Lesbian erasure: part two

Examples of lesbian sexuality all over early American history into the beginning of the 20th century provide a myriad of reasons why lesbianism was actually embraced, right up until the turn of the 19th and then into the 20th century — when it wasn’t.

With all these depictions of blissfully naked lesbians over centuries, why does anyone keep writing, for example, that “We don’t really know if so-and-so and so-and-so who shared the same bed for 50 years were sexual”?

They were. And there is ample proof if we examine the confluent and overlapping milieux of women’s education and the suffrage movement, both of which opened up new vistas for women to examine their choices in society. One of those choices was lesbian relationships instead of marriage to a man and the accompanying constraints of large families with many children. Raising children and running a household restrict women’s time and energy, leaving little for the work of suffrage or social reform.

Lesbian relationships bore none of the oppressive and repressive hallmarks of compulsory heterosexuality. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was married to a man and the mother of seven but who had a long relationship with Susan B. Anthony wrote of that relationship, “I prefer a tyrant of my own sex, so I shall not deny the patent fact of my subjection; for I do believe that I have developed into much more of a woman under her jurisdiction.”

For her part, Anthony was clear: Men held women back. At 18, she had written in her diary, “I think any female would rather live and die an old maid.” Throughout her life as a suffragist, she never failed to mourn the losses of other suffragists to marriage and family, which overrode their time and took them from the cause of women’s enfranchisement.

How do we know women were engaged in sexual relationships? We know because teenage girls and young women were already having sex together at boarding schools and seminaries — why would they stop?

The efforts to suppress women’s independence were hardly new. For millennia, women’s lives had been controlled, particularly their sexual autonomy.

When women’s education advanced past the local schoolhouse and became an acceptable option in the 19th century, same-sex seminaries — places for secondary education — began to evolve. One of the pressing concerns in the writings of the time was lesbianism. Female students — most were in their mid to late teens — were developing what were reductively referred to as “passionate” or “romantic” friendships. Mashes, crushes and smashes were all terms used to describe love affairs between young women at school in the late 19th century. What’s more, pulp novels of the time detail such crushes as a sojourn in a young woman’s life prior to the “real” goal: heterosexual marriage.

Given the cloistered atmosphere of these seminaries and later the Seven Sisters colleges, why wouldn’t there be sex, and lots of it? In the 1960s and ’70s, lesbian sexuality was rife at the Seven Sisters and other women’s colleges and women have written declaratively about it. Why wouldn’t the same passionate sexual expression have been true when these schools were first established in the mid-19th century for exactly the same reasons? Women were released from the restrictions of the home and parental and societal control. They could hold hands, hug and kiss each other, walk arm in arm. These were all acceptable expressions of female friendship. They could also sleep in the same bed to “comfort” each other from homesickness.

But the fears of women’s education were regularly invoked along with the freedom of intellectual and sensual pursuits that they offered.

In 1874, Edward Clarke wrote of the dangers of these all-female environments turning women into men. “Sex Education or a Fair Chance for Girls” is one such exhibit of social fears. Too much education for women would be perilous, Clarke explained, repeating anxieties that women were both too limited to absorb education as men do and that if they were inculcated with too much knowledge, it would harm them irreparably by turning them into, well, lesbians.

Clarke argued that studying hard in an all-female environment would do damage to women’s reproductive organs, tax their brains and cause hysteria “and other derangements of the nervous system.” Clarke evinced concern that if women became “too educated” and “too independent,” they would also become “masculine.”

Lesbianism was a significant threat, according to Clarke, and educated women had to be careful to “remain women, not strive to be men, or they will ignominiously fail.”

In fin-de-siècle America, though, women’s education was becoming more of a concern as a masculinizing threat to feminine and heterosexual women. Though we know college can’t make you gay, that alarm had been sounded long and loud.

Charles Thwing, warning of the lesbian takeover of women’s colleges in 1894’s “The College Woman,” was more succinct 20 years after Clarke: What if women became “brutes” at college and lost their femininity by behaving like men? Worse, Thwing asserted, what if educated women began to think that relationships between women were a substitute for heterosexual relationships?

“Many college friendships are exceedingly exhausting. Women give themselves up more readily than men to intimate relations. College officers are wise in cautioning students against too-warm friendships, especially against forming them in the first year of college life.”

All these fears about lesbians abounded, even as we are told that lesbian sexuality was actually a fiction.

The most famous lesbian in America in the 19th century was suffragist Anthony, whose affairs with women — Stanton, Rachel Avery, Anna Dickinson, Emily Gross — were well-known even at the time.

Anthony was one of the most ardent and vociferous suffragists, and as such was targeted by the media as a “manly,” which was about the worst accusation that could be hurled at a woman. It was one she refuted in a 1900 essay titled “The New Century’s Manly Woman.”

Anthony believed strongly that women were damaged by their relationships with men, which she perceived as stifling a woman’s talents and abilities beyond the maintaining of home and family. Ida B. Wells, the journalist, suffragist and civil-rights activist, complained that once she married and had her first child, Anthony was annoyed with her, telling her that she was too talented for marriage and motherhood.

In her love affair with Dickinson, Anthony wrote flirtatiously. But it had been Dickinson — much pursued by other women — who had gone after the older Anthony. She wrote, “I want to see you very much indeed, to hold your hand in mine, to hear your voice, in a word, I want you — I can’t have you? Well, I will at least put down a little fragment of my foolish self and send it to look up at you.”

Are we expected to believe these were sexless exchanges of the mind only? That’s revisionist nonsense. Whether or not these women put the word “lesbian” to their relationships did not make those relationships any less fully lesbian, including sexually.

The intensity of the suffrage movement and Anthony’s role in it demanded an equally passionate private life. Anthony referred to Dickinson with sweet affirmations, calling her “Dear Anna Dicky Darly [sic].” Their affair bolstered her resolve and she wrote to Dickinson, “Somehow your very breath gives me new hope and new life.”

As she headed off to another suffrage campaign without Dickinson by her side, she wrote, “I cannot bear to go off without another precious look into your face — my Soul.” En route to Cincinnati three months later, she wrote, “Well, Anna Darling — I do wish I could take you in these strong arms of mine this very minute.”

Anthony also wrote encouraging words to Dickinson, who was on the front lines as well, noting, “Ah, Anna, your mission will brighten and beautify every day if you will but keep the eye of your own spirit turned within … [where] that precious jewel of truth is to be sought — and formed — And darling — you will find it & speak it, and live it — and all men and women will call you blessed.”

The letters between the two are full overheated comments and sexy talk; these women who have been portrayed as “unsexed” or “old maids” were in fact engaged in passionate affairs that propelled them forward in their work for women.

Later in her life, Anthony became involved with Gross, who would be her lover until her death. She wrote of their budding relationship, “I shall go to Chicago and visit my new lover — dear Mrs. [Emily] Gross — en route to Kansas. So with new hope & new life …”

Throughout America, there were lesbian couples at women’s colleges and in the various reform movements, from abolition to suffrage, and then the rising social-work and workers’-rights movements. The Boston Marriage — two women living together — was desexualized specifically because men feared those relationships and how they might spread like a contagion.

That fear is an undercurrent throughout Henry James’ classic novel “The Bostonians,” in which a romantic triangle includes Basil Ransom, a political conservative from Mississippi; Olive Chancellor, Ransom’s cousin and a Boston feminist and suffragist and Verena Tarrant, a pretty, young protégée of Olive’s. The entirety of the 1886 novel is a battle between Basil and Olive for the affections of Verena — as well as for her personhood. That Basil and Olive are presented as equal suitors for Verena’s love is indicative of how deeply lesbian relationships had penetrated the Zeitgeist and how confused and confusing it was for society in deciding what to do with both the relationships and the lesbians themselves.

Nearly 400 years ago, Mary Hammon and Sarah Norman may have been the only lesbian couple in America prosecuted for “being lewd upon a bed together,” but they were not the only lesbian couple being lewd upon a bed, nor kissing a girl and liking it. All history has an element of revisionism, but to revise the breadth of lesbian sexuality out of these relationships because they were in a time before our own is to erase a significant part of our history and, as such, ourselves. 

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.