When I read about history, I like to get to know the person as more than a historical figure. I want to know something more about that person than what they did for a living. So, a few months ago, I set out on in search of a site on-line which detailed the lives of women loving women in our collective history. I just about jumped off my seat when I found The Lesbian Herstory Project, but was rather disappointed to find it to be nothing more than a list of names.
For far too long, women loving women have been nothing more than overlooked members of our society. Even now, with all of the push to include lgbt persons in mainstream culture and to acknowledge our presence and contributions throughout history, women loving women are often overlooked or excluded all together. So, I set out on a never-ending journey to find out about some of the women loving women who came before me and their contributions to the world, even if only to the small world around them.
To me, all people are valuable in this world and serve a greater purpose, even if they never get their 15 minutes of fame. I guess that was the best attitude to go into this project with, for several reasons. Women have always had their 'place' in society, which did not allow for them to get those 15 minutes in the spotlight. Women have been seen as backdrops to society, allowed only to look into the world through their husbands' eyes. People often forget just how recently women were allowed to go to college, to have careers, to be active in politics, or, frankly, to be anything but a care giver for the men who would go on to do all of those things for them. With this remembered, it is easy to see just how notable it is that any woman would have the courage to live as she was meant to live, as a woman loving woman, and that, in and of itself, is notable.
In my next few articles, I will try to share with you the information which I have collected about various women loving women throughout history. But, before you read about the women themselves, there are a few things which I feel are important to remember when studying the presence of women loving women in our collective history. So, as an introduction, I will try to explain the factors which weighed heavily on the available histories, factors which attempt to hide their existence and worked against themselves in their quest for happiness. I hope that you will remember these facts and take them with you during your own journey to find out about women loving women in history.
The first thing that you should remember when reading anything about women loving women in history (including bisexual women, lesbians, and f2m persons) is that the remaining information about these women has been tainted with social stereotypes and misconceptions, false ideas which were encouraged by the medical professions. For many years in many different areas of the world, sexual activity between two women was punishable by death. (What greater deterrent could these women have for hiding their true feelings towards other women than the fear of being found out and being institutionalized for 'insanity', or worse yet, being put to death for their activities?) Women loving women were seen as, in the words of Dr. Caprio in his book titled Female Homosexuality, "emotionally unstable and neurotic." Lesbianism and bisexuality in women (which were rarely identified as anything other than "lesbian tendency" in a woman who knew that it was morally wrong) were seen as psychological disorders in the US (and in most of the rest of the world) until the early to mid-70's when it was declassified as a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association. However, even today, some psychologist and many Christian religious figures see it as a choice and/or mental illness which may be cured through therapy and/or prayer. (Don't ask me how a mental illness can be a choice!) So, much of the remaining proof of lesbians and bisexuals in history comes from studies done by those trying to "explain" the "reasons" for lesbian and bisexual behavior, studies looking for a "cure" for such "unnatural" behaviors, or studies of women who had other mental disorders (i.e. chronic and severe depression) who also just happened to be a woman loving woman and who was already in therapy for her existing mental disorder(s). Of course, these are NOT the best examples of women loving women as they are only a small part of our true population.
It is also important that you remember that the concept of being a woman loving woman is also relatively new. Before (and even now), the idea was that lesbians wanted to be men. There was no concept of a woman actually enjoying being a woman loving woman. (This limited belief of human sexuality was the cause for the religious and legal institutions largely ignoring lesbianism for many centuries when creating a list of activities they viewed as 'sinful'. They simply could not imagine that any woman would actually want to be sexually involved with another woman. There are remaining writings on lesbian activity in which the authors stated the common belief that women could not possible find anything attractive about other women when they could "simply" choose to be with a man.) So, it was assumed that if a woman liked women romantically that she must want to become a physical man, as intercourse between a man and a woman was seen as the only "real" and "fulfilling" kind of sex.
Another important thing to remember is that the term "lesbian" did not come into popular use as to mean women loving women (exclusively) until relatively recent times. In fact, 'lesbian' wasn't used to describe a woman loving woman until the publication of a medical journal in 1883 where it was used to describe the case of Lucy Ann Lobdell Slater, a woman who left her husband and children behind after a rocky marriage to live as a man and marry another woman, Maria Perry, with whom she lived as "husband" and wife for 12 years. (Maria was aware that her 'husband' was in fact a woman). Later, Lucy, who had been living by the name Joe or Joseph, was later sent to an asylum for 'manical attacks'. While institutionalized, Lucy then stated that she was 'more a man than a woman', that she could manipulate her genitals to act as male genitals (It was a then common belief fueled by the psychological and medical communities dating back many years that lesbians had enlarged genitals so that they could perform as a man would because it was believed that there was no other way for two people to have sex.), and that she had not had her menstrual cycle since early womanhood. She was declared insane on two separate occasions, largely due to these statements. It is my belief that Lucy was insane, but not because of these beliefs. Rather, I believe that she, like others before and after her, were driven literally insane by societal pressures against women loving women. While her statements might make it seem to the reader that Lucy was in fact transgendered, I do not believe that this was the case. I think that she was a butch dyke looking for an acceptable outlet for her all too natural feelings towards women, a search which proved to be more than many women could handle considering the amount of pressures to the contrary. Lucy spent her last days going in and out of 'manical attacks', rarely getting out of her asylum bed, and later died alone.
With such a notably sad start to the term 'lesbian' being used to describe women loving women, it comes as no surprise that many of the women did not call themselves "lesbians" while we would be inclined to classify them as such today. The word "lesbian" was 'reclaimed' by women loving women in the early part of this century when it became at least as much of a political statement as it was a label of sexual orientation. Today, it is most likely not to be associated in and of itself with any political beliefs but seen simply as a title used for women who love other women exclusively.
While women loving women are hard to find in our history, except where noted in medical journals, bisexual women are almost impossible to find, at least partly due to our own insistence on classifying any woman or man who has a relationship with the same gender as a "lesbian" or "gay man" while they may in fact be bisexual, meaning that they have emotional, romantic, and are sexually attracted to both genders (not necessarily at the same time, despite stereotypes.) (Example: It is commonly 'known' that Sappho was a world famous lesbian poet. However, this belief ignores the fact that she was married to a man for whom she also wrote beautiful love poems. I have also read that she may have also had affairs with men, though women were more accessible due to her poetry school for women.) To complicate this even more, many women, especially in the early part of this century and before were forced by society and circumstance to marry men, even if they were in fact lesbian by nature. Even today, due to pressures from society, many women who may self-identify as lesbian (meaning a woman loving woman exclusively) have at least one relationship (usually sexual) with a man. Situations such as this are a source of confusion for some people even in modern times when we can simply ask the woman in question about her self identity, so the reader can imagine what kind of confusion this facts causes when we are looking at a limited amount of information about relationships and people's lives from many, many years ago. So, due to the fact that many women had to marry men, even if identifying as a woman loving woman and the fact that sometimes what we do know about these women is misrepresented and they are incorrectly labeled as "lesbians", it is often hard to differentiate between lesbians and bisexual women in history.
Another factor working against finding out about bisexual women in history is the fact that many times bisexual women were never found out. They were able to live happily with their husband while having a female "friend" (who was more than likely also married and lived close by) with whom they shared an intimate relationship with. This often did not raise an eyebrow since traditionally women's friendships have been seen as sacred. Women have always been viewed as being weak and needing to surround themselves with other women for emotional support. It was (and is) common for women to spend a lot of time alone, even sharing a bed. There are stacks of what might seem to us today to be love letters left behind from these innocent friendships. These activities were normal for non-sexually involved female friends, so women who were sexually involved would not have seemed out of the ordinary to most of those around the women.
It is also important to remember that the concept of being transgendered is extremely new. (I use the term "transgendered" to refer to a person who feels that they were born into a body of the wrong gender. This means that a person who has a soul and mind which they identify as being male or female was accidentally combined with the a body of the opposite gender.) Until recent times, there was no real, defined concept of "transgender." So, this "condition," like lesbianism and bisexuality, was seen as a mental illness (as it still all too often is) which had to be "treated" and hopefully "cured." So, what little history we do have of women who felt that they were born a man inside of a woman's body comes from studies performed on them with the hopes of finding a "cure" for their "mental disorder." Any person who dared to speak of their true transgendered feelings were often stuffed into a straight jacket (if you will forgive the term) faster than they could recant their damning words. Dr. Sigmund Freud did a lot to add to the confusion over the difference between lesbianism and being transgendered in the his paper titled The Psychogenesis of a Case of Female Homosexuality in which he stated that lesbians were only lesbians because of their deep seeded hate for men, that homosexuality was the result of gender confusion, and that lesbian relationships involved role-playing (meaning that one of the partners by nature had to take on the role of a man.) Unfortunately, his misinformation is still often treated as "fact." (A humorous side note: Freud's own daughter was a lesbian!)
Other evidence does exist, proving the presence of possible transgender f2m persons, as seen in a report by Stevenson which was published in 1908. In this report, Stevenson tells the story of Anna Mattersteig, who lived as a man, going by the name Johann Burger, her true physical gender being hidden even from her wife. When she was found out to be a physical woman, she was arrested and charged with impersonation and abduction (a charge stemming from the fact that her wife did not know her true physical gender when they were married.) In court, Anna stated that she was only acting out her nature and that it had been a mistake of nature for her not to be born into a male body.
We do have many other remaining stories of women who chose to live as a man in order to marry another woman and/or in order to enjoy the legal rights given to only male members of society. However, these stories can be easily misleading as many of these women may have otherwise been happy to live as a woman loving a woman but were instead forced by societal pressures, fear, and their own internalized misconceptions about women loving women to take on the role of a man in order to live in some sort of mock socially and morally acceptable union with their 'wife.' Women were told that having romantic or sexual feelings for another woman was inherently "wrong" and "sinful."
Therefore, some women (even today, though less and less often as our society becomes more understanding and open-minded) wanted to be men, not because they felt as if they were meant to be born men as much as they felt that if they were men their desire and even need to be with women would be "normal." Women loving women who felt this way were NOT what we now call transgender as they would have more than likely been happy living and loving women as a woman, however, because of what society told them and did to women who tried to live this way, it was next to impossible for women to feel positive about themselves and actually live as they felt they were meant to. (A good example of this is the story of Alberta Lucille Hart. Alberta graduated from Albany College in 1912 and then went on to attend Stanford University and medical school. She sometimes wore men's clothes and would often be assumed to be a man. However, she didn't seem to have a problem with her life as a woman loving woman until she began to study medicine. In her studies, she read about her "condition" and for the first time she became ashamed to be a woman loving woman as she felt that if the medical journals said that her feelings towards other women were wrong, they must be. Unable to deny her attractions, she began psychiatric treatment to help her deal with her feelings and with the help of her male psychiatrist, she decided that the only way that she could live with any pride left was to live as a man. In some sort of self punishment, she actually insisted on having a complete hysterectomy.)
Combined with this fact and the fact that women were NOT allowed to live in a romantic way with other women because of society's views on lesbianism and the fact that women had limited career opportunities to explore in order to support themselves, one of the women in a lesbian couple often took on a male persona, using a man's name, living in full-time drag as a man, marrying another woman under the guise of being a man, raising children (who were often adopted with the excuse of "fertility problems" being given as their reason for wanting to adopt), and even voting or holding political office as a man. (Example: Mary Anderson passed as Murray Hall of many years, and even served as a New York City politician for several years before being discovered upon her death to be a woman.) Most of the time their wives knew that their "husbands" were in fact women, but occasionally they did not. Many of the women who did not know may have never found out the true physical gender of their "husbands", but we do have stories of wives finding out that their "husbands" were in fact women. (Talk about traumatic news! Anna Mattersteig's wife, Martha Gammater was driven insane by the news that her "husband" was in fact a woman.) So, when looking back in history on these stories, is hard to determine if these women were in fact transgendered or were just conforming to the societal rule of relationships having to be between a "man" and a woman.
Many times, without one partner living in male drag, the couple would not have been able to live together and certainly not been able to be accepted and respected in any part of society. It is also important to note that we have no way of knowing the number of women who lived as men because often times precautions were taken to protect their families from suffering the shame (or other negative effects, such as lose of a pension for the surviving partner) if the truth about their physical gender was found out, precautions which would not have been hard to ensure as most bodies were never inspected in order to determine the cause of death. (The cases where these women were found out at the time of their death often includes a sudden illness which caused their death in a hospital or other setting where their gender would have been found out.)
It is also important to remember that until recent times, there was no gay and lesbian subculture for these people to turn to. Often they were forced to live by society's rules, even if they had to bend them a little. So, for these reasons, I will refer to women who passed as men simply as "cross dressers," even though this would not be the correct term in modern society. In my discussions on these women, I will make note of any knowledge I have as to what this person may have called themselves had they lived in modern times with so many labels available to them. However, you should remember that this is partly a guess on my part as I can not speak for another person in complete certainty.
And last, but not least, you should also remember that history, like all things, is tainted by individual beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. This includes my own. So, when reading my version of the history of lesbians, bisexual women, and f2m persons, please understand that while I have tried to be as honest and open about the facts included here and in the articles to come, this short history is made up partly of my own (and others') interpretation of the facts left to us by a biased culture. Please feel free to draw your own conclusions and to research the facts I present to you on your own. Remember, these women are an important part of OUR collective history, as women loving women, as members of the entire lgbt community, and as members of the human race. The only real way to appreciate how far we have come, as well as how far we need to go, is to remember where we have been.
This article is an adaptation of its original form found at http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/1769/nl1.html and is the first of a series on women loving women in our collective history.