In the spring of 2008, I took a call from Stephanie Rosenblum, a reporter for the New York Times
. She was writing a story about Jackie Warner, the lesbian fitness guru and reality TV star, who was inspiring intense crushes on the part of straight housewives. I knew of Rosenblum from an earlier article she'd written for the paper on "heterosexual girl crushes" that I use to illustrate the complexities of sexual identities in one of my feminist studies classes. In our interview, I talked about my then book-in-progress, Sapphistries
, mentioning Chinese co-wives, Marie Antoinette and aristocratic French and English women in the 18th century, Japanese and Chinese schoolgirls, and 19th-century romantic friends as examples of "straight" women in love or lust with other women. My point was that presumably heterosexual women experiencing same-sex desire has a history. That history never made it into the article, but I like to think that the woman who wrote of Jackie, "I'm straight. Very straight, and even I would seriously consider batting for her team," would find something to mull over in my new book.
As I say in the preface, this was an audacious project: to pull together information on women who desired, loved, and had sex with other women from the beginning of time to the present, all around the globe, and to present it in a short and accessible book. When I began, I don't think I had any idea how much I would learn. I knew, of course, about Amazons in Greek mythology, about erotic Athenian vase-paintings (a few of which show women in sexual poses with other women), about Sappho, about medieval nuns warned against "special friendships" with each other, about the association of early modern witches with same-sex sexuality, and so on into more familiar modern territory. But there was so much more: Egyptian women in the early Christian Mediterranean world commissioning spells to make other women fall in love with them, the 11th-century "Arab Sappho" writing love letters to a female poet, those co-wives in polygynous households making love to each other, women in brothels and prisons engaging in sexual activity, women across time and space finding ways to marry each other. There was a dazzling array of women — some of them passing as men — expressing desire, falling in love, and having sex.
I don't think of all of them as "lesbians," which is why I use the made-up word "Sapphistries," clearly derived from Sappho of Lesbos, but referring not to women themselves but to their histories and stories. I make the point that, despite the recurrence of patterns such as female masculinity and intimate friendship as the basis for love between women, there's a world of difference out there. Contemporary Thai toms (masculine women, from the English word "tomboy") and dees (feminine women attracted to toms, from the English word "lady") might look like lesbians to 21st-century American eyes, but that does not mean that they think of themselves that way.
So what does it take to be part of the story of Sapphistries? I insist on some evidence of same-sex desire, erotic love, or sexual activity. That of course is not so easy, not only because evidence of any kind from the mouths or pens of women is relatively rare, but also because it isn't always so clear what counts as desire, erotic love, or even sexual activity. In my class called Sapphistries, students are confronted with the phenomenon of romantic friendship in 19th-century Europe and the United States, a socially approved intimacy that involved expressions of love and physical affection, including, in at least one case we know about, the caressing of breasts. Asked if romantic friends had sex, and what would count, my students had no hesitation: if there was what they called "tongue action" in kissing or "below the waist action," then it was sex. If not, not. But it really isn't that simple. Such definitions can't stand up to girls and women in the southern African country of 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 sex because there is no penis.
Here are some of the stories that I find most entrancing. In 1721, a woman by the name of Catharine Margaretha Linck was beheaded in Germany for having passed as a man to marry a woman. Worse yet, in the eyes of the authorities, she had fashioned a penis and testicles from leather and a pig's bladder in order to have sex with her wife. Brought to trial when her mother-in-law ripped off her pants to see whether or not she was really a man, she testified about her desire for women. Despite the fact that such an admission would cost her her head, she told the court that "during intercourse, whenever she was at the height of her passion, she felt tingling in her veins, arms, and legs," and that "when a woman touched her, even slightly, she became so full of passion that she did not know what to do." And then she made the remarkable comment, given the lack of an identity or the category "lesbian" or "transgendered," that "even if she were done away with, others like her would remain."
Then there's a genre of Urdu poetry from northern India in the 19th century that depicted love between married and secluded women. Although written by men, the poems took on the voice and language of women to describe "the taste of sweets eaten in secret." "When I take your tongue in my mouth and suck on it / with what tongue shall I describe the state I am in?" asks one poem. "Let her go to men who want stakes hammered into her / Can she ever get these hours and hours of pleasure?" asks another.
And there's the vibrant nightlife in Berlin in the 1920s, where 14 bars and clubs catered to women, some of them feminine, some masculine, some elegant, some rough and raunchy. There they might drink and dance and enjoy risqué entertainment. Or they might enjoy a rousing anthem of queer pride, "The Lavender Song," asserting no fear of being "queer and diff'rent" and the determination to "win our rights / to lavender days and nights." All of these stories are remarkable because of the echoes of contemporary desires and identities, even as we recognize how different are the worlds of early modern Europe, Muslim India, and interwar Berlin.
So it is not just the Jackie Warner fans, nor the "lesbians until graduation" on college campuses, nor the "heteroflexible" women who kiss other women in public who have a history in Sapphistries. There's a story of proud women who loved and desired other women, even if we can't assume that they were "lesbians" in any sense that we mean that term today.
And yes, I have an agenda in writing about the history of women who loved women. I have a vision of a future in which, however people make pleasure with their bodies and minds, it doesn't matter. If knowing what happened in the past can help us to work toward that future — and, historian that I am, I fervently believe it can — then I can hope that we are on our way.