Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2001

The Lesbian History Sourcebook (2001), compiled by Alison Oram and Annmarie Turnbull

reviewed by Allison Mosley

This book is about British lesbian history, covering the period 1780 to 1970 – ending just as the gay and women’s liberation movements were beginning. As its title suggests, it is a source book, and contains extracts from a range of sources, collated into themed section – cross-dressing women, romantic friends, professional discourses on lesbianism, social perceptions, identities and networks.

Until the middle of the twentieth century lesbians rarely identified themselves as such. Early newspaper accounts of cross-dressing women and of “female husbands” stressed the economic and social necessity of such women’s actions.

The development in the late nineteenth century of sexology was an important turning point in theories of sexuality. By the early twentieth century sexologists viewed homosexuals as falling into two categories – those who were congenitally inverted (born with the condition) and those whose homosexuality was acquired. While liberal opinion slowly began to support a tolerant view of the former, the latter were often labelled as deviant or led astray, and viewed as potentially receptive to “heterosexual rehabilitation”. At this time sexology viewed inversion as much about gender identity as choice of sexual partner.

“[Havelock] Ellis in particular elaborated a scenario whereby the masculine female invert actively sought a more feminine sexual partner (whose own homosexuality was acquired, not innate) thereby constructing, or verifying, the stereotypes of butch and femme.” (Page 94.)

History is often interpreted through the veil of own experience and from the vantage of current social and economic circumstances. The Lesbian History Sourcebook offers examples of how definitions of lesbian identity and classification have changed over time.

Extracts contained in the text were collected form a range of diverse sources, including professional journals, personal letters, literature, court records and newspaper reports. Extracts from the work of the sexologists Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter are included, as are the commentary and reflections of Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Marie Stopes and Maureen Duffy, to name but a few.

I found much of this book fascinating and thought-provoking. I came across extracts of texts I had heard of but had never previously read. With the passage of time many texts that were previously considered liberal and tolerant of homosexuality now read as rather condescending and stereotyping (e.g., Towards a Quaker View of Sex, 1964).

The Lesbian History Sourcebook is well researched with a clear structure and sound index and references. I would recommend this book both to the reader who enjoys anthologies and to the student seeking specific source material.

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Created : Sunday, 2001-09-30 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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