THIS BOOK IS NOT about Lesbians. According to Professor Lillian Faderman's quite thorough scholarship, the Lesbian did not even exist in Europe until the 1880s and in the United States until 1910. Not a natural phenomenon, she was invented by the medical profession to cope with women's entry into the professions and higher education and to insure that female economic independence would not allow women to avoid marriage. Love between women, which did exist, was unlike Lesbianism in being socially honored, not secretive, and extremely common -- and here Faderman makes her most ambitious points and may lose some readers.

As late as 1929 a nationwide study of American women chosen as normal revealed that 50 percent had experienced "intense emotional relations with other women" while half of this group had experienced such relations as sexual. Earlier, in Faderman's words, "it was virtually impossible to study the correspondence of any nineteenth-century woman . . . of America . . . England, France and Germany, and not uncover a passionate commitment to another woman at some time in her life."

In short, the inventors of Lesbianism saw the bell curve of emotional and sensual experience as skewed towards one of its ends, the "normal," while the other end was declared a separate and "abnormal" phenomenon. Such as unnatural separation can be -- and has been -- used to make all close bonds between women suspect. In connection with the 20th-century view that eroticism can be reduced to genital contact, this same artificial division functions to declare all passionate attachments between women either trivial (those without a genial element) or criminal (those with). This modern idea that genitality is the point of division is relationships between women (not a turn-of-the-century criterion, as Faderman's points out) cannot -- I think -- survive Faderman's piling up of evidence: In an age when carnality with anyone was forbidden to ladies there is little written evidence of genital contact between women (though some exists) but erotically-toned "romances," "love affairs," and "marriages" abound. The creators of Lesbianism got around the ubiquity of such behavior by declaring that their model Lesbian (who was hysterical, insane, promiscuous, congenitally defective, murderous, suicidal, and anatomically mannish) was the "real" one and all others somehow unreal. (Some contemporary feminist scholars persist in this confusion, stating that embraces, kisses, courtships, "losing one's heart," and wishing to "marry" another woman do not make their embarrassingly intimate subjects "really" Lesbian.)

Surpassing the Love of Men has its faults. The author's treatment of contemporary Lesbian-feminism is very weak and at times she seems to say that sexism and the segregation of the sexes causes love between women, a confusingly negative view that contradicts her assertion of the normality (statistical and other) of such behavior. Nor does she place her subject in the context of the bourgeois invention of the family, another social artifact supposed to be external, which was also imposed on the vast majority of the population of industrialized countries little more than a century ago. Homosexuality -- or rather, acknowledgement of the variety of human behavior -- is a threat to the (compulsory) family. This is nor surprise if the invention of homosexual identity is viewed as a last-ditch defense of the family, which was already being threatened not only by the advent of feminist protests against it, but also by the necessity of imposing on most of the population a social artifact designed to insure the well-being of men of a relatively small owning class. The similarity of the tactics of the right wing today and those of the 19-century sexologists is probably not accidental, since both connect Lesbianism with feminism, invalidate "Lesbians" as "real" women, and attack "Lesbians" in order to defend "the family." The more liberal, then and today, stress that this (now) distinct minority "can't help it" -- but both insist that homosexuals constitute a distinct and different group, an assertion that restricts any kind of deviant behavior to a supposed minority.

Since calling people's attention to something new is easier than telling them that something they've always believed in was invented with malice afore-thought not very long ago, Lillian Faderman's book is certainly going to be controversial. Public policy on sexuality (in such issues as abortion, sterilization, sexuality, marriage, and the family) is so explosive precisely because it is located at the junction of the public and the private. That external division ("external ever since Wednesday" as Dylan Thomas once said of the Welsh snows) is beginning to disappear as various thinkers question elements of family life: full-time motherhood, childhood conceived as crucial and with its own special psychology, the connection between romantic love and unpaid labor, the timlessness of the family, and the home as a private sphere distinct from the marketplace and the workshop, with its "natural" function of providing a haven for emotions and relations banished from the public world. o

Surpassing the Love oe Men is an important achievement in this process of demystifying social institutions. Of direct interest to all women, the book has implications which affect everyone. Surpassing the Love of Men is an important document in the use of scientific opinion as a form of social control and the creation of a social identity via the falsification of history. c