Beginnings: Attempting a Lesbian History Project


Greek vase depicting Sappho[1]

By David J. Hutson. Copyright (c) by David J. Hutson, 2008. All rights reserved.

Undertaking a project on “lesbian” history (or even lesbian herstory) is no easy task. Especially difficult to pinpoint remains where lesbian history even begins.

Should we include the poems of Sappho and her followers? Or perhaps the story of Queen Christina, the Swedish ruler who loved hunting and sports, and who refused to marry? Was Joan of Arc a lesbian? What about the schoolgirl crushes experienced and written about by countless young women in the Victorian era.[2] Were they lesbians?

As evidenced, finding a workable starting point presents definite problems. However, for our purposes, we feel strongly that to look backwards in history and see “lesbians” causes a host of other difficulties as well.

For example, how do we know if Sappho thought of herself as a lesbian, in the way that many women might think of themselves as lesbians today? We know that love, romance, and yes, even sex between women occurred in the past, but did those women think of themselves as particular types of people, as Lesbians, because of that behavior? We don’t know for certain.

What we do know is that the categories of sexual identity did not appear until around 1869 in Europe.[3] So that even if people were having same-sex desire and sex, they did not have a way to understand their sexual desires as identities until sexologists like Richard Von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis began publishing in the late 19th century.

For people in our lifetimes, who grew up taking the notion of a sexual identity for granted, it is often hard to imagine a time when these identities did not exist. However, we feel it is necessary to maintain historical integrity and not impose labels on women in the past – especially if those labels simply don’t apply.

Therefore, we have chosen a much more modest time period for our research, one that we feel quite comfortable using the term “Lesbian” within, and one that we feel has directly shaped and influenced our contemporary Lesbian cultures.

The various “lesbian worlds” that exist today trace their roots back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the category of “Lesbian” as an identity was first emerging, and when a vibrant lesbian culture was developing. Of course, nothing exists without a precedent, and the 20th century did not appear on the historical scene without warning. This first section, then, deals with social contexts and historical events that led up to and shaped the 20th century for women who identified as lesbians – or who at least considered themselves lovers and companions of women.


Cotton mill workers in Indianapolis[7]

Social Influences on Lesbian Identity: Industry, Family, and Sexology

Some important changes were taking place in America during the 17th and 18th centuries, specifically around the economy and the basic family structure. As technologies developed and capitalism took hold, industrialization became the dominant mode of producing goods in America. As industries expanded and grew, they required workers to operate, manage, and maintain the machines in factories. Promising people a steady wage and weekly pay for their labor, industrial capitalism pulled young people out of their traditional rural settings and into the developing world of the urban city. John D’Emilio, a prominent historian of gay and lesbian culture, explains how economic changes influenced sexual identities:

I want to argue that gay men and lesbians have not always existed. Instead, they are a product of history and have come into existence in a specific historical era. Their emergence is associated with the relations of capitalism; it has been the historical development of capitalism - more specifically, its free labor system – that has allowed large numbers of men and women in the twentieth century to call themselves gay.[4]

Therefore, three major events that affected gay and lesbian identity were changes in the family, the emergence of the single person, and the rise of sexology.

Changes in the Family

As single men and women, as well as families, moved to the burgeoning cities to find factory work, they left behind the agricultural-based economy of rural America. On family farms, men, women, and children worked side by side to grow, harvest, produce, and manufacture almost every good or food item that would be used in the household. As D’Emilio points out, “…the family was truly an independent unit of production.”[5] However, as families made their homes in the cities, men and women increasingly found themselves separated into two distinct worlds of the private (female/home) and the public (male/work). This shift altered the meaning of “the family” from one of production to one of privacy and affection, a place where men could escape the public world of work and find emotional satisfaction, love, intimacy, and sex.[6] For the first time in American culture, people began thinking of a “personal life,” one where happiness was tied to intimacy and sexuality. For individuals with same-sex desire, this meant that they might similarly find fulfillment or satisfaction through their erotic choices.

The Emergence of the Single Person

Also, the availability of work allowed many young people to live independently of a family unit, something only possible because of the accessibility of clothing, food, and domestic products in the city. In other words, people could live alone, away from their families and expectations, in a large city with many possibilities to meet other people. In fact, establishments specifically catering to single people emerged, places where they could gather, mingle and interact.


Kathy Peiss notes how the phenomenon of the “working single person” - who had disposable income to spend - influenced the development of amusement parks, boardwalks, and leisure activities: “Most of these women were single wage earners who toiled in the city’s factories, shops, and department stores, while devoting their evenings to the lively entertainment of the streets, public dance halls, and other popular amusements."[8] Capitalism had ushered in a new era of freedom, freedom from family and freedom to work for a wage. Because of these changes, historians believe that some individuals began to seek out a personal life of happiness and satisfaction based around same-sex desire, which eventually led them to identify as gay and lesbian people.


Mary Read and Anne Bonney, 18th century pirates and possible lovers.[12]

The Rise of Sexology

However, along with capitalism, industrialization, and urbanization, the development of sexology – the scientific study of sex – in the late 19th century also significantly influenced lesbian and gay identity. Specifically, sexologists like Havelock Ellis categorized people based on sexual behavior, and attributed identities to them based on that behavior. For example, if a person experienced sexual desire for a woman, sexology labeled them tribades (or lesbians) and located that desire as a part of them, as something internal and most likely inborn. Lisa Duggan elaborates on the development of “the lesbian” within sexology: “…it contributed to the emergence of a new type – a woman whose sexual deviance was marked primarily by feelings that distinguished her from the prostitute, criminal, primitive, or degraded female. Her difference was not sited in her sexual actions…but in her being, located in both body and psyche from which the telltale feelings arose."[9] Using these classificatory schemas, sexologists published in medical journals and disseminated information about these new sexual beings, these gender “inverts” who appeared to have the souls and desires of men but the bodies of women.[10]

Also, alongside the medical accounts of lesbianism, popular presses published stories about “sexual inversion” and narratives of “lesbian love triangles,” effectively educating the public about homosexuality (Duggan 2000). Although much of what was written involved explaining the dangers and perversity of homosexuality, the discussions about it actually had a generative effect: it allowed people who had same-sex desire to see themselves as distinct types of people. D’Emilio and Freedman comment: “Some men and women began to interpret their homosexual desires as a characteristic that distinguished them from the majority."[11] Therefore, sexologists helped push sexual identity to the forefront of popular thought, while at the same time keeping it within an arena of pathology and disease. Regardless, sexological writings from this time, such as Kraaft-Ebbing’s influential Psychopathia Sexualis, clearly produced the notion that people could and did have sexual identities. But just who were the women most likely to be labeled “lesbians” by sexology and psychiatry? In the following section, we consider various antecedents to the modern lesbian, women who embodied the characteristics and behaviors that sexology sought to classify.

Forms of Female Desire in the 18th and 19th Centuries

As stated previously, the women discussed in this section most likely did not think of themselves as “lesbians,” due to the fact that the category did not exist until the late 1880’s. However, Martha Vicinus gives us a way to think about how these earlier women might be connected to more contemporary understandings of lesbianism, and also why they are important. She writes: “Virtually every historian of sexuality has argued that the present-day sexual identity of both homosexuals and heterosexuals is socially constructed and historically specific."[13] However, she also recognizes that same-sex eroticism has appeared countless times in the past. Therefore, to talk about a lesbian history, we need to “look for connections embedded in differences and contradictions,” and to document the historical “scripts” of the modern Western lesbian.[14] Her work, and the work of others, attempts to outline the various forms of female same-sex desire in order to draw connections to the present. Therefore, Vicinus finds four dominant expressions of lesbian desire previous to the 20th century: transvestites, androgynous women, occasional lovers of women, and romantic friendships. One important facet that many theorists note remains the marked class and racial make-up of the women during this time period. Social class seems to widely separate the passing and androgynous women from those who participated in romantic friendships: almost all of the passing women were from the lower socioeconomic strata, while almost all of the romantic friendships came from the middle to upper classes. Similarly, all of the women discussed here are white women. The sources available to historians drastically favor white experiences and white perspectives. Although information regarding women of color who passed or maintained romantic friendships is scant, especially before the 20th century, we do know that a thriving black lesbian subculture existed in Harlem by the 1920s (See our section on Between the Wars). Therefore, future research might attempt to document intimate relationships between women of color in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Transvesities, Androgynous Women, and Passing Women

Some of the most well-documented phenomenona regarding lesbian desire in history remain the women who passed as men and the women who wore traditional male attire. Examples of women who “passed” in society are abundant, although their reasons for doing so appear varied. Some cross-dressed for material benefits or jobs: “The courageous women who could pass not only earned more money for the same work; they could also open bank accounts, write checks, own houses and property, and vote in local and national elections."[15] On other occasions, these women passed as men to fight in wars. Jonathan Katz relates the story of Deborah Sampson (a.k.a Herman Mann) who “enlisted in the Continental forces under the name of Robert Shurtleff…fought in several battles, and was wounded in one near Tarrytown."[16] Vicinus notes that many times these war heroines were discovered to be biological women, yet remained admired when they went back to traditional roles as wives and mothers.[17] In other situations, these passing women did not give up their masculine personas, and sometimes married other women.[18] These examples of passing women, many theorists believe, represent early articulations of lesbian identity and desire, emerging even as laws changed to contain them as gender deviants: “Public attitudes towards passing women also changed in the early 20th century, imposing stricter penalties on cross-dressing. In addition to the older legal sanctions against passing women, new medical and psychiatric theories labeled these women as ‘sexual deviants’."[19] Regardless of the difficulties faced by passing women, many still participated in cross-dressing and living lives as men, or at least adopting masculine styles. In this way, we might say that passing women were early forerunners of the modern “butch” identity, which became visible in the 1920s.[20]

Romantic Friendships, Crushes, and Occasional Lovers of Women

For many years, the intensely passionate friendships between women in the Victorian era went unexplored as a form of female same-sex desire. However, many exchanges among women in romantic friendships reveal that passion, love, intimacy, and quite likely sex did occur in these relationships. According to Carol Smith-Rosenberg, romantic friendships ranged from: “the supportive love of sisters, through the enthusiasms of adolescent girls, to sensual avowals of love by mature women."[21] Often, women in romantic friendships would write ardent love letters to each other, expressing their devotion and admiration for one another. Smith-Rosenberg illustrates this when writing: “The emotional intensity and pathos of their love becomes apparent in several letters Molly wrote Helena during their crisis: ‘I wanted so to put my arms around my girl of all the girls in the world and tell her…I love her as wives do love their husbands, as friends who have taken care of each other for life…"[22] A similar phenomenon took place among school-aged girls in a behavior termed “smashing.” This describes the sending of flowers, gifts, notes, and other items to a girl one wanted to become intense friends with. Often, poems and locks of hair were exchanged, and when the two girls finally became inseparable, they were said to be smashed.[23] Another expression of female same-sex desire included what Vicinus calls, the “occasional lover of women.” These “free women” chose a highly varied sexuality, one that vacillated between women and men. Regularly, their appearance might signal an erotic interest in women, while at other times they might take on male lovers when playing the role of mistress, courtesan, or prostitute. However, they were also the first to be seen as a social problem by the vice and moral reformers, because of their gender deviance and their possible influence on male political leaders.[24] Taken together, these examples encompass a wide range of female same-sex desires, and should be seen less as distinct types of women, but rather as embodying general themes from the 19th century. We cannot possibly detail or know all the articulations of same-sex desire among women, but we can point to patterns and cultural scripts visible during this time. These women formed loving and passionate relationships with other women during a period when their behavior was increasingly becoming pathologized. In a very real way, they are images of early lesbian desire, as well as highly courageous and often unrecognized women.

Conclusion & Invitation

This section has outlined some of the problems in writing a lesbian history, the social and historical events that allowed for a lesbian identity, as well as illustrating the various forms of female same-sex desire previous to the 20th century. We make no claims that this is an exhaustive accounting of lesbian history, as such a project may be impossible to accomplish. However, we feel confident that our careful undertaking of lesbianism in the 20th century makes an effort to be simultaneously inclusive and critical. We understand the perils and pitfalls of such an endeavor, yet these stories need to be re-told. Given the alarming number of books on lesbian culture now out of print, we believe a website detailing historical “lesbian worlds” remains important in it’s own right. Therefore, we invite you to explore these pages as a journey through the 20th century, and to experience a history often untold.


  1. Image source:
  2. John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters:A History of Sexuality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 126.
  3. Jeffrey Weeks, "Movements of Affirmation: Sexual Meanings and Homosexual Identities." pp. 70-86 in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds. Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989)p. 70.
  4. John D'Emilio "Capitalism and Gay Identity" pp. 100 - 113 in A. Snitow, C. Stansell, and S. Thompson, eds. Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), p.102.
  5. D'Emilio, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," p.103.
  6. D'Emilio, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," p.104.
  7. Image source:
  8. Kathy Peiss,"Charity Girls" and City Pleasures: Historical Notes on Working-Class Sexuality, 1883-1920." pp. 57-69 in K. Peiss and C.Simmons, eds. Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, (PA: Temple University Press, 1989) p.58.
  9. Lisa Duggan,Sapphic Slashers, (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000) p.169.
  10. George Chauncey Jr., "From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality" The Changing Medical Conceptualization of Female "Deviance"." pp. 87-117 in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds. Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989) p.91.
  11. D'Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, p.227.
  13. Martha Vicinus, ""They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong": The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity"" pp. 432-452 in H. Abelove, M. A. Barale, and D. M. Halperin, eds. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, (New York: Routledge, 1993) p.433.
  14. Vicinus, ""They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong": The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity"", p.434.
  15. Martin Duberman, ""She Even Chewed Tobacco": A Pictorial Narrative of Passing Women in America." pp. 183-194 in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past,M. B. Duberman, M. Vicinus, and G. Chauncey, eds. (New York: New American Library, 1989) p. 185
  16. Jonathan Ned Katz, "Passing Women, 1782 - 1920" pp. 209-238 in Gay American History (New York: Crowell, 1976) p.212.
  17. Vicinus, ""They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong": The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity"" p.437.
  18. Katz, "Passing Women, 1782 - 192o" p.225.
  19. Duberman, ""She Even Chewed Tobacco": A Pictorial Narrative of Passing Women in America" p.192.
  20. Vicinus,""They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong": The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity"" p.440.
  21. Carol Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America" Signs 1(1): pp.1-29 (1975)p. 2.
  22. Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America" p. 7.
  23. D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America p.126
  24. Vicinus, ""They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong": The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity" p.438.