Rule Publishes

Jane Rule’s Lesbian Images was the first nonfiction study of lesbian writers to be published in book form by a commercial publisher. The writers in Rule’s collection share a common bond: They all wrote with a sensibility that came from their own experiences of having intense emotional and physical relationships with women.

Summary of Event

In 1975, Jane Rule was an American-born author living in Canada and writing works of fiction. Earlier in her career, she had published three novels with lesbian content, but, as Judith Neimi notes, reviews of her work “amount[ed] to nothing more than popular prejudice elevated to aesthetic principle.” One novel, however, Desert of the Heart
Desert of the Heart, The (Rule) (1964), first rejected by nearly two dozen publishers, became a hit film called Desert Hearts
Desert Hearts (film) (1985), and is now a lesbian classic. The prejudice waned when Rule departed from her usual fictional fare to write a work of nonfiction, Lesbian Images. [kw]Rule Publishes Lesbian Images (1975)
[kw]Publishes Lesbian Images, Rule (1975)
[kw]Lesbian Images, Rule Publishes (1975)
Lesbian Images (Rule)
Literature;lesbian nonfiction
Publishing;and lesbian books[lesbian books]
[c]Literature;1975: Rule Publishes Lesbian Images[1110]
[c]Publications;1975: Rule Publishes Lesbian Images[1110]
Rule, Jane

The cover of Rule’s Lesbian Images (1975).

(The Crossing Press)

Lesbian Images focuses on the lives and works of female authors. Luminaries such as Radcyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, Vita Sackville-West, Colette, and May Sarton are profiled along with Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, Violette Leduc, Margaret Anderson, Dorothy Baker, and Maureen Duffy. Each of these authors shares common characteristics: They all were born in the nineteenth century and survived into the twentieth century, giving them a shared sense of history and social convention. Most important, however, each of them wrote from personal experience about intense emotional and physical relationships among women.

Rule begins her book with a personal essay, and she tells her readers that she is lesbian. In the essay, she sets the tone for exploring the art of writing in relation to personal experience and historical context. Lesbian Images, she writes, was intended to be a “discover[y] of what images of lesbian women writers have projected in fiction, biography, and autobiography…,” and not concerned with the writers’ literary styles. Rule examines “the interaction of these writers with their culture” and “how they [w]ere influenced by religious and psychological concepts and by their own personal experience in presenting lesbian characters.”

Rule’s introductory essay is followed by two chapters summarizing the laws, myths, and prejudices relating to homosexuality. Subsequent chapters recount the lives and published works of the surveyed authors. The chapters “Four Decades of Fiction” and “Recent Nonfiction” conclude the narrative portion of Lesbian Images.


Prior to the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, publishers rarely published books about homosexuality unless the books could safely be called scientific or unless they projected a negative, unhappy outcome. Critical analyses of lesbian authors and literature were virtually nonexistent. The literature that existed was predominately written by men and was of questionable quality, difficult to obtain, or focused on a single author. Within this historical context the style and timing of Rule’s book is critical.

The reception of Lesbian Images was mixed. Reviewers applauded Rule for including her personal story, although one reviewer found the inclusion embarrassing and another considered the entire work propaganda because of its positive portrayal of lesbians. Opinions regarding Rule’s writing style were divided; some praised the work for its general-reader approach, while others criticized it as simplistic and nonscholarly. Regardless of reviewer opinion, it is evident that Rule’s work was intended for the general reading public; it has been used frequently as a classroom text and remains in hundreds of libraries.

Rule’s work was not the first lesbian authored exploration of lesbian literature; that distinction belongs to Jeannette H. Foster’s Sex Variant Women in Literature
Sex Variant Women in Literature (Foster) (1956). Although scholarly in nature, Foster was forced to publish her manuscript independently and, as a result, her book was not widely available. Rule, however, was contacted by a commercial publisher and was commissioned to write Lesbian Images. Clearly, by the time Rule wrote her work, social attitudes toward homosexuality had shifted to the point where it was possible to publish works about homosexuality; publishers were actually seeking books to publish. Even Rule had agreed that the work could not have been published five years earlier.

The release of Lesbian Images also coincided with a strong lesbian presence in the women’s movement. Because of the women’s movement, national interest had been focused on women’s issues. The appearance of Rule’s work during this period ensured a wider audience than if the book had been published prior to the rise of 1970’s feminism. Furthermore, Lesbian Images could withstand charges that it was politically motivated because Rule was not politically active at the national level in the women’s movement.

Finally, 1975 was a watershed year for lesbian literature. The appearance of Lesbian Images was complemented by a new edition of Barbara Grier’s bibliography The Lesbian in Literature, two works about lesbian author Djuna Barnes, and the reissue of Foster’s Sex Variant Women in Literature, which by 1975 had become a classic.

In 1976, Lesbian Images had been reprinted for the British and Canadian markets and a paperback edition was released in the United States. The title has remained in print since its first publication. As a study of lesbian identity and character, Lesbian Images remains significant and stands as one of the earliest examples of queer literary theory and history. Lesbian Images (Rule)
Literature;lesbian nonfiction
Publishing;and lesbian books[lesbian books]

Further Reading

  • Foster, Jeannette H. Sex Variant Women in Literature: A Historical and Quantitative Survey. London: F. Muller, 1956.
  • Hancock, Geoffrey. “An Interview with Jane Rule.” Canadian Fiction Magazine 23 (Autumn, 1976): 57-112.
  • Niemi, Judith. “Jane Rule and the Reviewers.” Margins 8, no. 23 (1975): 34.
  • Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975.
  • Schuster, Marilyn R. Passionate Communities: Reading Lesbian Resistance in Jane Rule’s Fiction. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  • _______. “Strategies for Survival: The Subtle Subversion of Jane Rule.” Feminist Studies 7, no. 3 (Fall, 1981): 431-450.
  • Summers, Claude J., ed. The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: A Reader’s Companion to the Writers and Their Works, from Antiquity to the Present. New York: Holt, 1995.
  • Zimmerman, Bonnie. The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969-1989. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

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

1981: Faderman Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men

1981: This Bridge Called My Back Is Published

1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published

1985: Lesbian Film Desert Hearts Is Released

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

June, 1992: Feinberg Publishes Transgender Liberation