Lesbian History, Trans History, by Professor Rosemary Auchmuty

We are delighted to welcome a guest blog by Professor Rosemary Auchmuty from the School of Law. She is a pioneer of women’s studies and feminist legal studies in higher education in Britain, Rosemary (Australian by upbringing) has been professor of Law at the University of Reading since 2007.

In 1989, the Lesbian History Group published a book called Not a Passing Phase: Reclaiming lesbians in history, 1840-1985.  It was the first British study to set down the method and scope of lesbian history, together with several case studies. 

Lesbian history was new then; indeed, women’s history was not very old; history-writing had traditionally been dominated by the lives of great white men and the politics, wars and public achievements of their times.  Women, belonging to the private sphere, had no place in this history, and the very few studies of the phenomenon of homosexuality focused almost entirely on gay men, ignoring lesbians’ very different experience. 

The biggest challenge facing the editors of Not a Passing Phase, of whom I was one, was how to define ‘lesbian’.  By their very nature, our personal lives are private, so, in the days before identity politics, and especially when homosexuality was frowned upon and treated as perverted, even criminal, people kept their sexuality quiet – so there were very few records to consult, apart from those detailing the activities of a few high-profile personalities like Radclyffe Hall (whose book The Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity in 1928).  But there was plenty of evidence of past women who had lived with a female companion in a marriage-like arrangement, or who mixed in all-female settings.  Even if these women did not refer to themselves as lesbian or gay – terms in use when we were writing, but not in earlier times – we chose to encompass them within an inclusive definition of ‘lesbian’ that also took account of current lesbian-feminist theorising, as ’women who loved women’.  ‘Does it matter if they did it?’ asked Sheila Jeffreys in a ground-breaking chapter that pointed out that no one confines the term ‘heterosexual’ to those they can prove had sex with someone of the other sex. 

A second challenge was presented by the women who had ‘cross-dressed’ and lived as men in past generations, like Mary Read, a pirate, and James Barry, a nineteenth-century army surgeon. 

Did they cross-dress so that they could live openly with the women they loved? – in which case we could claim them as lesbians.  Or did they cross-dress because they identified as men, as trans scholars are now claiming?  Did they believe they were really men, or did they wish they were men, or was their decision to present as men a pragmatic one, to give them access to men’s roles both publicly and privately?  Did they do so because women were barred from most occupations before the twentieth century and this was the only way they do something like becoming a pirate or an army doctor?  Did they need to earn money to live, or were they doing it to escape the narrow bounds of women’s lives?      

These questions are still pertinent.  They alert us to the fact that we cannot ever claim to know the truth about the past.  History-writing is always an interpretation; and what we find is often determined by the questions we ask and the reasons we ask them.

One of the purposes for which historical research is used, especially in an era of identity politics, is to uncover the heritage of a subordinate group.  Members of such groups turn back to the historical records in order to restore the forgotten or suppressed evidence of people like themselves. Such groups want to establish how they came to be in the position they currently find themselves in and to re-write the historical narrative that says that only white men matter and that history is a tale of inexorable progress.  This, of course, is why black rights activists are seeking to reveal uncomfortable truths about British involvement in slavery.  So in Not a Passing Phase the Lesbian History Group sought to show that there have always been lesbians throughout history, that they lived happy and fulfilling lives, and that, indeed, they contributed to significant social change by resisting the patriarchal insistence that women should always be tied to a man in marriage; but also to reveal how many women suffered under these very constraints that denied their sexuality and put them under the largely unrestrained control of husbands. 

The concerns of trans historians are similar.  They, too, are seeking to uncover a heritage, one that will help to counter negative characterisations and put their predecessors back into the historical narrative.  All historians need to remember, however, that the past is a different world; we must try not to create a false narrative simply to serve our current political concerns.  It’s very probable that many past cross-dressing women cannot be claimed as either lesbian or trans; they neither loved women nor believed themselves to be men; they presented as men for totally different reasons.  On the other hand, some of them were probably lesbian in their sexual preferences and some may have been trans.  What matters is that we recognise these deviant people as belonging to lesbian history and to trans history – indeed, to social history generally – as illustrations of the many ways in which women (and men) have had to respond to, and manoeuvre around, socially prescribed (and proscribed) gender roles in any given era. 

You can find out more about Professor Auchmuty and her work here: Professor Rosemary Auchmuty – Law (reading.ac.uk)

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