A few people on Shakesville mentioned that they'd be interested in reading the research project on 19th century lesbian identity that I just finished, so here it is!

Abnormal Affection
Changing Concepts of Romantic Friendships in Frances Willard's Diary

In 1860, Frances Willard was not yet the woman who would eventually take the country by storm, inspiring women's political activism to bring about Prohibition. She was twenty years old, had just graduated from North Western Female College, and was madly in love with her classmate and dear friend, Mary Bannister. For a while, their relationship neatly fit the definition of a romantic friendship: intimate relationships between women common through the first half of the 19th century. However, over the course of about a year, Willard's opinion of her own friendships and sexuality changed dramatically. The journals demonstrate a change in perspectives about romantic friendships in the second half of the 19th century, as she came to see her relationships in ways that would today be defined as lesbian.

Willard grew up in the growing middle class, in a family that conformed to the idealized gender roles of separate spheres for both men and women. Born in 1839 in New York, her family joined the many moving from New England to the Northwest, settling first in Wisconsin, and then in Illinois.1 As a child, she flouted conventional gender roles, preferring carpentry and games with her brother Oliver. She didn't learn to sew until she was fifteen. 2 However, her father, Josiah Flint Willard, believed that “girls and women were to find their sphere in the home.”3 He resisted sending Willard and her sister Mary to school, and disapproved of Willard's decision to teach upon graduating from North Western Female College, a non-degree-granting women's preparatory school, in 1860.4 Despite her father's hesitance to educate his daughters, Willard's formal education was similar to that received by other women at the time. As part of the emerging middle class, Willard had access to the growing number of educational institutions being established by Protestant denominations in the Northwest and other settled parts of the country. She received almost all of her formal education between the ages of seventeen and twenty, at several Wisconsin women's institutions.5 Though she never received a true degree, she was part of a growing number of young women to receive a college-level education at all.6 This trend of increasing education for women had significant implications for how close relationships between women were understood.

As a young woman, Willard grew up understanding her friendships with other women in the context of the Cult of True Womanhood, which existed between about 1820 and 1860. During this time, intimate relationships between women were a routine part of middle-class women's lives.7 The “separate spheres” ideology of the middle class, which Willard experienced in her family life, meant that men and women experienced each other as “virtually different species,” each with a unique set of values. In Surpassing the Love of Men, Lillian Faderman explains that women were expected to be deeply apathetic towards sex, and learned that deeply rational men would not understand them. Willard described this lack of interest in men in her journals; she wrote about “never enjoy[ing] mixed society,” and being “not fitted for it.”8 On the other hand, Willard was comfortable in the company of other women, and spoke of frequent outings with and deep affection for her female friends. Willard and her female companions discussed books, religion, and morality, and attended church events and literary societies together; Willard drew on the support of her friends in her intellectual and religious pursuits.9 Even the most passionate of such relationships between women were not taken as sexual, because women were seen to have no sexuality.10 For these women, “[c]harity cancelled out sex.”11 Women's friendships, though they were often expressed in very affectionate language, were seen as partnerships supporting women towards their unique spiritual and moral values. However, times were changing; by the 1860s, the Cult of True Womanhood had ended and the age of the New Woman was beginning. New Women were middle- and upper-middle-class, educated, and often single.12 Willard's experiences existed in the transition between old ideas about women's roles and relationships, and new opportunities opening up for some women.

The first truly romantic friendship which Willard wrote about in her journal initially fit this mold, following the pattern of the Cult of True Womanhood. She described her relationship with Mary Bannister, a classmate from North Western Female College, as familial: “I have loved her next to Father-Mother-sister-brother, all the time,” she said in January of 1860, though she did not feel that Bannister returned her affections.13 In March, Bannister sent Willard a letter saying “that she [had] love for [Willard],” and the pair began an intimate friendship.14 Willard took a teaching position in a town away from home, and relied on Bannister's letters for emotional support, as Bannister relied on her when she moved to Tennessee for a job as a tutor.15 The two exchanged journals, which included lengthy entries about developing spirituality and morality, and wrote letters encouraging each other. Their interactions matched the typical image of romantic friendships described by Smith-Rosenberg – unselfconsciously passionate but asexual.16 Willard does say that “the love that men have for women, – that I have for Mary” (emphasis original), using the romantic language of the day.17 However, this was in the context of a list of moral qualities which she felt led her to love Bannister as men loved women, including patience, generosity and candor, which she wanted to develop in herself. Willard's affection with Bannister was “a crucial prop for women's work toward social and personal betterment in man's sullied and insensitive world,” as Faderman described such friendships.18 While their feelings were special, they were also quite accepted, and were not assumed to rule out a future heterosexual relationship.

However, when Bannister returned from Tennessee, Willard's descriptions of their friendship began to change. She worried that she had never been in love with a man, certainly not in the same way she felt about Bannister, toward whom she felt “as her husband – that is to be – will feel.”19 Bannister became engaged to Willard's brother Oliver, and though her mother and brother assured her that her deep affection for Bannister is normal, Willard herself began to write of it as different. She wrote in 1861, about a year and a half after their relationship began, “Ours is such a Love as no two women ever had for each other, before. It is wild and passionate, deep and all-pervading. It is 'abnormal,'” in contrast to earlier, “unselfconscious” ideas about romantic friendships.20 Worried that God had cursed her with her deep affection for Bannister, Willard wrote her a letter insisting that they could no longer be friends, for she could not see her as only a sister.21 While she was certainly wrong that no two women had ever loved each other in such a way, her sudden concern that their relationship was abnormal marks a change in how such relationships were perceived, both by women in them and by others.

Willard's writing about her engagement to Charles Fowler in July of 1861 clarifies how she thought about her relationships with women.22 In her journal, she discusses her uncertainty about marriage primarily in terms of her feelings for Bannister. She experienced deep conflict in the months his proposal, and ended her engagement in January of 1862.23 Though she had decided that they could no longer be close, she remained tormented by her love for Bannister, and felt it unfair to Fowler that she loved a woman more than him: “with Mary a great, wild Love for her went surging through my heart. A love that if I could give the same to [Charlie] would make us both happy all our lives. A Love such as I have prayed & begged I might have for him” (emphasis original).24 She also worried that she did not feel the same physical attraction towards Fowler that she felt towards Bannister (writing to herself): “His kiss wakes no feeling in your heart any more than those of your mere acquaintances, yet you are capable of more, for a kiss—a caress—a loving word from Mary will send the blood hurrying along your veins...” (emphasis original).25 She was so concerned over her lack of physical attraction to and comfort with towards Fowler that they agreed not to consummate the marriage until she was sure of her love for him.26 However, when her relationship with Fowler failed, she described it not as a consequence of any problems between them, but as a product of her own nature. Not only did she worry that she did not love him – she worried that she could not love him, because by her nature she loved women. “Naturally I love women & sometimes I think, can feel no earnest, vigorous love towards their brethren!” she wrote shortly after the end of her engagement in March of 1862. 27 For women in earlier romantic friendships, love of one's husband and love of a woman were rarely mutually exclusive; these women were most often married, and romantic friendships were thought to serve different practical and emotional purposes than marriage.28 Though relationships between women were sometimes exclusive, and sometimes married women valued their friendship above marriage, this was attributed to the uniqueness of the women or the situation, rather than any inherent tendency towards same-sex attraction.29 Willard, however, came to describe her partnerships with women in exclusive, even marital terms. After ending her relationship with Fowler and taking a job as a teacher of natural science at her alma mater, North Western Female College, she began a relationship with a student, Ada Frances Brigham. She described Brigham as her wife, and wished to be a man so she could have an exclusive relationship with her.30 Rather than seeing her relationships as serving a separate purpose from heterosexual marriages or as a particularly unique experience, she writes about her affection for women as part of her identity.

Deciding whether or not Willard's relationships, as described in her journals, could be considered homosexual is made particularly difficult by the fact that scholars disagree on whether or not homosexuality between women even existed in 1861. Under an essentialist view, homosexuality has always existed as an innate, fixed trait in certain people – Willard's experience of same-sex attraction would could have happened in any time or place, including the Old Northwest in 1861.31 However, her journals could also be read in light of a social constructionist view, assuming that sexual identity is culturally bound by existing “cultural models for understanding oneself.”32 Willard's experiences make more sense when considered in their cultural context, but it's unclear whether or not homosexuality – an identity based on attraction to the same sex – had yet developed at the time of Willard's relationships with Bannister and Brigham. In his History of Sexuality, Michael Foucault sets the date for the invention of homosexuality, both male and female, in 1870, about a decade after Willard's relationships; he cites a particular medical article published that year which defined homosexuality as a type of person rather than an activity.33 John D'Emilio also places the date for the recognition of homosexuality in the second half of the nineteenth century, pointing to trends which had begun during Willard's young adulthood, around the same time as the New Woman was emerging.34 With the growth of the middle class, increased access to education and changing intergenerational relationships, some women were able to become more economically independent, and felt less pressure to marry, opening up the possibility of sexual relationships outside of marriage, including homosexual ones.35 This fits Willard's experiences in the early 1860s. Her education gave her access to regular teaching positions (she taught in three different places between 1860 and 1861), and she wrote about feeling confident that she could survive economically without marriage, despite the low wages teaching offered.36 The advent of college for women also changed American perspectives of relationships between women. New forms of romantic friendships between young women at residential colleges, known as “crushes” or “spoons,” were so common by 1873 that the Yale school paper wrote an article about it.37 Willard's journals, which begin shortly before her graduation, give little hint of such a culture at North Western Female School, but she likely experienced the peer culture of women's colleges. Faderman argues that “[romantic friendships] were encouraged even more strongly in an academic setting, since females could meet there in large numbers and college afforded them the leisure necessary to cultivate these relationships. With men living in a distant universe … young women fell in love with each other.”38 Living at school with young women with aspirations to work outside the home as teachers and seeing female professors who were able to support themselves economically surely impressed upon Willard possibilities that would not have existed not long before, and challenged the mother-daughter bonds that Smith-Rosenberg argues was the foundation of women's social worlds.39 When generational changes rendered an “eroticized mother-daughter bond” less viable, women's primary emotional bond became their marriage – or their friendships with other women, described in marital terms, as Willard came to describe her relationships which had once been seen as familial.40 While she would have been at the early end of the trends which allowed for a concept of homosexual identity, she experienced the possibility of independent living and close companionship with other women which were challenging previous understandings of romantic friendships.

Willard lived in a time when she could have developed a homosexual identity, but did she? The most straightforward criteria to consider is whether she had sexual relations with other women, but on that topic her journals are silent. While she frequently referred to physical interactions with Bannister and then with Brigham, her descriptions were brief and not particularly sexual; for example, when Mary returned from Tennessee, she wrote “My Darling slept on my arm, again, last night,” but went into no further detail.41 She might well have not thought of any physical encounters with other women as sex – for much of the 19th century, “it was generally inconceivable to society that an otherwise respectable woman could choose to participate in a sexual activity that had as its goal neither procreation nor pleasing a husband.”42 Under this framework, what would now be called lesbian sex simply might not even exist. However, sexual activity should not be the only yardstick against which Willard's sexuality is considered. Judith M. Bennett suggests the term “lesbian-like” for relationships between women which occur before homosexuality was regularly understood as an identity, and she emphasizes that analysis of these relationships shouldn't privilege sexual behavior. She defines “lesbian-like” to include situations where women's primary emotions were directed towards other women, or any situation where “women's lives might have particularly offered opportunities for same-sex love.”43 While Willard's experiences were unlike those experienced by lesbians after 1870, when attraction to other women had been defined as a fixed trait, her experiences and her own understanding of her relationships can usefully be seen as “lesbian-like,” acting as an early example of the changes in perceptions of women's sexuality in the later decades of the 19th century.

Willard's journals can be seen as occupying a transition period between the romantic friendships of the Cult of True Womenhood, when women were seen as asexual and depended on each other for moral and intellectual support, to the age of the New Woman, with increased opportunities for women creating interpretations of relationships for women. Willard described how her access to education and employment gave her aspirations beyond just marriage and housewifery, and her own engagement and romantic friendship convinced her that she had an inherent attraction to women, using terms that seem more “lesbian-like” than those used to describe earlier romantic friendships. Though she described her attraction to women as an unalterable part of herself, her relationships are best understood as the beginning of a broader social change, which began in Willard's young adulthood but stretched through the rest of the 19th century in the age of the New Woman.


Bennett, Judith M. “'Lesbian-Like' and the Social History of Lesbianisms.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9 no. 1/2 (January 2000): 1-24. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost , (Accessed 19 November 2011).

Bordin, Ruth. Frances Willard: A Biography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Capitani, Diane. “Imagining God in Our Ways: The Journals of Frances E. Willard.” Feminist Theology 12, no. 1 (September 2003): 75-89. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed 19 November 2011).

Cocks, Catherine. “Rethinking Sexuality in the Progressive Era.” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 5, no. 2 (April 2006): 94-118.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men. New York: William and Morrow Company, Inc, 1981.

Gifford, Carolyn De Swarte. Writing Out My Heart. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. Washington Square: New York University Press, 1996.

Miller, Neil. Out of the Past. New York: Alyson Books, 2006.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.


1 Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, Writing Out My Heart, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 8.

2 Ruth Bordin, Frances Willard: A Biography, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 20-21.

3 Bordin, 20.

4 Bordin, 18.

5 Bodkin, 23-24.

6 Gifford, 8-9.

7 Ibid, 13.

8 Ibid, 43.

9 Ibid, 65.

10 Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men (New York: William and Morrow Company, Inc, 1981), 157-159.

11 Diane Capitani, “Imagining God in Our Ways: The Journals of Frances E. Willard,” Feminist Theology 12, no. 1 (September 2003): 78, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed 19 November 2011)

12Neil Miller, Out of the Past, (New York: Alyson Books, 2006), 55.

13 Gifford, 59.

14 Ibid., 63.

15 Ibid., 84.

16 Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 36.

17 Gifford, 83.

18 Faderman, Surpassing, 160.

19 Gifford, 92-93.

20 Ibid., 134.

21 Ibid, 134-135.

22 Bordin, 34.

23 Gifford, 163.

24 Ibid., 153.

25 Ibid., 147.

26 Ibid., 153.

27 Ibid., 178.

28 Faderman, Surpassing, 157.

29 Ibid., 162-164.

30 Gifford, 190.

31 Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction. (Washington Square: New York University Press, 1996), 8.

32 Ibid., 8.

33 Ibid., 8.

34 Ibid., 12.

35 Ibid., 13.

36 Gifford, 178; Faderman, 185.

37 Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991) 19.

38 Ibid., 20.

39 Smith-Rosenberg, 32.

40 Catherine Cocks, “Rethinking Sexuality in the Progressive Era,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 5, no. 2 (April 2006): 113.

41 Gifford, 103.

42 Faderman, Surpassing, 152.

43 Judith M. Bennett, “'Lesbian-Like' and the Social History of Lesbianisms,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9, no. 1/2 (January 2000), 15, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (Accessed 19 November 2011).

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