Faderman Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Lillian Faderman placed lesbian cultures in Western Europe and North America into their historical contexts in a groundbreaking and ambitious book called Surpassing the Love of Men, considered by many the first major academic work in lesbian history.

Summary of Event

Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981) is a lesbian history, the first of its kind, that shows how lesbian cultures in Western Europe and North America changed over time and place. The work maintains that any woman-identified woman from the sixteenth century to the present in the West could be considered lesbian. To Faderman, genital sexual expression alone was too modern and too limiting in describing the experiences of those European and American women in the past who had derived most, if not all, of their emotional, romantic, and intimate life from other women. [kw]Faderman Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men (1981) [kw]Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men, Faderman (1981) [kw]Surpassing the Love of Men, Faderman Publishes (1981) Surpassing the Love of Men (Faderman) Literature;lesbian nonfiction Queer studies Publishing;and lesbian books[lesbian books] [c]Literature;1981: Faderman Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men[1400] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1981: Faderman Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men[1400] [c]Publications;1981: Faderman Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men[1400] [c]Feminism;1981: Faderman Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men[1400] Faderman, Lillian

While her work is present-minded in reconstructing lesbian pasts with inspiration from the women’s and gay and lesbian rights movements of her own time, she was careful not to use a sexualized, psychoanalytic straitjacket in describing eighteenth and nineteenth century realities.

Expanding upon earlier research by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Faderman celebrated female romantic friendships Romantic friendships, women and as lived by literary and academic women and as portrayed in contemporary literature, particularly before the popularization of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in the 1920’s.

Faderman recast familiar literary and elite figures within a feminist perspective, showing that the Ladies of Llangollen Ladies of Llangollen —Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Montagu, Mary Wortley Marie Antoinette, Antoinette, Marie and the Bluestockings, Bluestockings among others—were not weird pariahs who needed male guidance. Instead, they were anchored and energized by strong friendships and partnerships with each other and without male interference. Faderman showcases an exemplary “Boston marriage,” Boston marriages Same-gender relationships[same gender relationships];"Boston marriages" as[Boston marriages] that is, a long-term, domestic, committed relationship between two women, the widowed Annie Fields Fields, Annie and author Sarah Orne Jewett, Jewett, Sarah Orne from 1881 to Jewett’s death in 1909. In a “marriage” that was completely respectable and accepted at the turn of the twentieth century, Fields and Jewett inspired each other as they bonded, lived, and traveled together without male companionship.

Faderman shows the contemporary indifference to, but also support for, such relationships from the eighteenth century through World War I, especially if they did not involve extreme cross-dressing or subversive political activity that might challenge male supremacy and heterosexuality. Since Georgian Georgian society, and women’s sexuality and Victorian societies Victorian society, and women’s sexuality considered women, particularly those of the middle classes, asexual if they were without men, most people reassured themselves that female romantic friends of a certain class and refinement could not be of a sexual nature.

Before the 1920’s, people had surmised that single women living together were simply women who had not found the right men, or they were virtuous, secular “nun” types doing community service and were married to their work. These scenarios might have described the experiences of some women, but for others the supposition provided a convenient cover for a whole range of behaviors and feelings that, if discovered, could have brought down on them the full weight of the law and of public opinion. Contemporaries did not think to ask, and romantic friends were not about to tell.

Faderman argues that this hands-off arrangement began to unravel in the 1920’s, but she notes that even before World War I there were three main preconditions for the fall of the “golden age” of the romantic friendship. One, the rise of feminism in the late nineteenth century had unleashed a backlash against suffragists and an anxiety about strong women of any sort. Two, scientists had by this time categorized independent women as members of a “third” and even more dangerous sex. Three, avant-garde French writers, such as Pierre Louys, explored and exposed the sexual potential of female romantic friendships in their verse and prose.

To Faderman, Freud and psychoanalysis made deteriorating conditions for women-identified women worse, marking, perhaps, a fourth condition that helped lead to the end of romantic friendships between women. The popularization of Freud after 1920 sexualized everything, including what people thought was going on within female romantic friendships. “Homosocial” suddenly and automatically meant “homosexual,” which was being diagnosed at this time as a psychiatric disorder, a well of loneliness to which one was consigned.

These changes also led to what has been termed a “compulsory heterosexuality” from birth; even juvenile crushes on members of the same gender that were tolerated and even expected just twenty years earlier were now thought to lead directly to adult depravity. For example, love letters between Fields and Jewett published by Fields in 1911 without censorship were heavily censored in 1922 by a male editor, who believed he needed to preserve the reputations of the women given the changes in cultural mores.

World War II and its need for women in the military and women’s civilian labor (the government’s “Rosie the Riveter” campaign) brought about the growth of lesbian subcultures. After the war—and after the temporary acceptance of “strong” women who were needed for the war effort—however, psychoanalysts renewed their efforts to keep independent and especially lesbian women in their place.

The 1950’s and 1960’s represented an especially bad time to be lesbian in the United States, as the hateful crescendo of psychoanalysis had combined with the McCarthy era’s fight against alleged internal enemies to American values; these supposed villains included lesbians. Yet the pain of this oppression led to the cultural gains of the homophile movement, to the butch-femme working-class milieu, and to pulp fiction’s inadvertent consciousness-raising, with its ubiquitous lesbian themes. Then, as authorities and customs came under attack in the late 1960’s, the Civil Rights movement, second-wave feminism, the lesbian and gay rights movement, and humanistic psychology all contributed to rid lesbian sexuality and popular perceptions of lesbians of any lingering Freudian self-hatred.

Indeed, lesbian feminists during the 1970’s tried their own separatist utopias and reconstructions of society along less-hierarchical grounds. The failure of these more radical experiments led to what Faderman characterized as the Sapphic moderation of the 1980’s, which was less political in nature, implying at times more adventuresome sexual practices. These continual changes and the increasing fragmentation of lesbian identities, Faderman wrote, underscore that “sexuality is often a social construct—a product of the times and of other factors that are entirely external to the ’sexual drive.’”


Surpassing the Love of Men was the forerunner in the academic field of lesbian history. The work rejected essentialist or static characterizations of lesbians, and reflected the cultural feminism popular in the 1970’s.

Faderman’s next great opus, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (Faderman) (1991), chronicles the accommodation and resistance of lesbians to periodic bouts of official oppression stemming from psychiatry and the national security state. The sexual revolution of the 1920’s stigmatized and pigeonholed romantic friendships as homosexual and thus sick, but it also stimulated a greater awareness among women about the sexual potential of their relationships. The labeling and segregation had led ironically to more, not less, female same-gender loving. Surpassing the Love of Men (Faderman) Literature;lesbian nonfiction Queer studies Publishing;and lesbian books[lesbian books]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faderman, Lillian. Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow, 1981.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCullough, Kate. Regions of Identity: The Construction of America in Women’s Fiction, 1885-1914. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mamet, David. Boston Marriage. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1, no. 1 (Autumn, 1975): 1-29.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vicinus, Martha. “’They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong’: The Historical Roots of Modern Lesbian Identity.” In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993.

1928: Hall Publishes The Well of Loneliness

1956: Foster Publishes Sex Variant Women in Literature

June, 1971: The Gay Book Award Debuts

1973: Brown Publishes Rubyfruit Jungle

1975: Rule Publishes Lesbian Images

1981: This Bridge Called My Back Is Published

1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published

1986: Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop

1987: Anzaldúa Publishes Borderlands/La Frontera

1987: Compañeras: Latina Lesbians Is Published

May, 1987: Lambda Rising Book Report Begins Publication

June 2, 1989: Lambda Literary Award Is Created

Categories: History Content