Regions of Identity: The Construction of America in Women's Fiction, 1885-1914

By Kate McCullough | Go to book overview

2 "But Some Times . . . I Don't Marry,--Even in Books"
BOSTON MARRIAGES, CREOLES, AND THE FUTURE OF THE NATION

She was a New England woman and a woman's woman.

-- Diana Victrix


"A Genuine, Though Not Precisely Sexual, Preference for Women Over Men"

What might it have meant to be a New England woman and a woman's woman in the 1890s? And what intimate relation between the two does the conjunction above suggest? It has become clear that the decades surrounding the turn of the century saw the emergence of the modern identity category of the "lesbian" through a discourse played out everywhere from the pages of scientific journals to those of popular newspapers. But although the embodied version of what Esther Newton so aptly dubbed "the mythic, mannish lesbian" could be found by the 1920s from Berlin to San Francisco, the discourse that produced her was a contested and contradictory one, emerging at varying rates in various places, encountering various counterdiscourses along the way, and taking varying forms that intersected and overlapped with other cultural discourses. Lisa Duggan suggests that identity formation is "a historical process of contested narration, a process in which contrasting 'stories' of the self and others--stories of difference--are told, appropriated, and retold as stories of location in the social work of structured inequalities" (793). This is certainly true of the making of the modern lesbian, whose cultural narration was a product of many and varied voices (voices of individual women as well as voices within the medical system, the legal system, and the press) engaged in a debate that drew both on older models of female friendship and newer sexological and psychological models of "inversion" and "arrested development."

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