A Very Brief History of Love (& Sex) Between Women

By Leila Rupp

This week, at the polls in Maine, voters took away the right of same-sex couples to marry. The same thing, of course, already happened in California. When it comes to same-sex marriage, the courts—and recently state legislatures as well—hold out the promise of equality, and then voters snatch it away. But it was not always that way. In some places in the past, it was the courts that handed out severe punishment for same-sex sexuality, while the public accepted or tolerated it. Why are things so different now?

In my book, Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women“>Sapphistries, I tell stories of love between women around the world and throughout time, and one thing that is striking is that female same-sex sexuality has not always met with disapproval. For example, a thirteenth-century Tunisian text recounts the story of a man being told that his wife has a female lover and responding, “Yes, I ordered her to do that because it is softer on her labia, purer for the opening of her vulva.” (He does go on to add “and more worthy when the penis approaches her that she know its superiority,” but that is another story.)

Or this: in a working-class neighborhood in 18th-century Amsterdam, two women were making love in an attic when their neighbors, hearing noises, peeked through a hole in the wall to see what they were doing. Although the women did get arrested (which is how we know about this incident), their lovemaking went on for two hours, long enough for other neighbors to come and enjoy the show. Obviously the neighbors were not upset enough to call a halt to the activity, even if they did provide the testimony in court that landed the women in jail.

Or, a happier tale: Charlotte Cushman, a much-admired 19th-century American Shakespearean actress who lived in Rome, was known for romancing women on stage (as Romeo) and off. And she was quite public about her marriage to a woman sculptor. Then she fell in love with Emma Crow, the daughter of a friend’s male patron. The friend wrote to her patron about Cushman, “I perceive that she and Emma are what we this side of the ocean call ‘lovers.’” Cushman carried on both relationships, arranging a marriage between her adopted son and Emma, making her literally a member of the family. Her fame was not affected.

And in the 1990s, in a very poor rural region of India, Geeta, who was married to an abusive husband, met Manju at a residential school run by a women’s organization. They fell in love and married at a Shiva temple. Manju’s family welcomed Geeta as a daughter-in-law, and Manju became a second mother and father to Geeta’s daughter.
So why is it that contemporary American voters are so intolerant? When they advocate the importance of “traditional marriage,” they should know more about history.

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