’s not a neutral reconstruction. And it’s not necessarily “more accurate” or “more historical.” In may be, in some cases. But we really can’t evaluate the historical accuracy if we’re making these oversimplified and muddled claims with obvious political agendas (combating bi erasure from perceived “monosexist” lesbians, who must be “monosexist” because they’re erasing bi people).
[Also re: d*ke: I SERIOUSLY DOUBT this term at any point referred to bisexual women specifically. While I haven’t seen your sources, I’m suspicious that they aren’t full of historical ret-conning to say that any woman who had relationships with woman and men must be bisexual. Also, BY YOUR LOGIC, how could a term like this specifically refer to bi women before bi women supposedly “separated” from the lesbian community in the 1980s? You said that lesbians and bi women always made up a blended community, such that we could never say that anything really belongs to lesbians but not bi women, but then imply that d*ke could possibly refer to bi women but not lesbians? It seems like you’re selectively using the “merged community” idea to provide bi women with the greatest claim on historical terms.]
just wanted to add Anne Lister was not “petit bourgeois”. petit bourgeois means lower middle class in French, Anne Lister was not middle class. she came from a family of well off landownders with a large estate (Shibden Hall) which she inherited in 1826 and her wealth and social class are what allowed her to live the way she did and have so many relationships with women.
in 1816 she encouraged Marianne to marry Charles Lawton in the hope that he’ll die soon and Marianne will be able to live off his money (at this point Anne hadn’t inherited her family’s estate yet and her access to money was still controlled by her family). both women meant to continue their relationship although Marianne was married to a man now, Marianne did not “leave Anne” to get married. in fact, Marianne gave Anne the wedding ring Charles gave her and Anne wore it as a symbol of her love for Marianne. to replace the ring, she gave Marianne an identical one engraved with her initials. it seems like Anne actually felt like this exchange of rings made them married to each other and referred to herself as Marianne’s ‘first husband’ (we don’t know what Marianne thought since we don’t have her diaries).