The Roaring 20s was in many ways a dress rehearsal for the 1960s, inspired by economic prosperity and an intoxicating sense that traditional mores no longer applied, especially to women. Having achieved the more sober of the stated goals of the feminist movement—voting rights, professional opportunities—an unprecedented number of women decided to live openly as lesbians apart from men (though often supported by men’s money). Some of their statements prefigure the hateful lesbian separatist rhetoric that became popular a half century later.
The main story told about feminism today is that it was the 1960s and 70s that brought major social changes: the so-called sexual liberation of women, often including the embrace of casual, non-procreative sex, the renunciation of marriage as oppressive, lesbianism and gender nonconformity, and the widespread denigration of male authority and male sexuality.
In her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” the American lesbian poet and intellectual Adrienne Rich summed up such developments, condemning heterosexuality and encouraging women to withdraw their attention, energy, and caring from men.
Rich advocated what she called “the lesbian continuum” in which women, if they did not become actual lesbians, as Rich herself did, focused their love and energy mainly on other women. For Rich, lesbianism was a natural extension of feminism.
But lesbianism as a social movement was not new. It had begun in the early 20th century when, fired by 50 years of feminist grievance-mongering, a significant number of women pre-empted Rich. Some rejected the markers of femininity, expressed scorn for marriage and child-rearing, and sought to build exclusive communities of women. In the words of British novelist Virginia Woolf, written teasingly in a letter to her lesbian lover, Vita Sackville-West, it was time to ”throw over your man” and try out new identities (qtd. in Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf, p. 508).
My point here is not to castigate lesbianism, but rather to highlight instances of political lesbianism, in which the choice to love women was inseparable from the choice to reject men as unworthy of love.
Of course not all the lesbians of the 20s fell into that category; many simply preferred women and found ways to live in communities where lesbian partnerships were acceptable. But a significant number saw lesbian love as superior, in feminist terms, to heterosexuality.
Many of these women gravitated to Paris, known as a city where both men and women could live their homosexuality openly. Paris was also a place where sexual experimentation was closely related to literary and artistic experimentation. “Make it new” was the credo of the modernist movement of the early twentieth century. Under Modernism, writers and other artists rejected the accepted rules of artistic representation, seeking to shock audiences into new ways of perceiving. New forms of sexual identity became part of the modernist revolution.
And who could be surprised? Rejection of men by women was surely a logical response by anyone who took seriously what feminists such as Josephine Butler, Mona Caird, and Christabel Pankhurst, to name only a few, had been saying for the previous 50 + years about women’s exploitation by men and the predatory and diseased nature of men.
For many of the women escaping their conventional lives, there was a general sense that all of society could be revolutionized, the slate wiped clean, and a new era begun characterized by free love and sexual adventure. Men could be women and women could be men, and the world would be a better place when both sexes were less sexually repressed.
New Yorker journalist and novelist Janet Flanner, who wrote under the pseudonym Genet, spoke for many in her tongue-in-cheek utopian observation that “For thousands of years the concentrated aim of society has been to cut down on kissing. With that same amount of energy […], society could have stopped war, established liberty, given everybody a free education, free bathtubs, free music, free pianos and changed the human mind to boot” (Janet Flanner, The Cubicle City, 1926).
The revolutionaries of the 1920s, not unlike those of the French Revolution, were confident that the human mind could be changed by remaking society. For more information about the personalities discussed in this essay, see Diana Souhami’s book No Modernism without Lesbians (2020).
Janet Flanner, a succesful American journalist, had moved to Paris partly to escape a dull marriage. In 1922, she and fellow American poet and journalist Solita Solano, birth name Sarah Wilkinson, began a new life there in an openly lesbian and open relationship in which each could take the lovers they chose.
Flanner’s many erotic liaisons included Dorothy Wilde, nicknamed Dolly, the niece of playwright Oscar Wilde. Dolly sought to carry on her famous uncle’s legacy with her gender-flouting and drug-taking pose of witty decadence. Dolly Wilde indulged heavily in alcohol, cocaine, and heroine, as well as in what she called “emergency seductions,” the sexual adventures she used as an antidote to the boredom and unhappiness of everyday life.
Flanner, Solano, Wilde and others gathered around institutions like American expatriate Sylvia Beach’s Paris bookstore, called Shakespeare and Company, which sold avant-garde literature, some of it, including James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, banned for obscenity in much of the English-speaking world. In 1928, Beach famously stocked Radclyffe Hall’s outlawed lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness.
Many of the lesbians in Paris were writers or patrons of the arts.
Many chose new names for themselves and dressed in distinctive ways, sometimes with brilliantined short hair, high collars, and monocles, to signal their self-creation apart from the gender conventions of their society. Sometimes they took their inspiration from the ancient Greek poet Sappho and her lesbian community.
The wealthy American heiress Natalie Barney bought a house just west of Paris where women who had relinquished ties to their country of origin as well as to husbands and children could join an artistic and erotic community that performed lesbian rituals, including dances in gauze togas around an incense-burning altar.
Annie Winifred Glover changed her name to Bryher (after an island off the Cornish coast of England) and came to Paris to devote herself to the American poet Hilda Doolittle, known as H.D., and her various lovers. Bryher, who had inherited her father’s enormous wealth, financially supported many avant-garde writers and their works.
One of the publications Bryher financed was Djuna Barnes’s rambunctious novel Ladies Almanack (1928), an irreverent manual for lesbians full of hidden references to real Paris lesbians who had banished “offspring and spouse.” The main character in the book, Dame Evangeline Musset, a lesbian pope, was based on the afore-mentioned Natalie Barney.
Barney was a cause célèbre in and around Paris. She was a woman who spoke openly of her lesbian affairs, of which she had dozens if not hundreds, and was obsessed with seducing women. Barney hosted a regular Friday Salon where her lovers past, present, and future met and partied. In Djuna Barnes’s novel, Barney’s character, Dame Musset, lived until she was 99 years old.
At her death, forty women with shaved heads carried her corpse through the streets of Paris to her funeral pyre, where her famous tongue “flamed and would not suffer Ash” until the 40 acolytes sat on the tongue where “from under their Skirts a slow Smoke issued.” Many other lesbian works featured this doyenne of lesbian love, including Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) Liane de Pougy’s Idylle Saphique (1901), and Lucie Delarue-Mardrus’ The Angel and the Perverts (1930).
The opposite of Barney’s cornucopia of lesbian loves was embodied in Gertrude Stein’s domestic arrangement with Alice B. Toklas. Stein was possibly the most famous mainly unread modernist author in Paris. Her partnership with Toklas, who subsumed her own personality entirely in Stein’s, was the bedrock of her writing life, and the two were seen everywhere together. Toklas typed all Stein’s manuscripts, looked after her house, answered correspondence, answered the door, and made it possible for Stein to be Gertrude Stein; Stein in turn wrote love poems about Toklas’s “cows” (a code word for orgasm).
Virginia Woolf, who did not move to Paris, also wrote a novel, Orlando (1828) about her woman lover, the aristocratic lesbian Vita Sackville-West, who had scandalized upper-class British society when she and another woman, Violet Trefusis, had to be pursued and brought back home by the husbands they had abandoned when they eloped together to France.
Woolf’s novel idealized and fictionalized a Vita-like hero who changed sexes in the course of the book and lived through many centuries. Woolf, though married, carried on an erotic friendship for years with the sexually voracious Vita.
Though most of these women were simply interested in being free, the explicit rejection of men not infrequently figured in their statements about who they were. Bryher identified herself as a feminist who fought for women’s rights. Gertrude Stein dismissed the carnage of the first half of the twentieth century as a problem of too many fathers: “Father Mussolini and father Hitler and father Roosevelt and father Stalin and father Lewis and father Blum and father France […] There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it, fathers are depressing” (Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography).
Natalie Barney wrote that “I neither like nor dislike men. I resent them for having done so much evil to women. They are our political adversaries” (Pensees d’une amazon) and she was explicit in rejecting everything have to do with conventional domestic life, marriage, and especially children, claiming defiantly that “The finest life is spent creating oneself, not procreating” (Pensees d’une Amazon).
Though the aim was to create a productive and supportive community of women, real life was always more complicated than lesbian idealism. Love triangles, marriages of convenience (mostly with gay men), complicated allegiances and overlapping liaisons led inevitably to jealousy, bitterness, and sometimes mental breakdowns and suicide attempts, such as of the afore-mentioned Dolly Wilde.
The poet H.D. was often in crisis, her mental and emotional instability exacerbated by ever-shifting, often unwise entanglements. When her long-term supporter Bryher first met her, she was married to one man and pregnant by another; neither of whom wanted to take responsibility for her child. Her daughter Perdita was for years shunted between the fragile mother incapable of focusing on her child’s needs and various others who could not provide the stable home the child craved.
Many of Natalie Barney’s lovers were pushed to the edge by Barney’s refusal to be sexually faithful or consistent. Vita Sackville-West’s mother famously pasted a photograph of Virginia Woolf in her copy of Woolf’s novel Orlando and described the picture as “The awful face of a mad woman whose successful mad desire is to separate people who care for each other. I loathe this woman for having changed my Vita and taken her away from me” (Vita Sackville-West’s mother, qtd in No Modernism Without Lesbians, p. 37).
The 1920s was a dress rehearsal in small for the far more widespread revolution in sexual mores of the later 1960s and 70s, when many more women joined women’s groups to raise their consciousness, emphasized the importance of orgasm, took women lovers as an act of radical emancipation, and left their husbands and children in rejection of patriarchy. The 1920s Paris experiment in lesbian living was in many ways predictive of the later era. In particular, the idea that women should pursue sexual pleasure as a primary or even the primary goal of their lives, and that it was particularly admirable to do so without men (or children) even when one’s behaviors mimicked what was so often criticized in male behavior, would have been impossible without decades of feminist proselytizing about female moral superiority and male perfidy.
Feminist insistence on women’s equality rights often led, and in the end took a back seat, to the insistence that whatever women wanted in the moment was their right, no matter how irresponsible, careless, or destructive. The many broken hearts and smashed lives that followed, then and now, were never acknowledged by the propagandists of feminism.