Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Histories and Cultures

Monday, May 29, 2017 - 08:00

Of the four encyclopedia-type texts I’m covering this month, this is the one I consider most useful and most academically sound. “Usefulness” is a matter of  what you’re looking for, of course. Someone who is browsing for random story inspiration will have a broader definition. But given that the core purpose of this project is to identify accurate and analytic information about desire between women in history, I consider it essential to make recommendations on that basis.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Zimmerman, Bonnie (ed). 2000. Lesbian Histories and Cultures. Garland, New York. ISBN 0-8153-1920-7

Publication summary: 

An extensive and well-sourced encyclopedia of persons, organizations, concepts, and topics relevant to lesbian history.

This work and it’s companion volume on gay (male) histories and cultures are a massive project drawing on respected scholars across a wide variety of fields. The articles are detailed and each cites multiple sources. Although the organization is strictly alphabetical, there is a topical index at the beginning that lays out the structure of the coverage and provides the headings for specific entries. To give some idea of the coverage, the top-level index under which specific articles are organized include: anthorpology, art, associations and organizations, biography, cultural identities, economics, geography (i.e., the state of lesbian culture in specific countries and regions), education, health, history, language, law, lesbian movement, literature, media and popular culture, music and dance, politics, psychology, relationships, religion, science, sexuality, sociology, sport, theater and film, and theory and philosophy.

The coverage is overwhelmingly modern in focus. By a very rough estimate, of the biographical entries fewer than 20% are for women dating earlier than the 20th century. The articles on specific national histories focus narrowly on a self-conscious “labeled” lesbian identity rather than tracing evidence of female homoeroticism in general. Awareness of pre-modern data is sometimes lacking (for example, the article on the term “lesbian” repeats the erroneous notion that the word was not used in the specific sense of “a woman whose sexual desire is directed toward women” until its adoption by psychologists in the late 19th century). Some of this can be attributed to the vast growth in the field since the year 2000 when it was published (and knowing volumes of this type, the contents no doubt lag the state of the field  at that time by several years). I say all this, not as a significant criticism of the work (which is generally excellent) but to note that those who are looking specifically for pre-20th century material should follow up with other sources as well. Fortunately, there are ample citations given to these more specific sources.