Isabella Grassi and same-sex love

In England, as Laura Doan has observed, the 1920s was a period in which ‘[f]or lesbians in particular, the blurring of categories of gender and the greater dissemination of sexual knowledge made possible new paradigms for self-understanding that paved the way for subcultural formation’(2001 xix). In Paris, women who identified as lesbians were forming a visible alternative culture, exploiting the spaces of the developing modern city as a setting in which to explore and articulate their own identities (Winning 2006). This was not the case in Italy, where debates and representation remained extremely constrained. At the beginning of the decade, it appears that the socio-cultural taboos about lesbianism and female same-sex desire were functioning relatively well, constraining women who felt such desires to isolated anguish. One striking example is provided by the diaries of Isabella Grassi (1886-1936), later president of FILDIS (Federazione italiana laureate e diplomate Istituti superiori;  the Italian Federation of Women with Degrees and Diplomas) from 1922-1935. Isabella’s diaries and letters from 1920-21, when she was aged 34-35, indicate that she felt attracted to women, in particular to her married friend Tersilla Guadagnini, whose soul, she writes in an unsent letter, she felt perfectly reflected her own.[1] Isabella experienced a profound connection with Tersilla, and expressed a growing desire for increased intimacy:


voglio con lei legami non solo spirituali, ma affettivi, poichè così forse verrà un giorno in cui lei stessa mi comprenderà meglio e io e lei potremo fonderci assieme.[2]

[I want my connection with her to be not only spiritual but emotional, since perhaps this might mean that one day she will understand me better and she and I will be able to fuse together].


These documents chart an ongoing struggle, as Isabella attempts to come to terms with and to regulate her behaviour, to understand why Tersilla inspires such charged emotions in her, and to acknowledge that it is from Tersilla that she wants to obtain ‘la soddisfazione dei più intimi bisogni dell’animo mio, l’affetto personale’ [the satisfaction of the most intimate needs of my soul, personal affection].[3] I do not wish to impose anachronistic labels on Isabella or her feelings, and would certainly resist categorising her as a frustrated ‘lesbian’; it may be that she wanted an emotional, ‘intimate friendship’ with Tersilla that was not sexual. In her work on ‘intimate friendships’ between women, Martha Vicinus explores a range of ‘emotional, erotically charged relationship[s] between two women’ (2004: xxiv), and is careful to point out that while some women in previous periods may have felt unable to act on their desires, or simply preferred a non-physical relationship to a sexual one, other women might well have understood exactly what they were feeling but simply have chosen not to articulate it explicitly in words (2004: xix). It seems to me that Isabella is genuinely struggling to make sense of her feelings, and that she feels a need to articulate them in writing, in her private journals. Whatever the ‘most intimate needs of [her] soul’ may have been, her diary entries speak eloquently to us across time, of loneliness, incomprehension, and of Isabella’s difficulty in expressing her emotions. Reading her diaries today, it is heartrending to hear of her struggle, of her joy at feeling love, but then to read how she strove to stifle that love herself:


Strano destino questo mio! Essere giunta finalmente ad amare ed essere riamata e dovere io stessa colle stessi mani, coscientemente contribuire alla distruzione del mio amore per il bene della persona amata! Finora per di più non ho amato seriamente […] ed ora che l’ho confessato a Tersilla e a me stessa, deve finire proprio così?[4]

[What a strange destiny is mine! To have finally managed to love and be loved in return and to be compelled myself, with my own hands, consciously to contribute to the destruction of my love for the good of the person I love! Until now I have never loved seriously […] and now that I have confessed to Tersilla and to myself, does it really have to end like this?]


This statement is rather enigmatic, as are many of her entries, but it seems to indicate that she had confessed her feelings to Tersilla but had then decided to prevent things from going any further, perhaps because Tersilla was married.

As Fiorenza Taricone has documented, Isabella was inspired by progressive Christian values, and strove for women’s social, cultural and spiritual elevation (Grassi 2000: 40-46). She read widely, including the Italian translation of Edward Carpenter’s Love’s Coming of Age (Grassi 2000: 40), which includes a sympathetic chapter on the ‘intermediate sex’, based on the German doctor Karl Heinrich Ulrich’s theory of ‘Urnings’ or ‘Uranians’—men or women who felt that their selves were in the wrongly sexed body, and who therefore felt attracted to people of the same sex. While Carpenter reinforces the maternal role as woman’s ultimate goal (Carpenter 1906: 54), he also cites a case studied by Krafft-Ebing of a woman who fell in love with a female friend; he discusses this sensitively and empathetically and comments that such passions are ‘intense’, may be ‘life-long’ and women who experience them may suffer severe depression if separated (1906: 125-26). However, it seems that despite access to potentially helpful literature, Isabella had difficulties making sense of her own feelings for women. Education and privilege alone did not guarantee that women would feel emboldened to act on their dissident desires, or would even have a vocabulary or conceptual framework through which to interpret their feelings, despite the relative increase in bio-medical publications, political debates on sexuality and literary representations of ‘Sapphic’ sexuality.

There is a happy ending to this story, although documentation to confirm the facts is scarce. Although it seems that Isabella never lived out her passion for Tersilla, Paola Guazzo writes that Isabella subsequently had ‘un duraturo legame’ [a lasting relationship] with Gabriella Spaletti Rasponi, President of the Consiglio Nazionale Donne Italiane (National Council of Italian Women; CNDI), until Spaletti Rasponi’s death in 1931 (2010: 116). I have not been able to find evidence of the kind of relationship this was and whether either woman would have identified as ‘lesbian’ in any way, but perhaps this special bond finally gave Isabella the love that she had been seeking in the past, but had not been able to experience fully.

N.B. I’ve not been able to find any images of Isabella. If anyone knows where I might find these, please let me know!


Carpenter, Edward (1906 [1896]). Love’s Coming of Age. A Series of Papers on the Relations of the Sexes. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co. Ltd.

Doan, Laura (2001). Fashioning Sapphism: the Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Grassi, Isabella (2000) Diari (1920-21). Associazione femminile e modernismo. Ed. Fiorenza Taricone. Genoa: Marietti.

Guazzo, Paola (2010). ‘Al “confine” della norma. R/esistenze lesbiche e fascismo’. In Paola Guazzo, Ines Rieder and Vincenza Scuderi (eds), R/Esistenze lesbiche nell’Europa nazifascista. Verona: Ombre Corte, 104-126.

Taricone, Fiorenza (1998). ‘La FILDIS (Federazione nazionale laureate e diplomate) e l’associazionismo femminile (1920-1935)’. In Marina Addis Saba (ed.), La corporazione delle donne. Ricerca sui modelli femminili nel ventennio. Florence: Vallecchi, 127-69.

Martha Vicinus (2004) Intimate Friends. Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Winning, Joanne (2006). ‘The Sapphist in the City. Lesbian Modernist Paris and Sapphic Modernity’. In Laura Doan and Jane Garrity (eds), Sapphic Modernities. Sexuality, Women and National Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 17-34.

[1] Unsent letter, 8 January 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 116.

[2] Diary entry, 8 March 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 136.

[3] Diary entry, 8 March 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 135.

[4] Diary entry, 14 February 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 127-28.


About Charlotte Ross

I'm a lecturer and researcher at the University of Birmingham, UK. My main interests are contemporary Italian culture, and gender and sexuality. My current project explores the representation of lesbian identities and desire between women in Italian novels and media, from 1870 to the present day.
This entry was posted in Female friendships, Feminism, Posts in English, Same-sex desire and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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