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Reputed Lesbian

Historic cases of women who had documented sexual relationships with women, or whose contemporaries are recorded as believing they did. This group collects cases that don't fall in a more specific category.

LHMP entry

This paper looks at the evolution of how the word “lesbian”, originally simply a geographic/ethnic identifier meaning “person from the island of Lesbos” came to pick up a separate meaning of “female homosexual.”

Gilhuly begins with a (very brief) discussion of the abstract uses of locational and geographic language, how geographic signifiers very often acquire secondary meanings rooted in some association with the place (e.g., “Spartan accommodations”), and how classical Greek writers were highly prone to developing these sorts of metonymic geographic shorthands.

For Rome as for Greece, the category of biological sex was secondary to status based on class (free versus unfree) and nationality (resident versus foreign). Sex had legal and social relevance primarily for the free-born citizen class. Sexual practices were judged and categorized based on social status and the nature (and roles) of the sexual act. This system did not generate any categories corresponding to “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality”.

Introduction: Scope

I forgot to include this last bit of the introductory material. The author discusses the scope of the work and the nature of the evidence. The late cut off is to exclude Christian texts. But the types of data vary across the scope and this corresponds to different attitudes towards f/f sex. So the analysis can’t entirely be a comparison across eras or a clear picture of development over time.

Chapter 1: Myth and Archaic Lyric Poetry

Legs, as a feature of cross-dressing, are legible primarily in the context of actresses playing male roles. The clothing of the day meant that women’s legs were normally concealed. That meant that, on stage, women’s exposed legs both represented masculinity and were potentially a powerful erotic stimulus. The dramatic fiction that cross-dressing actresses were “men” in their roles gave license for women to find them desirable, as well as for others to deny the same-sex aspect of that desire.

How do cross-dressing women work around the “missing penis,” both in sexual and everyday contexts? Biographical narratives often show a fascination for the mechanical details, such as Christian Davies’ urination device, or the artificial penises used for sex by Mary Hamilton and Catherine Vizzani. While such a descriptions may take a condemnatory tone, they also advertise the erotic possibilities between women that these devices signal.

This chapter looks at the symbolic function of facial hair as a definitive sign of maleness and the ways a successful courtship of a woman can substitute for the lack of a beard. The “smooth beardless face” is noted in narratives as a giveaway. But beards were not fashionable in the 18th century. And the subject’s “feminine” features might be cited as being an attractive feature to women.

The idea of “modern lesbian identity” and when it can first be identified is a question that has preoccupied many historians in the field. In this article, Vicinus tackles the question. Keep in mind that this article was written in 1992, so it was still rather early in terms of current lesbian history scholarship.

The article opens with a discussion of how 16-17th c French discourse around sex between women contradictorily emphasizes the similarity of the couple (woman with woman) then describes what they do as “like a man with a woman.” (Brantôme “give themselves to other women in the very way that men do”, Richelet 1680 “a tribade is one “who mates with another person of her sex and imitates a man”.)

This article examines 17th century French author Madeleine de Scudéry’s reworking of the legend of the Greek poet in Histoire de Sapho, and how it centers female friendship. The work depicts a woman-centered society in which women’s friendships are the organizing idel even for relations between men and women. Friendship is discussed as intimacy, inseparability, devotion, and passion within the context of the précieuse cultural movement.

Around 1700, French legal records describe the activities of one Madame de Murat. The policeman who wrote the records was unusually reticent in his specificity stating, “The crimes that are imputed to Madame de Murat are not of the kind that are easily proven by the normal means of intelligence since they consist of domestic impieties and a monstrous attachment to persons of her own sex.”

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