title text with image of Rose Sidgwick and Margery Fry

“Historians will say they were just good friends”: Merton College LGBTQ+ History Month Talk

We’ve all heard the trope: “they were just good friends,” historians will claim, “there’s no evidence of them being… you know.” Gay. Lesbian. Queer. Trans. Non-binary. LGBTQ+. These terms are so familiar to us now that they are almost intuitively applied when we as historians find correspondences between the identities of today and the identities of the past. But it’s not that simple when studying historical ‘queer’ stories (when is it ever); when these labels are relatively new inventions, isn’t it anachronistic to throw them about all over history? Or have we reached a state of identity ‘Nirvana’, having found the words which perfectly capture the spectrum of human orientation and identity, which cannot be transgressed?

Not quite, argues Dr Emily Rutherford in her recent lecture at Merton College for LGBTQ+ History Month. To apply labels like “lesbian”, “queer”, “gay” and so on would be to ignore the agency of “queer” individuals throughout history – who themselves comprised a kind of ‘queer collective’, if you will, and who defined themselves on their own terms, in reference to those around them and to contemporary models of sexuality and gender. As a linguist, I can’t help but draw parallels – much like the word for “coffee” can’t exist without being different from and related to “mocha”, “tea”, “latte” and “caffeine”, very rarely do human concepts exist without some framework of reference. Not that I’m comparing queer identities to coffee, of course – I’ll leave that to the Buzzfeed quizzes.

Dr Rutherford examined the trope of the “Very Good Historical Gal Pals” in a setting relatively close to home: female academics in Oxford. Rutherford recounted the stories of several women who don’t quite fit into the ‘heteronormative mould’ even in the context of their own historical moments. Two of these women, Margery Fry and Rose Sidgwick, met at Somerville College in the 1890s whilst Sidgwick was working as a History tutor and Fry as a college librarian. They shared a decades-long relationship, the nature of which can be glimpsed through Sidgwick’s letters to Fry, which demonstrate their closeness and how they seemingly organised their lives around one another. In 1904, they moved to University House in Birmingham, where they then continued their careers in academia, with Fry acting as the first warden of the women’s residence there, and with Sidgwick as a university lecturer.

I wish I could spin a happy ending for these two fascinating women academics, but unfortunately, it was never meant to be; Sidgwick died of the Spanish Flu in 1918 during an educational mission to the United States, where she was promoting British higher education among young women. Fry was not informed of Sidgwick’s death for days, and in her letters she attested to her resulting feelings of survivor’s guilt. She was to move to London in 1918, leaving behind their shared home in Birmingham, and in a 1952 BBC address entitled “The Single Woman”, testified that her lifestyle (that of a spinster who sacrificed heteronormativity in order to pursue her career in education) had left her feeling lonely, having missed out on many traditional life milestones, despite Fry’s arguably fantastic career as a prison reformer and a magistrate.

What conclusions can we draw from this fantastic talk? First: as is often the case in history, things to do with ‘queer stories’ are never quite as they seem. Whilst there is comfort to be found for the modern LGBTQ+ community member in applying modern labels to historical accounts of queer people, this is possibly done at the detriment of their study; to label women who cohabited and spent their lives together in certain contemporary ways would not be accurate to their truth nor their understandings of themselves. Why reduce discussions of these people’s lives to arguments over terminology, rather than explore them wholeheartedly, in all their confusing and contradictory magnificence? 

Second: queer history is, really, right there under our very noses, and cannot be ignored any longer. When attempting to come up with interesting commissions for OHR, it can feel like a slog trying to tease out threads of queer stories from history, particularly those in Oxford. However, it’s a mistake to claim that not enough LGBTQ+ stories exist, or that Queer History is purely a niche undertaking. The acceptance of Queer History in the public sphere is slowly starting to form, with more research not just into isolated stories of queer individuals taking place, but also of queer methodologies and queer histories. The newly created Jonathan Cooper Chair of History, designed to further research into Queer History, is only one example of the wonderful work being done across the U.K. and beyond to progress this field and its legitimation as an academical subject. I’d recommend checking out the University’s list of LGBTQ+ History Month resources or attending one of Uncomfortable Oxford’s hidden history tours if you, like me, would like to be a little more active in appreciating queer history this month. And whilst you might find a lot of ambiguous relationships, identities, and historical figures on the way, let’s hope further examination into queer histories can take the “just” out of “just good friends”.

With thanks to Dr Emily Rutherford, Merton’s 1980 Society, Merton’s History Society, and Jen Shaw, Sadie Chamberlain, and Michael Zajac.