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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #70 Rabinowitz 2002 “Introduction”

Full citation: 

Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. “Introduction” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers covering classical Greece

Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. “Introduction”

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This collection is somewhat unusual for its topic both in being interdisciplinary and in focusing exclusively on women’s relationships with other women. The introduction notes that with the exception of Brooten (1996) and the cottage industry of Sappho studies, there has been extremely little research published on female homoeroticism in antiquity, especially in contrast to the attention directed at male homoeroticism.

This field is hampered by the lack of direct, unmediated data on the lives of ordinary women. Art and literature present a carefully deliberate picture and, with very few exceptions, one that is filtered through men. Given this, women’s interactions exclusive of men are even harder to study. Describing the focus of the collection as “homosocial” presents no problems, but labeling the content as “homoerotic” as opposed to the various other possible options required working through the connotations and scholarly baggage of possibilities such as “homosexual” or “lesbian”. “Erotic” is more compatible with the clear evidence for desire, but the more ambiguous evidence for sexual activity, per se. The author notes that a strict focus on genital sexuality would erase the vast majority of evidence for homoerotic desire.

Rabinowitz spends several pages reviewing the history of the study of antiquity and the inseparability of ideology from historic interpretation. The uses to which ancient Greek history have been put by modern scholars are unarguable and varied. The desire of western scholars to claim ancient Greece as the origin and mirror of modern western society finds hurdles in the position of women in that society. The lower social position of women and their seclusion from public life were often “orientalized” as a way of displacing the contradiction onto an Other, apart from those noble paragons of freedom and democracy.

Another aspect of ideological interference in classical studies was the practice of suppressing or segregating material related to overt sexuality, such as Pompeiian pornographic wall paintings, or pictorial vases with sexual content. A clear contrast can be seen in treatments of male and female Greek homosexuality, with the men elevated to a noble ideal while women's homoerotic activities were viewed as part and parcel of an orientalized harem-like seclusion. There were regular and repeated attempts to “reclaim” the undeniable genius of Sappho from this dismissal by denying the erotic nature of her work and framing her simply as a beloved schoolmistress. This ideological history does not excuse any bias in modern scholarship, but it does place it in context.

When looking at ancient Greek and Roman sexual practices and attitudes, it is crucial to remain aware that heterosexuality shows no more continuity between the ancient and modern worlds that homosexuality does. In this context, Rabinowitz looks at modern approaches to “lesbians” in antiquity and Sappho in particular as a caution against ideologies looking to claim them for one team or another. The final part of the introduction gives a brief summary of the topics of the various papers.

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