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The word lesbian can refer to a woman’s identity, to desire, or to romantic or sexual activity between women. A lesbian is a homosexual woman. The concept of “lesbian”, to differentiate women with a shared sexual orientation, is a 20th-century construct. Throughout history, women have not had the same freedom or independence to pursue homosexual relationships as men, but neither have they met the same harsh punishment as homosexual men in some societies.
Women in homosexual relationships responded to this designation either by hiding their personal lives or accepting the label of outcast and creating a subculture and identity that developed in Europe and the United States. Portrayals of lesbians in the media suggest that society at large has been simultaneously intrigued and threatened by women who challenge feminine gender roles, and fascinated and appalled with women who are romantically involved with other women. Sappho of Lesbos, depicted here in a 1904 painting by John William Godward, gave the term lesbian the connotation of erotic desire between women. The word lesbian is derived from the name of the Greek island of Lesbos, home to the 6th-century BCE poet Sappho. From various ancient writings, historians gathered that a group of young women were left in Sappho’s charge for their instruction or cultural edification. In Algernon Charles Swinburne’s 1866 poem Sapphics the term “lesbian” appears twice but capitalized both times after twice mentioning the island of Lesbos, and so could be construed to mean ‘from the island of Lesbos’.
The development of medical knowledge was a significant factor in further connotations of the term lesbian. In the middle of the 19th century, medical writers attempted to establish ways to identify male homosexuality, which was considered a significant social problem in most Western societies. Far less literature focused on female homosexual behavior than on male homosexuality, as medical professionals did not consider it a significant problem. In some cases, it was not acknowledged to exist. However, Ellis conceded that there were “true inverts” who would spend their lives pursuing erotic relationships with women. These were members of the “third sex” who rejected the roles of women to be subservient, feminine, and domestic. The work of Krafft-Ebing and Ellis was widely read, and helped to create public consciousness of female homosexuality.