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Romantic Friendship: Female  
page: 1  2  3  

Understating the Element of Sexuality

Although the Romantic Friendship hypothesis provided lesbian readers with a host of foremothers and a more complicated notion of lesbian history and literature, it also, according to some, understated the element of sexuality. Surpassing the Love of Men seems comfortable with dismissing the issue of genital sexuality between women, seeing it as a relatively insignificant aspect of lesbian identity.

Whereas the "woman-identified-woman" of the 1970s and early 1980s celebrated the notion of Romantic Friendship, "queers" of the 1990s, perhaps informed by the feminist "sex wars," often see the whole concept as conspicuously asexual, a reduction of lesbian genealogy to a continuous history of feminists who like to cuddle.

Some contemporary critics, like Lisa Moore, feel that the model, though enlarging the canon of lesbian literary history, has created a "prohibition against reading sex between women in history." The erasure of the sexual potential of homosocial relations in the Romantic Friendship hypothesis is itself an indication of the fact that the idea emerged at a particular moment in the recent history of lesbian-feminist politics.

Informed by Adrienne Rich's idea of a "lesbian continuum" and the concept of the "woman-identified-woman," the Romantic Friendship hypothesis, as an invention of historians and literary scholars, was an expression of the lesbian-feminist values of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Faderman admits that she found a "contemporary analog to romantic friendship" in lesbian-feminism, and that "in a sense female same-sex love had come full circle."

Reconsidering the Assumptions Underlying Romantic Friendship

Although Faderman's most recent book, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, claims that "women's intimate relationships were universally encouraged in centuries outside of our own," thus more firmly inscribing the distinction between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the assumptions underlying the Romantic Friendship hypothesis continue to be reconsidered.

Lisa Moore has argued that the ideology of romantic friendship coexisted with a "wariness" of women's sexual relations with each other. She reads English writer Maria Edgeworth's novel Belinda (1801) and the Pirie and Woods trial of two Scottish teachers accused of having sex with a pupil as illustrating the fear of lesbian sexuality and the attempt to dissociate it from white, middle-class women by blaming it on foreign and servant-class women.

Mary E. Wood also departs from the Romantic Friendship hypothesis and the focus on sexological discourse, seeing the ideology of separate homosocial spheres as providing a model that nineteenth-century American women like Margaret Fuller appropriated and manipulated for the creation of a subversive form of lesbian identification.


The idea of Romantic Friendship thus remains a contested category in the history of same-sex relations, a category that ultimately represents the tricky relationship between history and the historian's own contemporary moment.

Despite the quibbles over the meaning of intimate and erotic relationships between women prior to the emergence of modern lesbian identity, the Romantic Friendship concept has deepened our understanding of women's relationships in distant and not so distant history. As a part of the idiom of our gay and lesbian literary heritage, Romantic Friendship continues to raise issues about the place of sexuality in lesbian identity and in lesbian literary and social history.

Marylynne Diggs

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literature >> Baudelaire, Charles

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literature >> Butler, Lady Eleanor, (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831)

Known as the Ladies of Llangollen, an enduring emblem of female romantic friendship, Butler and Ponsonby eloped to Wales where they lived together for over fifty years and entertained several important writers.

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Popular nineteenth-century French actress Marie Dorval enjoyed an intense romantic friendship with the writer George Sand that fueled much speculation among Parisian gossips of the time, as well as among later biographers and historians.

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Bell, Mrs. G. H. The Hamwood Papers of the Ladies of Llangollen and Caroline Hamilton. London: Macmillan, 1930.

Bennett, Paula. Emily Dickinson. London: Harvester, 1990.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

_____. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William and Morrow, 1981.

Farwell, Marilyn R. "Heterosexual Plots and Lesbian Subtexts: Toward a Theory of Lesbian Narrative Space." Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1990. 91-103.

Fetterley, Judith. "My Antonia, Jim Burden, and the Dilemma of the Lesbian Writer." Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1990. 145-163.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, An Introduction. 1978. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980.

Mavor, Elizabeth. The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study of Romantic Friendship. New York: Penguin, 1973.

Moore, Lisa. "'Something More Tender Still than Friendship': Romantic Friendship in Early Nineteenth-Century England." Feminist Studies 18 (1992): 499-520.

O'Brien, Sharon. "'The Thing Not Named': Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer." The Lesbian Issue: Essays from Signs. Estelle B. Freedman et al., eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. 67-90.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" Signs 5 (1980): 631-660.

Russ, Joanna. "To Write 'Like a Woman': Transformations of Identity in the Work of Willa Cather." Historical, Literary, and Erotic aspects of Lesbianism. Monika Kehoe, ed. New York: Harrington-Haworth, 1986. 77-87.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America." Signs 1 (1975): 1-29.

Stimpson, Catharine R. "Afterword: Lesbian Studies in the 1990s." Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1990. 377-382.

Taylor, William R. and Christopher Lasch. "Two 'Kindred Spirits': Sorority and Family in New England, 1839-1846." New England Quarterly 36 (1963): 23-41.

Wood, Mary E. "'With Ready Eye': Margaret Fuller and Lesbianism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature." American Literature 65 (1993): 1-18.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. "'The Dark Eye Beaming': Female Friendship in George Eliot's Fictions." Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1990. 126-144.


    Citation Information
    Author: Diggs, Marylynne  
    Entry Title: Romantic Friendship: Female  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 11, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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