Love Between Women

Prof. Bernadette Brooten kindly volunteered to visit my Gender, Sex, and Religion course in the spring of 2020. This is the introduction I wrote for her. I share it here because her research deserves to be more widely known and accessible to the general public and I hope this summary might help.

Bernadette J. Brooten is Kraft-Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, of Women’s and Gender Studies, of Classical Studies, and of Religious Studies at Brandeis University. She is founder and director of the Brandeis Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. This project aims to create Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sexual ethics rooted in freedom, mutuality, meaningful consent, responsibility, and female (as well as male) pleasure, untainted by slave-holding values.

I first met Prof. Brooten at an anti-racist Pedagogy workshop at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting a few years ago. She currently chairs the Slavery, Resistance and Freedom unit at SBL, which investigates the intersections between Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean slavery and biblical and early rabbinic texts, the diverse forms of resistance to it, and the meaning of freedom in slave-holding societies. She encourages researchers to ask how Jews and Christians—free, freed, and enslaved—have interpreted biblical texts on slavery and freedom and challenges researchers to “read for freedom.”

I had encountered Dr. Brooten’s pioneering research as a Classics Major in my studies on Jews in the Roman world. Brooten’s research on women’s leadership in the ancient synagogue highlighted the inscriptional evidence for women holding titles of leaders in synagogues. Previous scholars had assumed that such titles were functional for men, but merely honorific for women. Prof. Brooten pointed out the sexist assumptions that undergirded these articles, opening up a path for more accurate and inclusive history.

I encountered Brooten’s groundbreaking work again in my studies of the New Testament, and women’s role in the Jesus movement. Brooten article on Junia the Apostle pointed out what ancient Christians had known, but more recent ones had forgotten: women served as apostles and leaders in the early Jesus movement. Generations of scholars had missed this again because androcentric assumptions prevented them from reading the evidence right there in Paul’s letters.

Prof. Brooten’s talk today is a follow up to her 1996 book Love Between Women, a book that should be required reading in history, religion, classics departments, not to mention GWSS. Brooten presents a tour de force of primary sources on love between women, going back to Sappho’s representation in ancient and modern historiography and analyzing Greco-Roman authors’ literary works, astrological texts, magical texts, medical texts, dream-interpretation texts, and biblical, Jewish, and Christian texts.

Brooten was using so-called popular ritual sources for the study of culture long before other scholars followed suit. She was showcasing intersectional analysis in the mid-90s, a decade before that term entered the public consciousness.

Brooten presents a compelling case that to write an accurate history of sexuality, one has to include the evidence for women’s sexuality and attitudes towards gender. Michel Foucault’s argument that homosexuality as a sexual orientation wasn’t conceivable before the 19-20th centuries ‘“medical turn” ignored the evidence of attitudes towards female homoeroticism in antiquity.

Likewise James Boswell’s account of Christin tolerance of male homoerotic relationships overlooked the evidence for Christian intolerance of female’s homoerotic relationships.

As Brooten demonstrates, men were privileged with more options for their sexuality in antiquity than women. If Foucault or Boswell had confronted the evidence pertaining to women, they would have had to revise their thesis and write a more accurate albeit fraught history.

In this book, Brooten shows that a fuller accounts of sexual orientation in antiquity must acknowledge the unequal distribution of power that all relationships operated within. In the Roman world, men were expected to be active and women to be passive; it was violating these active/passive roles that was the most unconceivable transgression for ancient elite male authors. Love between two equal women was too potentially disruptive for the hierarchies of the Greco-Roman, Jewish society, and emerging Christian communities in antiquity.

Brooten demonstrates that Paul’s polemic in his letter to the Romans laid the groundwork for the category of lesbian and gay, he was the first to group together men and women who were attracted to the same sex— this polemic was picked up by later Christian thinkers. Paul must be understood, she shows, in light of his Jewish background as well as the social currents of the Roman world.

Brooten uncovers the history of negative attitudes towards men and women who were perceived to transgress gender roles, but reading between the lines, she also uncovers the evidence for women loving other women with resilience and confidence, in secret and in public. The history she details is a times dark, painful, and poignant, but it is also a history of courage and of love: it is exactly the kind of history we need now.

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