Library Dissertation Showcase

The link between female masculinity and female same-sex desire in Britain in the period 1746-1897

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2020

This dissertation explores the connection between gender presentation and female same-sex desire during the period 1746-1897 in Britain. Such a broad time period and geographical area is essential to cover the themes of female cross-dressing, female masculinity and medical literature regarding ‘sexual inversion’, as women did not often write about their sexual experiences due to societal repression of female sexuality. Unlike male to male sexual relationships, female same-sex desire was not illegal and therefore rarely discussed in British medical literature until Havelock Ellis’s 1897 publication, Sexual Inversion. Ignorance towards women’s capacity to love women meant they struggled to understand their desires in a society which stated marriage was essential and female attraction was a masculine attribute. During this period, society rested on the binary system of gender, which, in turn, meant that only heterosexuality was condoned. To reflect this, some women, named ‘female husbands’, dressed as men to marry women. However, some women who loved women did not cross-dress and instead formed relationships known as ‘romantic friendships’, which were commonplace throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Due to the perception that women were not sexual beings, these relationships were not considered to pose a threat to marriage and, most importantly, to men. However, the inclusion of female ‘sexual inverts’ within medical literature can be deemed as affecting these relationships, as women feared being regarded abnormal and masculine through this emerging discourse of sexology.

This study is split into three chapters which relate to cross-dressing, female masculinity and medical literature and includes analysis of various case studies through magazines, periodicals, letters, diaries and medical writings. I argue that masculinity and female same-sex desire were not inherently linked. Instead, masculinity was utilised by some women for the benefit of contemporaries and to understand their own desires within a heterosexual society.

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