Book Shelf

Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present

Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present was first published in 1981 by William Morrow; was a New York Times Notable Book of 1981; won the Stonewall Book Award in 1982; was named by Lambda Literary Review as One of the 100 Best Lesbian/Gay Books of the 20th Century; and is considered a great feminist classic. Drawing on intensive research in literature, history, and a variety of records, from private correspondence to pornography, Lillian Faderman argues that passionate love between women is a historic fact (regardless of whether the love was genital, erotic, sensual, or platonic), and that lesbianism was “once universally condoned in the Western world... and now condemned,” as Faderman states in her introduction to a 1998 edition of the book.

Surpassing travels through five centuries and weaves hundreds of literary and historical details into a compelling larger vision. As Faderman  states in the 1998 introduction, her hope is that “in some modest way, by offering a usable past, this book has served and will continue to serve as solace and ammunition—that it will help justify one’s right to be when one is living as a lesbian in an environment that is not yet entirely friendly.”

The book’s first part, which covers the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, is divided into two sections: A. Lesbianism in a Phallocentric Universe; and B. The Enshrinement of Romantic Friendship. In this male-dominated world, women were practically invisible and, as long as they appeared to conform to society’s strictures, they could conduct lovely, intense, even erotic romantic friendships with women as freely and openly as they wished. Men and women spent most of their lives in completely separate spheres. However, if women dressed as men, married women, and tried to step outside their restricted roles as women, they could be severely punished and even put to death, especially if they were poor and lacking connections to those with status and power. Particular attention is given to the Ladies of Llangollen (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby), two upperclass Irish women who shared a romantic friendship for 53 years. The popular poet Anna Seward memorialized the Ladies in her poems, as well as the woman she loved. 

The book’s second part, which covers the nineteenth century, is divided into two parts: A. Loving Friends; and B. The Reaction. As women became more restless and dissatisfied with the restrictions placed on them by men, they began to participate more fully in the world and society. The mistresses of a girls’ boarding school, Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie, were accused of a sexual relationship but exonerated in court because it was believed they must be, like all women, asexual. Women turned to each other for courage and support, and lived together in so-called “Boston marriages,” Feminism began to grow in part through the work and lives of such women. The works of Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Michael Field are discussed in terms of romantic friendships between women. But society’s backlash against this nascent feminism was swift and merciless. Lesbians were demonized by the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis as sick, crazy, and evil, and feminists were demonized as lesbians. The influential French writers Balzac, Gautier, Baudelaire, and Belot are discussed as purveyors of images of lesbians as exotic, decadent, sexual creatures. Lesbians internalized the sexologists’ lies and the writers’ fictions, and the sweet innocence of romantic friendships began to die, replaced by self-hatred and morbidity, as expressed in the writings of lesbians such as Radclyffe Hall, Renée Vivien, and Djuna Barnes.

The book’s third and final part, which covers the twentieth century, is divided into two sections: A. Sophistication; and B. When It Changed. As false knowledge about sexuality and lesbianism spread, it grew into a devastating weapon against women and feminism. All relationships between women appeared sexual in the public’s eye, the lesbian was criminalized, and lesbians entered a precarious, dangerous, and difficult era of witch-hunts, despair, and alienation. But some strong lesbian writers and activists kept the faith, and as their literature and deeds seeped out into society, lesbians gained courage, developed a liberation movement, and began to reverse the negative image that had become so deeply rooted. Particular attention is paid to the lesbian writers Amy Lowell and Gertrude Stein, both in Boston marriages, and both writing about their lesbianism in code.