Since 1732, the terms “lesbian” and “lesbianism” have slowly made their way into common English usage as terms describing sexual orientation — as opposed to earlier references to residents of the island of Lesbos. Appearing in the 1870 Oxford English Dictionary, “lesbianism” for the first time referred exclusively to women who were sexually, physically or emotionally attracted to other women.
Sappho, as depicted in a 2nd century Roman bust.
Reaching back into the furthest depths of recorded history, academics and researchers are well aware of at least some historic women who publicly loved other women in ways many modern people would call “lesbian.” The historical record, however, is sparse when it comes to detailed information on woman-to-woman love.
Sappho — from whom English speakers coined the pre-“lesbian” terms “Sapphist” and “Sapphism” — lived on the island of Lesbos in Ancient Greece from about 625 to 570 BCE, and is perhaps one of the most historically documented “lesbians.” Her poetry extolled her love and sexual attraction for other women.
According to some modern scholarship, there is even evidence that some of the pederastic relationships between Greek men and adolescent boys were mirrored in similar relationships between older and younger women. Sappho, perhaps, had many relationships with her students, similar to those experienced by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as well as the various relationships of Alexander the Great.
In ancient Judea, home to the land of the Hebrews and their great religion (from which spring two of the other great world religions), women and their sexual activities were often ignored in civil and religious law. A patriarchal society, Judea left female activities to the females, hardly ever intervening in whatever relationships women might have had together.
The Hebrew scriptures, known to many as the Christian Old Testament, have been translated and interpreted as prohibiting male homosexuality, but no such prohibition ever existed for female homosexuality.
The Talmud, a record of various discussions on Jewish law, customs and history, records that one rabbi once decided that “women who practice lewdness with one another are disqualified from marrying a priest.” Later in the same writings, that decision is rejected by Rabbi Eleazar who deemed lesbianism “mere lewdness.”
But history remains pretty thin when it comes to lesbians. According to writer Rictor Norton, in his article “The Nature of Lesbian History,” “lesbian history is usually presented as an appendage to gay history” and that “references to lesbianism throughout history are so sparse that is is difficult to incorporate them into any large overview of queer history without them being overwhelmed by references to gay men’s history.”
A cover from one the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ newsletters.
Norton further adds that “almost every theory about homosexuality is essentially a theory about male homosexuals.” None of this is surprising, really. Patriarchy has its victims. Lesbian history appears to simply be one of them.
Take a look at any number of LGBT history websites and other projects and you’ll find that much, if not most, of the material available deals almost exclusively with gay men — or at least, men who have sex with men. Even in timelines purporting to give broad overviews of gay history, one will find material dealing mostly with men.
Norton states that the problem with lesbian history is “not so much how to interpret the evidence, as finding the evidence to begin with.” Citing historian John Boswell’s 1994 book, “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe,” Norton argues that history has, until recent times, been “invariably chronicled by men” while “women feature in historical sources ‘either as property or as objects of sexual desire’ of men.”
In recent decades, lesbians have striven to reverse the historical trends of ignoring their “herstory.” Since the early 1970s, the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City have worked to preserve and disseminate lesbian history.
Their collections, housed in Boston since 1993, include more than 11,000 books by or about lesbians, dating from the 19th century, as well as scores of volumes of magazines, journals, news clippings, photos, diaries and other memorabilia. Their website includes a virtual tour, summaries of current exhibits and information on how to access their physical archives.
The Lesbian Herstory Archives houses thousands of books, magazines and other memorabilia detailing lesbian history.
Current exhibits include a collection focusing on representations of lesbian pulp literature from 1939 to 1965, a biographical exhibit featuring lesbian poet Audre Lorde and a donated exhibit on the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization.
While classical history might well have ignored women in general, the wave of feminism in the mid-1960s and continuing into the 21st century has begun to change how we look at our collective histories. Modern scholarship is changing what we thought we knew about women’s history, through new research on the significant contributions of women and lesbians.
More than ever, lesbians across the globe are coming out and taking public roles in their societies. History can no longer ignore their achievements and contributions. From Rosie O’Donnell to Metropolitan Community Church’s Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson, lesbians are making and leaving their indelible marks on society. “Herstory” might have been sparse in the past, but this generation of young lesbians will have their accomplishments preserved because of the obstacles overcome by their foremothers.