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Annotated Bibliography: Lesbians Between the World Wars

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein, January 4, 1935. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright (c) by Kiara M. Vigil, 2008. All rights reserved.

Benstock, Shari. Hidden From History, Chapter: “Paris Lesbianism and the Politics of Reaction, 1900-1940”

Benstock served as associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences (2000-03) and was the founding director of the Women's Studies Program. From 1996-2000, she chaired the English Department at Miami, and from 1986 until very recently, Benstock has been at the University of Miami. She has written a number of texts, some of which include: Women of the Left Bank (1976), and The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings (1988).

In this text she seeks to contextualize and examine the links between aristocratic lesbians in Paris and their sexual preferences with the artistic avant-garde, political ideologies, class privilege, and psychosexual histories. This text asks us to pose the question: why were so many of these bourgeois lesbians pro-fascist? These lesbians had economic and social (sometimes religious) privileges, and these privileges simultaneously allowed these women to act upon their sexuality and, out of self-interest, still align themselves within the dominant institutions of power. These women were part of the Parisian Avant-garde (Male-based).

Benstock offers a Lacanian reading of their right-wing ideologies and avant-garde culture that reinforced hetero-normative power structures, perhaps Benstock’s approach here is too limiting, because as she writes: “the Lacanian text female homosexuality rests in a refusal to accept this [female] subjection [to a masculine phallic truth]. Instead, it takes the masculine position. Under these conditions, lesbianism mimes the patriarchal law, registering its effects on and between women. Its sexual politics are not of ‘otherness,’ but rather of sameness with the masculine. The belief that homosexuality can only write resistance against the patriarchal Oedipal law through a reenactment of the law’s repressive workings was culturally over-determined in Europe between the wars.” (335-336)This reinforcement of dominant cultural values allowed only lesbians with class privileges to express their sexuality – as such, lesbians who identified wholly with avant-garde practices would often align themselves with misogynistic, hetero-normative, anti-Semitic discourses. (336)

Benstock further notes that: “The right-wing lesbianism fostered by this culture developed among the economically and socially privileged, who identified less with the values of totalitarian politics than with the underlying fears those values hoped to assuage.” (336) The reader of this text might be urged to ask: Why is Benstock so willing to pathologize these women? Why is this not problematized? Gertrude Stein maintained a lesbian relationship that was based on bourgeois heterosexual norms; she “upheld the law of Oedipal sexual identity.”(340) Stein “could not break the psychological transfer of her female body to masculine gender: The female represented everything weak and subservient, powerless and victimized; the masculine represented power and authority, strength and leadership.”(341)Is Benstock conflating lesbian butch masculinity with traditional masculine patriarchy? Or was this what Stein was actually doing? This text prompts and leaves many of these questions unanswered, however, the psychosexual pathology imbued in these subjects appears related to the specific historic context. Benstock is perhaps relying on pathology to distinguish the behavior of Barney and Stein from that of the more progressive women like Barnes, Beach, Bryher, and Colette.


Natalie Clifford Barney

Natalie Clifford Barney, 1892. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Bullough, Vern and Bonnie. “Lesbianism in the 1920s and 1930s: A Newfound Study” In Signs vol 2, no. 4 (1977) p 895-904

The Bulloughs authored a number of texts on sex and gender, including Contraception: A Guide to Birth Control Methods and Women and Prostitution. Both have also written extensively, sometimes together and other times individually, on the issues of sex and gender, health care, and the history of science, medicine, and nursing.

This report stems from a concern that male homosexuality has been studied far more than female homosexuality; the Bulloughs suggest this issue relates to past researchers being men, and that lesbians have not historically been subject to the same types of legal persecution as their male counterparts. The Bulloughs acknowledge a legal incident that took place in 1649 in the Plymouth colony that appears to be the first American prosecution of Lesbian activities.

This report stems from a concern that male homosexuality has been studied far more than female homosexuality; the Bulloughs suggest this issue relates to past researchers being men, and that lesbians have not historically been subject to the same types of legal persecution as their male counterparts. The Bulloughs acknowledge a legal incident that took place in 1649 in the Plymouth colony that appears to be the first American prosecution of Lesbian activities.

The study was being conducted within the same socio-cultural milieux surrounding Radclyffe Hall’s publication of The Well of Loneliness (1928) and this study was taking place in Salt Lake City, a community context that would not have embraced lesbianism especially given most women in America who were publicly decrying the publication of Hall’s book.

The occupational identities reported were: six teachers, two nurses, two waitresses, two secretaries, one mining engineer, one beauty operator, one barber, one concession operator, one farm laborer, three housewives (married to men), two housewife partners of lesbian women, one unemployed “drifter.” This community stands out because all members (except perhaps the “drifter”) appear to be striving for respectability and are conscious of the need to keep their lesbian identities hidden.

The Bulloughs conclude that the citizens of Utah remained unaware of this group’s existence, which is a crucial finding based on the discovery of this manuscript, namely, that the success of these women in disguising their sexual orientation to the outside world suggests that lesbianism of the past could have been more prevalent than sources presently indicate, granted society may have been less suspecting, still this study did take place in reference to the publication of The Well of Loneliness and following court trial and public discourse. Finally, given that the members of this lesbian group consistently attempted (as is evidenced in the manuscript) to reject their condition as pathological indicates their anxieties about society and the immense impact these stresses placed on a self-image they defined as “different,” and therefore, linked to masculinity.

Garber, Eric. Hidden From History, Chapter: “A Spectacle of Color”

Eric Garber died of AIDS-related illness in 1995. He was a founding member of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Garber gives a historical account of how black lesbian/gay subcultures developed in Harlem. He details how both macro-structural changes and cultural influences contributed to new social relationships. These major changes were produced due to: the dismantling of slavery, American participation in WWI, increased industrial production, an end to immigration and immigrant labor, the Great Migration and Prohibition. He sets this study in Harlem: A City Within a City. Here Black communities remained insular due to housing discrimination in the north. Black people also faced continued job discrimination and segregation laws, this led to the creation of all-black communities: “Nowhere else could you find a geographic area so large, so concentrated, really a city within a city. There were black schoolteachers, black entrepreneurs, black police officers, and even black millionaires”(319). He notes the cultural shifts of Harlem’s Renaissance, where Harlem became a vibrant artistic community, self-consciously Afro-American and wildly popular. Black musicians, artists, writers, and entertainers flocked to Harlem. Figures such as: Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. Blues music factored heavily in the Harlem subculture.

Homosexuality was also a part of this world. Homosexuality in Harlem consisted of: Rent Parties, Buffet Flats, Speakeasies, and Drag Balls. Private parties were the most common way for lesbians and gay men to socialize. The “Rent Party” developed as a means to help pay housing costs; rent parties featured jazz, blues, bootleg liquor, and dancing. Based on accounts of attendees, homosexuals were frequently part of the rent party scene. Buffet flats were “after-hours spots that were usually in someone’s apartment” (322) Originally, they served as places where traveling blacks could find a room for the night; they were similar to hotels, which were inaccessible to black people due to segregation and discrimination. However, they developed a notorious reputation for providing drinking, gambling, prostitution, and tolerating homosexual encounters. Some speakeasies also catered to predominantly lesbian or gay clientele, often featuring performers like Gladys Bentley.

Drag Balls drew the largest overtly lesbian and gay crowds. Called “spectacles in color” by Langston Hughes these events were often attended by the thousands. Balls were held by police permit and attracted both participants who would dress in drag and spectators who only went to watch. Black Lesbian life had important ties to heterosexual entertainers who allowed them to earn money and move within a female social world. Many maintained a heterosexual public persona: Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker (left), Ethel Waters, some notable exceptions: Gladys Bentley, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (above right). Black lesbian existence found its way into popular literature: Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1927) and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) Blues music also included lyrics about “Bull Daggers,” which were black lesbian women.

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness. (1928)

Hall was born Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall on August 12, 1880 in Bournemouth, Dorset, England. Her mother was Marie Diehl, an American widow, and her father was Radclyffe Radclyffe-Hall, a wealthy Englishman. There marriage was stormy and tumultuous. Her father left home her mother before she was born. Hall had a miserable childhood and at 21, inherited a large sum from her father. Then at 28, she met Mabel Batten who helped to develop her writing talent and to publish, she also converted to Catholicism. In 1915, met Una Lady Troubridge, with whom she would spend the rest of her life. Her first novels met with good reviews. Adam’s Breed won both the Prix Femina and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. She and Una lived together and traveled often between England and France.

Hall published The Well of Loneliness in 1928. One of the first blatantly lesbian novels included an early sexologist, Havelock Ellis’s commentary. Public outcry was immediate. The editor of the Sunday Press, James Douglas, said in a front page article, “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.” Reactions to this book resulted in a well-publicized trial, and The Well of Loneliness was banned in Britain. The type-moulds were sent to Paris where it was published. Despite the banning, copies were widely distributed, including in Britain. Customs seized copies that were on the way to Leonard Hill’s bookshop. For the trial, leading intellectuals such as E.M. Forster and Virginia Wolfe supported the book’s merit; this was disallowed in court and the book was subsequently suppressed. The obscenity trial failed in the U.S., and since 1928 the book has since been translated into 11 languages and had never gone out of print.

In Hall’s later life she failed to repeat such success with her other novels. Hall and Troubridge were to move to Florence in 1938, but WWII interfered. Because of physical problems and deteriorating health, they moved to Devon. Hall passed away on October 7, 1943.

For more on why Hall wrote The Well of Loneliness see: Shneer, David and Aviv Caryn, eds. American Queer “Why Did I Write the Well of Loneliness?”(originally published: 1934) Paradigm Publishers, 2006. In her writing, “Why Did I Write The Well of Loneliness?” Hall states three main purposes: To “encourage the inverted…to declare themselves…with dignity and courage,” To “give even greater courage…to the strong and courageous, and strength and hope to the weak and hopeless,” and “That normal men and women of good will would be brought through my book to fuller and more tolerant understanding of the inverted.” These references use terms coined by sexologists studying and classifying sexualities, Hall’s novel is very much a testimony to how lesbians self-identified during the 1920s in that, the notion of the “sexual invert” was part of upper-class women’s lexicon for women who only loved other women. Hall also specifically thanked the working class for their support of her while she was put on trial for writing The Well of Loneliness, and important and interesting thing for someone of her socioeconomic status to note.

Hull, Gloria T. Gay and Lesbian Reader, Chapter: “Lines She Did Not Dare”

Hull (born Akasha Gloria Hull) received her Ph.D. in English from Purdue University. She is a Poet, Writer, Historian and Critic, as well as a Professor of Literature and Women’s Studies at University of California Santa Cruz. She is also the author of several books, some of which are: Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance and Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson.

This text focuses on Angelina Weld Grimke, who was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a biracial family whose members included both slave-owners and abolitionists. Aunts Sarah Grimke and Angeline Grimke were well known abolitionists and women’s rights advocates. Hull’s analysis of Grimke’s work notes that se produced relatively few racial poems, and the ones she did were indirect and sometimes vague. After her father’s death in 1930, Grimke moved to New York (Harlem is pictured above during the 1930s) and produced very little work. There, she lived in isolation for the next 28 years, avoiding contact with friends and peers. How is Grimke’s Life Experience reflected in her work? And, how do her class privilege and racial identity influence the nature of her work? These are critical questions the reader of both Grimke and Hull will ask and contend with in order to place her writings into the realm of lesbian history.

Lapovsky Kennedy, Elizabeth. Inventing Lesbian Cultures in America, Chapter: “But we would never talk about it: The Structures of Lesbian Discretion in South Dakota, 1928-1933.” p15-39

Kennedy is a Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona. She received her Ph.D. in social anthropology from Cambridge (1972). She has taught at SUNY-Buffalo for 28 years, and is co-author, with Madeline Davis, of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold (1993).

Her approach is an analytical article on the meanings of “private lesbianism,” or “lesbian discretion,” particularly in the early 20th century U.S. She focuses on structural components of discretion, such as social formations. Her evidence is primarily an oral history interview with Julia Boyer Reinstein.

This text takes part in the post-’60s lesbian & gay historiographical dialogue. Her critique of existing scholarship notes that: Lesbians who led “private lives” in the early 20th c. are inadequately explained by the in/out, speaking/silence and shame/pride binaries, and the “closet” metaphor, of current lesbian/gay discourse. She also points to existing theories of early 20th c. lesbianism that have emphasized “public” lesbians and masculinity, while ignoring the existence of other kinds of lesbians. Some historical and structural claims in this essay are: the “closet” was not fully institutionalized in the 1920s and 1930s; the dichotomy between hetero and homo was not yet hegemonic; for the upper class, sex was a personal matter. Heterosexual infidelity was viewed as broadly equivalent to lesbian sex.

Additional historical claims, note that in the past it was not necessary to self-identify as a “lesbian,” especially if you were an upper-class woman. Upper-class women with accommodating families could enjoy private sex lives! Kennedy’s interventions: We should not automatically equate “discretion,” “privacy,” marriage, or heterosexuality with false lesbianism, false conscious-ness, internalized homophobia, or a lack of sexual intensity. We should expand definitions of “who is a lesbian.” We need to be attentive to the historical process by which the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy became hegemonic, the in/out analytical binary entered into discourse, and lesbianism became thought of as primarily sexual. Sexual discretion in women’s lives needs to be assessed in its proper historical and cultural context. Also, class and geography are important, as are social constraints such as respectability.This source indicates that since, archival evidence under-represents discreet lesbians, a rethinking of methods is needed, and a re-articulation of sexuality as central in lesbian lives: private lesbians, including feminine ones, who may well have experienced exuberant and highly pleasurable sexuality needs to be taken into account.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky and Davis, Madeleine. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, Chapters: “To cover up the truth would be a waste of time” and “I could hardly wait to get back to that bar: Lesbian Bar Culture in the 1930s and 1940s” Routledge Press, 1993. p1-66

Kennedy got her PhD in Social Anthropology from Cambridge in 1972. She became a founding member of the Women’s Studies program at SUNY, Buffalo where she taught for 28 years. Currently she is the head of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Arizona. Madeline Davis is an activist and musician. She is credited for writing the first open gay liberation song entitled “Stonewall Nation” and will being the first open lesbian delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1972.

The narrators in this ethnographic study using “snowball sampling” discussed their ability to live on their own and find employment, but their social lives and ability to connect with each other was challenging leading to intense social isolation. Kennedy and Davis point out that “white narrators” at this time started attending underground bars in Buffalo that were not specifically for gay and lesbian patrons, but were tolerant and accommodating of lesbian patrons. Black narrators, on the other hand, attended more parties held at each other’s houses as opposed to seeking out tolerant bars. These “house parties” were different in size and character to previous social environments that were predominantly only a few close friends. This was largely because the black population was not large enough at this time to provide the anonymity that white lesbians could have at bars. Additionally, house parties were a common occurrence within the black community and black lesbians were adapting their ethnic culture to their own specific needs. Many of the bars that lesbians attended were entertainment bars in the Black section of Buffalo where the patrons were racially mixed and hospitable to lesbians. The authors state that this hospitality suggests that the culture of the Harlem Renaissance may have extended to Buffalo.

According to the narrators the onset of WWII allowed lesbian more opportunities for socializing and meeting others. This was not because they has more job opportunities but because the increased independence of all women made lesbians look more like other women and less easily identified. Because women could now wear pants for work, butch lesbians (who previously could only wear pants in their homes) were now able to go to bars and other social events in pants. Lesbian women of the 1940s had two main strategies to deal with the increased exposure that being part of the bar scene. Furthermore, narrators did this by keeping work life completely separated from their social life. If they knew women who went to the bars that they worked with, while they may socialize at work they rarely spoke about life outside of work. Family avoidance was more difficult and all narrators speak about various levels of acceptance from their families. Most of the narrators were not closeted from their families, but did avoid conversations about the topic in order to maintain peace and avoid social stigma from neighbors, other relatives, and workers. They also all went to extreme lengths to protect their families reputation.

Finally, lesbian women and gay men formed alliances where they would attend straight social functions in order to preserve their family’s reputation and opinion. Narrators reported little retaliation on their part to harassment from, primarily, straight men. Yet, they differentiated between passivity and passive resistance. The willingness to be part of the bar scene and seek out new bars and the lack of mentoring from older lesbians meant that lesbians participating in the bar scene of the 1940s could not afford to be passive women, but they did practice passive resistance when it came to harassment. The authors conclude that while the emergence of the lesbian bar scene did not end up dramatically changing sexism and homophobia, it did help to individually mitigate the feelings of isolation among lesbians and laid the ground work for future political solidarity and consciousness.

Rupp, Leila J. Hidden From History, Chapter: “‘Imagine My Surprise’: Women’s Relationships in Mid-Twentieth Century America”

Rupp is Professor and Chair of Women’s Studies at UC Santa Barbara and editor of the “Journal of Women’s History” 1996-2004. In 2002, she published A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America; her most recent publication, with Verta Taylor is Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret.

Her goals in this essay were to intervene in the debate between feminist historians who object to the de-sexualization of the category “lesbian,” evident in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” and the heterosexualization of feminist history evident in Doris Faber’s The Life of Lorena Hickok: E. R.’s Friend. Rupp looks at several famous individual “lesbians” and couples. Lutz and Smith she notes surrounded themselves with “friendship networks” that were made up of all women committed to women. On the leading figure and founder of the National Woman’s Party, Alice Paul (pictured below), Rupp notes that she inspired devotion that bordered on worship from many of the women involved in this movement. What’s clear throughout this section is that “Alice’s Paul’s ties – whether to her sister or to close friends or to admirers – served as a bond that knit the Woman’s Party together” (403) Rupp views Anna Lord Strauss as the epitome of the “charismatic leader” figure. Some quotes from her followers addressing her are: “I love you! I can’t imagine the world without you. . . . I love you. I need you.” Knowing her is “the most beautiful and profound experience I have ever had.” And apparently, Strauss’ only imperfection is that she cannot be loved. In fact, Rupp suggests that this inability to be intimate may have shaped her feelings about lesbianism, “Strauss’ reserve and inability to express her feelings may or may not have had anything to do with her own attitude toward intimate relationships between women.”

These women would be shocked to be identified as lesbians! Here it is important to understand historical context for women rejecting the “lesbian” label. Particularly feminists, as McCarthyism linked political and sexual deviance. Still women could live together in committed relationships, they were able to do this, as Rupp points out, because they worked and supported themselves, had money to buy houses, and status to be above reproach. Open discussion about passing and privilege? As Rupp says from the beginning, this is a class specific group, in contrast to say the working class lesbian of the period described in Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold. Finally, Rupp wants to “simply lay them out, fragmentary as they are,” rather than “impose an analysis” on these relationships. She calls for historians to “describe carefully and sensitively what we do know about a woman’s relationships.” Her approach does “justice to both the woman-committed woman who would angrily reject any suggestion of lesbianism and the self-identified lesbian without distorting their common experiences.”