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Leila J. Rupp, Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women (New York: New York University Rress, 2009).

Firstly, I must note that I picked this up because I was very impressed by Rupp’s work on the Journal of Women’s History, of which she was editor from 1996 to 2004. A US-based scholar working on a journal with a heavy US focus and board, Rupp did a truly excellent job of trying to extricate the Journal from its US-centricities and make it a truer chronicle of women’s histories both within and across the borders of many countries. I was pretty excited to see Rupp take on a global history all by herself! And there’s plenty of that from her pen besides this book; check out her staff profile at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

What did I think of Sapphistries? It’s a good overview for its broadness, covering, as it does, the ancient world through to the present, even if we lose a lot of the specifics for that. Rupp has obviously gone to some effort to work in as much detail as she can given her scope. It’s fabulous to see these histories not just figured in terms of specific national contexts, as though the nation is a constant and always the most useful way in to history. And it’s fabulous to have each context taken on its own terms, rather than demanding Western ideas be imposed on queer women of other contexts.

It’s not just a refreshing text structurally and in its approach, however. It’s interesting for its intervention in a couple of opposed historical narratives about queerness: as produced in western contexts by the other, and, alternatively, imported into non-Western contexts by white imperialism. It’s a really good introduction to various contexts – for example, there’s a level, concise summary of queer lady history in China, the English-language scholarship of which I know in, shall we say, some detail.

That familiarity made it clear to me when passages were closely paraphrased from books like the excellent and authoritative The Emerging Lesbian by Tze-lan Sang. This is no accusation of plagiarism; Rupp’s footnotes are meticulous. What I mean to point out is that Rupp’s book is heavily reliant on chunks of secondary material rather than on the higher proportion of primary source material I would have liked, but which I recognise isn’t very feasible for a project of this scope.

The fundamental problem with this book is that it delimits the lesbian/sapphist/etc by focussing on the female-bodied. Rupp acknowledges in her introduction that this a is problematic limitation, but then doesn’t interrogate or define what she means by female-bodied. When these limits emerge in the text, Rupp conveys rather than analyses historical attempts to make and remake definitions of female-bodiedness, which have of course varied vastly with context. As a result, Rupp ends up including trans men and those otherwise assigned femaleness at birth who do not identify with a female body or as women. She does not end up including trans women or people not assigned femaleness at birth who identify with womanhood, femaleness, or the feminine. These are counterproductive, if not atypical, limitations on the queer and the sapphic. Rupp’s book would have been much stronger if it had teased out the nature of femaleness in these ways.

In summary: Rupp’s great, and this is a great introduction, with many entirely understandable gaps, and some that did need filling.