History of lesbianism

Zoan Andrea (1464-1526), Two women. Italian Renaissance engraving.

Lesbianism is the sexual and romantic desire between females. There are far fewer historical mentions of lesbianism than male homosexuality, possibly due to many historical writings and records focusing primarily on men.

Ancient Greece

The evidence about female homosexuality in the ancient Greek world is limited, it being hardly mentioned in extant Greek literature.[1] Most surviving sources from the classical period come from Athens, and they are without exception written by men. At least among these Athenian men, the discussion and depiction of female homosexual activity seems to have been taboo.[2] Kenneth Dover suggests that, due to the role played by the phallus in ancient Greek men's conceptions of sexuality, female homosexual love was not conceivable as a category to the authors of our surviving sources.[3]

Nonetheless, there are a few references to female homosexuality in ancient Greek literature. Two poets from the archaic period, Sappho and Alcman, have been interpreted as writing about female homosexual desire. Alcman wrote hymns known as partheneia,[note 1] which discuss attraction between young women. Though it is ambiguous, historians have considered the attraction in question to be erotic or sexual.[4] At roughly the same time, Sappho's poems discuss her love for both men and women. For instance, in Sappho's Ode to Aphrodite, the poet asks Aphrodite for aid in wooing another woman. It is noticeable that the fragment describes Sappho both giving to and receiving from the same partner, in contrast with the rigid active/passive partner dichotomy observed in Greek male homosexual relationships.[5] Only one fragment of Sappho's poetry, Sappho 94, contains a clear mention of female homsexual acts.[6]

In classical Athens, the idea of homosexual women is briefly mentioned in the Speech of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium.[7] Later references to female homosexuality in Greek literature include an epigram by Asclepiades, which describes two women who reject Aphrodite's "rules" but instead do "other things which are not seemly".[8] Dover comments on the "striking" hostility shown in the epigram to female homosexuality, contrasting it with Asklepiades' willingness to discuss his own homosexual desire in other works, suggesting that this apparent male anxiety about female homosexuality in ancient Greece is the reason for our paucity of sources discussing it.[9]

In Greek mythology, the story of Callisto has been interpreted as implying that Artemis and Callisto were lovers.[10] The myth of the Amazons has also been interpreted as referring to female homosexual activities.[11]

Female-female relationships or sexual activities were occasionally depicted on Greek art. An early example of this is a plate from archaic Thera, which appears to show two women courting.[12] An Attic red figure vase in the collection of the Tarquinia National Museum in Italy shows a kneeling woman fingering the genitals of another woman, in a rare example of sexual activities between women being explicitly portrayed in Greek art.[12]

Sappho and sexual partners in a painting by eroticist Édouard-Henri Avril

Sappho is the most often mentioned example of an ancient Greek woman who may have actually engaged in female homosexual practices. Her sexuality has been debated by historians, with some such as Denys Page arguing that she was attracted to women, while others, such as Eva Stigers, arguing that the descriptions of love between women in Sappho's writings are not evidence for her own sexuality.[13] Some historians have gone so far as to argue that Sappho's circle were involved in female homosexuality as a kind of initiation ritual.[14] The earliest evidence of Sappho's reputation for homosexual desire comes from the Hellenistic period, with a fragment of a biography found in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri which mentions that Sappho is criticised for being "gynaikerastria".[note 2][15]

Similarly, there is some evidence that Spartan women engaged in homosexual activities. In Plutarch's biography of Lycurgus of Sparta, part of his Parallel Lives, the author claims that older Spartan women formed relationships with girls that were similar to the erastes/eromenos relationships that were common between older and younger male Greeks.[12] Sarah Pomeroy believes that Plutarch's depiction of homosexual relationships between Spartan women is plausible. For instance, she argues, in the girls' choirs that performed the partheneia of Alcman, homosexual relationships between the girls would have "flourished".[16]

Roman Empire and early Christianity

The lesbian love story between Iphis and Ianthe, in Book IX of Ovid's the Metamorphoses, is most vivid. When Iphis' mother becomes pregnant, her husband declares that he will kill the child if it is a girl. She bears a girl and attempts to conceal her sex by giving her a name that is of ambiguous gender: Iphis. When the "son" is thirteen, the father chooses a golden-haired maiden named Ianthe as the "boy's" bride. The love of the two girls is written sympathetically:

They were of equal age, they both were lovely,
Had learned the ABC from the same teachers,
And so love came to both of them together
In simple innocence, and filled their hearts
With equal longing.

However, as the marriage draws ever closer, Iphis recoils, calling her love "monstrous and unheard of". The goddess Isis hears the girl's moans and turns her into a boy.

Female couple from a series of erotic paintings at the Suburban Baths, Pompeii

References to love between women are sparse. Phaedrus attempted to explain lesbianism through a myth of his own making: Prometheus, coming home drunk from a party, had mistakenly exchanged the genitals of some women and some men – "Lust now enjoys perverted pleasure."[17]

It is quite clear that paiderastia and lesbianism were not held in equally good light, possibly because of the violation of strict gender roles. Seneca the Elder mentions a husband who killed his wife and her female lover and implies that their crime was worse than that of adultery between a male and female. The Babyloniaca of Iamblichus describes an Egyptian princess named Berenice who loves and marries another woman. This novelist also states that such love is "wild and lawless".

Another example of the gender-sexual worldview of the times was documented in Lucian's Dialogues of the Courtesans, in which Megilla renames herself Megillus and wears a wig to cover her shaved head. She marries Demonassa of Corinth, although Megillus is from Lesbos. Her friend Leaena comments that "They say there are women like that in Lesbos, with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women, as though they themselves were men". Megillus seduces Leaena, who feels that the experience is too disgusting to describe in detail.

In another dialogue ascribed to Lucian, two men debate over which is better, male love or heterosexuality. One man protested that if male affairs were legitimized, then lesbianism would soon be condoned as well, an unthinkable notion.[18]

The apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter describes the punishment of lesbians and gay men in Hell:[19]

And other men and women being cast down from a great rock fell to the bottom, and again were driven by them that were set over them, to go up upon the rock, and thence were cast down to the bottom and had no rest from this torment. And these were they that did defile their bodies behaving as women: and the women that were with them were they that lay with one another as a man with a woman.

The canonical New Testament usually mentions homosexuality in only general terms (i.e. mentioning both gays and lesbians) and both are equally convicted.[20] The only specific mention of Lesbianism is Romans 1:26, "For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature" (NKJV).

Medieval period

In medieval Europe, the Christian Church took a stricter view of same-sex relations between women. Penitentials, developed by Celtic monks in Ireland, were unofficial guidebooks which became popular, especially in the British Isles. These books listed crimes and the penances that must be done for them. For example, "...he who commits the male crime of the Sodomites shall do penance for four years". The several versions of the Paenitentiale Theodori, attributed to Theodore of Tarsus, who became archbishop of Canterbury in the 7th century, make special references to lesbianism. The Paenitentiale states, "If a woman practices vice with a woman she shall do penance for three years".[21] Penitentials soon spread from the British Isles to mainland Europe. The authors of most medieval penitentials either did not explicitly discuss lesbian activities at all, or treated them as a less serious sin than male homosexuality.[22]

The Old French legal treatise Li livres de jostice et de plet (c. 1260) is the earliest reference to legal punishment for lesbianism akin to that for male homosexuality. It prescribed dismemberment on the first two offences and death by burning for the third: a near exact parallel to the penalty for a man, although what "dismemberment" could mean for a medieval woman is unknown.[23][24]:13 In Spain, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire, sodomy between women was included in acts considered unnatural and punishable by burning to death, although few instances are recorded of this taking place. In the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V, a law on sexual offences specifically prohibits sex acts between women.[24]:18

There exist records of about a dozen women in the medieval period who were involved in lesbian sex, as defined by Judith Bennett as same-sex genital contact. All of these women are known through their involvement with the courts, and were imprisoned or executed.[25] An early example of a woman executed for homosexual acts occurred in 1477, when a girl in Speier, Germany, was drowned.[24]:17 Not all women were so harshly punished, though. In the early fifteenth century, a Frenchwoman, Laurence, wife of Colin Poitevin, was imprisoned for her affair with another woman, Jehanne. She pleaded for clemency on the grounds that Jehanne had been the instigator and she regretted her sins, and was freed to return home after six months imprisonment.[26] A later example, from Pescia in Italy, involved an abbess, Sister Benedetta Carlini, who was documented in inquests between 1619 and 1623 as having committed grave offences including a passionately erotic love affair with another nun when possessed by a Divine male spirit named "Splenditello". She was declared the victim of a "diabolical obsession" and placed in the convent's prison for the last 35 years of her life.[27]

In the medieval Arab world, lesbianism[note 3] was considered to be caused by heat generated in a woman's labia, which could be alleviated by friction against another woman's genitalia.[28] Medieval Arabic medical texts considered lesbianism to be inborn: for instance, Masawaiyh wrote that a girl became a lesbian if her nurse ate specific foods, such as celery and rocket.[28] The earliest story about lesbianism in Arabic literature comes from the Encyclopedia of Pleasure, and tells the story of the love between a Christian and an Arab woman, and we know from the Fihrist, a tenth-century catalogue of works in Arabic, of writings about twelve other lesbian couples which have not survived.[29]

Between 1170 and 1180 Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbis in Jewish history, compiled his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah. It is the only Medieval-era work that details all of Jewish observance, and as regarding lesbianism states:[30]

For women to be mesollelot [women rubbing genitals against each other] with one another is forbidden, as this is the practice of Egypt, which we were warned against: "Like the practice of the land of Egypt ... you shall not do" (Leviticus 18:3). The Sages said [in the midrash of Sifra Aharei Mot 8:8–9], "What did they do? A man married a man, and a woman married a woman, and a woman married two men." Even though this practice is forbidden, one is not lashed [as for a Torah prohibition] on account of it, since there is no specific prohibition against it, and there is no real intercourse. Therefore, [one who does this] is not forbidden to the priesthood because of harlotry, and a woman is not prohibited to her husband by this, since it is not harlotry. But it is appropriate to administer to them lashings of rebellion [i.e., those given for violation of rabbinic prohibitions], since they did something forbidden. And a man should be strict with his wife in this matter, and should prevent women known to do this from coming to her or from her going to them.

Female homoeroticism, however, was so common in English literature and theatre that historians suggest it was fashionable for a period during the Renaissance.

Early Modern period

In early modern England, female homosexual behaviour became increasingly culturally visible. Some historians, such as Traub, have argued that this led to increasing cultural sanctions against lesbian behaviours.[31] For instance, in 1709 Delariviere Manley published The New Atlantis, attacking lesbian activities.[32] However, others, such as Friedli and Faderman have played down the cultural opposition to female homosexuality, pointing out that it was better tolerated than male homosexual activities.[33] Additionally, despite the social stigma, English courts did not prosecute homosexual activities between women, and lesbianism was largely ignored by the law in England.[33] For instance, Mary Hamilton (the "Female Husband", as Henry Fielding's account of the case had it), while she was whipped for fraud, does not seem to have been considered to have committed any sex crimes by either the courts or the press at the time.[34] On the other hand, Terry Castle contends that English law in the eighteenth century ignored female homosexual activity not out of indifference, but out of male fears about acknowledging and reifying lesbianism.[31]

The literature of the time attempted to rationalise some women's lesbian activities, commonly searching for visible indications of sapphic tendencies.[35] In The New Atlantis, for instance, the "real" lesbians are depicted as being masculine.[35] However, Craft-Fairchild argues that Manley along with Cleland in Fanny Hill failed to establish a coherent narrative of lesbians as anatomically distinct from other women,[36] while Fielding in The Female Husband instead focuses on the corruption of Hamilton's mind as leading to her homosexual acts and cross-dressing.[37] This difficulty in establishing a narrative framework to fit female homosexuality into was acknowledged by Jonathan Swift in his writing for the Tatler in 1711, where he describes a woman having her virginity tested by a lion. Despite the onlookers' failure to see anything unusual about the woman, the lion identified her as "no true Virgin".[38][39] At the same time, writings which were positive, or potentially positive, about female homosexuality, drew on the languages both of female same-sex friendship, and of heterosexual romance, as there were at the time no widespread cultural motifs of homosexuality.[40] Only among the less respectable members of society does it seem that there was anything like a lesbian subculture. For instance, there was probably a lesbian subculture amongst dancers and prostitutes in eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Paris, and in eighteenth-century Amsterdam.[41]

Laws against lesbianism were suggested but usually not created or enforced in early American history. In 1636, John Cotton proposed a law for Massachusetts Bay making sex between two women (or two men) a capital offense, but the law was not enacted.[42] It would have read, "Unnatural filthiness, to be punished with death, whether sodomy, which is carnal fellowship of man with man, or woman with woman, or buggery, which is carnal fellowship of man or woman with beasts or fowls."[43] In 1655, the Connecticut Colony passed a law against sodomy between women (as well as between men), but nothing came of this either.[44] In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a law stating that, "Whosoever shall be guilty of rape, polygamy, or sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro' the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least",[45][46][47] but this did not become law either. However, in 1649 in Plymouth Colony, Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon were prosecuted for "lewd behavior with each other upon a bed"; their trial documents are the only known record of sex between female English colonists in North America in the 17th century.[48] Hammon was only admonished, perhaps because she was younger than sixteen,[48] but in 1650 Norman was convicted and required to acknowledge publicly her "unchaste behavior" with Hammon, as well as warned against future offenses.[49] This is the only prosecution for female homosexual activities in United States history.[50]

In Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century, lesbians became more visible in art and in the public sphere. A painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec of entertainer Cha-U-Kao at the Moulin Rouge

Close intimate relationships were common among women in the mid-19th century. This was attributed to strict gender roles that led women to expand their social circle to other women for emotional support. These relationships were expected to form close between women with similar socioeconomic status.[51] Since there was not defined language in regards to lesbianism at the time, these relationships were seen to be homosocial. Though women developed very close emotional relationships with one another, marriage to men was still the norm. Yet there is evidence of possible sexual relationships to develop beyond an emotional level. Documents from two African-American women use terms describing practices known as "bosom sex." While these women practice heterosexuality with their husbands, it is still believed their relationship was romantic and sexual.[52]

Late 19th century and early 20th century saw the flourish of "Boston marriages" in New England. The term describes romantic friendship between two women, living together and without any financial support by men. This kind of relationships actually predates New England's custom, there being examples of this in the United Kingdom and continental Europe since the 18th century.[53]

The late 19th and early 20th centuries also saw an increase in lesbian visibility in France, both in the public sphere and in representations of lesbians in art and literature. Fin de siecle society in Paris included bars, restaurants and cafes frequented and owned by lesbians, such as Le Hanneton and le Rat Mort, Private salons, like the one hosted by the American expatriate Nathalie Barney, drew lesbian and bisexual artists and writers of the era, including Romaine Brooks, Renee Vivien, Colette, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and Radclyffe Hall. One of Barney's lovers, the courtesan Liane de Pougy, published a best-selling novel based on their romance called l’Idylle Saphique (1901). Many of the more visible lesbians and bisexual women were entertainers and actresses. Some, like the writer Colette and her lover Mathilde de Morny, performed lesbian theatrical scenes in cabarets that drew outrage and censorship. Descriptions of lesbian salons, cafes and restaurants were included in tourist guides and journalism of the era, as well as mention of houses of prostitution that were uniquely for lesbians. Toulouse Lautrec created paintings of many of the lesbians he met, some of whom frequented or worked at the famed Moulin Rouge.[54][55]

Later 20th and early 21st centuries (1969-present)

The Stonewall Riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the gay (LGBT) community,[note 4] including lesbians, against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. They are widely considered to constitute the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States.[56][57]

Political lesbianism originated in the late 1960s among second wave radical feminists as a way to fight sexism and compulsory heterosexuality. Sheila Jeffreys, a lesbian, helped to develop the concept when she co-wrote "Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism" [58] with the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group. They argued that women should abandon support of heterosexuality and stop sleeping with men, encouraging women to rid men "from your beds and your heads."[59] While the main idea of political lesbianism is to be separate from men, this does not necessarily mean that political lesbians have to sleep with women; some choose to be celibate or identify as asexual. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group definition of a political lesbian is "a woman identified woman who does not fuck men". They proclaimed men the enemy and women who were in relationships with them collaborators and complicit in their own oppression. Heterosexual behavior was seen as the basic unit of the patriarchy's political structure, with lesbians who reject heterosexual behavior therefore disrupting the established political system.[60] Lesbian women who have identified themselves as "political lesbians" include Ti-Grace Atkinson, Julie Bindel, Charlotte Bunch, Yvonne Rainer, and Sheila Jeffreys.

In 1974, Maureen Colquhoun came out as the first Lesbian MP for the Labour Party in the UK. When elected she was married in a heterosexual marriage.[61]

Lesbian feminism, which was most influential from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (primarily in North America and Western Europe), encourages women to direct their energies toward other women rather than men, and often advocates lesbianism as the logical result of feminism.[62] Some key thinkers and activists in lesbian feminism are Charlotte Bunch, Rita Mae Brown, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and Monique Wittig (although the latter is more commonly associated with the emergence of queer theory). As with Gay Liberation, the lesbian feminism understanding of the lesbian potential in all women was at odds with the minority-rights framework of the Gay Rights movement. Many women of the Gay Liberation movement felt frustrated at the domination of the movement by men and formed separate organisations; some who felt gender differences between men and women could not be resolved developed "lesbian separatism", influenced by writings such as Jill Johnston's 1973 book Lesbian Nation. Disagreements between different political philosophies were, at times, extremely heated, and became known as the lesbian sex wars,[63] clashing in particular over views on sadomasochism, prostitution and transsexuality.

The Lesbian Avengers began in New York City in 1992 as "a direct action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility." [64][65] Dozens of other chapters quickly emerged worldwide, a few expanding their mission to include questions of gender, race, and class. Newsweek reporter Eloise Salholz, covering the 1993 LGBT March on Washington, believed the Lesbian Avengers were so popular because they were founded at a moment when lesbians were increasingly tired of working on issues, like AIDS and abortion, while their own problems went unsolved.[66] Most importantly, lesbians were frustrated with invisibility in society at large, and invisibility and misogyny in the LGBT community.[66]

See also


  1. "Maiden-songs", so-called because they were apparently composed for choruses of young girls to sing as part of religious celebrations.
  2. i.e. a woman who loves other women.
  3. Unlike contemporary European languages, medieval Arabic had terms meaning "lesbian" and "lesbianism": "sihaqa" and "sahq" respectively.
  4. At the time, the term "gay" was commonly used to refer to all LGBT people.


  1. Dover, K.J. (1978). Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press. p. 171.
  2. Dover, K.J. (1978). Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press. p. 182.
  3. Downing, Christine (1994). "Lesbian Mythology". Historical Reflections. 20 (2): 171.
  4. Dover, K.J. (1978). Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press. p. 179.
  5. Dover, K.J. (1978). Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press. p. 177.
  6. McEvilly, Thomas (1971). "Sappho, Fragment 94". Phoenix. 25 (1): 2–3.
  7. Dover, K.J. (1978). Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press. p. 172.
  8. Asklepiades, The Greek Anthology 5.207
  9. Dover, K.J. (1978). Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press. pp. 1723.
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