Thursday, July 14, 2011

The History of "Surpassing the Love of Men"

With the FAIR Education Act (which would require California schools to teach LGBT history as part of social studies, more about it here) passing in the Senate and the Assembly, and currently sitting on  Governor Jerry Brown's desk, I've been thinking about LGBT histories, both lost and recovered.

Lillian Faderman's excellent academic-but-readable "Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present" is an impressive account of the environments and perceptions of lesbian love, starting in the 16th century.

The idea for the book came after Faderman read Emily Dickinson's love letters and poems to her sister-in-law Sue Gilbert, written in the 1850s. Dickinson wrote freely and unguardedly about her love for Gilbert and it made Faderman wonder:
"If I had really uncovered a lesbian relationship, why could I not find any evidence of the guilt and anxiety, the need to keep secrets from family and friends, that I thought were inevitably associated with homosexuality before the days of gay liberation?"
It was because at that time, romantic friendships between women were not viewed negatively by society. They were viewed as a safe (read: no chance of pregnancy) place for women to experiment with romance and some physical love. Of course, many heterosexual women went through the motions because it was expected at the time, but it allowed for women who really did love women to express their love least for a time. Given women's lack of financial independence, it was almost impossible for women in the 1800s to build a life exclusively with each other (though they may have continued writing passionate letters and sometimes continued being together physically). But, there are some amazing exceptions, and Faderman has some great photos and great stories to share.

Post WWI, everything changed. Faderman writes:
"Women's status changed and the new 'medical knowledge' cast such affection in a new [negative] light. I discovered abundant evidence of female same-sex love, of course, but it was almost invariably accompanied by a new outlaw status. ...Not only did 20th century lesbian literature by heterosexuals usually show love between women to be a disease, but that women who were professedly lesbian generally internalized those views. This was reflected in their own literature, which was full of self-doubt and self-loathing until the 1960's."
And then of course, the tide started turning again in the 1970s. Faderman argues that without free love (people began to see that sex outside of marriage was not evil), McCarthyism (people were sick of persecuting each other), feminism (women thinking out of the patriarchical box) and the small cadre of lesbians who came out in the 30s, 40s and 50s, the lesbian liberation would not have been possible. In 1971, a lesbian-feminist magazine Ladder writer, Ann Hayley, articulated this unanticipated new role that lesbians were being asked to step into:
"With the advent of the Women's Liberation movement ... we suddenly find ourselves in demand. We are wanted to be living proof that a woman can be a self-realizing human being. We are wanted to explain the intricacies of Lesbianism as a lifestyle. We are wanted to provide a pattern for relationships in which a woman is not exploited or demeaned."
What comes out most strongly from that excerpt are the words "we are wanted."

Governor Jerry Brown, let's stop silencing the fascinating and instructive history of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and gay people; speaking aloud of history does so much to help LGBT folks of the present understand themselves and their ancestors. And then there's the added bonus of allowing and encouraging teachers to teach social studies and history as it truly happened, instead of kowtowing to  bigots who would rather our past be edited and deleted as it suits their ideology.


  1. Update! Gov. Brown just signed the FAIR Education Act into law!!!!! More here from Equality California:

  2. It's so exciting to hear that, while in my home state of Texas, people are working to limit the historical narrative in textbooks even further, here in my adopted state people are actually fighting to make it more inclusive and fair. A seeming no-brainer with the potential for major positive change. Great post Jude!