(Mary Parker, the Ladies of Llangollen, outside with a dog. 1828)
When talking about same-sex relationships between women in the eighteenth century it is important to differentiate romantic friendships and real love. Indeed, we can find examples of women living together, adoring each other but keeping their relationship non-sexual. There is the example of the Ladies of Llangollen, as represented in the painting by Mary Parker (1799-1864), an English Lady. This painting represents Eleanor Charlotte Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, both dressed in black, walking their dog. They are both dressed the same way because they were close friends. Those two aristocratic women eloped together to Wales in 1778 where they established a home together, shared the same bed, called each other “my beloved” and signed conjointly the letters they wrote. However, nothing indicates that their level of intimacy went beyond this romantic friendship (Jennings, 2007, 39).
The first lesbian known is Sappho. She lived on the isle of Lesbos and was a poet. She became the source of a lot of mysteries and her life has inspired writers and poets for centuries (Reynolds, 2000, 14). She was said to be the most beautiful women and would have made the perfect wife, as we can see in this stanza (Cavendish, 1778)
Ah! were the gentle sex like you,
You wou’d be rational and true,
And women might have fame:
You are a pattern of a wife,
That could resign a husband’s life,
To raise a Sapphick name.
She was pure and her homosexuality is seen in Cavendish’s work as a happy one:
Thus happy Sappho past her time,
In making love, and making rhime,
To all the Lesbian maids:
Who were more constant and more kind,
More pure in soul, more firm of mind,
Than all the Lesbian blades.
Lesbian sex is described as an equal one, full of happiness in other works as well, such as the work of Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), an English writer and poet.
Thus to themselves alone they are
What all Mankind can give;
Alternately the happy Pair
All grant, and All receive.
With happier Fate, and kinder Care,
These Nymphs by Turns do reign,
While still the falling, does prepare
The rising, to sustain.
(Rowe, 1715, 26)
We can also see this idea in the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 1728
Beyond the Plyers at St. Katern’s Stairs;
She kisses all, but Jenny is her dear,
She feels her Bubbies, and she bites her ear:
In such works, we can see that, at the time, sex between women could be satirised and considered as something possible, not only existing in myths.
However, we can see in the same works that, apart from Sappho herself, all other lesbians are seen as kinds of sorceress, who compel their lovers to fall in their arms. This is not a new vision of things. Indeed, to explain phenomenon such as women falling in love with each other, people tended to accuse one of them of being a kind of siren.
When Sappho, the fair Lesbian belle,
Had gain’d the knack to read and spell;
She woo’d the Graces all:
No wench of Mytelene’s Town,
Or black, or fair, or olive brown,
Refus’d her amorous call.
Such Birds of Paradise as these,
Are the fell Syrens of the seas,
With faces not their own:
They may awhile allure the beau,
For in the morn they come and go,
Then wither on the Town.
Obviously this vision of the lesbian as an evil being was detrimental for them as their love for each other was seen as unnatural and not even true. And thus, more than being supernatural, lesbians were considered as not respecting the laws of society and being criminals.
To decency they’ve no pretence,
The want of that, is want of sense;
For say, what woman shou’d,
In such a case devote her life,
‘Tis worse than stabbing with a knife,
To rip up flesh and blood.
Curse on my stars, that I was born,
In such an age of lust and scorn.
Oh, Sappho, had’st thou been
Alive in these rude, filthy days,
Thy verses had been all in praise
Of me and beauty’s queen.
More than being witches, some justified lesbianism as the result of a medical condition. Indeed, the idea that some women had a large clitoris, very near to the size of a penis, gave people the idea that lesbians were indeed hermaphrodites.
(Georges Arnauld de Ronsil, Dissertation sur les hermaphrodites, 1750)
When women had a very large clitoris, society thought that they would tend to masturbate more, which was related to same-sex sexual activities. It frightened society, maybe because they thought that, by having a “penis”, women would not need men to have sex anymore and therefore they might have been afraid that the human race would disappear because they would not reproduce anymore. This is what the drawing by Georges Arnauld de Ronsil (1698-1774) represents. He was a French specialist of the body. The drawing represents a woman, as we can see with her breasts. However, this woman’s clitoris is large and big, almost like a small penis. That is how they imagined lesbians at that time. So, they made hermaphrodites decide on a sex, whether a man or a woman: “En dépit de la reconnaissance médicale de l’hermaphrodisme, la réponse sociale en Europe occidentale était presque toujours de forcer les hermaphrodites à choisir l’un ou l’autre sexe. (Aldrich, 2006, 128)
When considering women as being homosexuals only because they had a medical condition, they also gave the world the idea that women had to have sex, if only for their health. Otherwise, lack of sexual activity would cause melancholia or medical problems. This vision changed with the years to give way to the idea that women had to be chaste.
In a society not always open-minded with them, lesbians had to hide who they were and often, they used cross dressing.
Often used by actors during plays, cross dressing became a way for lesbians to hide themselves but also a way to affirm their strength and masculinity. Indeed, wearing men clothes gave them the liberty to live freely. Rebecca Jennings explains it in her book, page 25: “Rictor Norton has argued that women did so ‘in order to exercise the privileges and freedom usually reserved for men – freedom of movement, freedom to engage in business, freedom to travel unmolested, freedom to express oneself in a frank manner, freedom to be assertive and outgoing.’ ” Indeed, men lived more freely than women who had a lot of prerogatives and numerous rules to follow. By living as men did, they also affirmed their feminine side, showing that men and women were not so different once dressed alike. Therefore, we can consider them as feminists.
“Transvestites were, in a sense, among the first feminists. Mute as they were, without a formulated ideology to express their convictions, they saw the role of women to be dull and limiting. They craved to expand it –and the only way to alter that role in their day was to become a man … Transvestism must have been a temptation or, at the very least, a favourite fantasy for many an adventurous young women who understood that as a female she could expect little latitude or freedom in her life.” (Jennings, 20007, 25)
However, as I have mentioned previously, cross dressing was also used by lesbians, to live their love freely. We can study the famous example of two pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
(Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, 1724)
Mary called herself Mark and lived her life with Anne, both dressed as men. They were both arrested in Jamaica in 1720. There is no proof that they were intimate and that they were in love with each other, however their story can lead to such interpretation. (Aldrich, 2006, 135). Indeed, as we can see in the drawing by Charles Johnson, they were dressed in men clothes and were also half naked, suggesting a high level of intimacy.
Some women went even beyond cross dressing and married other women, as men would do. They were called Female Husbands.
Some of those marriages were filled with love from both parts. Either they knew that their future husband was a woman but they did not care and still went through with the wedding or they discovered the truth after the wedding but did not report it and continued living together as husband and wife. (Jennings, 2007, 36)
Some of those marriages can also be seen as a romantic friendship gone serious as was the case of the marriage of Mary East aka James How. Indeed, Mr How and Mrs How met when they were teenagers –so there can’t be any doubt about Mrs How not knowing the real gender of her husband. They lived together for several years and opened a small public house. However, when they were blackmailed by someone who knew James’ real gender, they had to tell the public the truth and therefore, had to close their public house and James had to resign from all his offices. (Jennings, 2007, 32)
For some women, marriage was seen as a way to understand their feelings for other women. “Lotte van de Pol and Rudolph Dekker have argued that taking the role of a husband within the institutional framework of a marriage enabled women, psychologically, to make sense of their desire to other women.” (Jennings, 2007, 30) We can also understand that, for single women at the time, life was not easy and it was better then to pass as a man and marry another woman. “ ‘Marriage was a refuge that seemed to offer so much: social status, domestic privacy, economic convenience, a sense of emotional stability, a “No Trespassers” sign for any man casting an eye at that female husband’s wife.’ ” (Jennings, 2007, 30)
But, some of those marriages weren’t based on love. Indeed, some of them were only performed for economic reasons. Lesbians were not punished for being lesbians but they could be punished for fraud. And some women did marry young girls only to take their portions and then left them to go marry another one. We can see an episode of this: “Appeared at the King’s Bench in Westminster hall a young woman in man’s apparel, or that personated a man, who was found guilty of marrying a young maid, whose portion he had obtained and was very nigh of being contracted to a second wife.” […] “Upon the whole she was ordered to Bridewell to be well whipt and kept to hard labour till further order of the court” (Jennings, 2007, 34)
Lesbians in the Eighteenth Century in Britain lived a difficult life. They were seen by society as witches who compelled innocent girls or as women suffering from a disease. Few saw them as happy women living their desires and love freely. They had to hide their love and their true self by dressing as men and even by marrying women. They were even less free than heterosexual women at the time. However, there was no law condemning them for loving other women. “Legal responses to female husbands were similarly unpredictable. Elsewhere in Europe, women could be executed for passing as men or having sex with other women. In England, there were no specific laws against either sexual encounters between women or cross dressing.” (Jennings, 2007, 34). This absence of punishment might have been the only relief British lesbians had on other lesbians around the world.
-Jennings, Rebecca, A Lesbian History of Britain, Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500 (Oxford/ Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007).
-Reynolds, Margaret, The Sappho Companion (London, RU: Chatto & Windus, 2000).
-Rowe, Nicholas, The Poetical Works of Nicholas Rowe (Edinburg, Scotland: Apollo Press, 1781).
-Cavendish, Jack, A Sapphick epistle, from Jack Cavendish to the honourable and most beautiful Mrs. D**** (M. Smith, 1778).
– Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, Saturday, 10 August 1728.
– Aldrich, Robert, Une histoire de l’homosexualité. (Paris, FR: Seuil, 2006)