Women's relationships that it's time to reclaim

The Lesbian History Sourcebook

May 30, 2003

Lesbians have all too often been written out of history, even represented as "normal" heterosexual women. Only since the 1970s have strenuous efforts have been made, especially by lesbian-feminist historians, to recover the hidden lesbian past, especially in the US. This critical anthology, which brings together a wide range of extracts from British primary sources, is a landmark for lesbian history in this country.

In their informative introduction, Alison Oram and Annmarie Turnbull explore the problematic question of "who is the lesbian?" Is it the feminist woman-identified woman, the woman who cross-dresses, or the woman who loves and/or has sex with other women?

As they point out, these are not easy questions to answer since "lesbian identity" is a late 20th-century concept and the historical past was a very different sexual landscape. Further, dominant male definitions of what is "sexual" complicate attempts to classify sexual acts between women. The editors' working definition of what constitutes lesbianism centres on three aspects of women's behaviour: sexual practices, deviance from gender role norms of femininity, and women's consciousness of their feelings.

The book is divided into three sections, focusing on the themes of cross-dressing women and romantic friendships; public discourses on sex between women; and the making of lesbianism in culture.

The most interesting extracts are the personal testimonies written by women, such as Vera Brittain's account in Testament of Friendship of how her friend Winifred Holtby felt when Vera married and moved out of the flat they shared together.

Suddenly conscious of the ticking clocks in the now-quiet home, Winifred penned a poem. "Oh, foolish clocks, who had not wit for hoarding/The precious moments when my love was here,/Be silent now, and cease this vain recording/Of worthless hours, since she is not near."

How one "reads" this poem is somewhat problematic since Brittain vehemently condemned the "scandalmongers who invented for her  a lurid series of homosexual relationships, usually associated with Lady Rhondda or myself". The extract - like many others - raises important questions about how we interpret evidence of lesbianism in the rich complexity of women's relationships with other women.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth.

 

The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women in Britain from 1780-1970. First edition

Editor - Alison Oram and Annmarie Turnbull
ISBN - 0 415 11484 5 and 11485 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
Pages - 292

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Elderly woman looking up at sky

A recent paper claims that the quality of researchers declines with age. Five senior scientists consider the data and how they’ve contributed through the years

Otto illustration (5 May 2016)

Craig Brandist on the proletarianisation of a profession and how it leads to behaviours that could hobble higher education

Woman tearing up I can't sign

Schools and universities are increasingly looking at how improving personalities can boost social mobility. But in doing so, they may be forced to choose between teaching what is helpful, and what is true, says David Matthews

Eleanor Shakespeare illustration 19 May 2016

Tim Blackman’s vision of higher education for the 21st century is one in which students of varying abilities learn successfully together

Door peephole painted as bomb ready to explode

It’s time to use technology to detect potential threats and worry less about outdated ideas of privacy, says Ron Iphofen