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Romantic Friendship: Female  
 
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Many historians believe that, until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, intimate, exclusive, and often erotic relations between white women of the middle and upper classes were perceived as normal and compatible with heterosexuality in Anglo-European culture. A variety of terms have emerged for communicating the rich history of these relationships while preserving the distinctions between them and contemporary homosexual relations. Today the most commonly used term for such relationships between women is "Romantic Friendship."

Defining "Romantic Friendship"

Elizabeth Mavor, in The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study of Romantic Friendship (1971), addresses the apparent social acceptability of love between women in eighteenth-century England. In her study of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two women who eloped together, she notes that Ponsonby's family, though concerned, was relieved that she had not eloped with a man.

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The Hamwood Papers of the Ladies of Llangollen and Caroline Hamilton notes that one relative, apparently believing that "improprieties" occurred only between the sexes, remarked of Sarah's conduct: "though it has an appearance of imprudence, is I am sure void of serious impropriety. There were no gentlemen concerned, nor does it appear to be anything more than a scheme of Romantic Friendship."

Although Elizabeth Mavor uses the eighteenth-century phrase Romantic Friendship in her study of the "Ladies of Llangollen," it did not achieve wide usage in historical and literary scholarship until the publication of Lillian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981).

Faderman applies the term to a wide range of women's emotional, passionate, and occasionally erotic relationships with each other before World War I in the United States, Great Britain, and other countries in Western Europe, most notably France. But more important than the history of the phrase is the history of the idea--an idea defined by historians and literary scholars--and its implications for gay and lesbian studies in general.

William R. Taylor and Christopher Lasch offer an early discussion of the phenomena of what they called "sororial relations" in nineteenth-century American culture. They were among the first historians to acknowledge the presence of such relationships, to recognize the element of social acceptance surrounding them, and to contend that calling them "lesbian" was historically inaccurate.

Historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg applauds Taylor and Lasch's attention to a phenomenon which, she says, "consciously or unconsciously we have chosen to ignore." But rather than seeing this "female world of love and ritual" as an effect of the disintegration of familial bonds, as Taylor and Lasch did, Smith-Rosenberg sees it as emerging during a period of intense concern about the dangers of heterosexual relations in which separate spheres of interaction became safe places in which intimate relations between women were "socially acceptable and fully compatible with heterosexual marriage."

The Acceptability of Romantic Friendship

Lillian Faderman's study of Romantic Friendship, mentioned earlier, is the most exhaustive and influential to date. She suggests that Romantic Friendship was celebrated, even fashionable, until the twentieth century. Although cross-dressing and other signs of usurping male power and privilege were often met with punitive measures, intimacy and erotic expressions between women rarely were.

She contends that women were often innocent of the sexual implications of their exclusive and passionate bonds with one another, having internalized the view that women were sexually passionless. Only in a post-Freudian era, she claims, were women generally aware of their sexual potential.

Faderman locates the great transformation in public perception of same-sex intimacy at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, when sexologists began to define such relations as both "lesbian" and "perverse." Until then, they were innocently, and ambiguously, defined as Romantic Friendships and held a socially acceptable position in Anglo-European culture.

New Readings of Passionate Exchanges between Women

This idea of Romantic Friendship provided literary scholars with a new way to read passionate expressions exchanged between women in literature written before the twentieth century. Faderman's own study evolved from an interest in the poetry and letters of Emily Dickinson, a nineteenth-century American poet whose letters to future sister-in-law Sue Gilbert contained profuse articulations of love and longing.

Faderman and others have noted the license taken by many twentieth-century biographers who omitted the more passionate language between women or made great efforts to explain such language as symptomatic of a more sentimental era in history.

One biography of Mary Wollstonecraft typifies the circumspect attitude with which biographers approached the subject. The biographer remarked that it was a "relief" to discover that Wollstonecraft had "a certain secret disloyalty" to Fanny Blood, to whom she wrote many professions of love; apparently the biographer invoked such disloyalty as evidence that Wollstonecraft was not lesbian.

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Two novels by Louisa May Alcott (above, circa 1887) were typical of the Romantic Friendship model, though they hinted at something less "innocent."
  
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