MONIQUE WITTIG and Sande Zeig in their Lesb£an Peoples: Mater£al for a D£ctz"onary devote a full page to Sappho.1 The page is blank. Their silence is one quite appropriate response to Sappho's lyrics, particularly refreshing in comparison to the relentless trivialization, the homophobic anxieties and the sheer misogyny that have infected so many ancient and modem responses to her work. 2 This anxiety itself requires some analysis. Part of the explanation is the fact that her poetry is continuously focussed on women and sexuality, subjects which provoke many readers to excess.3 But the centering on women and sexuality is not quite enough to explain the mutilated and violent discourse which keeps cropping up around her. After all, Anacreon speaks of the same subjects. A deeper explanation refers to the subject more than the object of her lyrics - the fact that it is a woman speaking about women and sexuality. To some audiences this would have been a double violation of the ancient rules which dictated that a proper woman was to be silent in the public world (defined as men's sphere) and that a proper woman accepted the administration and definition of her sexuality by her father and her husband. I will set aside here the question of how women at various times and places actually conducted their lives in terms of private and public activity, appearance and authority. If we were in a position to know more of the actual texture of ancient life and not merely the maxims and rules uttered by men, we could fairly expect to find that many women abided by these social rules or were forced to,
and that they sometimes enforced obedience on other women; but, since all social codes can be manipulated and subverted as well as obeyed, we would also expect to find that many women had effective strategies of resistance and false compliance by which they attained a working degree of freedom for their lives.4 Leaving aside all these questions, however, I simply begin my analysis with the fact that there was available a common understanding that proper women ought to be publicly submissive to male definitions, and that a very great pressure of propriety could at any time be invoked to shame a woman who acted on her own sexuality.