Lesbians Through History
How accurately are lesbians depicted today, and what is the history behind the relationships formed between two women? Women’s history is just as long as men’s, yet most of our historical books and documents fail to amply represent female sexuality from a woman’s perspective. Which is understandable given the fact that, until recently, most of what was documented was written by men. The way that men understood and characterized women was only in association with a woman’s relationship to a man such as wife, mother or daughter.
Starting at what might be considered the beginning, the word “lesbian” originated from the Greek island Lesbos, which was home to the 6th century B.C. poet, Sappho. There is little of her poetry remaining, but what has been studied reveals that she wrote of women and their relationships, focusing on their beauty, and even proclaimed her love for girls. In ancient Greece and Rome, however, women were not seen as historically important so there is no documentation to correlate the writings of Sappho and the reality of whether or not women had sexual relationships with other women.
In Europe during the 17th through 19th centuries, a woman developing and expressing love for another woman was common. It was considered fashionable and not only accepted, but encouraged as practice for a woman’s marriage to a man, while still remaining chaste. Europe wasn’t the only location that accepted the idea women being romantically involved with other women. Marriage between women has been documented in over 30 African societies, however the colonization of Africa resulted in a cultural change and aboriginal sexuality was no longer viewed as acceptable. Even though there was a shift in the concept, the South African government was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. In Asia women were perceived as having no sexuality at all. Not that they did not or could not have relationships with other women, but just that those relationships didn’t impose or influence their duties to bear sons to their husbands.
It wasn’t until around 1890 that the term lesbian started to become a word used to identify women who were involved in sexual relationships with women. The identity of lesbian was formed and women realized that the way they behaved could be classified as different or abnormal. Yet there were many women who embraced the identity of lesbian, like heiress Natalie Clifford Barney, and considered themselves unique.
From the 1890’s to the 1930’s Natalie held weekly meetings in Paris where major artists and celebrities, who were lesbians, could get together and discuss art, literature, and what was happening in the lesbian community. Some of the famous women noted to have attended those meetings, Romane Brooks, Colette, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and Radcliff Hall among others. During this time, there was a large subculture of gay men and lesbian women in Berlin, having several bars and night clubs that allowed for an individual to meet others like them and be open about it. The homosexual subculture disappeared in Germany with the rise of the Nazi’s.
With the onset of World War II, women were assertively called upon to take jobs left by men, thus increasing their independence and further shaping the lesbian scene. In the years that followed WWII, there was an overwhelming desire for things to return to normal as quickly as possible. As paranoia about communism began to spread and the medical community’s view on homosexuality as a pathological emotional disturbance became public, there was prevalent discrimination of the undesirable characteristic of homosexuality.
In the 1950’s, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), was the first lesbian organization in the U.S. It was during this time that lesbian subculture developed the rigid gender roles of butch and femme. The sexual revolution of the 1970’s introduced the lesbian feminists, who identified themselves not based on sexuality, but on their aspiration to gain equality with men and defeat sexism. Through the 1980’s into the early 90’s the aggressive lesbian feminist role softened and lesbians started appearing in mainstream culture. Reoccurring lesbians roles were seen on shows such as Friends and L.A. Law, and exclusive series such as Queer As Folk and The L Word focused mainly on gay and lesbian relationships.
Although relationships between women have taken place in many cultures throughout history, women today have more freedom than ever. Each day women take a step toward equality and the freedom to love who they choose to love, and options for getting married and having a family are increasing. When the road seems too long, let us take a look back at the history of women and lesbians before us, and see how far we have come.
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