Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and “The Female World of Love and Ritual” by Matthew Hauptman


Carroll Smith-Rosenberg

On September 14 and 15, 2021, Matthew Hauptman interviewed Carroll Smith-Rosenberg by phone about her pathbreaking article and career.  Hauptman has a master’s degree in archives from New York University and is interested in public history projects.

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg is a pioneering historian of gender and sexuality; her name and scholarship are familiar to scholars across generations.  Perhaps her most famous work dates back to 1975 when Smith-Rosenberg published “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” the leading article featured in the first issue of the feminist journal Signs

It is no exaggeration to say that Smith-Rosenberg’s article, which closely analyzed emotional (and, arguably, sexual) intimacy in the letters of nineteenth-century American women, changed women’s studies overnight; it also prompted feminist historians to contextualize pre-Stonewall lesbianism as a salient experience among women throughout history.  How did Smith-Rosenberg come to write this trailblazing article, and what were the responses to it after its publication and what are they now?

Like many accomplished women of her generation, Smith-Rosenberg graduated from an elite women’s college in the Northeast – Connecticut College in New London.  She had attended a Catholic girls’ school in the Bronx – Elizabeth Seton Academy – where she received poor grades and often quarreled with the nuns.  She still knew that she wanted to go to college, but also knew that she did not wish to attend a Catholic college.  “I thought that would be death, intellectually,” she insisted. 

Fortunately, Smith-Rosenberg’s mother had a close friend who was savvy about women’s education and who told the family about Connecticut College.  There, Smith-Rosenberg encountered supportive teachers, most of them women, who urged female undergraduates to pursue educational and professional opportunities that most young women from Smith-Rosenberg’s generation might not have otherwise considered. 

One such opportunity was doctoral work in history, which Smith-Rosenberg pursued immediately after graduating from Connecticut College in 1957.  At Columbia University, she studied American history and was a student of famed historian Richard Hofstadter, a scholar with eclectic interests but not always receptive to women’s history and/or a feminist analysis. 

Smith-Rosenberg’s dissertation focused on poverty relief programs in nineteenth-century New York City.  It included a chapter on the New York Female Moral Reform Society, a group that attacked the double standard with which men and women were treated on sex-related matters.  At that time “women weren’t really writing about feminism,” Smith-Rosenberg said.  “People thought it was odd to work on feminism,” she stressed.  Hofstadter was skeptical at first, but after he finished reading her chapter, he was more convinced than before that gender might be, to borrow Joan Wallach Scott’s phrase, “a useful category of historical analysis.”

Smith-Rosenberg was hired as an untenured professor at the University Pennsylvania where her then-husband, medical historian Charles Rosenberg, also taught.  As a young historian, Smith-Rosenberg thought more about gender relations throughout American history and helped organize Penn’s women’s studies program, not least because students themselves were demanding courses in this new field.  And because the field was new, Smith-Rosenberg and her colleagues at Penn and beyond had to read widely, throughout the disciplines, to develop women’s studies programs with coherent curricula.  Still, there was always room for improvisation.  “We were making it up as we went along,” she said. 

In 1977, a lesbian relationship led Smith-Rosenberg to end her marriage.  She was also beginning to think more broadly about the history of lesbianism and its impact on Second Wave Feminism.  For her, lesbianism “was always a choice, and it was always a political choice.”

While attending an American studies conference in San Francisco, Smith-Rosenberg visited Stanford University’s archives to do research, seeking out archival collections centered around women. 

A collection on Mary “Molly” Hallock Foote – an author and illustrator who married a mining engineer and then moved from New York to California – caught Smith-Rosenberg’s attention.  Foote had maintained a 40-year correspondence with her dear friend Helena.  The flowery, at times passionate rhetoric also caught her attention, and she wondered whether these two women – and countless others – might have been physically intimate with each other; and if they were, did that make them lesbians avant la lettre

Smith-Rosenberg combined archival, historiographical, and psychoanalytic approaches to make sense of nineteenth-century women’s intimate correspondences.  The article, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” evades definitive answers as to whether these women were or were not lesbians; it instead recognizes human sexuality as fluid and relativistic, susceptible to wide-ranging cultural and social forces.

Responses to the article were mostly favorable in the 1970s, but it fell under intense, critical scrutiny in the 1980s.  Some women’s studies scholars argued that the piece was essentialist in suggesting that the women Smith-Rosenberg studied might have had physical relationships and thus could be understood as lesbian.  Other scholars thought Smith-Rosenberg’s essay glorified chaste passions between nineteenth-century American women – “vanilla sex,” as Smith-Rosenberg characterized it. 

The Barnard Conference on Sexuality in 1982 highlighted – and perhaps heightened – these divisions.  Smith-Rosenberg’s article, centering on nineteenth-century letters with flowery Victorian rhetoric, may have seemed to play down the possible sexual aspect of the intimacies she studied.  One panel’s purpose, it seemed to Smith-Rosenberg, was to attack her article; Smith-Rosenberg was invited to participate but declined.  The criticism became so intense that Smith-Rosenberg left the field of women’s studies after her second book, a collection of previously published essays on gender and sexuality, was published in 1986.

“This is very, very painful,” Smith-Rosenberg lamented as she recalled the criticism. She pursued other topics like national and political history but remained committed to documenting the experiences of historically marginalized groups.

In retrospect, “The Female World of Love and Ritual” is a major, pioneering article in the recovery of women’s and LGBTQ history.  Smith-Rosenberg is glad that the article has retained its relevance and is still taught.  She is also impressed with the growing sophistication of women’s studies and its growing diversity since the 1990s, with more women of color, and more gender non-conforming women in the field.

Smith-Rosenberg retired from the University of Michigan in 2008 but remains professionally active and is now at work on a project about statelessness. 

Here is a list of Smith-Rosenberg’s work on gender and sexuality.

  • “Bodies.” In Catharine R. Stimpson & Gilbert Herdt (Eds.), Critical Terms for the Study of Gender, 21-40. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  • “Surrogate Americans: Masculinity, Masquerade, and the Formation of a National Identity.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 119 No. 5 (October 2004).
  • “Black gothic: Race, Gender and the Construction of the American Middle Class.” In Robert St. George (Ed.), Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America, 243 – 269. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.
  • “Political Camp or the Ambiguous Engendering of the American Republic.” In Catherine Hall, Ida Bloom & Karen Hagermann (Eds.), Gendered Nations: Nationalisms and Gender Order in the Long Nineteenth Century, 271–292. New York: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2000.
  • “Captive Colonizers: Ambivalence and an Emerging ‘American identity.’” In Catherine Hall (Ed.), Gender and History: Special Issue on Gender, Nationalism and National Identity, 177 – 195. Gender and History 5 (Summer 1993).
  • “Discourses of Sexuality and Subjectivity: The New Woman, 1870 – 1936.” In Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, & George Chauncey, Jr. (Eds.), Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past, 264 – 280. New York: New American Library, 1989.
  • The body politic. In Elizabeth Weed (Ed.), Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics, 101–121. New York and London: Routledge, 1989.
  • “Domesticating Virtue: Rebels and Coquettes in Young America.” In Elaine Scarry (Ed.), Literature and the Body, 160 – 184. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
  • Judith Friedlander, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Alice Kessler-Harris, & Carroll Smith-Rosenberg (Eds.) Women in culture and politics: A century of change. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986.
  • Disorderly conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Ellen DuBois, MariJo Buhle, Temma Kaplan, Gerda Lerner & Carroll-Smith Rosenberg, Politics and culture in Women's History: A symposium. Feminist Studies 6, no. 1 (Spring 1980), 56–57.
  • “The Female World of Love and Ritual.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1, no. 1, 1975, 1 – 30.
  • “Beauty, the Beast, and the Militant Woman.” American Quarterly 23 (1971), 562-584.