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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #52 - Rupp 2009 Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women

Full citation: 

Rupp, Leila J. 2009. Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 978-0-8147-7726-8

Given how closely the shape and intent of Rupp’s book mirrors my own project, it may seem odd that I give it so mild a recommendation. It is, in my opinion, a very decent introduction to the broad topic of lesbian-like individuals and social patterns in history. The book is well-researched (despite uneven cultural coverage) and solidly footnoted. My more specific concerns are given below. As I've noted on previous occasions, I usually try to segregate my summary of a publication's contents from my own meta-commentary on those contents. But in this case that didn't seem to be the optimal approach. Meta-commentary is in square brackets.

Overall, as an superficial introduction to the variety of historic data that is available, Rupp is a good start. The book is solidly footnoted and sourced, and the historic sources she uses are solid. However the book has several significant flaws, in my opinion. Rupp has a tendency to throw in modern fictional treatments of historic events and figures in the middle of what purports to be a historic presentation, and although the fictional nature of these examples is made clear, the casual reader will easily confuse fictional and historic details. The second thing that bothered me significantly is a tendency to present-day examples from non-Western cultures in a way that implies those cultures are static and unchanging. (How else to interpret 20th century anthropological observations in a chapter on the pre-1600 era?) The third flaw I see is a tendency to conflate women-oriented communities, gender transgression, and lesbianism. It may seem hypocritical for me to touch on this, given that I’ve chosen to include the same themes among my current project. I hope that I have succeeded in making clear that, for example, I don’t consider every case of a cross-dressing woman to be a lesbian, but rather that, given that cross-dressing is a motif that sometimes is associated with lesbian activity, it is useful to look at cross-dressing in general to get a sense of the range of behaviors and logistics involved. Such a distinction does not always seem to be clear in Rupp’s book.

* * *

Chapter 1 (Introduction)

A discussion of terminology, some of the cross-cultural problems of defining the topic of the book, and a statement of intent.

Chapter 2 (In the Beginning: 40,000-1200 BCE)

Despite the specific date range given to the chapter, the greater part consists of modern feminist mythologizing about gender origins and gender pre-history. Little of it has to do with lesbian-like attributes (other than femaleness). There is brief coverage of Plato’s myth of love being people “seeking their other half” -- a myth that treats homosexual desire as equivalent and equally natural to heterosexual desire -- and of the myth of Callisto and its implication of love between women. There is also a brief review of Blackwood’s (1986) discussion of lesbian-like relationships among various third world societies. [Even more strongly than in Blackwood's article itself, it strikes me as deeply problematic to equate modern third-world societies with prehistoric societies, as their inclusion here does.]

Chapter 3 (In Ancient Worlds 3500 BCE - 800 CE)

After briefly touching on references to female same-sex activity in Aztec, Chinese, and Sanskrit texts, this chapter largely covers Greek and Roman writings and artistic depictions of lesbians and lesbian-like figures. In addition to significant coverage of Sappho herself, the usual Roman satires and both Greek and Roman erotic art are covered, as well as material from Brooten (1997) [to be included in a forthcoming post].

Chapter 4 (In Unlikely Places 500 BCE - 1600 CE)

[This chapter is the one that most solidly overlaps the material I’ve been covering so far and it makes me the most hesitant to recommend this work as a major research source. Not because I question the material (Rupp includes the occasional piece of fictionalized history for discussion, but clearly labels it as such), but because it makes clear the superficial nature of the information being presented. In essence, Rupp is providing exactly the same level of detail that this project is: snippets of fact meant to show the breadth of historic experiences, but without room to provide the full cultural and historic context necessary to use those facts in extrapolative work. So I would strongly recommend that anyone using this book for historic research, also track down her original sources (just as I recommend for the present project).] There is an extensive discussion of the opinions of various world religions on homosexuality in general and lesbianism in particular, contrasted with the popular culture attitudes within cultures following those religions. [Unfortunately, when Rupp turns her interest away from these topics, she once again seems to conflate “traditional societies” with “historic societies” projecting a timeless unchanging nature onto third world societies that bears closer scrutiny.] Returning to Christian contexts, there is a multi-page look at the case of Sister Benedetta in 17th c. Italy (Brown 1986, to be covered later) and then a rather jumbled look at lesbian accusations in the intersection of mysticism, heresy, and witchcraft, which digresses inexplicably into modern paganism and feminist theology. The chapter concludes with a handful of specific legal case studies involving lesbianism, which have already been covered under their source publications.

Chapter 5 (In Plain Sight 1100-1900)

This chapter covers relationships between women that were open but only because one of the women was in a cross-gender role. There is a brief discussion of religious mythology involving sex-changing deities, religious/cultural literature that allows for a third sex neither male nor female, and traditions such as the “transvestite saints” [previously covered]. The discussion is somewhat fuzzy with regard to whether it is focusing on women passing as men or more broadly women who take on selected male-gendered behaviors and attributes. There is extensive coverage of various Native American cross-gender roles as well as open cross-gender roles in Iraq and the Balkans [covered previously]. Although not specifically addressed, Rupp gives a nod to the ways in which these socially-sanctioned cross-gender roles fall more in the transgender category than the lesbian one. Also noted are specific culturally-sanctioned roles in various African and Native American cultures where marriage between women may be recognized as an economic arrangement or for the purpose of continuing a family line. The second half of the chapter covers instances of marriages in Western society involving a woman covertly passing as a man. The alternate transgender framing is acknowledged in some mildly inconsistent pronoun usage. [The specific examples cited in this section either have already been, or are planned to be, covered by the LHMP via their respective source articles/books, and so ware not listed in detail here.]

Chapter 6 (Finding Each Other 1600-1900)

This chapter looks at evidence for the development of networks or communities of women who love women, as opposed to isolated instances. Though there are earlier examples (especially in the legal testimony of passing women) of these women being aware of others like them, it isn’t until around the beginning of the 17th century that there seems to be evidence for relatively continuous lesbian-aware social networks. [After this introduction, the chapter spends several pages on Moll Cutpurse (focusing on modern fictional treatments of her life rather than original source materials) who seems to have been rather sui generis rather than part of a community.] Trial records from 18th century Amsterdam are more forthcoming with evidence for a network of lollepotten which, in context, seems to imply sexual indiscretions with women, though the women involved also seem to have been prostitutes. After brief coverage of the pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny [who, again, do not appear to have been part of a lesbian-oriented community], there is a cross-cultural look at the association of prostitutes with lesbian activity (whether presented as non-work recreation, or as “training”). The close and typically gender-segregated world of household servants in the 18th and 19th centuries also seems to have been an incubator of connected groups of women with lesbian interests. At the other end of the social scale from prostitutes and servants, the 18th century in particular viewed aristocratic women as eager participants in lesbian networks, although one must consider the possibility of politically-motivated satires, as these portrayals are often part of more general accusations of depravity.

In some times and places, social forces conspired to allow for -- or even celebrate -- women’s romantic attachments to each other, although these were not necessarily a bar to heterosexual marriage as well. Nineteenth century female economic communities of silk-workers in China made a home for both marriage resisters and female romantic couples with an acknowledgment that some relationships were sexual. 18-19th century Indian Rekhti poetry celebrated love and desire between women, though the poems often portrayed the relationships as necessarily secret (and Rekhti poets were often men, confounding simple explanations). During a similar period in western Europe and the United States, women’s “romantic friendship” became celebrated as a sentimental ideal. Such “friendships” existed across a wide range of erotic expression but were socially acceptable to the extent that their erotic side was plausibly deniable. The erotic end of the scale is explicit in the early 19th century diaries of Anne Lister, whose social circle and various lovers show the opportunities available for creating networks of like-minded women. And though the nature of her social circle was, at least officially, secret, among the bohemian world of actresses and artists, the lives and loves of women like Charlotte Cushman were openly known.

Chapters 7-10: The remainder of the book covers 20th century data and therefore falls outside the current project.

[Overall, as an superficial introduction to the variety of historic data that is available, Rupp is a good start. The book is solidly footnoted and sourced, and the historic sources she uses are solid. However the book has several significant flaws, in my opinion. Rupp has a tendency to throw in modern fictional treatments of historic events and figures in the middle of what purports to be a historic presentation, and although the fictional nature of these examples is made clear, the casual reader will easily confuse fictional and historic details. The second thing that bothered me significantly is a tendency to present-day examples from non-Western cultures in a way that implies those cultures are static and unchanging. (How else to interpret 20th century anthropological observations in a chapter on the pre-1600 era?) The third flaw I see is a tendency to conflate women-oriented communities, gender transgression, and lesbianism. It may seem hypocritical for me to touch on this, given that I’ve chosen to include the same themes among my current project. I hope that I have succeeded in making clear that, for example, I don’t consider every case of a cross-dressing woman to be a lesbian, but rather that, given that cross-dressing is a motif that sometimes is associated with lesbian activity, it is useful to look at cross-dressing in general to get a sense of the range of behaviors and logistics involved. Such a distinction does not always seem to be clear in Rupp’s book.]

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