Erasing lesbians erases women’s history

Susan B Anthony

No one questions the existence of gay men. But until the past 100 years, give or take a decade, the existence of lesbians — women who have sexual and romantic relationships solely with other women — has been questioned by everyone, including feminist historians and even lesbian researchers.

Yes, Sappho existed, and in the 1970s, lesbian-feminist authors Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love declared “Sappho Was a Right On Woman: A Liberated View of Lesbianism.” 

Despite what we are told about lesbianism and lesbian eroticism, they are neither independent of each other nor did they spring fully flowered suddenly in 1920s Paris with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Natalie Barney, Renée Vivienne, Romaine Brooks, Josephine Baker and Ida Rubenstein. That klatch of monied expatriate American lesbians made news and history, but they were hardly the first lesbians to make themselves visible. While riding through the streets of Paris naked and bareback as Barney did made her and her coterie instantly Instagram famous (had Instagram existed back then) the fabled sexual exploits of Barney and her friends was only notable for its notoriety. 

Because, really, all over Paris, like all over America, lesbians were living lesbian lives. Full, romantic, sexual lives, just like heterosexuals and gay men.

One of the most problematic directions women’s studies took as it became a burgeoning field in the 1970s and 1980s — before it, too, was erased and subsumed into the amorphous catch-all of “gender studies” — was this mass erasure of lesbianism. The assertion that women had no sexual autonomy nor sexual desire outside of the realm of compulsory heterosexuality is at the heart of nearly every work on/about lesbian relationships prior to the 20th century. Lesbians didn’t just appear suddenly in the 20th century as anomalous figures with no antecedents throughout history. Lesbians have lived and loved and had bodice-ripping passionate sex for millennia.

In a brutal irony, the erasing of lesbian sexuality has been done most effectively by female academics who hesitate to define same-sex relationships between women as sexual for reasons that are wholly rooted in male contrivance of female sexuality and the male gaze fixation on it. The theory that women never performed sexual acts together before the 20th century is appallingly smug and homophobic.

Every woman regardless of her orientation knows from a young age that lesbians are a trigger for men. The most common retort when a woman rejects a man’s advances or catcalls is to call her a “dyke” or “lesbo.” It happens every day in every place. The terms are meant to be both vulgar and dismissive, like “lezzie,” a diminution and infantilizing of a very real female sexual orientation.

This lesbophobic, misogynist and blatantly ahistorical erasure of lesbian sexuality is similar to the erasure of all autonomous female sexuality: women’s sexual desire has always been viewed, discussed and portrayed within the construct and purview of the male gaze, and as such has never seemed complete without the intrusion of a male into that space of wholly female desire. The trope of a male entering onto the scene of a lesbian sexual coupling just in time to “complete” the sex has been recorded in erotica and pornography since at least the 17th century in the West and far earlier in Asian erotic art.

Initially, the American colonies had sought to imprison lesbians. The criminalization of same-sex female relationships followed that of English Common Law. How often it was actually enforced is unclear. But in the U.S. alone there were laws against lesbianism as early as the 17th century. If there hadn’t been examples of lesbians and lesbian sex, why were there laws prohibiting it?

According to “The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: Reprinted from the Edition of 1660,” in 1636, John Cotton of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proposed a law prohibiting sex between two women, punishable by death. The law read, “Unnatural filthiness, to be punished with death, whether sodomy, which is carnal fellowship of man with man, or woman with woman, or buggery, which is carnal fellowship of man or woman with beasts or fowls.” There is no record of this law being enacted. 

In 1649 in Plymouth Colony, Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon were prosecuted for “lewd behavior with each other upon a bed.” The trial documents are the only known record of sex between female English colonists in North America in the 17th century. Hammon, who was the younger of the two, was given a formal admonition, but Norman was convicted. As part of her punishment, she had to allocate publicly to her “unchaste behavior” with Hammon.

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a federal law that included lesbian and gay sex. The law read, “Whosoever shall be guilty of rape, polygamy, or sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro’ the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least.”

That never gets mentioned in discourse about the Founding Fathers.

Lesbianism has been perceived by many — and Sigmund Freud perpetuated this misperception — as a phase of female sexuality that women grow out of. Schoolgirl crushes and teenage experimentation with lesbian relationships was written about by Freud as a stepping-stone to “true,” “adult” female sexuality: heterosexuality. (Ironically or not, Freud’s daughter, Dr. Anna Freud, was in a lesbian relationship with psychoanalyst Dr. Dorothy Tiffany-Burlingham for more than 50 years.)

Examples of lesbian sexuality are all over early American history. There is ample proof if we examine the confluent and overlapping milieu of women’s education and the suffrage movement, both of which opened up new ways for women to examine their choices in society. One of those choices was the possibility of entering into a lesbian relationship instead of marriage to a man and the inevitable constraints of children. Raising children and running a household was restrictive of women’s time and energy and left little for the work of suffrage or social reform. 

Lesbian relationships bore none of the oppressive and repressive hallmarks of compulsory heterosexuality. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was married to a man and the mother of seven, but who had a long relationship with Susan B. Anthony, wrote of her same-sex relationship, “I prefer a tyrant of my own sex, so I shall not deny the patent fact of my subjection; for I do believe that I have developed into much more of a woman under her jurisdiction.”

For her part, Anthony was clear: Men held women back. At 18 she had written in her diary, “I think any female would rather live and die an old maid.” Throughout her life as a suffragist she never failed to mourn the losses of other suffragists to the constraints of marriage and family which overrode their time and took them from the cause of women’s enfranchisement. The efforts to suppress women’s independence were hardly new. For millennia women’s lives, and their sexual autonomy in particular, had been controlled.

The most famous lesbian in America in the 19th century was Anthony, whose affairs with women — the aforementioned Cady Stanton as well as Rachel Avery, Anna Dickinson, and Emily Gross — were well-known even at the time.

Anthony was one of the most ardent and vociferous suffragists, and as such was targeted by the media as “manly,” which was the worst accusation that could be hurled at a woman. It was an accusation she refuted in a 1900 essay titled “The New Century’s Manly Woman.”

Anthony believed women were stifled by men.

In erasing the physical passion of the lesbian relationships among suffragists, historians miss the importance that this sexual component had for these women, which was the same reason their heterosexual peers married: companionable, accessible, intimate sex. Whether or not these women put the word “lesbian” to their relationships did not make those relationships any less fully lesbian, including sexually. The “Boston Marriage” (two women living together) was desexualized in writings of the time specifically because men feared those relationships and how they might spread like an anti-male, anti-marriage contagion.

Lesbians, with their passionate affairs and life-long partnerships, have been around as long as heterosexual women and gay men, as long as Sappho, as long as Ruth and Naomi in the Bible/Talmud, and as long as Thomas Jefferson was thinking of punishments for them. Nearly 400 years ago, Mary Hammon and Sarah Norman may have been the only lesbian couple in America prosecuted for “being lewd upon a bed together,” but they were not the only lesbian couple being lewd upon a bed. All history has an element of revisionism, but to revise the breadth of lesbian sexuality out of these relationships because they were in a time before our own is to erase a significant part of our history, and as such, our queer, lesbian selves.

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