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Sappho (ca 630? B.C.E.)  
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Breaking the Silence Imposed on Female Sexuality

What is astonishing about Sappho is that in the face of one of the more rigid cultures in history, through generations of patriarchal misogyny and , she broke through the silence imposed on female homosexuality. By the extraordinary power of her verse, Sappho forces the critic and the reader to reckon with her as a woman and as a lesbian.

As Susan Gubar states in her article "Sapphistries," Sappho represents "all the lost women of genius in literary history, especially all the lesbian artists whose work has been destroyed, sanitized or heterosexualized."

Recovering the Lesbian Sappho in the Twentieth Century

The drive to recover the lesbian Sappho in the twentieth century began with the poets Natalie Barney, Renée Vivien, H.D., and Amy Lowell in their search for their poetic roots. In Surpassing the Love of Men, Lillian Faderman describes Barney's and Vivien's 1904 trip to Lesbos in the hopes of forming a poetic colony of women in Sappho's honor. Although this dream was not realized, the two poets did create a new Lesbos of sorts in their famous Paris salon.

Sappho's literary influence continues to be felt among lesbians: We see it in the work of Paula Gunn Allen, Judy Grahn, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lourde, Olga Broumas, and many others.

When lesbians in the twentieth century struggled to find their voice, they heard the clear tones of Sappho drowning out centuries of patriarchal grumbling to speak proudly and openly of her love. As Judy Grahn explains, the lesbian has traditionally been a figure for the outcast who is despised by mainstream (heterosexual) society, yet Sappho was not only accepted by her society, she was one of its heroes.

Grahn notes that even though "There is a great deal of lamentation in the work of modern Lesbians," this lamentation is completely absent in the work of Sappho. In fact, it is expressly rejected in Fragment 150:

It is not right to raise a dirge
     In a house the Muses roam.
This wailing is unworthy
     Of women like us.

To perhaps overenthusiastic lesbians and feminists, Sappho represents a utopian dream: a socially prominent woman of influence and genius dwelling in a matriarchal society where, as Dolores Klaich has it in Woman + Woman: Attitudes Toward Lesbianism, "Women of the day were free to be educated in the same manner as their brothers, they were free to participate in politics, they could own property and conduct legal business, they were not bound solely to domestic duties, and could love whom they pleased."

Klaich goes on to say that though Sappho "has been portrayed as a rebellious feminist who screamed out at strictures that circumscribed the lives of Greek women," this is not so, "for there were no strictures at which to scream."

Sappho's Real Accomplishment

Although I understand and sympathize with the impulse of Klaich and others to create such utopian myths, I believe that, ultimately, such mythologizing seriously undermines Sappho's very real accomplishment: namely, that she lived proudly as a lesbian and achieved everlasting fame as a poet in spite of the severe obstacles posed by her society.

If we deny the existence of these historical obstacles, we effectively deny the strength of character, will, and sheer genius that Sappho displayed in overcoming them.

And the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that, though the utopian dream is compelling, it is simply not true. As Cantarella explains, there is no proof that a matriarchal society ever existed and much to suggest the contrary. Even those who subscribe to the myth of matriarchy place it in the Neolithic Period, between 12,000 and 6,000 B.C.E. and, thus, some 11,400 to 5,400 years before the birth of Sappho.

Bonnie Zimmerman's re-creation in The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction 1969-1989 is more probable. In her discussion of what she calls "The third formative myth in lesbian literature, and the keystone of lesbian feminist culture," she explains that "The lesbian community functions as an alternative reality to heterosexual society, providing the individual quest hero with validation, pride, joy and self-affirmation."

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