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The Figure of the Mannish Lesbian in Nineteenth-Century Sexology

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The Figure of the Mannish Lesbian in Nineteenth-Century Sexology Francesca Haack WGSS 110: Intro to LGBTQ Studies Professor Christine Rose April 23, 2006 Introduction and Historical Background In the nineteenth century, the concept of the lesbian as a "figure" surfaced. That is, the term "lesbian" came to signify a certain portion of the population adhering to a regiment of attributes and classifications. Scientists combined the fields of medical, sexual, and psychological study to create sexology. These self-proclaimed "experts" studied lesbians and produced the notion of female homosexuality. It was the combination of the emerging field of sexology and previous thoughts on female-female relationships that created the figure of the "mannish lesbian" in the United States and Europe in the nineteenth century. While it was not until the nineteenth century that the mannish lesbian emerged as a figure, female same-sex desire was present and appears to have been even somewhat prevalent in U.S. and British culture. Interestingly, it was neither illegal nor particularly looked down upon. Though not unanimously endorsed, female homosexual relationships, sexual or not, were seen as a phase that many women went through in the process of maturation. As one man said, "we all know the sort of romantic, almost hysterical friendships that are made between young women."1 The famous case of Alice Mitchell, a young woman who murdered her female lover in 1892, even began in a socially sanctioned manner. Though Mitchell's eventual "passing" as a man in order to elope with her lover crossed the line of acceptability, her and Freda Ward's love was initially perceived as "an ordinary, if excessive, schoolgirls' romantic friendship-in Memphis, such relations were called 'chumming'."2 The fact that such non-platonic friendships were given a name suggests both a ubiquity and a tolerance toward them. In fact, the social phenomenon of the "romantic friendship" began in the eighteenth century, and a relationship between two women living together was coined as a "Boston marriage" after a relationship in Henry James' novel The Bostonians.3 The Emergence of ...read more.


They thought that anyone who had unusual sexual preferences or behaviors must have had something amiss. Sexological documents generally classify lesbians into one of two categories: a "congenital invert" or an "acquired invert." While these two categories were sometimes hazy, sexologists such as Ellis and Krafft-Ebing took careful note to group their patients by their respective "causes" for inversion. What the sexologists coined "congenital inversion" was any physical, physiological, or hereditary reason for homosexuality. Krafft-Ebing, for instance, notes that many of his patients have homosexual siblings or have parents with neurological diseases. He takes great care in Psychopathia Sexualis to include any "relevant" (i.e. unusual) psychological and physical family history of his patients. Genetic disease or neurasthenia might lead an otherwise normal woman to exhibit latent homosexual tendencies. Many sexologists saw this type of homosexuality as a degeneration, a reversion to the so-called "bisexual past" in which there was little or no differentiation between males and females. Havelock Ellis was more sympathetic than most sexologists, agreeing with his coworkers that homosexuality was congenital yet maintaining that because it was innate in the individual it could not be degenerative.15 Searches for the "cause" of female homosexuality became so vital in sexologists' minds that some lesbians were even put through testing to determine if they were "truly" male. During the nineteenth century, the "truth" of an individual's sex was dictated by the gonads rather than by genitalia or by his/her opinion. If a lesbian were discovered to possess testicles, her affections for other women could be understood as natural because she was actually male. Though a patient might not have known that she was gonadally male, "French and British colleagues documented a number of cases in which pseudohermaphrodites [anyone neither completely male nor female] had...the sorts of desires predictable for their 'true' sex."16 Sexologist Edward Carpenter offered a slightly different explanation for homosexuality: in what he termed people of the "intermediate sex," there was an inversion of the normal soul-body relationship. ...read more.


Besides Alice Mitchell, one such example is that of Mary Anderson, a woman who went by the name Murray Hall and married other women twice.33 Rather than agree with sexologists that their condition was degenerative and needed curing, many women bravely stood up for themselves and led their lives as they wished. Conclusion Female homosexual desire posed some problems for sexologists in the 1800s attempting to explain why a woman might seek a relationship with another woman. In the nineteenth century, the concept emerged in the United States and Europe that women might desire each other sexually, rather than just romantically, culminating in the figure of the mannish lesbian. This figure perplexed sexologists because of the stereotype that women were asexual and that sex only occurred when a man initiated the act and a woman passively received him. The lack of an active male in a female-female relationship caused sexologists to conclude that lesbians must be in some way masculine, be it in their physical appearance, their behaviors, or their desires. The nineteenth-century definition of the word "lesbian," then, excluded women who preferred sex with other women yet were passive and feminine. On the contrary, it thoroughly puzzled sexologists to think that a woman might enjoy sex passively but not with a man; such women were consequently nearly eliminated from case studies. The social context of the emergence of the mannish lesbian as well as her response to the label are critical to fully understanding her effect on society. The mannish lesbian's persona was created at a time when discourses of sexual and racial degeneracy ran rampant and the image of ideal femininity was being challenged. To appreciate lesbian history and modern lesbian identity, it is necessary to understand its roots. Though the label "lesbian" in today's society does not evoke the same necessary masculinity and aggressiveness, stereotypes about the "butch" lesbian certainly stem from nineteenth-century sexological thought. Mapping the emergence of the mannish lesbian is merely a beginning to understanding the complexities of lesbian history. ...read more.

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