These are some of the women who were famous for loving other women throughout time. The list also includes information on lesbian topics and literature.
Part 1: The early years
1. Sappho (776 – 480BC)
The word ‘lesbian’ is derived from the name of the Greek island of Lesbos, which was the home to the 6th-century BCE poet Sappho. She was however considered bisexual and not lesbian as her love poems were addressed to both women and men. She was also married to a male.
2. Iphis and Ianthe (323BC – 138AD) – The Book IX of Ovid’s the Metamorphoses
‘When Iphis' mother becomes pregnant, her husband declares that he will kill the child if it is a girl. She bears a girl and attempts to conceal her sex by giving her a name that is of ambiguous gender: Iphis. When the "son" is thirteen, the father chooses a golden-haired maiden named Ianthe as the "boy's" bride. The love of the two girls is written sympathetically:
They were of equal age, they both were lovely,
Had learned the ABC from the same teachers,
And so love came to both of them together
In simple innocence, and filled their hearts
With equal longing.
However, as the marriage draws ever closer, Iphis recoils, calling her love "monstrous and unheard of." The goddess Isis hears the girl's bemoans and turns her into a boy. This self-loathing homophobia still embodies the conflicting emotions of many gay people today.’
3. Megilla & Demonassa (323BC – 138AD) – Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans
Megilla, from Lesbos, renames herself Megillus and wears a wig to cover her shaved head. She marries Demonassa of Corinth.
‘Her friend Leaena comments that "They say there are women like that in Lesbos, with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women, as though they themselves were men". Megillus seduces Leaena, who feels that the experience is too disgusting to describe in detail. This is far from the sophisticated aestheticism of Sappho's group.’
4. Ancient Greece
Erotic and sexual relationships between males were common, and were recorded in literature, art, and philosophy. There is unfortunately hardly anything recorded about homosexual activity between women. There is some speculation that similar relationships existed between women and girls. ‘Historian Nancy Rabinowitz argues that ancient Greek red vase images portraying women with their arms around another woman's waist, or leaning on a woman's shoulders can be construed as expressions of romantic desire. Much of the daily lives of women in ancient Greece is unknown, specifically their expressions of sexuality.
Women who appear on Greek pottery are depicted with affection, and in instances where women appear only with other women, their images are eroticized: bathing, touching one another, with dildos placed in and around such scenes, and sometimes with imagery also seen in depictions of heterosexual marriage or pederastic seduction. Whether this eroticism is for the viewer or an accurate representation of life is unknown.’
5. Early Modern Europe
‘Queen Anne was rumoured to have a passionate relationship with Sarah Churchill, who became Duchess of Marlborough based on her rapport with the queen. When Churchill was ousted as the queen's favourite, she purportedly spread allegations of the queen having affairs with her bedchamber-women. Marie Antoinette was also the subject of such speculation for some months between 1795 and 1796.’
6. The Female Husband (1746)
‘Henry Fielding wrote a pamphlet titled The Female Husband in 1746, based on the life of Mary Hamilton who married women on three separate occasions, and was sentenced to public whipping.
Similar examples were procured of Catharine Linck in Prussia in 1717, executed in 1721; Swiss Anne Grandjean married and relocated with her wife to Lyons, but was exposed by a woman with whom she had had a previous affair and sentenced to time in the stocks and prison. Queen Christina of Sweden's tendency to dress as a man was well-known during her time, and excused due to her noble birth; she was brought up as a male and there was speculation at the time that she was a hermaphrodite. Even after Christina abdicated the throne in 1654 to avoid marriage, she was known to pursue romantic relationships with women.’