chapter  12
24 Pages

Anne Lister's Construction of Lesbian Identity

Anne Lister was a Yorkshire gentlewoman who resided in a manor house called Shibden Hall in the early nineteenth century. An heiress, she was able to educate herself in the classics, she expressed no interest in men, and she did not have to marry. In coded portions of her extensive diaries, Anne Lister wrote of her passionate relationships with women, noting every "kiss" (her term for orgasm) she experienced. Although she did not use the word lesbian, at age thirty, she wrote, "I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn my heart revolts from any other love but theirs."l

Anne Lister illuminates not only lesbian history but questions of representation and agency in the larger field of the history of sexuality as well. Until recently, historians of homosexuality have followed the social constructionist paradigm that our sexual identities are shaped, even determined, by discourses rather than by our own desires. For instance, women who loved women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were thought to have followed the model of "passionate friendship."2 Nineteenth-century women, it was thought, could not even conceive of sexual desire for each other, having no words for such feelings. Instead, they kissed, embraced, and exchanged intensely romantic letters, but rarely if ever progressed to genital sex. As a result, society regarded such friendships as perfectly respectable, even touching. In I8n, two schoolteachers won damages against a pupil's relative who accused them of lesbianism, because the judges believed such behavior was impossible between women.3 Women, therefore, could not develop a lesbian identity, because no such notion existed in their culture.