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The 10 Best Lesbian History Books You Should Have Read Already By Now!

The 10 Best Lesbian History Books You Should Have Read Already By Now!

During the medieval period, Arabs believed that homosexuality in women is caused by heat generated in a woman’s labia, which can be doused by running it against another woman’s genitalia! The history of lesbianism, sparse as it is, is full of such myths. In ancient Egypt, it was believed to be a sin if a woman dreamt of having sex with another woman.

On the other hand, Ancient Greece is the home of the poet Sappho, who was the first woman to write about female same-sex attraction. India was a place of fluid sexuality until the rigid Western/Christian ideals contributed to furious homophobia in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Being a lesbian is not easy, even today. Still, thanks to numerous women who have come before us, the world is a slightly better place for those who do not conform to heteronormative ideologies. And the best lesbian history books often celebrate or commemorate such people.

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The 1970s was a transformational decade for the LGBT community. The 60s ended with Stonewall, an uprising that triggered an international gay revolution—the next decade followed up with many milestones for the homosexual community.

It saw the release of the first gay television movie- Sunday, Blood Sunday. The first Gay Pride Week took shape during the 70s. And homosexuality was removed from a list of psychiatric diseases by the American Psychiatric Association! Yes, a lot happened! However, documentation of lesbian history is minimal.

Women’s voices, especially those considered eccentric, have been deliberately blotted out from history. If you are anything like us, you want to soak up as much Sapphic history as possible. We hear you! Hence, we have made a list of the best lesbian history books that tell stories of lesbians from different periods of history. 

Here you go!

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Don't have time to read them all? Why not try listening to them? Audible is a great platform for listening to audiobooks because it offers a wide selection of books, including bestsellers and exclusive content. With Audible, you can listen to your favorite books on-the-go, whether you're commuting, working out, or doing household chores.

The Audible app also has features like adjustable narration speed, a sleep timer, and the ability to create bookmarks, making it easy to customize your listening experience. Additionally, Audible offers a membership program that gives members access to a certain number of audiobooks per month, making it a cost-effective option for avid listeners. 

A great resource for people who want to maximize their time and make the most out of their daily activities. Try a free 30-day trial from Audible today, and you'll get access to a selection of Audible Originals and audiobooks, along with a credit to purchase any title in their premium selection, regardless of price (including many of the books on this list!) 

For ebook lovers, we also recommend Scribd, basically the Netflix for Books and the best and most convenient subscription for online reading. While they have a catalog comprising over half a million books including from many bestselling authors, for some of the books on this list, you'll still have to purchase individually - either as a paperback or eBook to load on your Kindle - due to publishing house restrictions. 

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Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A history of lesbian life in twentieth-century America by Lillian Faderman

Written by Lillian Faderman, an internationally known scholar of lesbian history and literature, this book is an account of lesbians and their life experiences in the 1900s in America. She occasionally brings in titbits of history from some parts of Europe (Britain, France and Germany) to compare the lesbian experience across different parts of the world.

We can see that Europe was slightly more accepting of lesbianism than the U.S. Faderman shows us that lesbian women experience the world differently. This sexual orientation comes with its unique set of challenges and life experiences. She also plots the changes in lesbianism over time.

An increasing understanding of homosexuality and the various feminist movements contribute to the shifting lesbian experience. She concludes by saying, “The only constant truth about the lesbian in America has been that she prefers women.”

Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers is a very well-researched book. The author uses newspaper clippings, personal accounts, journals, interviews, songs, medical literature and more to inform her study. The varied sources give us a holistic picture of the American lesbian woman. She does a great job of writing such an extensive account of lesbianism in a concise book.

The tone used is professional but not academic. While it does have some academic jargon, the book is accessible to anyone who wants to learn about the history of women who love women. No prior knowledge about the feminist or gay rights movements is required to read and understand the contents of this book. This book is a great starting point for learning about lesbianism in America.

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Sapphistries by Leila J. Rupp

Sapphistries is one of the most famous lesbian history books that trace the history of female same-sex relationships across the globe. The author, Leila J Rupp, shows how love between two women has existed since ancient times. The author’s account is based on meticulous research. She uses first-hand accounts of women, sparse as they are, along with art, pornography, court cases, literature and reports made by men.

Where she could not find any material, she uses fiction to imagine what would have been within the bounds of a certain culture. The prose is clear and lyrical as it describes women falling in love with other women in the factories of Shanghai, in the aristocracy in Paris and on the streets of Amsterdam.

While shunned, prohibited and shamed by homophobic men throughout history, lesbianism could not be extinguished. In a silent act of rebellion, women worldwide have chosen to accept their orientation and love other women.

As we look at lesbian relationships and expression in different cultures over time, we can also see how cultural norms shape lesbianism. While lesbian bars in 1920s Berlin made it easier for gay women to come out, lesbians in more conservative Asian countries had to devise more secretive avenues to engage with the community. 

The book is a refreshing shift from the mainstream white/U.S.-centred depiction of homosexuality. It is heartening to read accounts of lesbian women that have survived hundreds of years. Given that it was rare for women to pen down their experiences, the author has done a great job fishing out these sources.

Rupp has included footnotes to the sources she has used. Want to read about lesbians across the globe? Sapphistries is the book for you!

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Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 by Emma Donoghue

The prevailing opinion is that women have started to desire other women only recently. Even as male gay identity was emerging in the 18th century, the narrative of homosexual women was very limited. Emma Donoghue challenges this notion in her book Passions Between Women.

She draws on multiple sources, including medical, legal and erotic material and English classics, to show that homosexual women have been around for longer than we think. She proves that we will find enough evidence if we know where to look. Lesbian women might not have been represented in high regard.

For example, they were too often considered freaks and called “hermaphrodites”. But they were represented. According to Donoghue, “Romantic friend” and “female husband” are other terms used in the eighteenth century to refer to lesbians. She shows how friendship and sex between women were not a binary concept but a spectrum.

Many men and women of the period held self-contradictory opinions about lesbianism. It was accepted, shunned and debated, but it was not absent. The author quotes all her sources in the book. It makes you wonder how you missed the representation of female same-sex relationships in the 17th-18th century right under your nose!

The author does a great job of presenting her extensive research in descriptive prose that is for everyone- not just academics. Given that the sources of lesbian history are sparse, this is no small feat! She writes of female pirates and queens, enlightening us about the colorful history of homosexual women!

Passions Between Women British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 by Emma Donoghue - Best Lesbian History Books


Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown

This book tells the story of the famous Sister Benedetta Carlini. Carlini entered the convent at the age of nine. When she was twenty-three, she started having religious visions. She claimed to have some supernatural connection to Christ. These visions propelled her to the position of Abbess of the Convent of the Mother God.

When her visions took on an erotic detour, she raised eyebrows. Her closeness to Christ irked the Church authorities, who ordered an investigation into the credibility of her visions. The investigation unearthed a love affair Sister Carlini had with another nun, Bartolomeo. This is one of the earliest documentation of lesbianism in Modern history. Sister Carlini’s innocence is not established.

She either assaulted the nun, or the latter consented to be sexually involved with her. The book examines both possibilities. What is also interesting is how Carlini thought of herself as the male when engaging in sex with another woman. She claims to have been possessed by a male angel during the act. This could reflect the limited idea of homosexuality during the time. 

The author, Judith C. Brown, does a great job of giving us a peek into lesbianism in 17th-century Italy through the life of a nun. The book also explores sexuality within the confines of monastic life. Brown takes us through the scandal and fall of Carlini from the Abbess to an outcast. This historically significant book is a must-read for all enthusiasts of lesbian literature!

Immodest Acts The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown - Best Lesbian History Books

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Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present by Lillian Faderman

Another gem from Lillian Faderman, this book traces the love between two women from the 16th century up to the 1970s. One of the most striking points that the author makes is on “romantic friendship”, a term that became extremely popular in the 18th century. Women were known to have close friendships with other women. And sometimes, they involved sex between the women.

But these were never treated as a binary concept. The relationship was left unlabeled. When a woman was in a romantic friendship with another woman, her sexual identity was not changed or questioned. But all this was before women could attain financial independence. When women started to make their living, such female relationships were seen as a threat to the patrilineal order.

What follows in the 19th century is all too familiar and heartbreaking. The same women who were happily involved with other women were now treated as sick and in need of treatment. According to Faderman, lesbians of the 1970s choose to be close to women.

Sexual relationships were not essential to identify as a lesbian. This is in stark contrast to what we see now. In the 21st century, a lesbian is a woman who is attracted to another woman and, therefore, develops close and often sexual relationships with her. 

Surpassing the Love of Men reminds us that women in Europe and the U.S. have gradually gained more sexual freedom and agency. But it is still a patriarchal world, and we all have a long way to go. Pick this book up to brush up on your knowledge of the evolving lesbian identity throughout history.

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Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage by Lauren Jae Gutterman

Coming out as a lesbian was unthinkable until as recently as the 1970s. Women could only indulge their sexuality secretly, and the marriage proved to be one of the best ways to do that. Her Neighbor’s Wife tells us stories of many women who explored their sexuality while staying married.

Barbara Kalish, an example of the ideal wife and mother in the 1950s, had a secret affair with another woman, Pearl. They had both met at a PTA meeting, and sparks flew! Their affair lasted over a decade. Barbara is only one of the hundreds of women who had affairs with other women they met daily.

Lauren Jae Gutterman records the stories by drawing on interviews, personal journals, and letters from this time. It was not until the lesbian feminist movement of the late 1970s that women could divorce their husbands and identify as lesbians or bisexuals.

Though it was possible, homosexual women who came out faced rampant discrimination. Unfortunately, this kept them safely in their closets. Marriage offered a safe space for wives to have relationships with other women.

Through this book, Gutterman moved the focus away from gay bars sprouting up in America during this time to the homes of married women. She also explores the depiction of the married lesbian in popular media.

They were villains and feared. Her sharp analysis of this portrayal makes for an insightful read. This book does a great job of highlighting real stories of real women that would have been lost otherwise.

Her Neighbor's Wife A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage by Lauren Jae Gutterman - Best Lesbian History Books

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Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist by Angela Steidele

Anne Lister was a woman way ahead of her time. She was an open lesbian in the 19th century U.K., which, as you can imagine, was not easy. She recorded her sexual and romantic affairs in her journal, which she wrote in code. When the code was cracked for the first time, it shocked readers with its unapologetic celebration of her sexuality.

Anne Lister is often regarded as the “first modern lesbian” for a good reason. But Lister was not always agreeable. There are many things about her that you might not like. For instance, she did not prefer dating women below her social standing.

Anne was not perfect, but she was a flawed woman who pioneered homosexual marriage between women. That’s right! She lived with her wife at a time when being a lesbian was a fate worse than death.

And Lister paid for it; she was the victim of society’s disapproval of her preference for women. She was called names and received unflattering letters aimed to scare her into abandoning homosexuality, in vain.

Lister was a landowner and situated high up the class ladder. This might have inured her against more dire consequences of coming out. However, we cannot deny the precedent she set for the countless lesbians that came after her and looked to women like her for inspiration.

Angela Steidele does an amazing job of creating a portrait of Anne Lister. She does not idolize the latter. Far from it, she shows you all of Lister’s flaws along with her achievements for you to judge. Gentleman Jack is not just about Lister’s sexuality.

It also gives us a glimpse into her rich and colorful life: her love for travel and her life as a Regency landowner. If you are a fan of LGBT history, you don’t want to miss out on the story of a woman as significant as Lister!

Gentleman Jack A Biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist by Angela Steidele - Best Lesbian History Books

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Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels, 1950-1965 by Katherine V. Forrest

It was nearly impossible for homosexual women to come out or discuss their sexuality before the modern gay movement. But this did not stop them! Many found secretive ways to express themselves and engage in the LGBT community. One of the significant ways was lesbian pulp fiction.

The post-World War II era saw nothing less than a simmering literary revolution in the form of cheaply produced lesbian pulp paperbacks. Lesbian Pulp Fiction, edited by Katherine V. Forrest, is a collection of excerpts from these novels from 1950-1965.

While these are a collection of works of fiction, they reflect the life of lesbians of this time. Many of these stories were written by women attracted to other women. Through their stories, we get a peek into what it meant to be a lesbian before Stonewall.

They write about their lives in shadows, tactics used to avoid suspicion and the struggle to find love. Forrest has also included lascivious novels that show innocent girls being led astray by other women. We can only imagine the sense of identity, validation and solidarity these stories must have given to lesbians of this period who lived straight lives.

This book opens up a world of first-hand stories of lesbians before the gay revolution. The author has curated an assortment of romantic, lurid, trashy and poignant stories that give us a somewhat whole picture of different perspectives of female same-sex relationships during this time. Besides, this book will expose you to a trove of lesbian fiction! What’s not to love?

Lesbian Pulp Fiction The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels, 1950-1965 by Katherine V. Forrest - Best Lesbian History Books

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Scotch Verdict by Lillian Faderman

A young girl in early 19th century Scotland accuses her two school mistresses of engaging in sexual activity in the same room as the sleeping children. The girl’s wealthy and influential grandmother immediately takes her away from school and encourages her friends to do the same.

And just like that, the two mistresses, Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, are left with an empty school and no jobs overnight. Pirie and Woods sue the grandmother claiming that the girl lied. What follows is a messy court trial that ends in a scotch verdict- an inconclusive decision.

Written by Lillian Faderman, the book reflects on the court transcripts, judges’ notes and the prejudices of men presiding over the case to understand the social, economic and sexual pressures women faced during this time. The book also tackles the intersection of race with sexuality.

Jane Cummins, the girl who accused her mistresses, was a half-Indian born in India out of wedlock. Whose word would stand in court and front of white heterosexual men? The two women accused of lesbianism or the dark-skinned girl?

Apart from the facts and her analysis, the author also includes notes on her discussions on the case with her partner, Ollie. Their individual opinions and conclusions help us form a relatively subjective view of the case.

While the case itself is compelling, Faderman uses it to construct a picture of early 19th-century Scotland. The book is a commentary on homophobia, misogyny and racial prejudice. The author’s writing makes this almost like a mystery novel that will keep you reading with bated breath!

Scotch Verdict by Lillian Faderman - Best Lesbian History Books

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Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet by Philip Freeman

Sappho, the first known woman poet, was born on the Greek island of Lesbos in 630 BC. She was known for her lyric poetry, but sadly most of her work is lost. Only a few lines and quotations preserved by male authors through the years remain. Meagre as they are, these poems have captured readers with their wit and genius.

Sappho’s sexuality has been a subject of debate for decades. Her poems celebrate the love between women, but too little is known of her personal life to conclude anything beyond doubt. However, she is such a strong symbol of female homosexuality that the word lesbian is derived from the place of her birth, Lesbos. Searching for Sappho is a collection of Sappho’s surviving poems and their analysis.

The author, Philip Freeman, plays the role of a detective as he uses her poems, clues, historical artifacts and testimonials to learn about the life and death of a remarkable poet. Freeman takes us on a cloak-and-dagger mission to reconstruct a woman’s life in the 7th century B.C. Greece.

To be fair, he does not have a lot to build on. Unsurprisingly, there is not a lot documented about the first female poet. However, Freeman does a remarkable job with the little material he has access to.

In many ways, Sappho is the pioneer of lesbianism and lesbian literature. Any study of LGBT history would be incomplete without learning about her. This book is a great place to start!

Searching for Sappho The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet by Philip Freeman - Best Lesbian History Books

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