Whilst prowling about the depths of Tumblr this weekend, I found a fascinating photo set of Victorian portraits of female couples. This photo set has no real context, it only had the caption “Lesbians (1850 – 1930).” I personally am hesitant to label any of these relationships as “lesbian” relationships, purely for the fact that I do not know if any of these women actually identified as lesbians. Presently it is a common overgeneralization to identify any two women in a relationship as lesbians, even if neither of them actually retain that identity. This blanket labeling promotes the erasure of a whole spectrum of identities that I do not wish to perpetuate.
Anyways, these portraits got me really excited because researching the historical representation of queer stuff is something I love; ‘queer stuff’ meaning anything outside heteronormativity.
Because these photographs had no real context or historical background I decided to do some digging and was not disappointed.
This first image shows two young women, Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward. These two women had been in a relationship and Alice had proposed marriage to Freda three times through letter correspondence and Freda had agreed. However Freda was forbidden by her family to see Alice due to the social stigmas placed on homosexuality. In January of 1892, Alice came upon Freda on the street and suddenly without warning, “grabbed Miss Ward by the neck… drew a bright razor from out the folds of her dress… and drew it across her throat.” Alice had slit Freda’s throat and killed her. Alice was arrested the same day and was was later convicted of murder and sent to an Tennessee State Asylum at Bolivar , Tennessee. Newspapers report that while there she was dressed most fashionably in pink sailor dresses and had multiple relationships with men. She later died in the same asylum at age 25 from either tuberculosis or suicide. There are conflicting accounts of her death in books and newspaper articles.
Additionally, the fact that Alice, a primarily masculine presenting individual, was found guilty of murder, perpetuated the association of violence and moral deviance with same sex relationships. These types of women were labeled as deviants and mentally imbalanced, prompting institutionalization and many attempts at corrective therapeutic treatment were introduced during this time period.
I couldn’t find any other such exciting and dramatic stories in the remaining photographs but they’re all intriguing to look at.
Matilda Hays and Charlotte Cushman were supposed to have a “lesbian affair in Europe” where they often dressed alike and lived together in a “female marriage” for ten years. During this time Matilda often was referred to as Max or Mathew. Not only did their relationship defy societal norms, but Hay’s defiance against gender normatively was exhibited through her outward presentation of self and her use of a traditionally masculine name. Hay’s also was a journalist and a novelist who wished to use her writing to improve the condition of women.
The last few images:
There were a few more photographs in the original blog post linked above, but these seemed closest to the Victorian era.
Images of Alice: Gender, Deviancy, and a Love Murder in Memphis. Lisa J. Lindquist, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jul., 1995), pp. 30-61. Published by: University of Texas Press Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3704437
MOST SHOCKING CRIME; A MEMPHIS SOCIETY GIRL CUTS A FORMER FRIEND’S THROAT. ALICE MITCHELL, DAUGHTER OF A WEALTHY RETIRED MERCHANT, JUMPS FROM A CARRIAGE, SEIZES FREDA WARD, AND KILLS HER.” Editorial. The New York Times 26 Jan. 1892: n. pag. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9E0CE3D91738E233A25755C2A9679C94639ED7CF>.
“She Loves Men Too.” Editorial. The San Francisco Call 23 June 1895: 2.News about Chronicling America RSS. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1895-06-23/ed-1/seq-2/>.
“Matilda Hays.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matilda_Hays#Charlotte_Saunders_Cushman>.