How This Historic Icon Influenced Feminist Writers Today
When I came across the history podcast Footnoting History, I knew I found my niche. I listened to everything from an analysis of Jane Austen’s novels to the Victorians’ chilling Christmas traditions, and excitedly discussed these historical tales with my boyfriend. I never expected to come across a critical story of sex, love, poetry, and feminism, however, until I listened to “The Sappho Scandal” and learned about the legendary lesbian and feminist named Sappho.
Sappho was born around 615 B.C. and was a lyrical poet and songwriter. Although little is known about Sappho’s life, she made a name for herself as the greatest lyric poet of all time — even in the male-dominated world of classic literature. Many of her works were intended to be sung and much of her writing focused on the intimacy and passion of relationships between humans rather than Gods or epic mythologies, which were more commonly explored at the time. The rhythm of her verses were so well-known that they became known as the “Sapphic stanza,” or the “Sapphic Meter,” and Plato dubbed her “the tenth muse.” She influenced countless paintings and sculptures throughout history. But despite this influence, Sappho never seemed to try to inspire anyone’s work but her own.
And yet, despite all the praise Sappho’s work has received and influence it has imparted, most of her poetry has been lost. Sappho’s sensual verses and uses of female as well as male pronouns encouraged powerful men of the eleventh century to organize mass-burnings of her work. Some scholars have posed that Pope Gregory VII was involved in destroying her work, as the Catholic Church called her poems “obscene” and even ordered her entire collection to be destroyed in 380 C.E. Luckily, other artists have derived their work from hers, and have even directly quoted passages from her work, so that enough remains to fill entire books that can serve as a record of her talent.
But perhaps even more than her immense talent, Sappho is known for being a legendary lesbian icon. The term “Sapphic” is still today used as an adjective to describe women who love women. When Sappho was born on the isle of Lesbos, she made it a “cultural center” for women and spent her time living, working, and writing on the island. Although Sappho’s family wealth allowed her to live anywhere in the world, she chose to live on the island with fellow women. She is known to have operated a school for girls on Lesbos and performed her lyrical poetry there until her death. This ethos is evident in her work. For example, in “I Have Not Had One Word From Her,” a classic yet controversial poem by the artist, Sappho gives a deeply personal account of romance and lust, including references to Aphrodite who was a goddess of “love, beauty and desire.”
When I learned about Sappho’s poetry, I felt motivated to challenge authority and also make my power known. Her legacy especially made me reflect on my first relationship at the age of 18, in which I suffered emotional abuse and felt silenced every time I expressed an opinion, feeling, or sexual desire with my partner. Feminism and female writers — including Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickinson — helped me recover from and find my identity after that abusive experience. It’s inspiring to know that Sappho laid the groundwork for those female icons, who helped me learn how to express my thoughts and feelings openly and without hesitation and to refuse to feel ashamed of my sexual desires and passions.
Today, many women are taught to be submissive and silent in their romantic relationships and otherwise. If women are too sexual in public, they’re automatically labeled as “slutty” or deemed “inappropriate.” If women are too dominant or too vocal about their opinions, they’re often seen as annoying or shut down by their partner or others. This sexism has persisted since Sappho’s time, as she focused on it in her writing. She encouraged her audience to make love, not war, and that women shouldn’t feel ashamed to embrace their sexuality and live freely. She taught self-liberation, self-worth, and self-love in her writings and that there’s nothing wrong with women expressing strong passions towards one another.
It’s important to remember ancient historical figures like Sappho, who set the foundation for lyrical poetry, influential art, and women's voices more generally. Her work inspired generation after generation of young women and men, and remains as poignant today as it was 3,000 years ago.
To read some of Sappho’s surviving work and historical influence, visit sappho.com.
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