The focus of my PhD research was prompted by an undergraduate seminar series about five years ago, convened by a tutor I am now fortunate enough to have as my supervisor. During the course, I’d attempted to explore whether the civil rights and interests of ‘lesbian’ Wilhelmine women had been more legitimately represented by either the women’s or the homosexual emancipation movement.
As you might imagine, I encountered very little success.
Stumped by a lack of resources –there is a reason Sheffield isn’t known for its extensive collections on fin de siècle lesbian radicals– it wasn’t until I began my MA that I was able to look more closely at some of the questions that had arisen during my initial foray into German LGBT+ history.
Moving forward into the politically and culturally turbulent era of the Weimar Republic, my research adopted a more literary focus. Still interested in the interplays of gender and sexuality, I examined the various representations of the ‘masculine woman’ in ‘New Woman’ and ‘lesbian’ interwar fiction. Originally, I’d wanted to conduct a comparative study of German and Dutch ‘lesbian’ and ‘New Woman’ novels, however, a dearth of Dutch texts dealing with LGBT+ themes during this period meant that it wasn’t a viable option for MA research.
Enter, partially formed PhD proposal.
A cursory glance at the field during my MA had indicated that there had been very little research undertaken on lesbian subcultures in the Netherlands prior to the Second World War. In fact, before the 1950s, lesbianism in Dutch society had been described as little more than a “silent conspiracy”.
But why was this? Just across the border, Berlin had established itself as an “Eldorado” for Sapphic women by the mid-1920s and the new moral climate had facilitated a veritable explosion of lesbian literature, cinematic endeavours and homosexual rights movements in Germany. Exactly what structures in Dutch society had impeded the development of visible sexual subcultures, while lesbian desire was virtually in vogue in Berlin?
Using queer methodological approaches, and following in the directions of historians such as Laura Doan, I decided to put the concept of lesbianism at the periphery of my PhD study. Instead of attempting to construct a ‘recovery narrative’ that would dictate who or what might be considered legitimately lesbian in the interwar era, I decided to focus instead on the discourses and structures in German and Dutch society that enabled women to engage with the concept of ‘lesbian identity’ in the first instance.
Using a wide range of primary sources (sexological/literary/print press), I’m hoping to demonstrate that ‘lesbian identity’ is neither a transhistorical nor a transnational phenomenon. Women, even those in neighbouring countries, often had extremely protean experiences of sexuality in the past. The boundaries of which have been shaped by the political, cultural and medical discourses that I will be investigating over the next three years.