Books about Women
Women writing about desire for other women have long faced challenges to publication, which only began to lessen in the 1970s with the rise of feminist and lesbian presses. Even so, women have always been writing about women, even if these works can be difficult to find or interpret.
The Love Songs of Sappho
Sappho was an ancient Greek poet who can be said to have written the first lesbian literature. She lived on the Isle of Lesbos, from which the word "lesbian" derives in her honor. Though very little is known about her life, her poems -- of which only fragments survive -- demonstrate her love of women.
Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes (1936)
This fantastical Modernist novel, which has been compared to James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, is the story of the destructive Robin Vote and the people who love her, including two women. The writing is challenging but rewarding, and has been praised by the likes of T. S. Eliot.
Patience and Sarah, by Isabel Miller (1971)
One of the first enduring historical novels about lesbians, this book tells a moving story of two women falling in love in Connecticut in 1816 and working to establish a farm together. It was originally published under a pseudonym and won the first Stonewall Book Award.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde (1982)
Lorde calls this book a biomythography, and it details many years of her life, beginning with her childhood, and describes her process of coming to understand herself as an African-American woman. Lorde pays homage to the many women who have influenced her and with whom she has had relationships.
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf (1925)
This Modernist novel tells the story of one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, who contemplates her relationships with people throughout her life as she prepares for a party she's hosting. This includes her friendship with the dashing Sally Seton. Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest British authors of the twentieth century, had a famous affair with Vita Sackville-West.
Olivia, by Dorothy Strachey Bussy (1949)
This book is a thinly veiled memoir of the author's own experience in a French boarding school and her obsessive relationship with the headmistress Mademoiselle Julie. This headmistress is based on Marie Souvestre, who was also close with her pupil Eleanor Roosevelt.
Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown (1973)
This classic lesbian coming-of-age novel details the early life of Molly Bolt, based on the author's own experiences. Molly grows up in a poor family and has relationships with girls from a young age. She's determined to make something of her life and escape from her mother's downtrodden world.
Annie on My Mind, by Nancy Garden (1982)
This book is considered the first young adult book about a lesbian relationship. Annie and Liza come from different backgrounds, but they find themselves falling in love against the backdrop of typical high school struggles in New York City. As their passion grows, they have trouble keeping their relationship a secret.
The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall (1928)
This novel is considered the first dealing explicitly with the lesbian experience. It follows the life and loves of the masculine woman Stephen Gordon and was the subject of a highly publicized obscenity trial in England. As the title suggests, readers should not expect a cheery romp.
The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith (1952)
This book is recognized as the first lesbian novel to have a happy ending at a time when most novels dealing with homosexuality ended with the lovers dead or in heterosexual relationships. It was originally published under a pseudonym for fear of backlash, and it became one of the infamous lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s and '60s. In 2015, the novel was adapted into the highly acclaimed film Carol.
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (1982)
This novel is written in the form of letters to God from the main character, Celie. It takes place in the 1930s and tells the story of Celie's abuse at the hands of her father and her husband before she meets Shug Avery, who shows her happiness and teaches her confidence. This book won the Pulitzer Prize.
Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (2002)
Set in Victorian England, this literary crime romance follows Sue Trinder, who becomes maid to Maud Lilly in order to help con her out of her fortune. Sue doesn't expect to fall in love with Maud, and neither does she realize that Maud might not be quite as innocent as she seems.