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urpassing the

Love of Men

Romantic Friendship and Love Between

Women from the Renaissance to the Present




Surpassing the love of men

HQ75.5 .F33 1981


Faderman, Lillian.

romantic fr















Romantic Friendship and Love Between

Women from the Renaissance to the Present


William Morrow New York

Copyright © 1981 by Lillian Faderman

Permissions, constituting a continuation of the copyright page, appear on pages 5-6.

) All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, elec-


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^ William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10019.

It is the policy of William Morrow and Company, Inc., and its imprints and affiliates, recognizing the impor- tance of preserving what has been written, to print the books we pubhsh on acid-free paper, and we exert our

best efforts to that end.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-PubUcation Data

Faderman, Lillian.

Surpassing the love of men.

Bibliography: p.

Includes index.

1 . Lesbianism -History.

2 . Lesbians -Psychology.

3. Love.

I. Title.

[HQ75.5.F33 1981]

ISBN 0-688-13330-4

4. Lesbianism in literature-History.



Printed in the United States of America

123456789 10


Permission to quote has kindly been granted as follows:

Grateful acknowledgment is extended to Lovat Dickson and the Humanities

Research Center, University of Texas, Austin, for permission to quote from

Radclyffe Hall's unpublished letters and notes.

Grateful acknowledgment is extended to the Bancroft Library, University of

California, Berkeley, for permission to quote from "A Beautiful Woman," an

unpublished story by Harriet Lane Levy.

Grateful acknowledgment is extended to the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Col-

lege, for permission to quote from the correspondence of Helen Morton and

Mary Hopkinson,

Grateful acknowledgment is extended to the Houghton Library, Harvard Uni-

versity, for permission to quote from the unpublished diary of Sara Orne


Grateful acknowledgment is extended to Butler Library, Columbia University,

for permission to quote from the diary of Charlotte Cushman.

Grateful acknowledgment is extended to Mount Holyoke College Library/

Archives for permission to quote from the correspondence of Jeannette Marks

and from her unpublished essay, "Unwise College Friendships."

From Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, by S. Foster Damon, published by Houghton

Mifflin Company, Copyright © renewed 1963 by S. Foster Damon. Reprinted

by permission.

From The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell, published by Houghton

Mifflin Company. Copyright 1955 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted

by permission.

From Gertrude Stein, As Fine as Melanctha, published by Yale University Press. Copyright 1954 by Alice B. Toklas. Reprinted by permission from Yale Uni-

versity Press.

From Gertrude Stein, Bee Time Vine and Other Pieces, published by Yale Uni-

versity Press. Copyright 1953 by Alice B. Toklas. Reprinted by permission from Yale University Press.

Grateful acknowledgment is extended to Bonnie Zimmerman for permission to

quote from her unpublished article, "My Whole Soul is a Longing Question."

Grateful acknowledgment is extended to Louis Crompton for permission to quote

from his unpublished chronology on homosexuals and the death penalty.


For their kind encouragement and assistance I wish to thank my

colleagues and friends, Paula Bennett, Sandra Dijkstra, Ann-Marie

Feenberg, Harold Karr, Jonathan Katz, Bill Moritz, Harriet Perl,

Margaret Porter, Vivian Pollak, Joachim Ries, Tanya Rutter, Ken

Seib, Allen Skei, Bonnie Zimmerman, Brigitte Eriksson, and my

editor, Maria Guarnaschelli.

For their efforts far beyond their duties I wish to thank the Inter-

library Loan Librarians at University of California, San Diego, and

California State University, Fresno, and the Huntington Library


I wish to acknowledge my debt to Barbara Grier and Jeannette

Foster, whose pioneering bibliographic works were indispensable to my own work. It is my fondest wish that I may be as helpful to

future scholars as they were to me.

'Your love was wonderful to me, passing the love

of women."

David to Jonathan

2 Samuel, 1,26

'/ assure you, with a love "passing the Love of

Men" that I am yours


Lucy to Harriot

William Hayley's The Young Widow, 1789

'Davidean friendship, emulation warm,

Coy blossoms, perishing in courtly air. Its vain parade, restraint, and irksome form,

Cold as the ice, tho' with the comets' glare.

By firmness won, by constancy secured.

Ye nobler pleasures, be ye long their


of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler

Anna Seward's Poetical Works, 1810










Lesbianism in a Phallocentric Universe



1. Lesbianism and the Libertines


Chapter 2. What Do Women Do?

Chapter 3. Eighteenth-Century Fantasy and the



Lesbian Image


Chapter 4.

Transvestism: Persecution and Impunity


B. The Enshrinement of Romantic Friendship


Chapter 1. The Revival of Same-Sex Love: Sixteenth

and Seventeenth Centuries


Chapter 2. The "Fashion" of Romantic Friendship in


the Eighteenth




Chapter 3.

The Battle of the Sexes


Chapter 4. Romantic Friendship in Eighteenth-


Century Literature



Chapter 5. Romantic Friendship in Eighteenth-


Century Life





Loving Friends



Chapter 1. The Asexual Woman






2. Kindred Spirits


Chapter 3. New Women


Chapter 4. Boston Marriage Chapter 5. Love and "Women Who Live by Their






The Reaction


Chapter 1. The Rise of Antifeminism


Chapter 2. The Contributions of the Sexologists



3. Lesbian Exoticism



4. Lesbian Evil




A. Sophistication




Chapter L

The Last Breath of Innocence




The Spread of Medical "Knowledge"


Chapter 3.

Keeping Women Down



4. Fiction as a Weapon


5. Internalization and Rebellion

B. When It Changed

Chapter 1. The Rise of Lesbian-Feminism


2. Writing Lesbian

Chapter 3. Romantic Friendship and Lesbian Love












This book began as a study of Emily Dickinson's love poems and

letters to Sue Gilbert, the woman who became her sister-in-law.

I believed I had found in the poet's writing irrefutable evidence

that the grand passion of her life was not one of the ten or twelve

men with whom she had been romantically linked by her twentieth-

century biographers, but rather another woman. By the time I

finished gathering my material, however, I realized that something

was wrong: Although Dickinson had written the most passionate

and sensual pronouncements of love to Sue Gilbert in the 1850's,

there was never any suggestion that she felt the need to be covert

about her emotions. If I had really uncovered a lesbian relationship,

why could I not find any evidence of the guilt and anxiety, the need

to keep secrets from family and friends, that I thought were inevit-

ably associated with homosexuality before the days of gay liberation?

Several critics suggested that the language of Dickinson's putative

love letters to Sue Gilbert was simply consonant with the overin-

flated rhetoric that was fashionable in her day.

But what about the poems which picture her holding another

woman's "sweet weight" on her heart at night, that describe her as

the pet bird of a lady who throws her occasional crumbs, the queen

of another queen? What about the evidence that immediately after

Sue's marriage to Austin Dickinson, Emily, who viewed the event

with painful ambivalence, had a nervous breakdown? Emily's love

letters to Sue were not simply an example of Victorian rhetoric,

but neither was this a lesbian relationship as such relationships have

been lived through much of our century.

I decided to examine the work of her contemporaries to see if I

might uncover traces of similar relationships in her day. Carroll

Smith-Rosenberg's essay, "The Female World of Love and Ritual,"

suggested that I might find some, but I was not prepared to dis-

cover that it was virtually impossible to study the correspondence



of any nineteenth-century woman, not only of America but also of

England, France, and Germany, and not uncover a passionate com-

mitment to another woman at some time in her life. I also found

innumerable fictional examples of such female love relationships,

all of them without any hint that the women involved had the

slightest sense of wrongdoing, or any suggestion that such affection

could be considered abnormal. I learned too that in various times and places in the nineteenth century, there were common terms to

describe love relationships between women, such as "the love of

kindred spirits," "Boston marriage," and "sentimental friends."

At first I assumed that this kind of romantic attachment was born

in the Victorian era, when women were taught to fear premarital heterosexual love and sought other females for safe emotional out- lets. But I soon discovered that the eighteenth century also had a

term for love between women—romantic friendship—and that the

term signified a relationship that was considered noble and virtuous

in every way. I found romantic friendships not only in the eighteenth

century but in the seventeenth century as well, and I came upon

the genesis of the institution of European and American romantic

friendship in the Renaissance.

These romantic friendships were love relationships in every sense except perhaps the genital, since women in centuries other than

ours often internalized the view of females as having little sexual

passion. Thus they might kiss, fondle each other, sleep together,

utter expressions of overwhelming love and promises of eternal

faithfulness, and yet see their passions as nothing more than effusions

of the spirit. If they were sexually aroused, bearing no burden of visible proof as men do, they might deny it even to themselves if

they wished. But whether or not these relationships had a genital

component, the novels and diaries and correspondence of these

periods consistently showed romantic friends opening their souls to

each other and speaking a language that was in no way different from the language of heterosexual love: They pledged to remain

"faithful" forever, to be in "each other's thoughts constantly," to live together and even to die together.

What surprised me most about these romantic friendships was

that society appeared to condone them rather than to view them

as disruptive of the social structure. I needed to find what it was

that made such relationships, which have certainly been seen as

threatening in our day, seem nonthreatening in other eras. I dis-

covered that not all female same-sex relationships were condoned.

Introduction ^


Transvestite women (i.e., those who dressed and often attempted to

pass as men) who engaged in same-sex love were often persecuted

and sometimes even executed. Why was a woman's choice of dress

such a weighty factor in determining whether men would praise her

love for another woman as being noble and beautiful or flog her

for it?

An obvious answer was that if a woman dressed like a man, it

was assumed that she behaved as a man sexually. If she dressed in

clothes suitable to her sex, it might be assumed that she was not

sexually aggressive, and two unaggressive females together would

do nothing to violate men's presumptive property rights to women's

bodies. But I found that the answer was in fact more complex:

There were in several eras and places many instances of women

who were known to engage in lesbian sex, and they did so with

impunity. As long as they appeared feminine, their sexual behavior would be viewed as an activity in which women indulged when men

were unavailable or as an apprenticeship or appetite-whetter to heterosexual sex. But if one or both of the pair demanded masculine

privileges, the illusion of lesbianism as faute de mieux behavior was

destroyed. At the base it was not the sexual aspect of lesbianism as

much as the attempted usurpation of male prerogative by women

who behaved like men that many societies appeared to find most


It seemed to me, however, that most of the female romantic

friends that I was studying probably did not have sexual relation-

ships. Was that then the primary difference between romantic

friendship and lesbian love? The definition of lesbianism became

somewhat confused for me when I discovered that many of the

lesbian cases cited by the early sexologists such as Havelock Ellis

and Sigmund Freud (who were among the first to offer modern

definitions of the term) were of Victorian and post-Victorian women whose love relationships were nongenital. If lesbianism was not a

specifically sexual phenomenon to them, what was it? It appeared

in many respects no different from the romantic friendships I had come across in earlier eras. Even the sexologists' evidence seemed to

suggest that homosexuality was generally no more appropriate a

term to describe lesbianism than it was to describe romantic friend- ship. It became clear that women's love relationships have seldom been limited to that one area of expression, that love between

women has been primarily a sexual phenomenon only in male

fantasy literature. "Lesbian" describes a relationship in which two


women's strongest emotions and affections are directed toward each

other. Sexual contact may be a part of the relationship to a greater

or lesser degree, or it may be entirely absent. By preference the two

women spend most of their time together and share most aspects of their lives with each other. "Romantic friendship" described a

similar relationship. In discussing this notion with colleagues, I found that some of

them, in our post-sexual-revolution day, had difficulty accepting my

insistence that most female love relationships before the twentieth

century were probably not genital, while others believed that those

relationships were not genital, but could not accept the idea that they were nevertheless serious, that the women's professions of com-

mitment to each other were real and not simply another example

of sentimental excessiveness. Their difficulty, it appeared to me, had

to do with their assumption that what is true of behavior and atti-

tudes today has been true at all times. But sexual patterns in general have altered tremendously over the

centuries, and it could be demonstrated that people in Europe and

the United States have probably become more sexual than they were in former times.^ Even in our century it is apparent that great

changes have occurred, particularly with regard to female sexual

expression. For example, we can infer that in the nineteenth cen- tury, middle-class urban women seldom had sexual intercourse out-

side of wedlock from the information that among the 339 "illegiti- mate" mothers whose occupations were known in several London

parishes during the 1850's, only three were "gentlewomen." Most were domestic servants. It was not until the beginning of this cen-

tury that premarital sex became a significant reality in the lives of

middle-class women who, with their increasing independence, began

to see themselves as "like" (i.e., equal to) men, and therefore capable

of sexual enjoyment, and having the right to that pleasure. Attitudes

and experiences continued to change in more recent times. In the 1950's, when Alfred Kinsey was studying sexual behavior among

unmarried women, only 20 percent of those he interviewed had had

intercourse by the age of nineteen. In 1971 the number in a com-

parable sample had risen to almost 50 percent.- In 1969, 68 per-

cent of Americans believed "it is wrong for people to have sexual

relations before marriage." Four years later, in 1973, the number

fell to 48 percent.^ It is more difficult to trace sexual patterns of love

between women, since lesbian sex leaves no evidence in "illegit-

imate" offspring, and there have been few surveys which deal with

Introduction *


women's views of lesbian sexuality. But it might be assumed that

female homosexual relationships followed a pattern similar to that

of heterosexual relationships. Therefore, while there is abundant

evidence of love between women in the diaries, correspondence,

and fiction of other centuries, there are not many hints of sexual

expression of that love.

My studies also led me to conclude that it is in our century that

love has come to be perceived as a refinement of the sexual impulse,

but in many other centuries romantic love and sexual impulse were often considered unrelated.* Certainly the degree of sexual expres-

sion among romantic friends must have varied, just as it does among

women who are avowedly lesbian today. However, it is likely that most love relationships between women during previous eras, when

females were encouraged to force any sexual drive they might have

to remain latent, were less physical than they are in our times. But

the lack of overt sexual expression in these romantic friendships

could not discount the seriousness or the intensity of the women's

passions toward each other—or the fact that if by "lesbian" we mean an all-consuming emotional relationship in which two women are

devoted to each other above anyone else, these ubiquitous sixteenth-,

seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century romantic friend- ships were "lesbian."

But this conclusion presented me again with a major question: If

these romantic friendships were in the quality and intensity of the

emotions involved no different from lesbian love, why were they so

readily condoned in earlier eras and persecuted in ours? Why were

they considered normal then and abnormal now? From my work

on Emily Dickinson, especially in observing how Martha Dickinson

Bianchi, her niece, had bowdlerized Emily's unseljconscious love

letters to Sue Gilbert when she prepared them for publication in

the 1920's, I realized that society's view of love between women

must have changed drastically in the sixty or seventy years before

their publication. But to what were those changes due and exactly

how were they manifested? Obviously the status of women had

altered significantly during those years in the countries with which

I was concerned. But why should that have effected a change in the

permissibility of love between women? I recognized that the late

nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sexologists who defined

such love as a medical problem had something to do with the new

views regarding these relationships. But why did they suddenly

emerge at that particular time, and why were their pronouncements


accepted so readily when fifty years earlier they would most likely

have been excoriated and then ignored?

As I continued to look for romantic friendship in twentieth-cen-

tury life and literature, I saw that openly expressed love between

women for the most part ceased to be possible after World War I.

Women's changed status and the new "medical knowledge" cast

such affection in a new light. I discovered abundant evidence of

female same-sex love, of course, but it was almost invariably accom-

panied by a new outlaw status. I was then led to investigate how that outlaw status affected the women who continued to love

women despite twentieth-century societal taboos. I found that not only did twentieth-century lesbian literature by heterosexuals usually

show love between women to be a disease, but that women who

were professedly lesbian generally internalized those views. This

was reflected in their own literature, which was full of self-doubts and self-loathing until the 1960's.

The 1960's ushered in both the sexual revolution and the new

feminist movement. But why should those two movements have

changed the attitudes regarding love between women? I found a contemporary analog to libertine society, which condoned rather

than condemned lesbian sex because it made women sexier, in the swingers' parties where lesbian sex was encouraged as a "turn-on" for both men and women. But, more significantly, in lesbian-femin-

ism I found a contemporary analog to romantic friendship in which

two women were everything to each other and had little connection

with men who were so alienatingly and totally different. It seemed

to me that in a sense female same-sex love had come full circle. Of course, I discovered differences between romantic friendship and

lesbian love, but the major difference had much less to do with

overt sexual expression than with women's greater independence in the twentieth century: Now a woman can hope to carry on a love

relationship with another woman for life. It can become her primary relationship, as it seldom could have with romantic friends of the

past for economic reasons if no other. Because that appears to be

the only distinction of importance between the two, I venture to

guess that had the romantic friends of other eras lived today, many

of them would have been lesbian-feminists; and had the lesbian-

feminists of our day lived in other eras, most of them would have

been romantic friends.

July, 1980

Lillian Faderman







Lesbianisni in

a PhcMocentrk Universe


Lesbiamsm and the Libertines

In a sixteenth-century French work by Pierre de Bourdeille,

Seigneur de Brantome (1540-1614), entitled Lives of Fair and Gal-

lant Ladies, which deals primarily with the amorous exploits of the

females of the court of Henri II, the author includes a lengthy sec-

tion on lovemaking between women. He tells of having gone with

a group of ladies and their lovers to a gallery of the Comte de Chas- teau-Villain where they saw many beautiful paintings. Among them

was one that portrayed "a number of fair ladies naked and at the

bath, which did touch, and feel, and handle, and stroke, one the

other, and intertwine and fondle with each other, and so enticingly

and prettily and featly did show all their hidden beauties." The

painting was so sexually stimulating to a certain great lady of the

group that, according to Brantome, she lost all restraint of herself

and, "maddened as it were at the madness of love," demanded that

her lover take her home immediately, "for that no more can I hold

in the ardour that is in me. Needs must away and quench it: too

sore do I burn." Brantome ends this section without any hint that he (or his readers) would find it unusual that a woman could be

sexually aroused by a picture of other women fondling each other.

He says only, "And so she did haste away to enjoy her faithful

lover." 1

In Brantome's view women are usually ready to be sexual play-

mates—which is always delightful if you are a lov