History has always fascinated me, both as a writer and a reader, particularly when it comes to women and the things that they have accomplished. All through the centuries of recorded history, women have defied social expectations and done the unexpected. There have been women pirates, soldiers, inventors, religious leaders, salonnières, authors, playwrights, spies, gladiators, artists and almost anything else you can imagine. Most of their exploits and accomplishments aren’t taught in history classes or mentioned in mainstream history texts so if you want to read (or write) about real or imagined women in historical settings, you have to do some digging around.
The need for digging is even greater when you’re looking for information about L, B or T women in the past. It’s made more complicated by the fact that contemporary terms like “bisexual” and “transgender” or “transsexual” are fairly modern phenomena but “lesbian” is quite a bit older, though it has had different meanings over time. And the penalties for being openly interested in other women were often quite severe (and still are in many parts of the world). But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find ourselves in history, or write ourselves into history to replace the parts that are missing. There are certainly some fascinating places to start.
One of my favorites sources for inspiration is Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s The Encyclopedia of Amazons (Anchor Books, 1991) which is a collection of short, opinionated biographical essays, about real and fictional women in historical settings. It was here I learned about such fabulous women as Julie d’Aubigny (La Maupin), a star of the Paris Opera in the late 1600s. She wore men’s clothing and dueled for money on the streets of Paris. La Maupin was also notorious for her romantic relationships with both female and male lovers, including the seduction of a novice from the convent at Avignon. which nearly resulted in her excommunication.
I wrote my first published short story about her after I read her bio, lest you think this whole inspiration thing is overrated.
Sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe was seemingly teeming with women like La Maupin: In England at roughly the same time period, Mary Frith, also known as “Moll Cutpurse,” was a notorious highwaywoman, stage performer and baud who wore men’s clothes. Several plays were written about her during her lifetime, and author Ellen Galford, wrote the lesbian historical novel Moll Cutpurse: Her True History about some of her exploits.
Her contemporary, Aphra Behn, was a spy as well as the first woman to make her living as a playwright. Based on her writings, she may have had both female and male lovers. Across the North Sea, Queen Kristina of Sweden abdicated her throne and became notorious throughout Europe for her clothes, her mind and her (rumored) lesbian love affairs.
When we move into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it’s easier to find historical examples of what we would now identify as lesbian and bi relationships among women. The famous pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read are often described as a couple, for at least part of the time that they sailed the Caribbean, pillaging ships. Deborah Sampson was one of a number of women to disguise themselves men and fight in the Napoleonic Wars, the American Revolution and the American Civil War. Sampson was also one of several to be noted for her love affairs with women, though she ultimately married a man after her discharge from the Continental Army.
Read historian Lillian Faderman’s comprehensive study of women’s romantic friendships in Surpassing the Love of Men (Morrow, 1981) for more information about female intellectuals and artists like the English bluestockings. Faderman also analyzes women’s romantic friendships well into the first half of the twentieth century, providing a fascinating overview of how women felt about each other as well as the penalties they paid for their love.
Finding women who might have identified as trans if they were alive today is even trickier in historical context, but there were at least a few who left a record of their lives. The Chevalier d’Eon/Charlotte d’Eon de Beaumont was a nineteenth French soldier and diplomat, sometime spy, who was born male and lived as a man for forty-nine years, then demanded that she be acknowledged as a woman for the last thirty-three years of her life. You can read more about her life in Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman by Gary Kates (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
One potential transman was Catalina de Erauso, who was born female, but spent many years living as a soldier and mule driver under the chosen name Francisco de Loyola in seventeenth century Mexico, Peru and Chile. Lieutenant Nun (Beacon Press, 1996) is Catalina/Francisco’s memoir and it makes for a truly interesting read. Another was Nadezhda Durova who fought as a man in the Napoleonic Wars and survived to write about it in The Cavalry Maiden (Indiana University Press, 1989).
Women who disguised themselves as men, regardless of sexual identity, are practically a subgenre unto themselves in recent history books, as well as the occasional ballad. There were numerous reasons for the disguises: more access to jobs and money, adventure, love, comfort, escape from bad marriages or the law. In contrast to the women who actually passed as men, there were women who simply wore men’s clothes but didn’t pass as men: writer George Sand, actress Sarah Bernhardt, lesbian painter Rosa Bonheur and writer Radclyffe Hall were some of the more prominent lesbian and bi examples.
This is, of course, just a very small sample of the stories that are out there, waiting to be written or read. Like any reader, I’ve got some favorites, which include the following: Children of Mother Glory by C.M. Harris (Spinsters, 2009), about four generations of young LBGT people in a Midwestern religious sect; Affinity by Sarah Waters (Riverhead Books, 2002), about a Victorian woman who gets drawn into a web of deceit spun by a imprisoned spiritualist; Ellen Galford’s Moll Cutpurse, mentioned above; Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask (Harcourt, 2004), about a love triangle in the eighteenth century England; and Delia Sherman’s Through a Brazen Mirror (Circlet Press, 1999), a complicated medieval queer fantasy novel based on the ballad “The Famous Flower of Serving Men.” And as a writer, I’ve written several historical stories with lesbian and bi protagonists, all of them collected in A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace and Other Stories (Lethe Press, 2011) and Time Well Bent: Queer Alternate History, edited by Connie Wilkins (Lethe Press, 2010). Reading and writing historical fiction is one of my great joys and I hope it can become one of yours.
For more fun reads, check out the Bosom Friends resource list at http://www.bosomfriends.wordpress.com/the-list-lesbian-historical-novels and the Goldie Awards for Historical Romance (http://www.goldencrown.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1158868).
Happy reading and writing!
Catherine Lundoff is a former archeologist, former grad student and former bookstore owner turned professional computer geek and award-winning author and editor. She is a transplanted Brooklynite who now lives in Minneapolis with her wife and the two cats which own them. "Silver Moon" (Lethe Press, 2012) is her latest book. Website: www.catherinelundoff.com