leila rupp

Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women by Leila J. Rupp

[Books About Queer Women]

From the ancient poet Sappho to tombois in contemporary Indonesia, women throughout history and around the globe have desired, loved, and had sex with other women. In beautiful prose,‘Sapphistries’ tells their stories, capturing the multitude of ways that diverse societies have shaped female same-sex sexuality across time and place.

Leila J. Rupp reveals how, from the time of the very earliest societies, the possibility of love between women has been known, even when it is feared, ignored, or denied. We hear women in the sex-segregated spaces of convents and harems whispering words of love. We see women beginning to find each other on the streets of London and Amsterdam, in the aristocratic circles of Paris, in the factories of Shanghai. We find women’s desire and love for women meeting the light of day as Japanese schoolgirls fall in love, and lesbian bars and clubs spread from 1920s Berlin to 1950s Buffalo. And we encounter a world of difference in the twenty-first century, as transnational concepts and lesbian identities meet local understandings of how two women might love each other.

Giving voice to words from the mouths and pens of women, and from men’s prohibitions, reports, literature, art, imaginings, pornography, and court cases, Rupp also creatively employs fiction to imagine possibilities when there is no historical evidence. 'Sapphistries' combines lyrical narrative with meticulous historical research, providing an eminently readable and uniquely sweeping story of desire, love, and sex between women around the globe from the beginning of time to the present. [X]

In the Guangdong province of China, from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, an unusual pattern of marriage resistance developed. This took two forms: women either married but delayed or refused going to live with their husbands, or they took vows never to marry. Explanations for marriage resistance focus on the importance of unmarried women’s employment in the silk industry in that region, which gave them the possibility of supporting themselves, the emergence in villages of “girls’ houses” where young women lived until they married or took vows of spinsterhood, and the influence of a religious sect with a mother goddess and a commitment to sexual equality.
      Commentators at the time and contemporary scholars as well have associated both forms of marriage resistance with same-sex practices. According to one writer, women put off moving in with their husbands because they “acquired intimate friends with whom they practiced homosexual love.
      Another, more permanent kind of marriage resistance was zishu, “sworn spinsterhood” or “sworn sisterhood.” Women performed ceremonies known as “the union of sisters” or “bonding with an understanding friend” and refused to marry at all.  A novel described a group of Shanghai prostitutes taking the name “Mirror-polishing Gang”—referring to the Chinese term for tribadism—and loving and having sex with one another. Members took vows not to marry except within the group and to kill themselves or their husbands if forced into marriage with a man. Other sources refer to the Golden Orchid Association, a semisecret group of sworn friends modeled after a Buddhist nuns’ community who took vows not to marry after performing a traditional premarital hairdressing ritual that marked a woman as mature. They would go through a marriage-like ceremony during which they would be given money by relatives, “sisters,” and friends, and a banquet would follow. Sworn spinsters would then move in with their “sisters,” and together they would save money to pay for celebrations, emergencies, eventual retirement in a spinsters home, or funeral expenses. Some women reportedly took this step to avoid the economic and social consequences of marriage, out of dislike for heterosexual relations, or because they feared childbirth.
      Sworn sisters not only vowed not to marry men, but they also married one another, one taking on the role of husband and the other serving as wife. A book on Chinese customs published in 1935 reported such a practice: “Whenever two members of the association develop deep attachments for each other, certain rites of ‘marriage’ were performed. For such a ‘marriage’ to be permitted, one partner has to be designated as ‘husband.’” Once an offering of food was accepted by a woman, “a night long celebration which is attended by mutual female friends follows. From then on the couple will live as ‘man and wife.’ Sexual practices including genital contact called ‘grinding bean curd’ or the use of dildoes are practiced.” As with some Native American and African female husbands, children could be adopted and could inherit property from their parents. A disapproving male commentator described the marriages this way: “Two women dwell together, always existing as if they were one woman. They are as close as a stalk of grain coming through a stone… All women who take this oath get to know one another, arranging eventually to unite.”
      Even sources that do not portray women marrying one another in their sworn sisterhoods admit that women might have sex with one another. One informant explained that a woman is predestined to marry the same person repeatedly in different incarnations, and if one of those happens to be as a female, she will want to marry him in that guise.
      Stories of women who committed suicide when they could not stay with their beloved friends reveal another kind of marriage resistance. In the story “The Affinity between Five Young Women,” five teenagers drown themselves to avoid having to marry and separate from one another. The extremity of the solution reveals the strength of the connection among women.
—   ‘Sworn Sisters and Sweet Doganas ’, in Leila J. Rupp (ed.), Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women ( 2009), pp. 121-123
Constrain Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, to cast herself into the bathhouse for the sake of Sophia, whom Isara bore, for her. Aye, lord, king of the chthonic gods, burn, set on fire, inflame the soul, the heart, the liver, the spirit of Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, with love and affection for Sophia, whom Isara bore; drive Gorgonia herself, torment her body night and day; force her to rush forth from every place and every house, loving Sophia, whom Isara bore, she, Gorgonia surrendered like a slave.

These are incredibly passionate lines from a love spell commissioned in Upper Egypt in the 3rd/4th century CE, intended to ignite one woman’s love for another woman.

Source: Bernadette J. Brooten’s Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, quoted in Sapphistries by Leila J. Rupp

Sappho born c. 612 BCE

What is known about the life of Sappho fills hardly a paragraph, and her surviving poems, many so fragmentary as to extend to only a few words, cover just thirty or forty pages. Yet she occupies a prominent place in history, as the woman who gave her name to what was called ‘sapphism’, and what today is called ‘lesbianism’, after the island of her birth. Well may she have written: ‘I think that someone will remember us in another time.’

The poet loved the beauty of young women – ‘towards you beautiful girls my thoughts / never alter’, she writes in one fragment. She fell in love, and one poem intimates the sexual consummation of her desires. She vividly describes the spine-tingling, sweating, ear-throbbing physical effects of passion. Love also brought pain, and in one of the more complete poems to survive Sappho voices distress that a lover is now drawn to someone else, a man. Elsewhere she addresses a girl several times by name, though with the melancholy of an affair that has come to an end: ‘I was in love with you, Atthis, once, long ago’. She calls upon Aphrodite to bring comfort in her lovelorn solitude and to revive a friend’s affections. She writes about a wedding, congratulating a bridegroom on his beautiful spouse. Writing as an ageing woman, the poet recalls threading love garlands; she realizes that certain sorts of love have now slipped away, yet mischievously reminds those still in the throes of passion that ‘we, too, did such things in our youth’. And she tenderly expresses a hope for her readers in a single-line fragment: ‘May you sleep upon your gentle companion’s breast.’

Much of our limited knowledge about lesbianism in ancient Greece comes, as the historian Leila Rupp has reminded readers, from a few suggestive images on vases and from the random, sometimes disobliging comments of men often found in Greek comedies. The sexuality of women was of little public import, except where it concerned the pleasures and familial obligations of men, and sex without phallic penetration barely counted as sex at all. Women did not show off their bodies in homosocial settings, as men did in the gymnasiums, and philosophers seldom ennobled passionate feelings between women with the same educative or philosophical mission as that accorded to intercourse between noble men and youths. There is some indication from Plutarch, however, that maidens and older women in Sparta entered into lasting relationships. In one of Lucian’s dialogues, a young woman, Leaena, recounts a Sapphic symposium where, after appropriate music-making, she was initiated into a sex triangle with a pair of partnered women, Demonassa and Megilla, the latter of whom happened to hail from Lesbos and took pride in her manliness as she moved to embrace her. For the classical scholar James Davidson, the mise en scène implies not only lesbian seduction, but the existence of declared lesbian couples in archaic Greece.

The relative silence about female same-sex love makes Sappho’s voice particularly resonant. The shards of her verses offer the first clear expressions of love between women in classical European literature and some of the most tantalizing literary images of lesbianism in the legacy of antiquity. Yet the sentiments painted in her verses are universal. It is no surprise that Sappho has been regularly rediscovered – a lesbian circle in early 20th-century Paris grew so enamoured of the poet that they occasionally dressed in ancient garb and recited her verses in Arcadian gardens, even making a pilgrimage to Lesbos. In the context of the women’s movement of the 1960s, Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love wrote a ‘liberated view of lesbianism’ entitled Sappho Was a Right-On Woman. As the classicist Alastair Blanshard has shown, Sappho, like other figures of antiquity connected with love and lust, has become a ‘brand’, omnipresent in literature and imagery.

Sappho’s image appears in many fanciful manifestations. The rather lifeless statue of her in Mytilene, shouldering a lyre, bespeaks pride in the island’s native daughter but also discomfort with her sexuality. Indeed, in 2008 the good people of Lesbos mounted a court case, unsuccessfully, to try to ensure that the term ‘lesbian’ applied only to the residents of the island, not to sapphists. Other statues turn Sappho into an alluring naked seductress, though probably many were meant to lure men rather than women. In other incarnations, she has become a leisured beauty, a stern Victorian bluestocking, a winsome adolescent, an ethereally pastel spirit ascending to the heavens, and a brooding, bare-breasted bard cloaked in mysterious black. The metamorphoses are further proof of Sappho’s endurance as honoured poet and lesbian icon.

- Robert Aldrich, ‘Gay Life Stories’ (2012)

Image: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sappho and Alcaeus, 1881 (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)


6 Books I Read and Loved in 2014

I’ve already tweeted about most of these but I thought I’d put together a quick tumblr post about them too. These were my favorite books read in 2014 and I highly recommend them. Here are my brief reasons why:

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue — This historical novel, set in 1870s San Francisco, is based on the real-life murder of a cross-dressing woman named Jenny Bonnet. Most of the story takes place from the POV of a dancer/prostitute named Blanche, and she is quite a lady. A quirky voice, a fascinating tale, and one of the most unique books I read.

The Secret Place by Tana French — This is French’s latest crime novel, part of her Dublin Murder Squad series, and it features characters from her earlier novel Faithful Place, which is my favorite in the series. This one is set in a Dublin-area girls’ boarding school and is just chock full of details; some of the interrogations feel like they’re simply being recorded word-for-word. I’m still impressed by the way French handles police procedurals.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett — This book didn’t come out in 2014 but I read it last year, and the reading experience was like being gripped by some kind of miraculous spell. It’s about a doctor in the Amazon searching for a lost colleague, and the combination of anthropology, medicine, and richly rooted sense of place was unforgettable for me. As I read the last word I was overcome by, yes, a state of wonder.

Sapphistries by Leila J. Rupp — This is a nonfiction overview of women who loved women throughout history, starting with ancient goddess worshipping cultures and myths. I read this as research, and it’s an academic book, but I think regular readers would also be interested in it. It really gave me the sense that women who loved women have always been here: I love that.

Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr — This biography was fascinating to me because I’m a total space nut, but also because Sally Ride was not only the first American woman in space but the first lesbian. The book does go into Sally’s personal life, but never in a prurient way, and it left me feeling both regretful that Sally never felt able to be open about her relationship, and also really admiring of her as an astronaut and a scientist.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters — At long last, a new Sarah Waters novel! This one, set in 1920s London, did not disappoint. It’s about a love affair between two women, one a landlady and the other one of her renters. It’s both a love story and much, much more. If you’re familiar with any of Waters’s novels you’ll know they often have quite a big twist in the middle, and this one is no different. There is crime involved, repercussions, and the last hundred pages must be read in one sitting because you won’t be able to stop. Fantastic.

I am 1000% here for queer girls who can only safely explore their queerness through making out at straight bars or threesomes with their bf. I see you. You are important. Keep tearing apart heteronormativity from the inside. Use normative scripts to validate yourself. You do you and keep yourself safe. I hope the world is kinder to you.