What was Patience and Sarah?

Liz Highleyman | January 10,2007

The novel Patience and Sarah, first published in 1969, was a rarity in its day as a lesbian love story in which the protagonists did not come to grief on account of their relationship.

Patience and Sarah, originally published as A Place for Us, was written by Alma Routsong, under the pen name Isabel Miller. Born in 1924, Routsong served in the Navy, was married to a man for 15 years, had children, and wrote novels featuring heterosexual relationships, before coming out as a lesbian.

Routsong's best-known novel, set in the early 1800s, tells of the relationship between Patience White, a middle-class painter, and the cross-dressing, working-class Sarah Dowling. The families of both women oppose the budding romance, and Patience and Sarah eventually leave their puritanical Connecticut village to establish a farm in upstate New York. Facing opprobrium from their conservative neighbors – but also earning their grudging respect – the women struggle to build a life together without the support of a lesbian community.

The novel was inspired by a real-life couple, American folk artist Mary Ann Willson and her companion, Miss Brundage. Routsong first learned about Willson while visiting a folk-art museum – a book accompanying the exhibit revealed that the two women had a "romantic attachment" – but little is known today about the women and their relationship

Routsong began writing Patience and Sarah after moving to New York City in the early 1960s. Upon its completion in 1967, she sent the manuscript to several publishers, but it garnered only rejections. After receiving payment from her brother on a long overdue loan, she decided to self-publish, spending $850 to print 1,000 copies, which she sold on street corners and at meetings of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). "The fact that my people were reading my book and loving it, meant more to me than anything else that ever happened in my life," she told historian Jonathan Ned Katz in a 1975 interview. Kay Tobin, the partner of New York DOB chapter president Barbara Gittings, once asked Routsong, "When does the man come in?" noting that "there's always a man in lesbian books who takes the lover away." The author replied, simply, "Not in this one."

Even as the field of lesbian literature burgeoned with the lesbian-feminist movement of the 1970s, the popularity of Routsong's novel endured. In 1971, it won the American Library Association's first-ever Gay Book Award (now the Stonewall Book Award). The following year, McGraw-Hill reissued the novel under the title Patience and Sarah, and Routsong achieved a measure of commercial success. Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver of the lesbian theater troupe Split Britches collaborated with Routsong to adapt Patience and Sarah for the stage in 1987, and the work was later the basis for the first explicitly lesbian-themed opera.

Over the years, Patience and Sarah has had its share of critics. Readers have both condemned and praised the work for its portrayal of butch-femme sexuality, although Routsong said that while Sarah dresses as a man, "She's not butch, she's not male-identified...Men's clothes are not male identification; they're freedom."

Today, Patience and Sarah remains a lesbian literary classic. According to author Ann Wadsworth, its "brave-new-world, just-the-two-of-us attitude" challenged the conventional characterization of fictional lesbians as "sordid, suicidal creatures of the night, a view predominant in lesbian literature of the pre-Stonewall years."

For further reading:

  • Katz, Jonathan. 1976, 1992. "Alma Routsong, Writing and Publishing Patience and Sarah." In Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., ed. Jonathan Ned Katz (Meridian).
  • Summers, Claude J. (ed.). 1995, 2002. The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (Routledge).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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