Very Special Friendships: Glimpses of Queer Relationships Among Women in the Colonial Archive

by Kirsten Kamphuis (she/her/hers)

As postcolonial historians have long demonstrated, everybody brings much more to the archive than their scholarly background. When I enter the archives of Roman Catholic teaching orders, as I have repeatedly done during my doctoral work on girls’ education in colonial Indonesia, I enter as a white, middle-class woman and a citizen of a former colonial power. I also enter as a lesbian historian, and that comes with its own complexities.

A film poster in almost all white, it depicts a nun, the top half of her face cut off by the top of the poster. her habit it all white and open at one side to expose her nipple
Poster of the 2021 film Benedetta by Paul Verhoeven.

I rarely see my experiences as a queer woman reflected in the sources I encounter during my research. Queer relationships of any kind are almost completely absent from the archives of female religious communities. This runs contrary to the very long-standing cliché of supposedly virginal nuns as sexually active, not least with their fellow religious sisters: an image that, throughout history, was repeatedly instrumentalized by those looking to discredit the Roman Catholic Church. It even spurred its own pornographic genre known as nunsploitation. This genre was especially popular in the 1970s and has left its traces in Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s recent film Benedetta.

My work in Roman Catholic archives has mainly focused on girls’ boarding schools, another well-known trope in X-rated films but also, much more importantly for queer women’s culture, in American lesbian pulp literature. In these scandalous and salacious novels, by authors such as Ann Bannon and Marijane Meaker, same-sex desire between young women often unfolded against the backdrop of boarding schools or sorority houses. For many closeted queer women in the deeply heteronormative 1950s and 1960s, such novels were the only places where they could recognize a glimpse of themselves. Schoolgirls’ crushes on their peers and teachers were among the first topics to be studied by the pioneering lesbian historians of the 1970s and 1980s.[1]

An old photo of Indonesian nuns, the picture is sepia toned and grainy and hard to make out but we can see 6 nuns all standing looking at the camera
The first Indonesian Roman Catholic sisters in Minahasa. The people in this picture do not appear in the text. Source: Wij vieren feest. Celebesmissie 29 november 191929 mei 1932 (Menado: 1932)

During my four years as a doctoral student, there was only one moment when I caught a glimpse of queer women’s lives in the archive. This happened in an unexpected place: a fourteenth-century monastery in the Dutch village of Sint Agatha. To get there, I rode my bike somewhat ironically, over the dykes along the Meuse. I found a desk in the reading room of the Erfgoedcentrum Nederlands Kloosterleven, the Heritage Centre for Dutch Monastic Life. Soon, I was flipping through the files of a Dutch congregation that was in charge of several girls’ schools in the Minahasa region in east Indonesia. I was looking at visitation reports from the 1930s, written by a Mother Superior from the Netherlands who had come to the Dutch East Indies to inspect the monasteries there. I was settling into a comfortable half-conscience archival daze when my eye caught a passage that filled me with a sense of surprise as well as delight. There it was, a precious glimmer of women’s relationships in the colonial past:

As far as concerns special friendships, just before my visit one case had been discovered by the Superior, of the Native sister Dorithea with one of the boarding girls. We, the Superiors, found that the case was very serious (…).[2]

a novel cover for Odd Girl Out, we see a womans side profile looking at the viewer, she seems as though she is judging you. In the background is another woman, naked apart from a sheet she is holding to cover herself
Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon, a 1957 lesbian pulp novel set in a sorority house.

As scholars of girls’ education and Roman Catholic culture have revealed, there was considerable anxiety about so-called “special friendships” in religious women’s communities. Of course, the leadership of monasteries were worried about the moral implications of romantic and possibly sexual relationships between women. Their main fear, however, was that close individual relationships, romantic or not, could undermine sisters’ and students’ loyalty to the community.[3]

The friendship in question had developed between a sister of Indonesian descent and a girl who likely studied at the sisters’ hospital to become a nurse. It is possible that the relationship between sister Dorithea and the student was indeed a very intense friendship that distracted them from their daily tasks at the hospital and the monastery. For me, however, this archival fragment immediately conjured up images of secret midnight walks under the tropical moon, holding hands, and stealing looks during Mass. The remaining part of the report, however, was much less romantic:

The girl was sent away immediately. And as far as concerns Sister D.’s state of mind, she is terribly sorry, says that she deserves to be sent away and is asking for leave so she can do penance, and she promised me that something like this will never happen again.

Obviously, the discovery of their relationship, whatever its nature, uprooted the lives of both sister Dorithea and the nursing student, who was expelled from school and may not have had the chance to follow secondary education again. Sister Dorithea, who was one of the first Indonesian sisters in this community, was likely also in a vulnerable position, as many of her white peers doubted Indonesian women’s suitability as sisters in the first place. While the archive does not reveal any further information about either the sister or her “special friend”, they clearly had to live with the heavy consequences of their relationship.

This brief encounter in the colonial archive has shown me that it can indeed be enriching to see part of your own experience reflected in a historical document. At the same time, the colonial past is structed by racial hierarchies and injustices that go much further than any homophobia I have ever experienced in my life. Yet, looking for lesbian love in the archives can be a powerful reminder of the queerness of the past.


About the Author:

Kirsten is a feminist historian. Originally from the Netherlands, she currently works at Münster University in Germany, where she is working on a postdoc project on religious women’s print cultures in decolonizing Indonesia.  She obtained her PhD from the European University Institute in Florence in 2019, with a thesis on girls’ education in colonial Indonesia. Her research interests also include anti-colonial women’s activism and queer and lesbian history. She would love to get in touch on Twitter: @kirstorian.


Bibliography:

[1] Martha Vicinus, ‘Distance and Desire: English Boarding School Friendships, 1870-1920’, in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. (New York: New American Library, 1989), 212–29.

[2] Erfgoedcentrum Nederlands Kloosterleven (ENK), St. Agatha, the Netherlands, Archive Gezelschap van Jezus, Maria en Jozef (JMJ), Box 3C8, File 9F/2, Visitation 13-18 March 1933.

[3] Rebecca Rogers, ‘Schools, Discipline and Community: Diary-Writing and Schoolgirl Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century France’, Women’s History Review 4, no. 4 (1995): 525–54.


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