The story of the struggle for lesbian rights in Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s is shrouded in virtual silence. The laws referred only to male homosexuals, so the effort to remove antigay laws from the criminal codes focused primarily on men.
Nevertheless, lesbians were prominent and dedicated activists in the male-dominated movement for homosexual emancipation.
In their pioneering work, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935), John Lauritsen and David Thorstad report that Magnus Hirschfeld, leader of the German Scientific Humanitarian Committee, stated in 1902 that lesbians “have become an almost indispensable and prominent component of all our events. Although the homosexual woman is not subject to any legal restrictions in Germany, she nevertheless suffers in the most varied ways because of the ignorance about her nature.”
Lesbians faced enormous difficulties and suffered great scorn and outrage for daring to live independent lives outside the traditional family unit. It is most likely that politically oriented lesbians channeled their efforts into the women’s movement, which electrified Europe in the highly-charged, pre-World War I period.
Lauritsen and Thorstad also describe a 1904 meeting of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Berlin, where lesbian feminist Anna Rühling spoke on “What Interest Does the Women’s Movement Have in a Solution to the Homosexual Problem?” Said Rühling:
When we consider all the gains that homosexual women have for decades achieved for the women’s movement, it can only be regarded as astounding that the big and influential organizations of this movement have up to now not raised one finger to secure their most insignificant number of Uranian members their just rights as far as the state and society are concerned, that they have done nothing — and I mean not a thing — to protect so many of their best known and most devoted pioneers from ridicule and scorn as they enlightened the broader public about the true nature of Uranianism.
Her speech could have been delivered to NOW in the early 1970s.
The Literary Challenge
The scientific studies of Krafft-Ebing, Moll, and Hirschfeld in Germany, as well as Symonds, Havelock Ellis, and Edward Carpenter in England, definitely attributed homosexuality to hereditary factors. By the turn of the century, these works served to create a more open and permissive climate for authors to include variant characters or themes in their work.
The international suffragist movement, meanwhile, expanded women’s educational and occupational opportunities, especially during World War I.
These developments, combined with a relaxation of Victorian sexual standards, permitted a more open life for lesbians, and their lifestyle and ideas were quickly reflected in the literature of the time. Much lesbian defiance of convention in early twentieth-century Europe emerged in literary form.
In stirring novels and poetry, “the love that dares not speak its name” spoke with a voice whose strength and power would irrevocably revolutionize Western literature.
Much of this literature, however, was privately printed in small press runs, ignored by established critics, and known only to a few lesbians.
Jeannette H. Foster’s Sex Variant Women in Literature, published in 1956, analyzes this body of writing with a lucidity and intelligence that is invaluable to the uncovering of gay history.
Her work is of monumental significance because it salvages the work of lesbian writers through the span of history from ancient Greece to modern times, regardless of language or country of origin.
The reader of Foster’s book feels devastated over the enormity of the suppression of lesbian art, and the cruelty of the loss to world culture.
Two modern pioneers of the submerged literature of lesbianism were expatriate Americans who lived in Paris and wrote in French: Natalie Clifford Barney and Pauline Tarn (Renée Vivien).
Appalled by the intense prejudice against homosexuality, they fought hard to eradicate it. They lived openly and proudly as lesbians and were outspoken in their demand for respect rather than tolerance. They were strong feminists. They were also rich.
Vivien was extensively well-read in the classics and in modern, romantic literature. She exhumed all the data and myths of the past to find every single female rebel and theme of female independence, and celebrated their heroism in her writings. Her poetry has been described as the most perfect in form of any French verse between 1900 and 1925, an extraordinary accolade in view of the difficulty of mastering French literary forms and the fact that French was a second language to her.
Vivien created a massive body of poetry and other writings before her tragic death from alcoholism complications at 32. Although her work explicitly centers on the love of women, most anthologies of her writing exclude this theme. The only biography of her was written while most of the persons involved were alive, so much was omitted. When she died, her friends seized her unpublished manuscripts and letters and sealed them in the Bibliotheque Nationale until A.D. 2000.
Vivien’s magnificent achievement in poetry and her just place in literature are denied solely because of the lesbian content of her work. Fortunately, her 1904 novel, A Woman Appeared To Me, was translated into English by Jeannette H. Foster and published by Naiad Press in 1976.
Through the great fiction of the famous French writer Colette, a total philosophy of sexual development and sexual relations was illuminated, one which presented lesbianism in a healthy light.
The five novels about Claudine trace this character from childhood through marriage and widowhood, with profound and unique commentary on sexual mores and practices.
Colette’s work has been available to the world since 1900. Although she was forced to issue her books under the name of her husband, she soon separated from him and lived openly as a lesbian for some years before remarrying later in life. Her profound understanding and acceptance of the rich variety of human experience render her a literary immortal.
3. Europe, late 1800s and early 1900s