Sappho, a poet of ancient Greece, has been identified as the first woman in literature who wrote about her attraction to and her love of women. With the arrival of Christianity, her works were systematically destroyed by scandalized leaders of the church. As a result, only fragments of her poetry survive and very little about her life is known. Literary scholars continue to debate the identity of this woman; they even debate her sexuality and attraction to women. Some critics believe that Sappho was primarily a teacher of young women who were preparing themselves for marriage. From the time of Sappho until the mid-nineteenth century, there was very little, if any, direct mention of lesbians in North American literature. What was mentioned in various ways were those women who were different from other women in lifestyle, in physical attributes, or in not having to rely on a male for financial security. These women were typically identified as mannish. Such women appear in Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah (1969), for example.
During the late eighteenth century, romantic friendship between women was not a societal taboo, and in fact was encouraged so that men’s and women’s lives could be largely separate and yet able to maintain gender roles and expectations. In Life with the Ladies of Llangollen (1984), Eleanor Butler tells of her life with Sarah Ponsonby; the two women, members of a sewing circle, fell in love, moved away from their families, and lived together as a couple for more than fifty years.
During the Victorian era (Queen Victoria ruled from 1837 to 1901), women were still encouraged to develop close relationships with other women (although sex between women was, officially at least, unthinkable), often with the tacit assumption that their husbands could thereby continue their liaisons with mistresses or prostitutes.
As women became more self-sufficient in the twentieth century, literature began to present mixed versions of lesbians. Radclyff Hall published The Well of Loneliness in 1928. Although it was not the first book by and about lesbians, the fact of its publication is a milestone. The book is the first modern lesbian novel. Hall tells a sad and horrifying tale of a woman who must dress like and act like a man in order to love another woman. As a result of the Well of Loneliness, many women who believed that they might be homosexual used the book’s characters as identities for themselves. As a result lesbians became identified as butch if they appeared more masculine than feminine, and as femme if they appeared...
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