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The twentieth century is the first in modern history in which romantic relationships between women became taboo. Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men provides a scholarly overview of romantic friendships between women from the 16th century. According to her, it was the economic independence women had begun to gain in the 19th century (early feminism) which created the need for patriarchal antifeminism. Twentieth century sexologists constructed the term “lesbian” and associated it with all manner of neurosis and mental illness. She references Dr. Edwin Clarke’s Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls (1874), who “pointed out that a great variety of illnesses had suddenly beset the middle-class American girl because she was forcing her brain to use up the blood which she needed for menstruation” (Faderman 235).
Until this point in the mid-nineteenth century, however, men and women were typically viewed as almost different species. Marriage was a social contract, typically carried out by the families of the betrothed for economic reasons. As such, “love” was not considered an integral, necessary, expected, or even hoped-for benefit of marriage. Men and women were not expected to get along socially; they were, for all intents and purposes, heavily segregated. Love advice, as we think of it today, did not exist before the nineteenth century. Obviously, as evidenced in literature of the period, many women did seek the attention of men and did hope to marry and build families. These women, however, would not have been encouraged to “fall in love,” but rather to rely on their families to find them a suitable situation in which to procreate.
The way men and women are expected today to relate to one another, to fall in love, to have a happy family, would have been foreign to those living in previous centuries. Love was not a goal of the heterosexual relationship. In the case of the goal being a heterosexual relationship itself (not love, per se), advice for its acquisition would certainly look drastically different in today’s world than in previous centuries. As gender roles change, i.e. what it means to be a man or a woman, so too does what equals attractiveness in the opposite sex and, likewise, a mate. Even fifty years ago, a potential wife would have been required to manifest certain traits; she would have been required to stay at home and be satisfied with being a good “housewife,” she would have been expected to be a good mother, to support her husband’s career goals, to entertain her husband’s friends and colleagues. As a suitor, one would have sought physical attractiveness combined with a demure and humble attitude. Obviously, as we go further back in history, the woman’s role in society becomes less and less important and her suitability as a wife becomes more and more dependent on her subservience. Her parents’ advice to her would have been to be as subservient as possible.
Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic friendships and love between women from the renaissance to the present, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1981.
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