Yesterday I attended a talk by Dr Lesley Hall called ‘From Deviance to Diversity? Finding sexuality and sexual science in the archives’, which was hosted as part of The National Archives ‘Diversity Week‘.
Hall is Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library, and her talk focused on sources that are found in the collection there. The role of medicine and sexual science (sexology), as well as the leading figures in the history of sexology (such as Magnus Hirschfeld), featured heavily in Hall’s talk, which gave a solid overview of what visitors, academics and researchers would find if they went looking for sexuality in the Wellcome Library.
Of all the examples Hall gave, and the one that particularly caught my eye, was an etching from 1820 called ‘Love a-la-mode, or two dear friends’. The image (see below) shows Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick kissing on a park bench whilst their husbands look on from behind a bush.
This particular image raised a question I constantly find myself asking myself and archivists, and one that will feature heavily in my thesis chapter on archives. How would I find this image if I was looking for homosexuality, female same-sex love, or the history of lesbianism in the archive? How can it be labelled, when the labels modern society uses have only really been in use since sexologists provided them in the late nineteenth century?
One of the greatest problems of finding same-sex love in the archive is the choice of words used to catalogue and search for sources. Searching for ‘gay’ in the majority of archive catalogues will return a huge number of records relating to someone called ‘Gay’. Anything relating to same-sex love is likely to be modern, as the term ‘gay’ is a modern term used to describe same-sex love and/or a sexual orientation/identity. Likewise, the term lesbian is unlikely to bring up many results before the 1960s, for similar reasons, and more so because lesbian history is excluded from the historical record in a way male homosexuality is not. Sex between women has never been illegal, and so it is very difficult to find examples or references to it in many collections.
So is this image of Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick ‘lesbian history’? The Wellcome Library has it catalogued under the topics ‘Lesbians’ and ‘Lesbian Couples’, which instantly makes the record accessible to users looking for female same-sex love. From a public history point of view, such accessibility is great. But is labeling it as ‘lesbian’ telling the user before they know the context, or subjects of the image, that this is definitely an image of lesbians, implying a full sexual relationship? Furthermore, Hall raised the point that this image may not be about FEMALE sexuality at all, but instead about the sexuality of the Ladies’ husbands. By questioning their control and power over their wives, it calls their masculinity into disrepute. Does this then exclude it from being labelled as ‘lesbian’?
Either way, as a visual representation of female same-sex love, whether satyrical or not, I do think that the use of the label ‘lesbian’ makes it searchable and therefore accessible. There is little point in collecting and keeping wonderful sources if they are inaccessible to the public after all.
One particularly excellent way of making records more accessible (and animated, and fun!) was showcased by The National Archives last year with their Files on Film competition. The competition encouraged entrants to create a short film based on a record, and the results are fantastic, showing how diverse archives can be, as well as the creative approaches that can be taken in interpreting and promoting them. All of the entries are worth watching, but Coral Manton’s entry is particularly so for a great take on “unnatural relationships” between service women. Do check out The National Archives site too, which has full details of the records used to inspire the films.