‘Lesbian’ is the oldest and most commonly understood word for women’s same-sex relationships. From the 1970s it began to be used positively by the lesbian-feminist movement, and replaced other terms. Some women called themselves ‘kamp’ (a description also used by gay men) from the 1950s. In the 19th and early 20th centuries terms like ‘lady-husband’ and ‘bluestocking’ were sometimes used to describe women in same-sex relationships. The term ‘Sapphic’ appears to have been widely understood – in 1905 Truth reported the cross-dressing case of ‘Bert Rotciv’ with the headline ‘The Sapphic singularities of Boy Bertha’.
In 1904 Alla Atkinson wrote a letter to her sister Dorothy Richmond and mentioned Blanche and her companion, whom she referred to as Blanche’s ‘lady-husband’: ‘Blanche & her German friend were on the Papanui ... she rushed away to get lodgings for herself & friend at Wanganui without seeing all her relations ... she looks well, but old rather & very gentle-eyed – she is a dear creature – we all feel rather burdened by the lady-husband.’1
Living a lesbian life
Before social, economic and legal reforms improved women’s access to education, employment and housing in the late 20th century, few women had the economic independence which was essential for living a lesbian life and establishing a same-sex domestic relationship. Many women’s lives were lived in the private rather than the public sphere, and opportunities to meet others or organise networks were limited.
There was also a class difference – middle-class women had more access to education and well-paid employment than their working-class counterparts, so were more easily able to set up what might be regarded as lesbian households.
A woman’s duty
Mary Taylor, a businesswoman in Wellington in the mid-19th century, never married, and had passionate lifelong friendships with two women, Ellen Nussey and the writer Charlotte Brontë. She was committed to being financially independent, and argued that ‘a woman’s first duty, like a man’s, is to earn a living’. Women who did not earn their own money could be ‘driven into matrimony merely for maintenance, or may have to starve when the husband is gone.’ 2
Despite these obstacles, some women from the 19th to mid-20th centuries developed lesbian relationships and led lesbian lives, though most did not publicly (or even privately) identify themselves as lesbian.
Some Māori historians believe that lesbian relationships and behaviours were accepted in many Māori communities before European colonisation. The introduction of English law and Christianity by colonisers placed legal and moral restraints on all same-sex sexual behaviours. Male homosexual practices were regarded as criminal from 1840. This was formalised by the English Laws Act 1858.
Lesbian sexual practices were not criminalised in England – or in New Zealand. The Crimes Act 1961 introduced lesbianism into the law to a limited extent by criminalising females over 21 who indecently assaulted girls under 16.
In 1935 musical conductor Eric Mareo was convicted of murdering his wife, Thelma. During the trial Thelma Mareo’s lesbian relationship with the dancer Freda Stark became public. Eric Mareo testified that ‘his wife’s desires were met by association with women’3 and the defence showed the jury nude photos of Stark in a failed attempt to discredit her as a witness. In later life Stark became a celebrated elder of the lesbian community and her life was documented in a play and in films.
The absence of lesbian sex from criminal law did not mean that lesbian relationships were accepted. Women who transgressed accepted codes of behaviour and gender could still be punished. Young women who engaged in socially unacceptable sexual behaviour – including lesbian practices – could be sent to government institutions such as the Te Oranga Girls’ Home at Burwood in Christchurch. Lesbians were sometimes committed to psychiatric hospitals for treatment – homosexuality was defined as a personality disorder by psychiatrists until 1973.
Vaguely worded codes of conduct for some occupations, using terms such as ‘disgraceful’ and ‘improper’ behaviour, could be used against women suspected of lesbianism. Prominent and negative media coverage often associated lesbianism with crime.