Coming to terms with the past: what should we call Anne Lister?

This summer the city of York got its first LGBT history plaque, dedicated to the 19th century landowner Anne Lister.  It was placed at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Goodramgate, where in 1834 Lister and her partner Ann Walker took part in an unofficial marriage ceremony.

In the course of her life Anne Lister had numerous sexual and romantic relationships with women, as we know from her voluminous diaries, which were partly written in code to conceal the details. Since they were decoded in the 1980s Lister has been regarded as a significant figure in British lesbian history. To people already familiar with her story, therefore, it came as something of a surprise that the word ‘lesbian’ did not appear on the commemorative plaque. Instead the local LGBT group which was responsible for the wording chose to describe Lister as ‘a gender non-conforming entrepreneur’.

The pushback was immediate: many objectors visited the group’s Facebook page to protest, and a petition proclaiming ‘Anne Lister was a lesbian: don’t let them erase her story’ attracted over two thousand signatures. In the face of these complaints the York Civic Trust undertook to review the wording of the plaque. They have now opened a public consultation which invites people to choose between the original phraseology and an alternative that refers to Anne Lister as a ‘Lesbian and Diarist’.

Both these options are open to the charge of anachronism, projecting present-day concepts and identity categories back into the historical past. Though Anne Lister clearly understood herself as someone who desired women, she had no access to the conceptual frameworks that enable or even oblige us, 200 years later, to classify individuals in terms of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

In the first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault famously argued that the modern notion of ‘the homosexual’ only emerged in the latter half of the 19th century. Before that, he maintained, discourse on sex focused on what people did rather than what or who they were; but the advent of a ‘scientific’ approach brought a new interest in explaining sexual behaviour as an expression of people’s underlying (and in the case of homosexuals, ‘deviant’) nature. ‘The 19th century homosexual’, wrote Foucault,

became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. …It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration: the homosexual was now a species.

From this perspective, labels like ‘homosexual’ and ‘lesbian’ are not just names for categories which have always existed in essentially the same form, just with different (or no) words attached to them. The terms come into existence along with the categories, and both are effects of the production of knowledge, which in modern societies, Foucault argues, is inextricably bound up with power and control. It follows that the problem of anachronism in language is both real and intractable. And as numerous commenters pointed out, the compromise chosen by the York LGBT group in the case of Anne Lister—describing her as ‘gender non-conforming’—is not really a satisfactory solution.

The group acknowledged that in practice the label ‘gender non-conforming’ is most often applied to people who identify as trans, non-binary or queer. But in principle, they argued, it could be used to describe ‘a broad range of identities, expression and behaviours that are non-normative and/or marginalised by a particular society or culture at a particular moment in time’. The implication seemed to be that whereas ‘lesbian’ names a specific identity that has only existed in some times and places, ‘gender non-conforming’ is more generally applicable: it says only that the person so labelled deviated in some way from whatever gender norms prevailed in their society.

I can’t say I’m convinced by this. One problem with the broad definition of ‘gender non-conforming’ is that it’s too broad (is there anyone on earth who has never deviated in any way from the prevailing norms of masculinity or femininity?). But in addition, the claim that it avoids anachronism does not stand up to scrutiny. There’s nothing timeless and universal about either the phrase ‘gender non-conforming’ or the assumptions embedded in it.

For one thing, its meaning depends on a sense of the word ‘gender’ which did not become established in English until the mid-20th century. We can be confident that Anne Lister wouldn’t have described herself as ‘gender non-conforming’. If that’s our criterion, incidentally, it’s also unlikely she would have called herself an ‘entrepreneur’. According to the OED, the relevant sense of that word, meaning the owner/manager of a business, did not appear in print until more than a decade after her death. (One critic of the plaque remarked that the overall effect of ‘gender non-conforming entrepreneur’ was to make Lister sound less like a 19th century landowner and more like the recipient of an award for the year’s most successful LGBT start-up.)

But perhaps all this agonising about anachronism is beside the point. A commemorative plaque is not a thesis: its purpose is to make whatever it commemorates intelligible and relevant to a contemporary audience. We memorialise historical figures like Anne Lister because of what they mean to us now, and the choices we make about how to do it, including what terminology to use, are always going to be shaped by what’s at stake for us in the present.

For most of those who got involved in it, what was at stake in the debate about the wording of the plaque was not some abstract theoretical point about the applicability of terms like ‘lesbian’ and ‘gender non-conforming’ to a person who lived 200 years ago. The issue was rather why one of those anachronistic terms had been preferred to the other, and what that said about contemporary attitudes to lesbians.

The commonest objection to the original wording was that, like the code Anne Lister used in her diaries, it seemed like a deliberate attempt to downplay if not conceal her sexuality. Why, critics demanded, was lesbianism being treated as the love whose name could not be spoken? Is the idea of sex between women still so shocking or revolting that it can only be alluded to in the vaguest and most ambiguous terms? But while I’m sure there are people who shy away from the L-word because of basic anti-lesbian prejudice, I wouldn’t expect to find them in an LGBT forum. In this case I think it’s more likely the group had a different reason for finding ‘lesbian’ problematic–a reason that was spelled out last year in a much-debated Buzzfeed article which asked, ‘Can lesbian identity survive the gender revolution?’

As the article’s author Shannon Keating explained,

Attitudes about gender identity are evolving, which has started to impact the way many of us think about sexual orientation. Young people in particular are more likely than ever before to identify outside the assigned-gender binary; trans men and women are joined by those who identify as genderqueer, agender, non-binary, genderfluid — to name only a few. …Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity, a binary label like “gay” or “lesbian” starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy. When there are so many genders out there, is it closed-minded — or worse, harmful and exclusionary — if you identify with a label that implies you’re only attracted to one?

Not surprisingly, this article was controversial. Many lesbians were less than delighted to be dismissed as ‘stale and stodgy’, and some were vocal in their criticisms. Nevertheless, I think it’s true that the emphasis placed on gender identity in contemporary LGBT politics has affected the way sexuality is thought about. In particular, it has led to the adoption in some quarters of the principle that sexual orientation should be defined in relation to gender identity rather than sex. This opens up the possibility that someone like the ‘gender non-conforming’ Lister might not have been (that is, felt herself to be) a woman; and if she wasn’t a woman then her attraction to women wouldn’t make her a lesbian. If the York group was applying this logic, that would explain their otherwise puzzling reluctance to use the L-word.

This particular way of understanding the relationship between gender and sexuality is a relatively recent development, and as we saw in the row about the plaque, it remains highly contested. But the questions it grapples with are not new, and nor is their capacity to cause conflict.

Fifty years ago when I was growing up, homosexuality was commonly understood as a form of gender deviance or ‘inversion’. That was how my parents explained it to me: homosexual men and lesbian women were people who felt and behaved like members of the opposite sex. This mid-20th century common sense reflected the expert theories of an earlier period. The term ‘invert’ had been used by the 19th century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and the concept was popularised in Radclyffe Hall’s early 20th century novel The Well of Loneliness. It also shaped the way homosexuals were depicted in mainstream popular culture (something my parents and I were more directly acquainted with)–most commonly as effeminate, campy ‘queens’.

But by the end of the 1960s this understanding was being challenged. The new gay liberation movement promoted the idea that gender and sexuality were distinct and independent–a view championed in particular by younger, middle-class activists who found the association of homosexuality with effeminacy embarrassing, and saw it as an obstacle to achieving social acceptance. In a 1972 piece entitled ‘The fairy princess exposed’,  the gay liberationist Craig Alfred Hanson denounced the old-style queens as ‘relics of a bygone era in their fantasy world of poodle dogs and Wedgwood teacups’. Though these ‘relics’ were unlikely to change their ways, the movement needed to ‘expose our Princess Flora Femadonna so that our younger brothers will not fall into the lavender cesspool’.

As this rhetoric makes clear, there were divisions and tensions within the emerging gay ‘community’: not everyone had the same ideas about what it meant to be gay or what would constitute ‘liberation’. Lesbians had their own version of the conflict dramatised in Hanson’s attack on the ‘fairy princess’: as I noted in an earlier post, the new generation of lesbian feminists were often critical of the older culture of butch-fem relationships, which they saw as aping heterosexuality and reproducing traditional gender roles. Like their gay male comrades, they wanted to challenge the idea that same-sex desire was integrally bound up with gender deviance (or to put it another way, that all desire was fundamentally heterosexual–that every sexual relationship must involve a ‘masculine’ and a ‘feminine’ partner, even if they were both women or both men).

Today we are seeing another shift in ideas about the relationship between sex and gender, identity and desire—one which is also exposing divisions within the community. I’m not suggesting this is a straightforward case of history repeating itself (or reversing itself), but the questions being raised are not completely unfamiliar either. In some form or other, they may even have been questions for Anne Lister and the people around her in the first half of the 19th century.

But that isn’t what’s at issue in the dispute about the wording of her commemorative plaque. What the plaque will show, whatever it ends up saying, is not how Anne Lister defined herself, but how we have chosen to define her. And what makes that so contentious is not what we can’t know about the past, it’s what we don’t agree on in the present.

Note: at the time of writing it is still possible to respond to the consultation about the plaque: if you want to read the background information and then register a view on the competing options you can do so here.  

What’s yours called?

Content warning: this post contains offensive language of a sexual nature. As does the real world.


Ignorance and prejudice about women’s sexuality has a long and depressing history.  When I was at school in the early 1970s, we were sure women didn’t have testicles*, but we weren’t entirely clear on what they did have. What passed for sex education in those days should really have been called ‘reproduction education’: it was all about wombs, ovaries, and the fateful encounter between the egg and the sperm. The parts of our bodies we could actually see and touch were either passed over in silence or shrouded in euphemism.

But that was 45 years ago: it’s a different story for girls growing up today, right? Well, maybe not. In a survey of a thousand British women carried out in 2014 , half of the under-35s could not locate the vagina on a diagram, and 65% said they had problems using the words ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’. 40% of the 16-25s reported using vague phrases like ‘lady parts’ or ‘women’s bits’.

Let’s just pause to take this in. We’re talking about a generation of women who’ve learnt that it’s normal to remove all your pubic hair, and not unthinkable to have your labia surgically reshaped. They’ve grown up with internet porn, and magazine articles discussing blow-jobs and BDSM. Yet apparently they don’t have a functioning adult vocabulary for talking about the sexual parts of their own bodies.

The survey was done for a gynaecological cancer awareness campaign, so it only investigated the kind of language you’d use for talking to healthcare professionals. And of course, it’s important that women and girls should be able to do that. But you don’t always want to talk about your genitals in Latin. In some situations—informal ones, intimate ones—you might feel the need for non-clinical terms; ideally you might want these to be neither coy euphemisms like ‘lady parts’ or taboo words like cunt. For the male genitals, this middle ground is occupied by words like willy, knob and balls. But what are the female equivalents?

In an effort to find out, the psychologists Virginia Braun and Celia Kitzinger asked a sample of nearly 300 men and women to write down the names they knew for both the male and the female genitals. For the male genitals, four words appeared on most people’s lists: dick, willy, penis and cock. Other frequently-listed terms included knob and todger. There were also four words for female genitals which a majority of respondents listed: cunt, vagina, pussy and fanny (note for Americans: this was a British study, and in British English fanny means the genitals rather than the ass). Other popular choices were muff, beaver, twat and minge.

It’s noticeable that many of the female terms are more offensive than most of the male ones. Some of the male ones can be used as insults (‘he’s a total dick/knob’), but they aren’t up there with cunt. Pussy might sound as innocuous as willy, but one of its commonest uses is for referring to women collectively as sexual objects (‘he spends all his time chasing pussy’). You can objectify men in a similar way using cock, but not willy (or knob or todger).

The researcher Sarah Murnen investigated which terms English-speakers found degrading. Her subjects picked out only three male genital terms as degrading: cock, prick and meat. With the female terms, by contrast, the majority were considered degrading. Only two of the common terms on Braun and Kitzinger’s list—vagina and muff—were judged non-degrading (and in the case of muff that’s surprising, since it can be used in the same way as pussy, and also has form as a derogatory term for lesbians).

The dearth of non-degrading colloquial terms for the female genitals is an everyday problem in conversations between parents and children. A friend recently told me about an exchange with her small son, in which she answered a question he had asked by explaining that ‘girls don’t have willies, they have vaginas’. There’s a striking contrast of register here: what boys have is named using an everyday, familiar word, while what girls have is named with a more formal, clinical term. But what else could she have said? ‘Girls don’t have willies, they have front bottoms’? ‘Girls don’t have willies, they have pussies’? Even the least sexually explicit colloquial terms are still more explicit than willy: few people would feel comfortable teaching them to a child. So parents who don’t want to be coy end up using medical textbook Latin with kids who can’t even read yet.

Eventually, among their peers, those kids will acquire a more extensive slang vocabulary–and in the process they’ll be learning more than just words. Back in the 1990s I studied a game which I’d discovered my students played (it was popular with both sexes, who generally played it in single-sex groups of friends). It involved coming up with as many terms as you could think of meaning ‘penis’, and points were given for both the quantity and the quality. ‘Quality’ in this context meant novelty and ingenuity: some of the terms were original coinages which players came up with on the spur of the moment. But they weren’t just random inventions. Both the novel and the more familiar terms were variations on a well-worn set of themes. These included personal names (dick, johnson) and names for authority figures (the king, his lordship); fighters (purple-helmeted warrior ); animals, especially snakes but also ravening beasts (Cujo); weapons (pork sword, heat-seeking missile); power tools (jackhammer, hedgetrimmer) and food items, especially meat.

I didn’t investigate terms for the female genitals because my study was observational: I wasn’t asking people to do a task I’d dreamt up for research purposes, I was studying something they did in real life. And in real life, the game was about penis terms. But Braun and Kitzinger’s study generated terms for both sexes’ genitals, which they sorted into categories in much the same way I had. For the male terms, the results were pretty similar to mine. For the female terms, they found some overlap with the male categories (person names, animals and food items all appeared), but they also found significant differences.

The female list contained many more euphemisms (like down there and privates), and it also featured a large number of terms which were references to pubic hair (including hair pie, beard, brush and bush). Braun and Kitzinger argue that these are also euphemisms of a sort, since they allude to the genitals by way of what covers them. Apart from euphemisms and personal names (like fanny), the female genitals were conceptualized as holes (often dank and smelly ones, as in cave or stench trench), receptacles (dirt box, disk drive, spunk bin), dangerous places (Bermuda triangle, squirrel trap), wounds (gash, slit), hairy or furry animals (beaver, pussy), and money (Mrs Penny, tuppence).

These conceptual categories are known to both sexes, but what they reflect is a male rather than female-centred view of sex. A language that represents the female genitals as wounds, receptacles, slots to be filled or commodities to be purchased is not starting from the way women experience their own bodies, but from the way their bodies are perceived and used by men.

Another thing this terminology isn’t much concerned with is the details of women’s sexual anatomy. As they analysed the female terms, Braun and Kitzinger found themselves asking a very basic question. What, exactly, is being named by these words? What is a pussy, or a twat, or a minge? The female genitals are not a single undifferentiated entity: there’s the vagina, the vulva, the inner and outer labia, the perineum, the clitoris… and yet most of the ‘standard slang’ terms are completely unspecific about which of these they refer to. In that respect they’re as vague as ‘down there’ and ‘front bottom’.

Braun and Kitzinger decided to put the question to another set of research subjects. They gave them a labelled anatomical diagram and a list of 49 terms, and asked them to indicate which of the parts labelled on the diagram the terms referred to. They found a remarkable lack of consensus. The average number of different definitions per word was around four. Only two words were defined in the same way by everyone: beard (pubic hair), and clit (clitoris). Some of the commonest words were among the most disputed. Both pussy and fanny, for instance, were defined variously as meaning vagina, vulva, clitoris, vagina-plus-clitoris, pubic hair and ‘the whole thing’.

It seems that very often when we talk about women’s genitals, we quite literally don’t know what we’re talking about. And we certainly can’t assume we know what anyone else is talking about. It’s a vicious circle: sexism produces ignorance and shame, ignorance and shame lead to silence and vagueness, silence and vagueness reproduce ignorance and shame, and they in turn allow sexism to continue to flourish.

One way to address this is through education, both at home and at school. Everyone should know that there’s more to the female genitals than a vagina and some pubic hair; no one should be reduced to talking vaguely about ‘lady parts’ and ‘front bottoms’. You cannot have sexual autonomy and equality if you do not have sexual knowledge, and the words are part of what you need to know.

But the problem isn’t just ignorance. It’s also the sexism and misogyny which so many slang terms express, and the shame which leads so many women to avoid naming their genitals explicitly. If we are ever to have, in Braun and Kitzinger’s words, ‘a vocabulary which….allows us to communicate adequately with sexual partners, friends, family, and health care providers’, it’s not only our language that will need to change.

* The illustration shows a passage from a text by the French anatomy professor Nicholas Venette, published in English in 1707 as The Mysteries of Conjugal Love Reveal’d.