Lesbianism in early modern times

Wed, Dec 18th, 2019 @ 7:44:37 PM   Lesbianism topstories    132    0   

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Lesbians in Public

Homosexual behavior among women gained more visibility in the course of history. Hence the idea of ​​starting to punish this behavior. But only a few cases are known in which those sentences were also executed.


In early modern England, the homosexual behavior of women became increasingly culturally visible. According to some historians such as Traub, this would have led to increasing cultural sanctions. In 1709, Delarivière Manley writes a political satire The New Atalantis, in which lesbian practices are attacked.

Others such as Friedli and Faderman have trivialized cultural opposition to female homosexuality. They pointed out that it was better tolerated than males. Despite the social stigma*, English courts have not prosecuted homosexual activities between women. That way lesbianism has largely been ignored by the law in England. Mary Hamilton (the “female husband”, as Henry Fielding had in her story about the case) was beaten for fraud but is not considered by the court or the press to have committed sexual crimes. On the other hand, Terry Castle claims that the English law in the eighteenth century ignored female homosexual activities not so much out of indifference but because of male fear of being lesbian to acknowledge.

The literature tried to rationalize a number of lesbian activities. They looked for visible indications for sapphic tendencies**. In The New Atalantis, for example, “real” lesbians are portrayed as male. Craft-Fairchild, however, claims that Manley – along with Cleland in Fanny Hill – failed to describe lesbians in a coherent way as anatomically different from other women. Fielding in The Female Husband focuses instead on the corruption of Hamilton’s mind as leading for her homosexual acts and cross-dressing.

This difficulty in setting up a narrative framework to incorporate female homosexuality was recognized by Jonathan Swift in his writing for the Tatler (British literary and social newspaper) in 1711. He describes a woman having virginity tested by a lion. Despite the fact that the spectators saw nothing unusual about the woman, the lion identified her as “no real virgin”. At the same time, writings were positive or potentially positive about female homosexuality, based on the languages of female homosexual friendship and heterosexual romanticism, because there were no widespread cultural motives of homosexuality at the time.

Traces of a lesbian subculture

z35W7z4v9z8w – Only among the less respectable members of society does there seem to be such a thing as a lesbian subculture. There was probably a lesbian subculture among dancers and prostitutes in Paris in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and in Amsterdam in the eighteenth century.


Lesbianism in early American history

Laws against lesbianism were proposed but did not enforce themselves in early American history.

In 1636, John Cotton proposed a law for Massachusetts Bay that made sex between two women (or two men) the main crime. This law has not been ratified. He would have sounded as follows: “Unnatural filth that had to be punished with death. Sodomy, a carnal community of male to male, or female to female, or buggery, a carnal community of male to female with animals or birds. ”

In 1655 the Connecticut Colony passed a law against sodomy between women (as well as between men), but none of this ended up.

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a law that said: “Whoever is guilty of rape, polygamy or sodomy with a man or a woman, will be punished. Men with castration, women by cutting off the cartilage from her nose until another gap of at least half an inch in diameter remains ”, but this too did not become a law.

The only prosecution for lesbian activities in American history

In 1649 in Plymouth Colony, Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon were prosecuted for “immoral behavior with each other on a bed”. The documents of their trial are the only known record of sex between female English settlers in North America in the 17th century. Hammon was only admonished, perhaps because she was younger than sixteen. In 1650, however, Norman was convicted and had to publicly acknowledge her “unchaste behavior” with Hammon. She was also warned of future violations. This is the only prosecution for homosexual activities of women in the history of the United States.

Close intimate relationships were common among women in the mid-19th century. This was attributed to strict gender roles that led women to extend their social circle to other women for emotional support. It was expected that these relationships would develop closely between women with a comparable socio-economic status. Since there was no defined language at that time with regard to lesbianism, these relationships were considered to be gay.

Despite all the very close emotional relationships between women, marriage to a man remained the norm. There are, however, indications that sexual relationships developed beyond an emotional level. Documents from two African-American women use terms that describe practices known as “bosom sex.” Although these women practice heterosexuality with their husbands, their relationship is still believed to be romantic and sexual.

The Boston marriage

Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, known as the ladies of Llangollen

Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, known as the ladies of Llangollen

The late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century saw the boom of “Boston marriages” in New England. The term describes romantic friendship between two women, living together and without any financial support from men. Many long-term romantic friendships started at women’s colleges. This kind of relationship dates back to before the New England custom, there have been examples of this in the UK and continental Europe since the eighteenth century.


The lesbian community in Paris in the late nineteenth century

Author Radclyffe Hall links and Lady Una Troubridge with their badger dog at the Crufts dog show, February 1923

Author Radclyffe Hall links and Lady Una Troubridge with their badger dog at the Crufts dog show, February 1923

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the visibility of lesbians in France also increased, both in the public sphere and in the representations of lesbians in art and literature. Fin de siècle society in Paris included bars, restaurants, and cafes visited by and in the hands of lesbians such as Le Hanneton and le Rat Mort, private salons such as those organized by American ex-pat Nathalie Barney, attracted lesbian and bisexual artists and writers of the era, including Romaine Brooks, Renee Vivien, Colette, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and Radclyffe Hall.
One of Barney’s lovers, the courtesan Liane de Pougy, published a bestseller based on their romance called l’ Idylle Saphique (1901). Many of the more visible lesbians and bisexual women were entertainers and actresses. Some, such as the writer Colette and her lover Mathilde de Morny, staged lesbian theatrical scenes in cabarets that drew indignation and censorship. Descriptions of lesbian salons, cafes, and restaurants were included in tourist guides and journalism of the era, as well as mention of prostitution houses that were unique to lesbians. Toulouse Lautrec made paintings of many of the lesbians he met, some of whom visited or worked at the famous Moulin Rouge.

* stigma: powerful negative social stamp
** sapphic tendencies: boyish appearance


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