Unveiling relations : women and women. On Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s research.



Translation: Marie-France Dépêche- University of Brasilia, Brazil.


This research done by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg on eighteenth and nineteenth century American women, presents different analytical levels : on the one side, it is related to Herstory, and on the other, to contemporary feminist theories that criticize the category of gender and the binary identity reproduced and reaffirmed by the former.

Her major theme – friendship and love between women – appears as a challenge to women’s History itself, which was emerging in the seventies, when it was trying to assert its own importance and validity within the traditional historical discourse. Had not History retained this Western social memory, it would have disappeared and dissolved itself in the haze of an impossible reality. In this perspective, social representations, wrought in significations and values, institute the reality (Jodelet, 1989) and construct daily human images and historical practices, that turn out to look as a-temporal and universalizing ones.

Therefore, History in its obscuring/forgetting women’s relations – or women themselves – reinforced the binary division of sexes and helped the masculine hegemony, in a  clean-cut, black and white framework, deprived of all nuances. As CSR inquires into the possible relations between women, she unveils and somewhat destroys, at the same time, this «oblivion politics» which blurred women’s presence in History. Her paper points out to two main axes : the impossibility of getting away from human historicity, that splits into peculiar cultural configurations, and the possible, that represents the fundamental hypothesis of her research.

In fact, as it inquires into the perspective of an unlimited possible of social relations, in their manifold formulations, the author’s work comes close to today’s questioning of sexual and sexed identities, beyond the ever-present binary category of human apprehension. Thus, a feminist look detects resistance and/or diversity, where monotonous gender-stereotyped roles can usually be seen within imposed/obligatory heterosexual limits and values.

The historian investigates affective and sexual practices in a society where gendered roles generally appear as crystallized, and she undoes the  commonly accepted ties between sexuality and identity, despite a rigid maintenance of woman/man gendered relationship contours. Although careful in her affirmation, for example, that «[…] certainly Molly and Helena were lovers – emotionally if not physically.» (Rosenberg, 1975 : 7), she nevertheless opens up gaps which allow us to discover some peculiar meanings of love. These lovers transform the compelling marriage-type sexuality into a desire-relationship which includes sensuality, caresses, devotion and deep affection. The very definitions of love and sexuality are put at stake : why should love require sex, unless to comply with moral and conjectural impositions, and why sex be synonymous of love ? And moreover, why are love and sex gendered, if not to obey to normative injunctions that decree what is right or wrong, normal or abnormal ?

One of the most productive approach in History and all the Sciences, was that of the so-called «evidences reversal» (Foucault, 1971 : 53  ), a very useful  auscultation of the silences and overshadowing of a striking reality. This is, to a certain extent, what CSR does here.

 Splitting sex-gender binomial – whose per formative aspects were explained by Judith Butler (Butler, 1990) – usually suggests faraway societies, in time and space. With CSR, women (re)appear from/in a close History, but at the same time, in a reality uncommon to the usual patterns used to analyze the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In other words, the documentary indices she uses as basic material, permit an extraordinary panorama to open on feminine relationship, revealing that a short period of  life-time was dedicated to compulsory heterosexuality as center of these women’s affection and emotions.

The author perceives a continuity in the eighteenth and nineteenth century female relations network, a continuum of solidarity, constancy, firmness and love fervor of life-long  companions ; on the contrary, the twentieth century marks the breaking up of theses relations, when women  are transformed into rivals, enemies and competitors in the wedding race, as it can easily be observed in the media and  today’s technologies of production and reproduction. (de Lauretis, 1987)

It looks as if sorority, so much yearned for in the seventies, had got lost in some fold of the past between the nineteenth and the twentieth century, a sisterhood forgotten among subduing norms for women that made marriage a family and social obligation, as well as the major aim of all girls/adolescents desires. If marriage was a sort of fate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it became a career in the twentieth century, a social status that would require beauty, appraisal and desire. It thus shapes the body of the «true woman», as well as the way she should handle her spouse and mother roles, which both happen to be shared with those of the women studied by CSR.

But the «evidence reversal» of all discourses on the Victorian era – that of sexual repression lodged in rigid patterns of gender – enlightens the  breaking up of its own naturalization. In that well-cut spheres of patriarchal world, where that of women almost works its way out of the men’s, emotions and affection flourish from  spontaneous desire and friendship. This is the paradox : within a fixed frame of stereotyped genders, the freshness of complicity, generosity and passion between women explodes, allowing to circumvent, and at the same time to demonstrate the arbitrary of sexual identity. This one of the main roles of the feminist historian : to unveil any peculiar emotional and sexual configurations that emerge when the homogeneity of binary and heterosexual relations is questioned.

Judith Butler emphasizes the limits of gender and its historicity, «[…] because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities.» (Butler, 1990 : 3)

Therefore, biological sex and sexuality lose their necessary relation as an illusory human-essence construct, and illustrate how learned practices disguise themselves as natural actions. Indeed, the very notion of biological sex as gender marker is but a cultural construct that only justifies  species reproduction. What strikes us here is : why reproduction and not pleasure ? why sex and not emotion ? The marriage institution as a means of physical appropriation  has largely been discussed by all feminisms (Guillaumin, 1978 ; Rich, 1981 ; Delphy, 1998). But Rosenberg’s paper shows the limits of emotional appropriation and moreover, the affective latitudes incorporated in the establishing and functioning of the binary division within a general framework of asymmetrical and hierarchical relations.

However, these margins of tolerance seem to be limited, on one side by the little importance given to affective or sexual relations between women, for «true sexuality» demands the masculine ! On the other side, this world where women actually lived and transmitted gender stereotyped images centered on «feminine» social roles, this world indeed did not threaten the instituted order, the «Order of the Father ».

And even if they lived intense passions, as it shows all through their letters brought to light by Rosenberg, these women had to go through marriage as if it were a fatality, a must in their destiny. Adrienne Rich has commented on them as follows : «[…] it should not be taken for granted that those women who

[…] got married and so remained, even in a deeply feminine affective and passionate universe, had `preferred´ or `chosen´  heterosexuality ; […] they submitted, with faith or ambivalence, to the demands of the institution, but their feelings - and their sensuality – were neither domesticated nor limited by it.» (Rich, 1981 : 37)

However, in the social representations domain, feminine and masculine images were not modified and social practices went on maintaining gender disequilibria. Even though constrained by their wife-mother roles, these women’s homoerotic living attests to the vigor of their emotions, breaking up the limits of the sex-gendered binomial. But the very social acceptance of this type of relations, partly destroys any possible resistance ; in fact, this freedom of sentiments sustains the gender structures and turns out to be a safety valve for any eventual rebellions.

So, we can see on one side, a Mormons or Quakers-style society with strict and rigid norms ; and on the other, a social strategy which accepts and comforts homoerotic relations within the women’s world, since they do not interfere in the material and symbolic organization.

In this case, multiple experiences of touch, passion and sex between women were not taken for transgressions, but they rather seemed to be included within another binary-categorized world : that of emotions/pleasure and institutional practices/duty. Consequently, the limits of the sexed-body of affection and sensuality are not restrained to gender frontiers, but are spread out along the lines of the social network. As these feminine, passionate and firm ties are not confined to border lines, but rather integrated within cultural relationship configurations, they disappear into the monotonous discourse on binary relations.

In this sense, Rosenberg made a personal contribution to a body genealogy which, as Butler suggests, would be «[…] the critical inquiry that traces the regulatory practices within which bodily contours are constructed […]». (Butler, 1990 : 133). In other words, gender can be explained as a regulatory and disciplinatory practice of the heterosexual-type sexuality. But in this context, it opens up possibilities for multiple sexualities, as it integrates them and, at the same time destitute them of any importance for being non-reproductive. Woman’s body is thus designed as feminine in social practices – her sex being the reproductive one – and outside conjugal duty, her sexuality is in some way liberated.

Then what would be in that case, the sexual identity of these women ? How should one name their intense, parallel and long-lasting relations that take part in their wife/mother daily lives ? Even if the word «love» is an ever-present one in their letters, their «lieu de parole» is situated in a gender position, for they always make comparisons with heterosexual relationship. Emotional and sexual practices as theirs, may overlap gender borders, but heterosexual norms marks the general configurations of interpersonal relations. In fact, their bodies instituted as women’s ones, demonstrate the illusion of gender coherence which is, as Butler suggests «[…] performative […] in the sense that the essence or identity they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means.» (Butler, 1990 : 136)

Therefore, not only  the social construction of  the sex/gender binomial is revealed here, but it also lays bare the only social justification  for a biological definition of binary sex : reproduction. The regulatory norms  of heterosexual relations – that of biological sex as feminine/masculine divider - «[…] precludes an analysis of the political constitution of the gendered subject and its fabricated notions about the ineffable interiority of this sex or of its true identity.» (Butler, 1990 : 136)

When Butler gives examples of parodic identities, like cross dressing, drag queens or kings, and CSR shows women who practice multiple relations, both illustrate the same lack of any binding between sexuality, biological sex and gender…nonetheless, under a unified appearance of «the woman being». As she breaks up into pieces the homogeneity of the historical discourse on feminine/masculine relations, Rosenberg in 1975, fills up the gaps in the History of Women – Herstory – and links up present  questionings on sexual identity, sexuality, gender and biological sex.


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Brasilia, 01/14/2000