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Surpassing The Love Of Men: Romantic Friendship And Love Between Women From The Renaissance To The Present

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496 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 1981

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About the author

Lillian Faderman

23 books273 followers
Lillian Faderman is an internationally known scholar of lesbian history and literature, as well as ethnic history and literature. Among her many honors are six Lambda Literary Awards, two American Library Association Awards, and several lifetime achievement awards for scholarship. She is the author of The Gay Revolution and the New York Times Notable Books, Surpassing the Love of Men and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. (photo by Donn R. Nottage)

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 60 reviews
Profile Image for Anna.
1,656 reviews617 followers
November 30, 2016
I found this book wholly fascinating and compelling, yet sad. It tells the story of love between women and how perceptions and prejudices have shaped it across the centuries. As it was first published in 1981, the subtitle is no longer accurate. The lesbian-feminist movement of the 1970s is the last trend described and it is salutary to compare this to the situation today. The book begins with the notion of ‘romantic friendship’, which reached its height of popularity in the 18th century. Faderman’s examination of romantic friendship demonstrates powerfully how changeable cultural norms are, in an area (love and sex) often blithely treated as immutable. Certainly, you have the trend today of framing so-called masculine and feminine behaviours as biologically fixed, as challenged in the excellent Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference.

A major theme that I felt ran through the book was how sexuality is currently seen as a matter of desire and attraction, rather than behaviour, whereas this has not always been the case. Romantic friendships were a loving behaviour between women which did not tie them to a particular identity, sexual or otherwise. In the 18th century, though, it was widely assumed that none of these romantic friendships could have a sexual aspect, as a) women were assumed to have little or no libido, and b) the men whose writings on the topic have survived did not know how two women could have sex! There is thus a bittersweet tone to the initial chapters on romantic friendship. Undoubtedly their bonds brought a lot of women much joy, companionship, and deep love, however this was within a deeply oppressive patriarchal society. When it became possible for women to be financially independent from men, romantic friendships became suspect.

Thus, the chapters on the 19th century are saddening, as they recount how romantic friendship became pathologised, exoticised, and condemned. Women who had been happily emotionally involved with one another were now treated as sick, in need of psychotherapy, and a threat to family life/the children/society in general. The sexologists, especially Freud, were at the vanguard of this. In short, the patriarchy attempted to ruin the emotional bonds that women had developed in part as a way to survive misogyny. Faderman examines the fictional depictions of women loving women (by then labelled ‘lesbianism’) that promulgated these negative ideas. I was amused by her palpable scorn at the decadent movement’s voyeuristic lesbian stereotyping. For example, ‘The emphasis in most of Verlaine’s other lesbian poems, as in Baudelaire’s, is on sex and sin - but of course the women are always young and lovely and arousing as they shuffle off to hell’.

In Faderman’s opinion, only the feminist movement of the 1970s has been able to rehabilitate love between women. I didn’t previously understand what feminists of that decade meant by lesbian, as it seems to differ significantly from the assumed definition today. Lesbian-feminists of the 1970s apparently made a decision to focus their important emotional relationships (which could be sexual but might not be) on other women. Their lesbianism is thus defined by choice and behaviour, whereas today it is assumed that a lesbian is a woman who is sexually attracted to other women whether she likes it or not. In a way, this shifting definition powerfully demonstrates that in the 21st century, there is an assumption of compulsory sexuality. Thus, behaviour is presumed to follow attraction. Lesbians are women who are attracted to women and therefore have sex with them. Whereas Faderman is at pains to point out that romantic friendships seems often to have been sensual, maybe even sexual, but that was by no means the most important thing about them. Love today is so defined by sex. All serious non-familial relationships and emotional attachments are assumed to have a sexual component. I seem to recall that Freud even claimed that all platonic friendships have sexual attraction buried at their core. Freud has a lot to answer for, really. Even as his theories have been academically discredited, their influence on Western popular culture continues.

‘Surpassing the Love of Men’ reminded me that as women in Europe and the US have gained more sexual freedom, this has brought new constraints and novel forms of sexism. The idea of sexuality as being innate, something you’re born with, counters homophobia by denying the possibility of medical rehabilitation. On the other hand, it also tends to exclude the freedom to choose your sexual and emotional behaviours and aims to neatly categorise everyone. I can imagine the hostile confusion that would result today if you came out as a lesbian, on the basis of not wanting emotional relationships with men whether or not you are attracted to them. Women’s bodies are still generally presumed to be sexually available to men. Moreover, any attraction is generally assumed to be sexual, despite the asexual community’s efforts at subdivision (sexual/romantic/sensual elements, etc). And as sexual attraction is treated as the most important and irresistible component of love, non-sexual relationships are deemed unimportant. This is why I felt a sense of loss when reading about romantic friendships. I love my close female friends very much, however none of them are my 'girlfriend', so these relationships are trivialised. In the media, there are very few depictions of female friendships that are recognisable to me. Female characters in films and on TV are so often rivals for a man's interest, rather than having emotional attachments to one another. Since the 18th century women's lives have improved immeasurably, but not without some losses. We still live in a misogynistic world, though I'm well aware that as a white, middle class woman I'm insulated from the worst of it.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,108 reviews1,168 followers
November 16, 2021
This is a fascinating, incisive analysis of relationships between women and how they have been shaped by cultural trends, in several western countries from the 16th century through the 1970s (the book was published in 1981). There’s a lot to unpack here, and this being a serious work of scholarship—although absolutely readable for a general audience—my review won’t do it justice.

The first question you might ask about this book is whether it’s a history of friendship or lesbians, and the answer is, well, both, but the author doesn’t view these as separate categories. (It is perhaps useful to mention, in summarizing her analysis, that Faderman, a retired professor, has been called “the mother of lesbian history”; per Wikipedia, she came out as a teenager and lives with her female partner of 40 years.) Instead, she does something I wish more people would, in questioning the assumptions of our own society: specifically, pointing out that the 20th century (and I would add, the 21st so far) is obsessed with sex and categorization, putting sexual identity and sexual relationships at the center of people’s lives—but historically, this is far from universal. Her analysis focuses on England, the U.S., France and Germany in that order, countries in which you don’t have to go back very far in time to see completely different assumptions. In fact, the starting point for the book was the author’s attempt to research what appeared to be a same-sex love affair in Emily Dickinson’s life, only to realize that most of her female contemporaries also had intense emotional relationships with female friends, and didn’t seem to see any need to hide their feelings.

Which anyone who’s read much English history or fiction from the 18th and 19th centuries has probably encountered. Whether it’s historical figures, like Queen Anne and Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, or fictional characters like Esther and Ada in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (to give a couple examples of my own, not from this book), examples proliferate of women talking, thinking and behaving with each other in ways that would today signify romance, but which at the time was understood as friendship. A good chunk of this book traces the history of romantic friendship, and the ways women’s position in society encouraged them to form their closest bonds with each other. It was only around the turn of the 20th century that society began to interpret these relationships as likely sexual (and therefore, at the time, deviant; though today we have largely eliminated the deviance while continuing to read everything as sexual). Faderman ties this to women’s increasing economic independence, suggesting that as long as women needed to marry men anyway, their friendships were no threat, but significant numbers of self-supporting women demanding rights threatened the social order. Suddenly actual lesbianism became suspect, while accusations of it were a potent weapon against the women’s movement.

The book also traces the history of actual lesbian sex in western society, which is wild. In the countries discussed, in the early modern period no one seems to have been particularly concerned about whether women were having sex with each other; romantic friendship was seen as a good sign for a future wife’s ability to form emotional attachments, and likewise lesbian sex, where it was known to exist at all, was variably seen as a warm-up for heterosexual sex, or simply a form of assisted masturbation. (No, really. Having sex with your maid? Definitely masturbation.) To actually get convicted for lesbian sex, you essentially had to 1) disguise yourself as a man 2) convincingly 3) marry or attempt to marry another woman and 4) use a dildo. Anything short of that and you weren’t really usurping male prerogatives, so therefore harmless. Meanwhile, in a really wild case from Scotland in 1811, two schoolmistresses accused of having sex with each other were successful in their slander trial against the woman who spread this rumor, on the grounds that 1) sex between women wasn’t actually possible 2) even if it was, good Scottish women wouldn’t engage in it and 3) their intense emotional attachment to each other showed a delicacy of feeling totally at odds with the vulgarity of sex. (And unfortunately, 4) the girl who reported it was half-Indian and so presumably had a “fevered oriental imagination.”)

History is wild. The more I read, the more I learn you should never make assumptions!

At any rate, I found the history from earlier centuries fascinating, though the 20th century segment disappointed me a bit. While the earlier chapters use literature as evidence where appropriate, the 20th century ones spend a disproportionate amount of time describing literary representations to the exclusion of real women’s lives. As the book approaches modern times, the discussion of friendships is also subsumed in the discussion of lesbian relationships—which is part of the book’s thesis, that the lesbian-feminists of the 1970s (who chose to form their closest relationships with women as a reaction against patriarchy) were the heirs to the tradition of romantic friendship. That’s a bit less convincing today, and I’d have loved to see the book discuss friendship more broadly, rather than only those friendships that formed the central relationship of a woman’s life. From my reading I have the sense—at least among the leisured upper classes who left most of the written evidence—that for both men and women, friendship was more highly regarded in the 18th century than it is today. And certainly there were plenty of women, like Sarah Duchess of Marlborough or Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, who had both passionate friendships with other women and passionate marriages (and sometimes love affairs) with men.

It was certainly interesting to read this book alongside Ace; the asexual reading practically writes itself, with both books pointing out the ways sexual “liberation” has made everything about sex, devaluing or calling into question relationships that aren’t. But it is perhaps worth noting that people coming to this book today from other queer directions might take more issue with it: the author takes the position that, at least in women (if you couldn’t tell, the book is really only about women), issues of gender and sexual identity are socially rather than biologically defined. To some extent, we can see her arguments reflected in survey results today; see for instance how quickly large numbers of people are coming to identify as bisexual. But her understanding of lesbianism—including, presumably, her own—is as something chosen rather than predestined, perhaps in large part because in her view, genital sex is the least important part of it.

At any rate, this book is well-written, engaging, analytical, and detailed, including great historical examples and solid analysis. Worth a read, though best approached with a willingness to entertain questions about our own society’s assumptions.
Profile Image for Erica Freeman.
38 reviews8 followers
March 19, 2012
I read this in college, and even with my unreasonably long list of "to-reads," I can't wait to read it again. Validating and fascinating. Not just about lesbianism, but about intellectual, "fraternal," and even sensual (not necessarily sexual) love, respect, and affections between women.
Profile Image for Маnu Kościuszko.
17 reviews6 followers
February 22, 2018
Vycerpavajuca antologia, za ktorou je poctivy kus prace! Autorka sa sustreduje na vztahy medzi zenami za poslednych 400 rokov- cerpa z romanov, poezie, odbornej literatury, dobovej tlace. Detailne zachytava ako sa menilo vnimanie lesbickych vztahov v priebehu storoci a co konkretne malo na tieto zmeny vplyv. Okrem toho prinasa jednotlive osudy zien/parov, ktore sa aj napriek dobe, ktora im nepriala, rozhodli ist vlastnou cestou. Nelahke citanie, ktore ale stoji za tu namahu preluskat sa do konca.
Profile Image for Coltyn.
11 reviews
April 10, 2021
No one read this. For my eyes only.

what a fascinating book! This author is alive and kicking and I would be terrified to hear her views today because her contempt for trans people and butch lesbians in the text is pretty intense. The amount of research and history she compiled is overwhelming, and thinking about the lived experience of the individuals written about is heavy, sometimes tragic, sometimes deeply heartwarming. The number of women who lived full lives with immense pain and depression and devotion is impossible to conceptualize for me, and these lives have to be reduced down to a few paragraphs a hundred times over...it's a lot to deal with emotionally. I guess there's something to be said for seeking representation of modern experiences and feelings in historical texts as a source of validation of the queer experience in the 21st century, but that isn't the whole story with this book. Faderman's view of lesbianism and its relationship to patriarchy is radical and powerful, but it does not hold up in today's world of queer studies and queer living. Her repeated insistence that sexual/romantic attraction to women is secondary to the rejection of male domination and prescribed gender roles simply does not make any sense just 40 years after the writing of this book. The idea that all women can and should choose to become lesbians and that straight women are not as evolved as lesbians is funny but also insane. Out of context, a few of these arguments are outright homophobic by today's standards. Just a weird moment of the book was her claim that wlw and mlm should not be grouped together in terms of experience because they don't experience attraction/gender the same way and THAT is true, but she skips over the shared political marginalization of both groups and is pretty dismissive of non-lesbian queerness as a whole. The way she speaks about gender and what today MIGHT be called trans-ness is especially confusing.

The biggest downfall in my opinion is that she insists on defining lesbians and love between women within the terms of patriarchal gender relations rather than critiquing the way gender is perpetuated and reinforced as a means of gaining control and power. Faderman's view of womanhood and her experience and research into the lives of wlw in Western history is rigid and essentialist. The book is valuable for its information and many of the author's insights are moving, but this is not a progressive text by today's standards (which is perfectly ok, but it should be pointed out).
Profile Image for Kay.
310 reviews3 followers
October 12, 2022
Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present by Lillian Faderman published in 1998. To me, the description of lesbians is too fine a line and closed-minded. I happen to find lesbians of every shape, form and construct to be equally relevant. If I see a lesbian in all her finery covered in lipstick she dazzles. If I find a lesbian in boots, flannels, and rolled-up jeans she is just as dazzling. We are women and we have differences. In this, I fully include transwomen who have fought to be women. The book is too close-minded in my opinion to be great so 2 stars it receives.
Profile Image for AJ.
24 reviews
June 15, 2020
Loved it up until the final chapters, where Faderman sympathises with political lesbianism and desexualises lesbianism.

A lesbian is just an exclusively same-sex attracted female. Nothing else. A lesbian doesn’t have to even be interested in politics. Lesbianism isn’t about ideological or behaviour purity. A horrible woman can still be a lesbian. It is not a safe haven for straight and bisexual women from patriarchy. I’m all for male-attracted women abstaining from men, but it in no way makes them lesbians. Lesbianism is not a lifestyle choice.

Furthermore, in agreeing with political lesbianism, Faderman goes as far as to say lesbianism isn’t inherently sexual. Whilst some lesbians have low sex drives for whatever reason, sex is a huge part of lesbianism. Desexualising lesbians and pretending lesbianism is just the “romantic friendships” discussed from the 18th-19th centuries is not helpful.

Otherwise, my only criticism is that, at times, it’s hard to get through. I think the lack of commas makes it a bit clunky.

Still loved it. Would have given 4/5 without the desexualisation and political lesbianism.
Profile Image for Terri Strange.
19 reviews14 followers
July 22, 2019
This book is full of much essential lesbian history as well as historical challenges to modern “scientific” theories about what causes women to love one another. Faderman addresses many cases in Western European and American history of different understandings of love between women. Essential for anyone trying to understand the feminist sex wars in a way that provides deep historical context.
Profile Image for Linda.
428 reviews28 followers
November 5, 2007
Lillian Faderman's book is a summary of society's views toward love between women over the last 400 years. That's a rather ambitious project. She's got a lot of ground to cover and covering that ground takes a while. That can make the book a bit slow at times, but it's definitely a worthwhile read. Much of the history she discussed was totally unknown to me and while dry, it was interesting.

It seems likely that her goal for the book was to show that society didn't view love between women with through the same lens as many in society do today. To summarize the book in a sentence or two is a disservice but Faderman argues that until the end of the 19th Century, society not only tolerated but encouraged love between women (what was known as "romantic friendship") at least so long as the relationship wasn't perceived as sexual or neither woman was trying to either pass as a man or usurp a male role. Only with the advent of psychiatry and the first studies of human behavior was a friendship between women that went beyond simple friendship seen as disordered.

She uses letters and literature of the periods to make her case and also shows how the modern myth of the lesbian as a vampire-like creature had it's origins in 17th Century French literature. Given how little literature dealt with lesbian themes, these early works were often the basis or inspiration for much of what followed, even into 20th Century America.

The modern debate about whether same-sex love is genetic or caused by environment is also shown to be a debate that dates back to the early psychiatrists.

If you want a book that provides some insight into how society came to be in it's current form, this is a good start down that path.
Profile Image for Alice.
196 reviews79 followers
March 23, 2013
Even if you disagree with some of Faderman's 1981 conclusions (especially about more contemporary events — the section on feminism and women 'choosing' to be lesbian as a feminist statement made me do some facepalming), the amount of research that went into this book — PRE-INTERNET, mind you — is staggering.

She traces the history of romantic friendship from the 1500s to the 1970s, and gives an excellent overview of lesbian literature while doing so. She has stated in recent times that she regrets the Anne Lister diaries not having come to light when she was writing this, but that is one missed example among tens that she did find.

I read Diana Victrix by Florence Converse because of this book. I know more about Gertrude Stein; I am looking forward to reading the poetry of Amy Lowell; I'm trying to get my hands on the letters of Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Carlyle; I'll be reading 'A Description of Millennium Hall,' as well as 'Lesbia Brandon' by Swinburne and 'Ormond' by Charles Brockden Brown.

It's been a fantastic experience.
Profile Image for Melvina.
21 reviews7 followers
July 12, 2013
Very interesting. I got impatient with some of the chapters; it seemed repetitive at times. As I read it, it became more clear to me that romantic friendships haven't gone away, they're just called something else. In many of the examples, these women were not "romantically" involved with several friends, these were exclusive relationships. These friendships involved two women who were totally in love with each other, or exclusively attached to one another. The Boston marriages, for instance. By the end of the book, I was convinced there is no such thing as "romantic friendships". They are now just called same-sex relationships or same-sex marriage. Our current culture doesn't have a problem with two women being exclusively attached to each other (well, for the most part; we've come a long way, but it's still not perfect).

I love the history in this book and there were so many great examples of real women as well as literary characters. I recommend it for the history AND the scholarship.
Profile Image for Freyja Vanadis.
654 reviews6 followers
September 25, 2012
This book took me forever to read; not only because it's long, but because it's full of (too much) information. And while Faderman doesn't exactly use a dry style of writing - she's very readable - she does tend to repeat the same thing over and over and over. She had countless examples of female couples through the centuries, who all did the same things and acted the same way. Pretty soon they all blended together and I had a hard time keeping track of who's who. It's like the people were all the same, just the names changed.
Profile Image for ael.
55 reviews9 followers
January 17, 2008
I'm getting really tired of Lillian Faderman's "all lesbians are nice ladies who hold hands as they walk down the beach" thing, also of the trans-invisibility thing (all inverts were just dykes? really?), but I know she's just coming from a certain generation. That said, she certainly does churn out the easy-reading dyke history tomes.
Profile Image for M.
79 reviews
June 9, 2021
“A person who doesn’t know how to look at their roots will never reach their destination.”

That quote up there sums us why I love history. The stuff you learn in school isn’t really in depth and wow do I want to learn more. This took me a month to read because I really wanted to absorb the book and really savor it, ya know?

I’m from a place where a lot of things are taboo- a conservative society. If there wasn’t any internet I probably wouldn’t have had access to knowledge I needed to explore my sexuality and accept myself for who I am.

I really enjoyed reading this because it helped me see that we have always been there. Being not straight and breaking gender roles wasn’t just an invention of the 20th century.

As a biromantic asexual, I really enjoyed reading about romantic friends. And I really loved that the author made it a point that there was more to same-sex relationships than physical aspects, rather there was the companionship, the camaraderie, and the love between them~

Today, things are better. It’s not totally great, but now we are more connected. I hope that others who come after me will never have to worry if their feelings are abnormal, and I hope that these women are looking at us now and seeing how far we’ve come.

You want to know more about sapphics? Then this is the book for you. The history of women who love other women has been buried and censored for centuries, with society not taking them seriously, classifying their love and/or attraction to other women as immoral and sinful, and shunning them. Many of their stories are lost to time but others have survived. In reading this book, I will remember their struggles and their love for eachother. Now, I will remember their stories when others did not.

Profile Image for Özge Yavuz.
12 reviews
December 16, 2022
Bu kitabı çok uzun süredir okuyorum, ama yine de azar azar hep okumaya devam ettim. Daha çok bir eleştiri (mi desem) havası var. Sanki lisede okuduğumuz kitaba kompozisyon yazarmış gibi milyonlarca lezbiyenin yazdığı milyonlarca şiir...
Yüzlerceyiz sanırım, ne yazıkki milyonlarca değil. Ama yine de tek başıma keşfettim romantik dostumu ve romantik dostluğu, ve içimde güneş açtıran düşüncesine hayranlık besliyorum. Bir de onu çok özlüyorum.
Profile Image for Joni.
19 reviews
September 4, 2022
Really loved this book- it was incredibly dense and packed full of references, which made it a drastically long read, however I was totally hooked on all the fascinating stories on romantic relationships between woman through history. After all, who doesn’t love a 500 page essay on lesbian sex?!?!
602 reviews45 followers
October 15, 2020
2.5 stars rounded up out of respect for the vastness of Faderman's research, even if I often disagreed with the conclusions she drew from that research.

I took a lot of long, angry notes about this book as I was reading it. In the end, it boils down to this: Surpassing is a commendably thorough work about a particular segment of (white, upper- and upper-middle-class, American and Western European) woman-woman relationships during a particular slice of history. However, Faderman's observations and conclusions are inescapably biased by her second-wave lesbian-separatist 1970s white feminism, with all the "color-blindness," biphobia, and incipient terfism that that entails.

Faderman writes in the introduction to the 1998 edition that she decided not to change anything, so that the book would stand not only as a work about history but also as a work of history. But I couldn't help but wish that she'd added some kind of notes, such as Starhawk did in the 10th and 20th anniversary editions of The Spiral Dance , to suggest where her views and conclusions had or hadn't changed. Having the framework of Faderman's "now" (even a now that's now 20 years out of date) might have helped me gel a little more with her framework of "then."
Profile Image for Chloe.
6 reviews
June 9, 2020
A little dated, but a thorough look at both fictional and historical romantic friendships and lesbian love. I do think that many of the conclusions drawn about many of the romantic friendships having likely lacked in the “genital” aspect are unnecessary, partly bc it doesn’t matter whether they had sex if they did love each other so deeply, but also bc if they were having sex they almost certainly wouldn’t have written about it. I feel that Faderman suggests that lesbians didn’t exist until they knew they could exist, but I would be willing to bet women have been getting down with each other just as long as men and women have.
Profile Image for catharine.
118 reviews1 follower
May 26, 2011
Weighty, but a fascinating read on the history of relationships between women and, more interestingly, the drastic changes in perception about physical and intense emotional interaction.

Within 20 years of 1900, having a close female friend as the center of your emotional life went from completely normal and expected, to being the sign of a diseased mind.

Amazing stuff - it totally reframed Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and My Antonio for me.
Profile Image for Erik Wirfs-Brock.
299 reviews6 followers
July 30, 2014
Comprehensive, but dull and axe grindey. It's dull because it analyzes a bunch of mostly forgotten novels from centuries past that have lesbian themes, most of which are justly forgotten.It's axe grinding (and thus plenty suspect) because it was written during that brief decade when people believed political lesbianism was a thing (perhaps it still is? i hope not) and thus argues that female homosexuality is entirely socially constructed.
Profile Image for Gloria .
96 reviews
September 9, 2018
I actually stopped 30 pages shy of the end, I just got so bored. This book is fine if you want a thorough overview of the r/ship between romantic friendship and lesbianism etc, it's a good cultural and literary history but it's dry and as many others have commented, extremely dated with regard to gender/identity/sexual desire/normativity. We've come a long way in 33 years!
Profile Image for Harper.
52 reviews14 followers
February 19, 2008
Boring lesbian history. Interesting if you're patient, because it's pretty repetitive. It is very thorough and takes a very historical approach (not social or thematic.)
Profile Image for Shona.
1 review
January 17, 2023
An interesting and incredibly well researched book on the topic - if you’re interested in learning about lesbian history and the genesis of lesbian identity, this is a great place to look - along with Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. It’s fascinating to consider how romantic friendships might have been or were lesbian relationships with another name, or might have been something more had they had access to contemporary knowledge and could rid themselves of social stigma. It tells us something interesting about identity and the evolution of society.

However, the book becomes quite repetitive after a while - though interesting, it’s sometimes difficult to maintain focus as a number of the people/books discussed begin to blur together, without having specific knowledge of those being discussed. I don’t quite agree with the author’s views regarding political lesbianism, and the urge to proclaim the ‘purer’ lesbian love as that which is not sexual. Similarly, she does not address the possibility of trans identity in many of the historical figures she discusses - it’s difficult to separate lesbian history from trans history, I believe. Along with this, her disdain for the butch/femme relationship reveals itself as she views this dynamic as being one which emulates heterosexuality - which is just ignorant.

Negative qualities aside, it is a very comprehensive resource for the topic which I had been interested in learning more about - because it is truly fascinating to consider the lives of lesbians before knowledge of lesbians had really broken through to society. Though the author believe in social constructivism in relation to sexuality - and I’m not really sure what I believe personally - it’s clear that lesbians have always existed in some way or another, even if they didn’t know it.
Profile Image for Carlos.
1,985 reviews61 followers
January 30, 2018
This book was interesting if a bit long. Faderman has an amazing ability to recreate the pre-Freudian world of the 17th and 18th centuries when the idea of romantic friendships between women were not yet contaminated by the baggage of the “sexual invert”. She highlights how in at a time when women were ignored by men and society in general they found the best company among their own members. While she takes pains to make sure that the reader does not assume that all of these intense friendships were what we would call today lesbian relationship, she does try to highlight how women who loved women were able to do so more openly at this time. Faderman then continues her story documenting how the rise of feminism and Freud’s sex theories created a backlash against these relationships. They were now suspected of encouraging deviant behavior and actually undermining society (!). Faderman follows this trend through the countless novels that started shifting from depicting the “pure” love of two women to the pathological seductions of murderous lesbians. While I felt that the author goes a bit overboard in trying to follow this change of heart in the literary tastes and its reflection of society as a whole, the book was still an interesting read that illustrates the counterintuitive rise and fall of women’s relationships from when women were thought of as asexual to when they were suspected of being deviants.
Profile Image for Vitani Days.
432 reviews8 followers
September 11, 2017
Davvero un ottimo, interessantissimo saggio che prende in esame la storia delle "amicizie particolari" femminili dal Rinascimento ai giorni nostri. Molto ben documentato, ricchissimo di esempi, aneddoti e consigli di lettura, offre un quadro completo ed esauriente di come si sia evoluto il concetto di "lesbica" (o meglio, di "donna che ama altre donne") nel corso dei secoli, e di quanto il giudizio e la dominanza maschili abbiano influito sulla percezione del ruolo della donna all'interno della società.
Ampio spazio è dedicato al XVIII e al XIX secolo, e sono affrontate da più punti di vista tematiche come le romantic friendships, il travestitismo, la femme fatale, il Boston marriage, passando poi al Novecento e alla rivoluzione sessuale.
Un saggio che induce alla riflessione e che è illuminante per quanto riguarda la storia della sessualità femminile da un punto di vista strettamente sociologico. Soprattutto, fa capire quanto della nostra mentalità sia frutto di una scientificità che si è affermata solo nella seconda metà dell'Ottocento, incasellando in via definitiva la sessualità umana all'interno del binomio "etero-omo", e quanto certi preconcetti dati proprio da tale mentalità siano errati e, a tutt'oggi, duri da scalzare.
Ricchissima tra l'altro la bibliografia.
Lettura assolutamente consigliata!
28 reviews
July 17, 2019
This rating comes with a huge caveat that this book was published in 1980, and there are a few places where gender is discussed that will feel very antiquated (or downright dodgy) to a modern reader.

If you can get past that, then you'll find the most comprehensive study of lesbian relationships ever. I love Faderman's style, with a crystal clear thesis that she adheres to and builds upon as the book progresses. I frequently hate academic writing and find it meanders without aim, but that doesn't happen here. It's heavy on detail yet maintains a lightness of touch in the writing, with many knowing nods to the expected lesbian reader.

Would recommend this as essential reading for anyone with an interest in lesbian history.
Profile Image for Meri Elena.
Author 6 books5 followers
June 24, 2017
This is an interesting and informative book about the history of intimate relationships between women in Western Europe and (later) the USA from the 1500s to the 1970s. It is definitely a long and a dense read, but well worth the time, I thought. I will say that it is overflowing with the author's opinions. I learned a lot of historical facts, but I had to read everything through a very thick filter of Lillian Faderman's interpretation of everything and everyone. I found her perspective intriguing, but having her present her thoughts as gospel truth got old fast. Despite that frustration, this was still a good book.
Profile Image for Polly.
98 reviews
January 17, 2018
The first two thirds of this book, dealing with "romantic friendship" between women in the 16th-19th centuries, are brilliantly done. A fascinating examination of lesbian history and women's history. The final third, dealing with the 20th century, is weaker in comparison, particularly due to Faderman's advocacy for what are now seen as outdated concepts (e.g. political lesbianism). However, all in all, it's a valuable and enjoyable read. Maybe consider stopping reading once you get to the second wave feminist movement.
Profile Image for Yj.
155 reviews2 followers
May 30, 2020
The subtitle should be “in white European literature” since the majority of the book discusses lesbians and lesbian stereotypes in books and the authors of said books and entirely from a Caucasian perspective.

Overall, an interesting book. Lots of information and very readable.

“ Of course, love between women had been encouraged or tolerated for centuries- but now that women had the possibility of economic independence, such love became threatening to the social order.”
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