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  • Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women
  • Katherine Crawford
Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women. By Leila J. Rupp. New York: New York University Press, 2009. Pp. 320. $29.95 (cloth).

This book takes on the task of making sense of love between women from the earliest evidence to the present. So vast an undertaking might seem absurd, and Rupp herself acknowledges it to be “insanely ambitious” (ix). Even writing a review of a book that covers so much ground and time feels daunting. Yet Rupp’s project synthesizes an array of material and effectively indicates patterns over time and across space.

Opening with three broad chronological chapters treating the oldest, most fragmentary remains (40,000–1200 BCE), ancient societies (3500 BCE–800 CE), and “unlikely places” (500 BCE–1600 CE) where love between women seems to have flourished, Rupp weaves fictional thought experiments together with limited mythological and cultural remains that suggest female homosexual possibilities in disparate cultures. One aspect of Rupp’s method can be demonstrated by her treatment of the myth of the Amazons, which she deliberately [End Page 183] reads for its lesbian possibilities. The effect is to expose the heteronormative patina that disguises female–female love in historical contexts.

Reading against the grain and utilizing imaginative reconstruction, Rupp follows fragments in ancient societies from Latin America to China and from India to Greece, indicating that knowledge of lesbian desire was widespread. None of the evidence is unambiguous, Rupp notes, but there is a great deal of it. Indeed, ancient sources have been sufficient to have produced controversy about the possibility of a notion of sexual identity within ancient societies beyond same-sex acts. Rupp presents the critical voices adroitly, arguing that hostility toward love between women was more marked in societies that feared sexuality and less pronounced in ones that valued “multiple possibilities for pleasure” (40).

Rupp emphasizes that glimpses of women loving women are often to be found in homosocial environments such as convents, polygynous households, and harems. To be sure, many of the sources are male fantasy, but Rupp notes the persistence and elaboration of images of female–female love in diverse religious traditions and in numerous cultural locations. Although scattered, the material is abundant, and Rupp effectively conveys both that female– female love can be read between the lines and that the need to do so serves as an index of the perils attendant on it. Possibility and danger also marked women who stretched the gender binary by adopting male roles and social masculinity as a basic mode of self-presentation as well. Native American third gender individuals are among the best known, but Albanian “sworn virgins,” Hindu sadhin, and female husbands among the Nandi in Kenya are among the examples of women adopting social masculinity and living with women. Cross-dressed women who lived their lives as men dot the historical landscape.

By around 1600 the size and complexity of urban life enabled female-loving women to find each other. “Roaring girls,” lollepotten (randy women), and female pirates were among the denizens of the early modern sexual underworld. Brothels and prisons were notorious for female–female sexuality, as were servants’ quarters. More problematic are stories about aristocratic depravity in which charges of lesbianism directed at the likes of queens Marie-Antoinette of France and Anne of England were fostered by political enemies. Even if such claims were purely polemical, the proclivity for female partners is documented among a number of less visible aristocratic women. With somewhat less scandal, groups of Chinese women who refused marriage and lived together instead, intimate companions (dogana) in India, and romantic friendships between women were common enough that female–female love had a public presence.

Visibility, Rupp suggests, enabled sexologists to pathologize sexual desire between women. Richard Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and August Forel presented a range of dispositions, but the stigma of sexual deviance accompanied the sexological categories. At the same time, naming and describing enabled some women to recognize themselves and to understand that there [End Page 184] were others like them. The language of perversion went together with the idea of a “third sex” to allow space for...


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pp. 183-185
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