“Mothers are the best lovers in the whole world,” declares Jo March, the
heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s immensely popular “girls’ story,” Little
Women.1 What are we to make of such a statement? Clearly we cannot im-
port contemporary versions of lesbian identity into a novel written and se-
rialized from 1868 to 1869. It would be anachronistic to take Jo’s words
as evidence of her lesbianism when she displays none of the characteristics
that, according to Lisa Duggan, define the “new lesbian subjectivity” that
was emerging in the late-nineteenth-century United States. These charac-
teristics include “see[ing one’s] self as an erotic subject—as a woman
whose desire for women was felt as a fundamental component of her sense
of self, marking her as erotically different from most other women,” and
identifying in some way with “public lesbian identities and communi-
Yet, at the same time, it would be wrong to read Jo’s declaration as
simply another example of an attempt to sentimentalize mothers and
motherhood. Instead, in this volume I propose that modern lesbian iden-
tity has its roots in the United States not just or even primarily in sexology
and medicalization but in white, middle-class “women’s culture,” distin-
guished in part by its central focus on the mother.3 Foucauldian-inspired
studies of the emergence of sexual identity have tended to focus on a par-
ticular set of public discourses, primarily those intended to regulate male
gender and sexual behavior, in order to describe the formation of the “ho-
mosexual.” In this volume I look elsewhere—to what has been termed
“women’s” or “sentimental” writing, and to its interlocking discourses of
gender and sexuality, of racial and class embodiment, and of material pro-
duction and reproduction—in order to offer one account of the emergence
of “the lesbian” in the United States.
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