Queer women in history never attracted too much attention. Contrary to men, women’s sexual life was not considered important enough to require an opinion.
But in the 1910s and 1920s, when women’s social role shifted and threatened what society considered appropriate, the perception of female same-sex relationships also shifted.
Female same-sex relationships, even romantic ones, were not ‘a thing’ in Victorian times. Female sexual life was simply not important enough (socially) to get sanctioned when it was different. Contrary to men, who could get jailed and prosecuted for ‘sodomy’, women enjoyed much freedom.
At the beginning of the 20th century, ‘New Women’ started to wear man-inspired fashion, often consisting of a matching plain jacket and skirt, sometimes with a tie and an unadorned hat. The intent was to show that they had an independent mind and didn’t seek flattery from men. Despite these women sometimes wearing distinctly masculine attires, their fashion was never taken as a display of a same-sex attraction.
Through most of the 1920s, this continued to be the case. Fashionable women cut their hair short, sometimes as short as men (the Eaton Crop), and male accessories, like neckties and monocles, became quite common – if maybe a bit controversial. It was indeed a mainstream fashion, commented as such. True, many queer women adopted a very masculine look. Yet even into the 1920s, when a masculine look started to be perceived as controversial and not really what a woman should wear, nobody would infer that a woman adopting a masculine look was showing her sexual inclinations.
Yet it was precisely in the 1920s that a shift occurred.
Seeing as the flapper sought sexual freedom, one might think sexual freedom became more generally accepted. But this would be thinking with our 21st-century mind.
The flapper’s sensual liberation was to be ‘heterosexual’. Flirting and petting might be fun, but it was with her husband that even the flapper found her full sensuality. Even in the peer group, where petting and necking were encouraged, girls would avoid crossing certain lines. A girl would maybe push things a little further – with the man that was to be her husband.
Female sensuality might be more visible and more accepted in the 1920s, but with a stronger assumption that it was heterosexual.
Besides, in the 1920s, Freud’s theories about sexuality became more widely known – if often in a vulgarized version – and female same-sex attraction lost its cultural legitimacy and turned into both a medical problem and a social peril, just like it happened for men. It was in the 1920s that the term ‘lesbianism’ started to be used more widely.
The Well of Loneliness by Redclyffe Hall
In the 1920s, masculine clothing for women continued to be tolerated, though it started to acquire a tint of disturbance. Women were now entering men’s spaces in growing numbers, especially during and after WWI. A masculine attire now started to be assumed to be a ‘declaration of intents’. Fashion reformers were advocating for increasingly comfortable clothing that allowed women to do more, and women were indeed doing more, were indeed becoming more visible.
After the war and into the 1920s, women’s fashion raised some anxiety. This was part of what created a greater shift in the same-sex female relationship.
In 1928, Redclyffe Hall wrote and published her novel The Well of Loneliness. Hall, who used the nickname ‘John’ among her friends, hoped to inspire greater tolerance for ‘female inverts’ (as women attracted to other women were then known). But in Britain, where it was first published, the book raised scandal, and its publisher suffered heavy censorship and finally endured a trial for obscenity. The prosecution won on the base that the book was recognized as obscene because it defended “unnatural practices between women”. And above all, it brought to the public’s attention that women did involve themselves with such ‘practices’.
Although the book’s influence might not have been as prominent as sometimes suggested, it did change many things for queer women. In the general anxiety for women’ taking power’ and snatching spaces that had always been exclusive to men, women attracted to other women started to be perceived as excessively threatening.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Literary Ladies Guide – The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall: Banned and Tried
English Heritage – Experiments in Gender: Women and the Masculine Dress