Rachel Hope Cleves
The task of recovering the history of same-sex love among early American women faces daunting challenges of definition and sources. Modern conceptions of same-sex sexuality did not exist in early America, but alternative frameworks did. Many indigenous nations had social roles for female-bodied individuals who lived as men, performed male work, and acquired wives. Early Christian settlers viewed sexual encounters between women as sodomy, but also valued loving dyadic bonds between religious women. Primary sources indicate that same-sex sexual practices existed within western and southern African societies exploited by the slave trade, but little more is known. The word “lesbian” has been used to signify erotics between women since roughly the 10th century, but historians must look to women who led lesbian-like lives in early America rather than to women who self-identified as lesbians. Stories of female husbands who passed as men and married other women were popular in the 18th century. Tales of passing women who served in the military, in the navy, and as pirates also amused audiences and raised the spectre of same-sex sexuality. Some female religious leaders trespassed conventional gender roles and challenged the marital sexual order. Other women conformed to female gender roles, but constructed loving female households. 18th-century pornography depicting lesbian sexual encounters indicates that early Americans were familiar with the concept of sex between women. A few court records exist from prosecutions of early American women for engaging in lewd acts together. Far more common, by the end of the 18th century, were female-authored letters and diaries describing the culture of romantic friendship, which sometimes extended to sexual intimacy. Later in the 19th century, romantic friendship became an important ingredient in the development of lesbian culture and identity.