The idea of “romantic friendship”, love between young women, was considered the norm and even encouraged because it was believed to “constitute the richness, consolation, and joy of their lives.” In western society, this long-standing tradition that can be traced back to the Renaissance came to an abrupt end in the latter part of the 19th century; when sexologists began to suggest that love between women was abnormal. Interestingly, this coincided with increasing militancy of 19th-century feminists who were agitating together for not only suffrage but also for more opportunities in education and the job market. More than other phenomenon, education may be said to have been responsible for what eventually became referred to as lesbianism.

How does the math add up?

  • As historian Lillian Faderman eloquently puts it “there was no male measuring sticks around to distract, define, or detract” at all women’s colleges, allowing them to form a peer culture unfettered by parental and societal dictates, to create their own hierarchy  of values, and to become their own heroes and leaders. 
  • Although romantic friendships were still common outside of women’s colleges, sheltered from the “real world”, these passions were encouraged to be explored in academic settings as females could now meet each other in larger numbers. To add to this, colleges afforded them the leisure and the time necessary to cultivate those relationships. At colleges, romantic friendship was now called “smashes”, “crushes”, and “spoons”.
  • By the time they it was time for them to leave and face a hostile world that was not yet prepared to receive them, sex solidarity became a necessity. They were not welcomed by men whom perceived it to be their own territory. They had to rely on each other for support and encouragement. These “crushes” are believed to have developed into life long friendships or love-relationships.  
  • Conservative criticism against higher education for females argued that women became “masculinized” and rendered them attractive to one another:
    • They were right in some aspects. Statistics corroborate that females who attended college were far less likely to marry than their uneducated counterparts: while only 10% of American women in general remained single between 1880-1990, about 50% of American college women remained single at that time. 
    • This could be partially attributed to that most men feared educated females and would not take them as wives.
    • However, this statistic may also be explained by that many pioneering females with ambition understood that marriage would seldom be feasible for them; running a home and raising children would prevent them from pursuing other goals as there were few husbands who could be expected to sacrifice their historically entrenched prerogatives to revolutionary female notions. 

= By the end of the century, ambitious women of the middle class who loved other females had the opportunity to escape from marriage. No longer economically constrained to give up their female lovers they began to resist social pressure toward marriage. For the first time in American history, large numbers of women could build lives with other women. They shared vast excitement and a sense of mission about their mutual roles of creating new possibilities for women. In same-sex households (”Boston Marriages”) they banded together against a world in that was still largely hostile to the opening of education and professions to women. Exactly how unlikely is it that such excitements would lead to passionate relationships at the time when there was not yet widespread stigma against female sex-relationships?

Source: Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers – a History of Lesbian Life in 20th-Century America by Lillian Faderman