I was going to write about some essential Stonewall reading, but then I realized that next month is the 45th Stonewall anniversary, so better to wait until then. Instead, I'm going to use the month of Mother's Day to talk about a book specifically on women. I recognize that many of my reviews have been male-centric, and that certainly reflects a historiography that is heavy on gay men's experiences and often employs the add-lesbians-and-stir method when it does address the lesbian experience (something I really want to avoid in my dissertation). That is not a swipe at all LGBT historians, several of whom have written masterful histories of both gay men and lesbians, and certainly gay male histories are important as well. But some of the best work on lesbian history, you shouldn't be surprised to find out, comes from lesbian historians.
When talking about lesbian history, we have to acknowledge the groundbreaking work of lesbian scholar Lillian Faderman, who authored such foundational books as Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women From the Renaissance to the Present (1981) and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (1991), in addition to To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America--A History (2000). All of these are absolute must-reads, especially for those concerned primarily with the American lesbian experience (although Surpassing does deal with Western Europe). The book I want to talk about today has a much more global context, and it remains not only my favorite book on lesbian history, but one of my favorite books period: Leila J. Rupp's Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women (2009). Even the cover is brilliant.
Sapphistries, Rupp herself notes in her preface, is "insanely ambitious," as you may have noticed from the subtitle "A Global History of Love Between Women." This is a book that traverses millennia, starting in 40,000 BCE and weaving in and out of an alarming number of cultures all over the globe, all the way through the twentieth century. In other words, it's freaking nuts! That was my first thought as I picked up this book that purports to be a "global history" of a little over 200 pages. No way, I thought.
For one thing, there is the problem of evidence. I am not trained in ancient history, but I have dabbled, and I know the sources are scant. And Rupp is dealing with ancient sources on women, which are comparatively non-existent. But she has a creative way to deal with this hole in the historical record, and it works for her purposes. Throughout the book and especially in the evidence-light ancient sections, she has a fondness for using literary texts that hint at love and sex between women, along with other sources that may not be considered by some to be "historical sources." And most of these may be written by men--oftentimes as fantasy--but their prevalence certainly points to the existence of female-female same-sex sexuality in these cultures. Rupp explains:
Although most of my sources are conventional historical ones, I am also taking liberties by using some literary texts not as historical sources but as ways to help us imagine answers to questions that cannot be addressed with existing evidence. These are texts that reflect their own time and place while portraying another. So, for example, I use Erica Jong's Sappho's Leap: A Novel, which reflects contemporary thinking about the fluidity of sexual identities, to engage with the historical Sappho's sexuality; a short story by Sara Maitland, "The Burning Times," to think about the possibilities of witchcraft accusations and love between women; and, in the riskiest historical move of all, Jackie Kay's Trumpet, a novel about a contemporary British biracial transgendered musician, to imagine what the wives of women who secretly crossed the gender line through past centuries might have thought.Just as covering such a wide swath of time and space must have been daunting for Rupp, simply reviewing such a book is also daunting. Because there is absolutely no way to do this book justice by delving into a couple of the individual cultures Rupp covers--from China to Thailand to Albania to Kenya to India to the United States, and it just goes on and on--and because this is a book that you just need to read, I'm going to try to stick to the general themes and major ideas put forward by the book.
Starting with the title itself: Sapphistries. Rupp's title choice tells us important things about how she is choosing to approach the topic of love between women on a global scale. Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of the word "sapphistries"; it's a made-up word. You might, however, have heard of Sappho, the poet of Lesbos who has been associated since the sixth century BCE with love and sex between women. Because "Sapphic" has a much longer history than the word "lesbian," Rupp uses the word "sapphistries" as an umbrella term "to embrace all the diverse manifestations of women and 'social males' with women's bodies who desired, loved, made love to, formed relationships with, and married other women." In this way, she breaks away from other scholars who prefer assigning the term "lesbian" to any female-female same-sex relationship, even if the participants in said relationship did not or could not have identified as lesbian. Notice that "sapphistries" describes the diverse experiences of these women rather than labeling the women themselves. Calling all female lovers of women throughout time and space "lesbian," Rupp argues in social constructionist fashion, poses the danger of blurring the distinctions between these vastly different cultures:
I understand the appeal both of boldly claiming visibility where it barely exists by embracing the term lesbian and of keeping the association while recognizing the differences between contemporary lesbians and..."lesbian-like" women of the past. But I have chosen a different path. Too broad use of the term lesbian, I think, downplays the differences among women, especially when the concept and identity of lesbian is available and women choose not to embrace it, as occurs in many parts of the world today where a transnationally available lesbian identity is known but women who desire women have different ways to think about themselves. So I choose to use a term that does not apply to women themselves but to their histories and stories. And...I am not willing to consider women who sought independence from men and women who sought the privileges of men, if they did not also give some hint of desire or love for women, as part of sapphistries.This is not to say that similarities--strong similarities--don't exist from culture to culture, nor is it to downplay the centrality and vitality of lesbian identity in Western LGBT history. But Rupp is right, I think, to shy away from the word "lesbian" in favor of showcasing the cultural differences that highlight the varied ways in which (particularly non-Western) women who love women have negotiated their own cultures and defined themselves. Rupp points out another difficulty with writing about such different cultures:
But of course the difficult question is, what counts as desire, love, and sex? Are expressions that sound to our modern ears like desire actually that? Can we tell erotic love from nonerotic friendship? Is genital activity necessary to a sexual act? Is genital activity always a sexual act? Having read about the caressing of breasts between two African American women in the mid-nineteenth century and European and U.S. romantic friends kissing and hugging and lying with heads in laps, my students in one class, having been asked what counts as sex, though they knew where to draw the line: what they called "tongue action" in kissing and "below the waist action" in caressing counts as sex; anything else does not. But such a definition, though clearly making sense to twenty-first-century U.S. college students, cannot stand up to the girls and women in Lesotho who French kiss, rub one another's labias to stretch and beautify them, and even engage in cunnilingus but who insist that it is not sexual because there is no penis. Nor can it stand up to !Kung San girls, who likewise engage in sexual play but are not sure what it means, asking, "Can two vaginas screw?" So what looks very much like sexual activity to us may not be understood that way, and what may not seem to cross whatever line we imagine divides foreplay from sex may in fact very much count as sex to the women involved. And all the same uncertainty applies to what counts as desire and what counts as erotic love.Sorting out all of the differences and deciding which terms to use and how to categorize all of these diverse experiences is not a task I envy, but Rupp does as good a job as possible in Sapphistries. The book is valuable both as a source of almost almanac-like information about how women have loved women in cultures many of us have not considered and as a jumping-off point for future scholarship with its larger questions about female same-sex sexuality around the world. The book is most successful, I think, in steering the conversation away from the familiar Western "progress" narrative and giving voices to the women-loving women who have carved out spaces for themselves in their cultures without what we think of as a lesbian identity. That is both unfamiliar and important if we are to situate our Western LGBT history within a global context. Even familiar terrain, such as the role of sexology in the rise of Western homosexual identity, is given a fresh global analysis, as the varied impact of sexology is traced to unfamiliar places.
Like I said, none of this is to say that there are no connections between different cultures; such a conclusion would be foolish. And, in fact, Rupp does a wonderful job of not only highlighting the differences, but also drawing out some of those similarities and connections. Some of these similarities are found in the way societies have identified and treated women who love women:
The ways that love between women has been understood, I suggest, include the following: that a woman who desires other women is masculine, that her body marks her as different from other women, that she is wanton, that she is deprived of access to men, and that she hates men. These understandings emerge in different conceptions across history and cultures, as we shall see in encountering manly women, female husbands, butches, and Thai toms, all embodying masculinity; hermaphrodites and women with enlarged clitorises, whose bodies mark them; wanton women, including those from Lesbos, witches, prostitutes, and aristocratic tribades; secluded women, nuns, and schoolgirls, all presumably deprived of men; and man haters such as Amazons and lesbian feminists. At some points in time, in some places, one or another conception holds sway. That is why we can make transhistorical comparisons without assuming some essentialist "lesbian" that can be found everywhere.Rupp shows that women who love women can be found anywhere in the world throughout time, and her synthetic approach offers excellent information for a broad audience, as well as big questions and avenues for future research for scholars. I focused on the big picture here, but the information Sapphistries provides is so rich and fascinating that you won't be able to put the book down. Whether or not you agree with her model for studying women who love women, this is a book to check out.
Other LGBT History Books Covered by LGBT Literature:
Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda Hirshman
Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants by Phil Tiemeyer
Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. by Jonathan Ned Katz
Carryin' On in the Lesbian and Gay South by John Howard (editor)
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