‘o pre-eminent love!’
I’ve been reading Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, a book I never would have expected to find in the public library. It’s a rich and wonderful book to be reading – and how much I admire Faderman for having written it so many years ago! – but there is so much to mourn, also. The chapter ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ has given me a lot to think about, in particular, most of it unbearably sad.
In particular, I was pained by –
- The plight of intellectual women: ‘There is hardly a creature in the world more despicable or more liable to universal ridicule than a learned woman.’ I was thinking about this the other day when I read a story by Karolina Pavlova, At the Tea-table; her heroine says, ‘Do you really not know that to praise a woman’s mind is to abuse her? Is everyone not convinced that where there’s cleverness there’s no heart? Has it not been decided that a clever woman is a sort of monster who can feel nothing? Ask anyone, they’ll all tell you so.’ More than a century and a continent divide these words and nothing had changed, and with a other century and a half since passed again I wonder how much has changed again. Not so much, I don’t think.
- The lack of serious emotional, adult connections granted to women who married men, particularly those much older than they, and who subsequently led separate lives to them –
- – and, for all the connections a romantic friendship might have brought (‘in place’ of marriage, we might consider it today), the inability to act upon it as one might want: the inability to live alone with one’s companion, for example, as is so often expressed in the texts.
- What Faderman quotes of Patricia Meyer Spacks about the suppression of women’s emotions, particularly in England: ‘They were obsessed with innocence, concerned about the danger of passion; they were angry at men, often longed to be males or children.’ This is a generalisation, of course, but I think in my mind that makes it worse; I know that when I’m given such a broad and relatively vague picture my imagination runs wild with it. Not quite being told as much as I like, I have to picture things for myself as if I were telling a story, and the image becomes more elaborate, more specific, and ever sadder and more unfortunate.
- But one thing more: the gap between male perceptions of female love and affection and women’s own experiences; the former as largely sexual (something ‘paving the way’ for heterosexual love, ‘practice’), the latter something more spiritual and emotional. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently since I’ve been reading The Lesbian Body, which is centered so much on the physical (and which, not very far in to, I’m already finding rather repetitive!); that physicality is something I find difficult to get used to and perhaps that says more about me than it does about Wittig’s words.
Yet I have been able, I think, to try and turn this last idea – of women’s love being ‘different’ – into something more positive; reading Faderman and the letters and lives of these women tells me that women’s love does not have to take one form. It can be more complicated, it does not have to be what we are told it should be (something so sexualised and fixated upon by others); it can take on any number of shapes and ways of being to fit our realities and our circumstances. There are as many ways of ‘doing’ female love, female friendship, as there are women. Even if the women whose lives Faderman recounts did not get to retire together and live in peace with just one another, as so many expressed the wish to do, they are still able to keep it, their love and affection, and protect and nurture it. We will find a way, we will find a way, we will always find a way.