You are here:

Three Warsaw Lesbian Utopias in the Middle of Poland, 1840-1940.
Kamil Karczewski

In the 1840s, Narcyza Żmichowska, an unmarried female teacher from Warsaw, gathered a group of young, devoted women around her, whom she called ‘the Enthusiasts’. Żmichowska encouraged them to strive for economic independence and education. She also assured them that they did not need to rely on men. The Enthusiasts were somewhat peculiar, if not queer—they smoked cigars, engaged in nationalist activism, and believed in a unique form of intimacy between women that Żmichowska dubbed ‘in-sistering’. Several decades later, Zofia Sadowska, a female physician from Warsaw, took things a step further. Not only did she wear men’s clothing, become a rally driver, and invest in oil drilling, but she also was not afraid to publicly declare that there was nothing humiliating about being a lesbian. This did raise some eyebrows among Warsaw socialites, but it did not stop Sadowska from creating a home with another woman. Meanwhile, Maria Rodziewiczówna, a nationalist writer, was less vocal about her lesbian love, but she, too, pursued a lesbian dream. She envisioned it as a small cottage in the middle of a forest, where she moved in with her partner. There, they spent their summer months in seclusion, surrounded by Eastern European nature, wildlife, and an abundance of wild berries.

This paper explores the ways in which these three non-normative women carved out pockets of respectability for themselves in a male-dominated world without compromising on love, building various and creative homosocial spaces that I, with just a touch of exaggeration, call utopias.

Kamil Karczewski is a Past & Present Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. His research delves into the intersections of queerness, nationalism, and class in the history of interwar Central and Eastern Europe.

Exiles of love?: lesbian lives in interwar Czechoslovakia

Mark Cornwall

In Czech historiography, lesbian lives and experiences in the first half of the 20th century have received little attention despite a growing scholarship on central European LGBTQ history. This paper focuses on interwar Czechoslovakia, with a special analysis of two forgotten Czech lesbian novels which were deliberately suppressed after 1948 as ‘bourgeois literature’. The two authors - Lída Merlínová and Gill (Julie) Sedlačková - were both employed in the world of Czech theatre and film, and both published articles or stories in the short-lived journal of Czech homosexual emancipation, Voice of the Minority. Spanning the twenties into the late thirties, their writings reveal tantalising glimpses of the evolving queer sub-culture in interwar Prague. Merlínová’s novel, Exiles of Love (1929) was ground-breaking as the first Czech lesbian novel, appearing on the cusp of an intensified campaign for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Sedlačková’s novel The Third Sex (1937) was a grittier work – with orgies and drugs - yet also more uplifting. It probes deeper into the Prague sub-culture, suggesting a greater range of lesbian experiences. Both novels allow us to explore the parameters of lesbian identity in Czech society, while suggesting too the broader (European) ‘mental maps’ or reference points which female homosexuals might now possess. Not least, we are recovering for the lesbian canon two Czech novels which reveal both the aspirations and frustrations of queer women in an era of growing emancipation.

Mark Cornwall is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Southampton and author of The Devil’s Wall (2012) which explores male homosexuality in the Sudeten German nationalist movement. He is planning a book of essays about Queer Bohemians 1900-1948

All welcome- this seminar is free to attend, but advance registration is required.