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Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women

Leila J. Rupp
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 324
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    From the ancient poet Sappho to tombois in contemporary Indonesia, women throughout history and around the globe have desired, loved, and had sex with other women. In beautiful prose, Sapphistries tells their stories, capturing the multitude of ways that diverse societies have shaped female same-sex sexuality across time and place.Leila J. Rupp reveals how, from the time of the very earliest societies, the possibility of love between women has been known, even when it is feared, ignored, or denied. We hear women in the sex-segregated spaces of convents and harems whispering words of love. We see women beginning to find each other on the streets of London and Amsterdam, in the aristocratic circles of Paris, in the factories of Shanghai. We find women's desire and love for women meeting the light of day as Japanese schoolgirls fall in love, and lesbian bars and clubs spread from 1920s Berlin to 1950s Buffalo. And we encounter a world of difference in the twenty-first century, as transnational concepts and lesbian identities meet local understandings of how two women might love each other.Giving voice to words from the mouths and pens of women, and from men's prohibitions, reports, literature, art, imaginings, pornography, and court cases, Rupp also creatively employs fiction to imagine possibilities when there is no historical evidence. Sapphistries combines lyrical narrative with meticulous historical research, providing an eminently readable and uniquely sweeping story of desire, love, and sex between women around the globe from the beginning of time to the present.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-7745-9
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    THE LESBIAN POET Sappho, whatever her erotic history, bequeathed both her name and her place of residence to the phenomenon of desire, love, and sex between women. Her iconic image as a lover of women has transcended the boundaries of history and geography, bestowing on women who desire women the labelsSapphic and lesbian. Because the termSapphichas a longer and more widespread history thanlesbian,I have named this bookSapphistries, an invented word, although not an entirely original one, to embrace all the diverse manifestations of women and “social males” with women’s bodies who desired, loved, made...

  5. 2 In the Beginning (40,000–1200 BCE)
    (pp. 10-24)

    HERE IS ONE imagined beginning, not of the world but of human society:

    In the beginning of time, there were only women, bearers of two unbroken X chromosomes. They reproduced through parthenogenesis, a process that occurs elsewhere in the natural world, in which females give birth without contact with males. And human—that is, female—society was a wonder to behold. Then some disease or bombardment of radiation from the sun damaged one healthy X chromosome, chopping off the right lower leg and creating a mutant, man. This was the beginning of the end for a glorious lost civilization in...

  6. 3 In Ancient Worlds (3500 BCE–800 CE)
    (pp. 25-41)

    SO WROTE SAPPHO, in the sixth century BCE, to an unnamed recipient whose “enticing / laughter . . . makes my own / heart beat fast.” It certainly sounds like an expression of desire for someone whose voice is a “sweet murmur.” It is without doubt, I would argue, an expression of desire for a woman.

    It is from ancient worlds—from Sappho—that women who love women have gotten our most persistent label. Why did Sappho’s legacy have such lasting power? Why does she stand out so strikingly in our history? To attempt to answer those questions, we must...

  7. 4 In Unlikely Places (500 BCE–1600 CE)
    (pp. 42-77)

    FOR A VERY long time, from the waning of classical civilizations and the spread of world religions to the rise of European global dominance, the voices of women who loved women are no more than occasional whispers. Yet if we look hard enough and listen intently, we can find places where love between women could have flourished or—if not flourished—at least survived. In what might seem unlikely places—in convents, harems, and polygynous households, in mystical outpourings and heretical sects, in the practice of alternative religions—women could desire, love, and have sex with other women. In some...

  8. 5 In Plain Sight (1100–1900)
    (pp. 78-104)

    WHILE SOME WOMEN who loved other women kept away from prying eyes behind monastery walls or in the private quarters of their houses, others hid in plain sight. They accomplished this feat by secretly crossing the gender line or, where available, publicly claiming a third-gender or “social male” role, which officially made them not-women. In either case, they could marry and live with and, in some cases, make love to other women. Either no one knew there were female bodies under their male clothing, or else they knew but accepted gender crossing as appropriate.

    In some cases, we know about...

  9. 6 Finding Each Other (1600–1900)
    (pp. 105-141)

    WHETHER HIDDEN OR in plain sight, some women who loved or desired other women found ways, since the earliest recorded history, to be together. But the woman who made love with a co-wife, the nun who fell in love with another nun, or the woman who married a soldier with a female body could not be said to be part of any kind of community, despite Catharine Margaretha Linck’s assertion to the authorities that “even if she were done away with, others like her would remain.” She may have known that other such women existed, but she would have had...

  10. 7 What’s in a Name? (1890–1930)
    (pp. 142-160)

    IN DEEPA MEHTA’S controversial 1996 filmFire, Radha and Sita, sisters-in-law living in loveless marriages in a joint-family household, fall in love with each other. (See figure 18 for a still from the film showing Radha and Sita.) After a first surprising kiss, they discover passion in each other’s arms. When they make love for the first time, Sita, who is younger and the instigator, asks Radha, “Did we do anything wrong?” to which Radha replies, after a moment, “No.” One day Ashok, Radha’s celibate husband, discovers them in bed together. Sita is not sorry, but Radha wishes she had...

  11. 8 In Public (1920–1980)
    (pp. 161-202)

    IMAGINE, FOR A moment, that you are in Berlin in the 1920s. After a devastating loss in the first near-global war, followed by hyperinflation that had workers paid daily or even twice a day in wheelbarrows full of soonto-be-worthless currency, in the midst of political violence between right and left—in the face of all this defeat and humiliation and turbulence, the culture of the new Weimar Republic has burst into bloom, perhaps only so vibrant because of the economic, political, and social turmoil. So you are in Berlin, it is nighttime, and you are out on the town. You...

  12. 9 A World of Difference (1960–Present)
    (pp. 203-226)

    THIS IS A scene from Anchee Min’s powerful novel Red Azalea. During the Cultural Revolution in China, Min was working at a labor collective when recruiters spotted her and sent her to work in the Shanghai film industry. After coming to the United States in the 1980s, she published this novel about a young woman working on a collective farm who falls in love with her woman commander, Yan. They are both Red Guards able to recite from Mao’s teachings at will. When Yan is ordered to a new assignment far away, they lie in bed together and then make...

  13. 10 Conclusion
    (pp. 227-234)

    WHAT CAN WE take away from this history, besides the ingenuity and creativity of women and social males with women’s bodies who desired, loved, and made love to women across time and space? Without imposing too linear a trajectory or confining an admittedly sprawling history in a narrative straitjacket, some general observations are possible.

    We have seen that, from the very earliest societies, the possibility of love between women has been acknowledged, even if it is feared, ignored, or denied. From myths of births out of the union of two female bodies to tales of two formerly whole, now half,...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 235-260)
  15. References
    (pp. 261-286)
  16. Index
    (pp. 287-302)
  17. About the Author
    (pp. 303-303)