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Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women

Sapphistries tells the stories of women (and female-bodied individuals who might not have identified as women) who have desired, loved, and had sex with women from the beginning of time to the present and all around the globe. Leila Rupp draws on an extensive body of literature to fashion a sweeping and readable synthesis, utilizing works of literature to imagine what might have been when the historical sources are silent. She chose the made-up word “sapphistries” to describe the histories and stories of women, not women themselves, as a way of acknowledging that not all women who have loved women in the past, or who love women in different cultures in the present, can be accurately described by the term “lesbian.”

Moving through the millennia and centuries in a more or less chronological fashion, Sapphistries begins with mythical prehistories of woman-only societies, theories of the origins of human societies, and creation stories and myths from diverse cultural contexts that engage with the possibilities of female same-sex love. What emerges is a question: why should we assume that sex between women did not exist in the beginning?

Turning to societies that have left us historical evidence, including Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Inca, Aztec and Greek and Roman civilizations, we first encounter Sappho of Lesbos, who bequeathed her name and country of origin to so many of the terms for woman-loving women. What we find is that societies that valued rather than feared sexuality seem to have been more open to desire and love between women. Yet all the ancient societies valued men over women. Sometimes, because women were less important than men, what they did with one another was of no interest or consequence. Sometimes it seems to have been titillating. What was threatening was masculinity and independence on the part of women who loved women.

The great world religions had something to say about female same-sex sexuality. Religious institutions—especially Christian ones—that sought to proscribe love between women in fact facilitated it and provided forms of expression for passionate homoeroticism in sex-segregated spaces such as monasteries. Love between women was not unknown in other woman-only places, and in some societies it was deemed harmless or even desirable for women who lived in polygynous households, as it made for more harmonious relations between co-wives. In the eyes of the male authorities, female same-sex sexuality was at times inconsequential, at times unimaginable, at times threatening.

In some societies, same-sex sexuality existed in plain sight. This was the case in Native American, Indian, and Balkan societies where institutionalized cross-gender or third-gender phenomena allowed female-bodied individuals to present themselves as “social males.” In some African societies, “female husbands” married women and raised children. In other societies, including early modern Europe, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, some women secretly crossed the gender line and married and had sex with women. Societies with a rigid notion of a gender binary—male or female, confused only by the case of the intersexed—rarely made a place for gender crossing or a third or fourth gender, forcing women who, for whatever reason, sought to leave their gender behind with no choice but to do it secretly.

At the same time that some women were changing gender, others were beginning to find those with similar same-sex desires. These included urban groups of women, women in brothels and prisons, aristocratic European women, marriage resisters in China, and romantic friends in Europe and the United States. Women of lower social classes had access to spaces beyond the domestic realm, and women of the middle and upper classes might meet in schools or households. What was new was the beginning of a sense of a community of women with common interests, as well as public awareness of more than a single couple engaging in sexual activity.

In this context we see the emergence of the concept of the lesbian, its spread from the European sexologists to China and Japan, and the complicated responses of women around the world who sometimes acknowledged and sometimes rejected and sometimes ignored a potential new identity. The naming of the “lesbian” was both momentous and not. It was not momentous because, in some ways, the term simply replaced older names for women who made love to one another. It was not momentous because the new ways of viewing women who loved women did not reach everywhere, and not all women exposed to the label claimed or even reacted to the concepts. On the other hand, it was momentous because the “lesbian,” in all her cultural and linguistic variations, had a wider global reach. It was momentous because it gave the concept of lesbianism a Western origin, leading to contemporary denunciations of lesbianism as a Western perversion.

It was also momentous because the concept of the lesbian underlay the development of different kinds of communities of women who desired women. These included schoolgirls, feminists, attendees at the influential Paris salon of Natalie Barney, women in the lesbian commercial establishments that emerged in New York, Paris, and Berlin in the 1920s and in other less urban places in the 1950s, and readers of lesbian publications and members of lesbian organizations from the 1920s on. What these new public worlds made visible was the potential of women’s independence from male control, long feared and increasingly a reality.

Coming up to the present, we find a wide range of ways that women in the contemporary world have continued to love women, from finding one another in sex-segregated spaces to falling in love with co-wives to marrying one another legally to crossing the gender line to embracing masculine-feminine pairings to falling in love with their friends. In all of these spaces, indigenous practices and understandings merge in a variety of ways with globalized concepts of what it means to be “gay” or “lesbian” or “bisexual” or “transgender.”

What this sprawling history tells us is that, despite the multitude of ways that women have found to act on their desires, basic conceptions of women who love women have persisted throughout time and place: that they are masculine, that their bodies mark them as different from other women, that they are wanton, that they are deprived of access to men, that they hate men. We also see two dominant patterns in women’s relationships: those that are gender-differentiated—masculine/feminine pairings—and those that are based in eroticized friendship. The strength of this latter pattern contrasts with the emphasis in the history of male same-sex sexuality on eroticization of difference alone, at least until modern times. Finally, what we see across time and place undermines a Western-dominated narrative of progress. A global view makes clear that both private and public spaces are important for love between women, that erotic love between women has sometimes fit nicely into all sorts of heterosexual societal arrangements, and that the emergence of an identity based on sexual object choice is a minor part of the story that is Sapphistries.