Exploring the History of Lesbianism: Sappho, Anne Lister, and the Complexities of Same-Sex Desire

Exploring the History of Lesbianism: Sappho, Anne Lister, and the Complexities of Same-Sex Desire

The concept of a “first lesbian” is a complex and contested one, given how different societies and historical periods have understood same-sex desire and sexual identity. However, there are some figures from history who have been retrospectively identified as possible models of lesbianism, either through their own writings, their cultural context, or their relationships with other women.

One such figure is Sappho, a Greek poet from the island of Lesbos who lived around 600 BC. Sappho wrote sublime and sensual love poetry that celebrated the beauty and emotional intensity of female-female relationships. While some of her poetry addresses both men and women, such as in the famous fragment “I have a daughter like the golden flowers”, scholars have long recognized her appreciation of women’s beauty and her feelings of passion and longing for other women.

However, the term “lesbian” did not exist in ancient Greece, and Sappho’s poetry was not widely known or prestigious until later in antiquity. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that Sappho became a celebrated icon of female homoeroticism, inspiring generations of writers, artists, and activists.

Another potential contender for the title of the “first lesbian” is Anne Lister, whose secret diaries I mentioned earlier. While Lister was a Georgian woman who wrote her diaries in code, she embodied a sense of confidence, pride, and assertiveness that was uncommon for her time. She had numerous romantic relationships with women, conducted business affairs as a landowner, and traveled widely. Her diaries suggest that she felt a strong sense of attraction and sexual desire for women and that she was unapologetic about her identity and lifestyle.

Regardless of who the “first lesbian” was, it is clear that same-sex desire and relationships have existed in every culture and era, although they have been marked by different attitudes, prejudices, and legal restrictions. The history of lesbianism is still being written and revised, as more voices and perspectives are added to the discourse. Yet, it is ultimately the courage, creativity, and resilience of individual women that make them worthy of admiration, celebration, and respect.

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