Danger hid under a Petticoat

The poetry of Katherine Philips celebrates a woman’s love for her female friend in the seventeenth century in such poems as To My excellent Lucasia, on our friendship:

I did not live until this time
Crown’d my felicity,
When I could say without a crime,
I am not thine, but Thee

In the 1630s, Constantia Fowler became acquainted with Catherine Thimelby through her brother, Herbert Ashton, to whom she wrote of Catherine:

I canot hide from you the many, and great obligations, that I have received from Mrs Thimelby: truely, I never gained so much by the acquaintance of any, as of her; therefore a thousand times have I blest, and allmost adored the time, that I first saw her.

Later, Constantia writes:

I have bin more deadly in love with her as ever lover was… For never creature was more fortunate than I in gaining affection from her. For I believe I am blest with the most perfectest and constant lover as ever women was blest with.

Single women who cohabited were often objects of suspicion. Four women of South Milton who occupied themselves ‘by their own honest employment of spinning which they followed many years’ were ordered to put themselves into service. Jane and Anne Wright, ‘both single persons living only upon their labour’ were taken from home.

One way in which women disguised their relationships with each other was by cross-dressing. On 12th September 1680, in the parish of St-Martins-in-the-Fields, Amy Poulter, ‘representing herself to be a man’ named James Howard, was married to 18-year-old Arabella Hunt. Amy had courted Arabella in the guise of a ‘young heir, not yet of an age’. By day she went about disguised as a woman. When Arabella began to realise that her husband ‘went under the suspition of one of a double gender’, she immediately appealed for an annulment. The case came to court in 1682, and a jury of five midwives examined Amy Poulter and found her to be a ‘perfect woman in all her parts’. The marriage was annulled and both women were free to remarry. Arabella, who went on to become a famous lutenist and soprano at the court of Queen Mary II, insisted on her role as the innocent deceived, but it is more probable that she was quite aware her husband was not a man.

Aphra Behn’s play of 1682, The False Count, may allude to Arabella and Amy. In the play, an elderly husband is troubled by his wife’s relationship with her sister and her maid: ‘I have known as much danger hid under a Petticoat, as a pair of Breeches. I have heard of two Women that married each other – oh abominable, as if there were so prodigious a scarcity of Christian Mans Flesh.’ While this remark suggests contemporaries may well have thought a shortage of men the reason for the marriage between Arabella and Amy, it is possible that Behn was using public discourse to air the possibility of lesbian marriage.

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