Aromantic history is a nebulous thing. History is made of milestones: notable, memorable achievements. However it is also a study of the past, of the series of events that have accumulated to make our future. Aromanticism is at the beginning of this journey. The current record of our events is rough, and compared to other queer communities, rather short. If you’d like to read through these events, you can check out the timeline here: original, archived. These milestones are a mix of personal community achievements, like flags and organizations, external recognition, like the Oxford English Dictionary adding the definition of aromantic, and the coining of amatonormativity. This history laid before us is a record of what we have done, what others have done for us, and things, like the recognition of amatonormativity, that are important to aromantics. This article is a discussion of our confirmed history, as well as history we can appreciate, and what history has affected us most of all.
It is often said that we are a young community, but it is not so often said just how young we are. How many years have we been established for? When people talk of community they mean a group of people that have banded together for a specific reason, and an identifier often tends to come hand in hand with that concept. While there is no doubt people who feel little to no romantic attraction or have non-normative relationships with romance have existed as long as people have existed, the term ‘aromantic’ is what brings us together. (Notice the use of ‘romantic’ and ‘normative’ in that statement. It’ll come up later.) The question of ‘how old is this community?’ can be answered, somewhat, by how old the term ‘aromantic’ is.
Emergence of a Name
Just as the asexual community - and specifically AVEN - was taking off, certain roots of the aromantic community were being formed. This fledgling understanding of us came about in the early 2000s, and one of the earliest uses of “aromantic” we have found so far was used in 2005 (original, archived). What’s interesting about this specific find is that it is used on a thread for an AVEN orientation poll, back when aromantics were likely known as “asexual-asexual”. Of the 1,793 people who checked off their orientation, 302 people checked this “asexual-asexual” label as their answer. The thread is full of asexual-asexuals describing themselves as feeling no attraction, feeling neither sexual or romantic attraction, or as being nothing but asexual. The first comment that uses the word ‘aromantic’, posted two years after the poll began, says: “Surely aromantic asexual would be a better way of describing it?” That question goes unanswered.
The discussion on that thread spans several years, and by 2006, three years after it was first posted, we begin to see a few more uses of the term “aromantic”. One comment has the author saying: “I consider myself to be an aromantic asexual, or an 'asexual-asexual'”, putting what was the understood term just three or less years ago in quotes, showing the change in the commonly used terms of the time. While we can see the clear evolution of the language, with the mutable nature of the Internet we can’t put a specific age on the term aromantic. Although if it were a person, with a life of its own, it would probably be a Gen Z. It would appear that it was around 2005 and 2006 that the term was coming into itself, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist earlier, hidden in some obscure forum or deleted website.
In fact, that’s exactly the case. The earliest usage found of the term so far was in 2002 (original, archived), at least a year before the above mentioned poll. Before AVEN, there was an online Yahoo group called Haven for the Human Amoeba (original, archived), and it is there that a user by the name of maxnova100 talks about how they can’t understand their friends throwing away what is important to them for romantic relationships. They speak of their aversion to romance, and how that doesn’t mean they don’t want to keep company, a narrative which to many aromantics may sound very familiar. They end their post with this sentence: “What would be an appropriate term for somebody who is not quite asexual but who dreads the concept of being in a “relationship?” Aromantic (LOL)?”
This is likely one of the first uses of our community label.
It isn’t until 2008/2009, on AVEN at least, that the term appeared more often. It seems that our recent community was born without a name and, with time, found one that resonated. But clearly the concept of our existence has long been known.
In 1979, in her book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, Dorothy Tennov spoke of limerent and non-limerent people. She, and other theorists, recognized that romantic and sexual love were not necessarily linked. Limerence is an outdated term for feeling romantic attraction and non-limerent people were those who had never felt romantic love. This term ‘non-limerent’ is a precursor to our ‘aromantic’. It is unclear whether this term was ever adopted as an identifier or if it remained solely as a descriptor. So here we likely have a name and no community.
This ever changing obscurity of our past is a fact of our history, and a frustrating obstacle. In the early 2000s we were arguably a community with no set name, with many individuals brought together, and discovering each other, through their asexual identity. The aromantic community has largely grown out of the asexual community, a connection that early on meant that aromanticism and asexuality were intrinsically linked. This has caused some issues for aromantics who have no connection with the asexual community, and there is still some ongoing community friction between aromantics and our sibling community. As well as this intra-community friction, the rise of exclusionism in 2016 (that unfortunately continues to this day), means many aromantics hide their identity and keep away from the community. Between carving our own community identity outside of the asexual community, and the hostility of exclusionism, finding space has always been difficult for us. Defined aromantic history is either extremely new, within the past decade or two, or impossible to find. However, despite the community itself being the new kid on the block, that does not mean that people similar to us have not existed throughout history.
Aromanticism in Older History?
During the Qing dynasty of South China, there was The Golden Orchid Society. For 300 years, beginning in the early 1640s, an order of women stood against marriage. The norm of the time, on paper, was a heterosexual union that was financially and socially beneficial. In reality, for women these unions were often restrictive, thrust upon them, and often resulted in abuse. The Golden Orchid Society stood in opposition to society's expectations of the time, welcoming with open arms any woman looking to avoid the normative life.
The Golden Orchid Society is no doubt an important group in queer history. Within the order, many women married other women, and while it was not fully accepted by society, it was not wholly frowned upon either. These marriages were deemed (relatively) acceptable, given the booming success of the silk industry. If your daughter had refused to marry a working man, then a working woman would have to do.
In addition, it was practice for married women in China to comb their hair a certain way to say they were not available. Within the Golden Orchid Society, the “self-combing women” existed. These women would wear their hair just as married woman would and a ceremony would be held to celebrate this choice. This practice was used by women who did not wish to marry, have romantic, or sexual partnerships. Whatever the reason behind the choices of these women, it is difficult not to see elements of our identity in their stories. No doubt at least some of them held similar feelings about romance and partnerships as many modern day aros, making these women a beautiful and brave part of our history.
The Golden Orchid Society is but one example of a movement that sheltered those who were uninterested in marriage or partnership. Most were made up of women, since historically women have had much less choice about marriage, with little benefits to being married, but there are also many historic men who have stayed single. There are several reasons for this choice of course, not least because they were gay. There are plenty that never showed interest in man or woman or anyone else. It is therefore not outside the realm of possibility that they were just uninterested in romance or partnership.
Looking at history through a queer lens can be a complicated task. There are many historic figures who can be claimed as gay, lesbian, or bi, but it is much harder to point to someone and say “they were aromantic”. The nature of aromanticism means it can often fly under the radar, as throughout history people have had various reasons to stay unmarried, and not every aromantic is opposed to partnership. In addition, attitudes towards romance and its place in society have changed throughout the years, sometimes drastically, and as such, it is almost impossible to ascribe a modern meaning of aromantic to historical figures. They likely did not see romance or partnership in the same way society does today, and it is through the modern lens of such concepts that the aromantic community as we know it has come into existence. Historic times are not ours, and our concepts may not translate back across the years. This is even true for other queer communities and identities, like gay, lesbian, bi, and et cetera. We simply can’t claim someone was queer for sure, because the word and the concept may not have existed in the same way at the time.
That isn't to say aromantics don't have their place in history. Any history claimed as queer history must also belong to us. To history, people who wished to remain unattached, for whatever reason, were often seen as queer by society, whether that means queer in a modern sense, or just ‘queer’ as in ‘strange’. For many there is no way to tell exactly why they remained unattached, and so feelings akin to aromanticism can not be ruled out.
In addition, aromantics today can have many and varied reasons for partnerships of numerous kinds. With such things as companionship, affection, children, and sex being common motivation today, it isn't unthinkable that some people may have come together without romance, especially in a time when marriage and romance weren't typically linked as they are today.
Later this month we will be releasing an article about the romantic friendships of the 19th and 20th centuries, most well known as Boston Marriages, and how they compare to our modern ideas of queerplatonic relationships. While this is undoubtedly a part of our history, this article will be focusing less specifically on people in general who remain unpartnered, and more specifically on women who remained unmarried. It is much less notable for men to not marry in this world, and far less of a statement. This means that, as mentioned earlier, many similar movements focused on women.
Speaking of similar movements, spinster is a term many are familiar with, although most are less familiar with its origin. The word conjures the horrid image of a woman, often older, and alone. By choice, she says, but really, who wants to be alone? There must be something wrong with her, people whisper. In truth, spinsters lived life with a freedom many women could not afford, quite literally. The term spinster comes from women who were given the job of spinning thread. This work meant they had their own salary, and that offered women financial freedom, meaning they could afford not to get married. Anthropologist and historian Hellesund Tone explains that men and women were seen as so significantly different in Victorian culture due to their genders that they could live entirely separate lives. Spinsters could live, work, and play in a world that men were excluded from.
In her study of the work and wages of single white women between 1870 and 1920, Claudia Goldin found that labor-intensive jobs with little promotion or reward were saved for unmarried women. Men were more likely to climb the ladder and married women that worked in different areas. Spinsters were not only surrounded by women, they were surrounded by other spinsters. These women were with like minded people.
Spinsters in medieval Flanders were of a similar breed. Communities of women began to emerge in the 1200s, built of small gated cities known as beguinages. These communes were for single women who wanted to live a religious life of their own making. Rather than living by the laws of the church, these women had one another for support and guidance. Within the beguinages were buildings such as bakeries, breweries, hospitals, and areas equipped for farming. A major appeal of the communes was, yet again, social and economic freedom.
A common theme in the history of nonpartnering is finance. In her book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz writes marriage wasn’t originally about a relationship between a man and a woman. Marriage was about making ideal relationships such as having desirable in-laws, strong alliances, and increasing that family labor force. Unions of the past may not have been so alienating to aromantics, not any more so that it would have been to alloromantics.
The first recorded evidence of one woman uniting, or marrying, with one man is from Mesopotamia, and dates from around 2350 B.C, meaning that marriage as an institution was established over four thousand years ago. The idea of romantic love, however, was introduced in the Middle Ages by troubadours, a kind of medieval poet or bard. Their songs and poems dealt mainly with themes of chivalry and courtly love, introducing a fascination with romance into society only about one thousand years ago. However, that fascination would not become the norm until very recent history. While the pressures to marry were just as significant throughout history, if not more so, there was much less obsession with romantic love, and it wasn’t seen as a core component of marriage. Our aromanticism is made notable by the current climate we live in, and if we seem to have vanished into the past, perhaps that is because we were once not so different from anyone else.
Our Future History
Today we are making history. By simply spreading the word of aromanticism we are opening people up to countless possibilities. Every month AUREA checks in with the community to see what is going on and every month an aro is up to something wonderful. We speak of doing away with amatonormativity, capitalism, assimilation and it is a daunting task. Fighting the queer fight means not only changing individual minds, but the structure of society. Our history is inescapably intertwined with romance and the pressures in place to find romance, pressures which leave much to be desired, whether we’re romance repulsed or not. It does give us some clear goals though. We’re history in the making, and now with an identity to fall behind, there’s nothing to do but march forward to the next milestone, and write the history for future generations of aromantics..