‘Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women’ Tries to Tell It All, Literally

[10 May 2011]

By Christel Loar

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

In Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women author Leila J. Rupp attempts to describe and discuss, chronologically, the entire history of female same-sex attraction and love. It’s a daunting endeavor to undertake, particularly in one volume, and as such, it comes across as very broad.  There’s simply too much to tell for her to be able to touch on everything, let alone dissect in detail the myriad historical and cultural examples of love between women.

Rupp, a Professor of Feminist Studies and the Associate Dean of the Division of Social Sciences at UC Santa Barbara, states at the outset that her intention is to present “a short, accessible, synthetic global history”.  She does not, as some might expect, spend time on the genetic research into same-sex predisposition, nor does she delve into very many of the more theoretical questions concerning human sexuality at the instinctual level. Instead, her aim is to provide the social history of Sapphic love.

Beginning with a brief lesson on Sappho, who gave her name and that of her birthplace—the island of Lesbos—to the the concept of female same-sex relations, Rupp takes her reader on a tour through time and across may cultures, jumping from pre-historical matriarchal societies, Amazons and Ancient Greeks to Medieval Europeans, indigenous Americans and modern-day Indonesians. She explores the social aspects, and the social implications, of lesbianism in various cultures through the art and literary works, as well as though court records, legal texts, personal memoirs and anthropological documents. She retells the famous and, by all accounts true, tales of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two 18th-century women who also happened to be fearsome, cross-dressing pirates.

Rupp also explores the ways in which love between woman was accepted or persecuted in these cultures, and how the cultural views have always varied and shifted throughout the whole of human history. Some woman hid, of course, choosing lives in monasteries, while others publicly lived as men. One fascinating example of the latter is Edward De Lacy Evans, who was born Ellen Tremaye in Ireland, but lived as a man for nearly 25 years Victoria, Australia. Evans was married three times, to three different young women. It seems that only his first wife found out, and that’s why she divorced him. His gender was exposed in 1879 when he was stripped for a bath at Kew Asylum (apparently, he went mad after his third wife gave birth to a child which she initially swore was Evans’s).

Many times throughout history lesbianism has been labeled a psychological affliction, and Rupp does talk about this. However, she spends a great deal more time talking about the situations and environments in which lesbianism was, if not always accepted, then, expected. Brothels are one such place. There has long been an association between prostitution and same-sex relationships of women. There’s also a long-standing link between correctional institutions and lesbianism, which casts the stigma of crime-by-association.

Of course, same-sex relationships are well-documented in the aristocracy, not to mention the artistic communities, where it was less likely to be deemed illicit or illegal. Both Marie Antoinette and Queen Anne of England were said to have had female lovers, and women like Gladys Bentley, a masculine Harlem performer in the 1920s, opened lesbian bars and clubs and held “woman’s party” events.

As Rupp reaches current times, she briefly mentions lesbianism in modern media; in feminist publications, in film and in music. She also returns to ideas of same-sex marriage and crossing gender boundaries as they are viewed today around the world, but she does this in such a hurried and comparatively cursory manner that it feels like an afterthought. 

Her conclusion is rather rushed, too, making it seem less like a thought-provoking summing up of her survey of the history of love between woman, and more like she’s scrambling simply to finish. Still, overall Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women achieves what it set out to do by providing an overview of lesbian love from a historical and cultural perspective.  Anyone wishing to find further information could probably get a good start by exploring Rupp’s extensive references, listed in the book’s index.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/140558-sapphistries-a-global-history-of-love-between-women-by-leila-j.-rupp/