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Introduction

Esther Newton

Photo of Esther Newton from the University of Michigan website.

"Not queer history, not gay male history . . , not transgender history"

Aside from the fact that in the public mind, queer equals male, it seems that lesbians are never hip, never in fashion, never the latest thing, always a joke or not interesting, no matter what the change in seasons, decades or eras, despite the qualified successes of a few stars like Martina Navratilova, Ellen DeGeneres and Mellissa Etheridge.

When I first came out in 1959, we were so far underground as to be off the cultural radar. To ourselves we were outlaws, which implied excitement as well as shame, but none of us realized we were on the frontier of gender and sexual upheavals that would alter the American landscape.

After Stonewall and radical feminism, plain old lesbian was retrograde and patriarchal. “Political lesbians” otherwise known as womyn were in the ascendant (though only a bra burning stereotype in the public mind). Regular lesbians such as “bar dykes”, butch/femme or most lesbians of color had been left behind at the rapture of lesbian/feminism.

Nowadays all my students are excited by transgender. Perhaps this is not strange in an era of lesbian marriages and the gayby boom; lesbians are seen by my more adventurous students as buying into consumerist, suburban culture. But I can’t help suspecting that at bottom these attitudes are sexist. Lesbians are women, and throughout western history, women have not been seen as movers and shakers.

Always a contrarian, I decided it was time to offer a graduate seminar on lesbian history. Not queer history, not gay male history (with which I am very familiar), not transgender history, but lesbian history of the twentieth century. Lesbian history, though always linked with gay male history, is also implicated as much or more in the condition of women. Throughout the twentieth century there were and still are thousands more people who identify as lesbian than as transgender. Why shouldn’t there be a lesbian history seminar?

As soon as I did a syllabus and started to order the books I found that virtually every important work on lesbian history is out of print, including Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeleine Davis; Inventing Lesbian Cultures in America, edited by Ellen Lewin and Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation by Arlene Stein and my own Cherry Grove, Fire Island which has two substantial chapters on lesbians. This confirmed my determination to offer the course; just as I thought, nothing lesbian is granted importance. I had to make a huge, five volume course pack for my students.

And I also decided that a goal of the course would be to construct our own lesbian history and put it online, where others could find it, using simplified web software developed at the University of Michigan. Maybe this would encourage others to offer similar courses. My students were enthusiastic about the project, and the result is what you see here.

I have included the syllabus for the course in 2006. This fall (2008) I will offer the course again. Since my students in 2006 did a good job of synthesizing the readings, this time my students will be adding to the website using original sources, mainly from the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, so that each era may have more depth and detail and students will have the experience of working with the records of everyday lesbian life. Now the reach of our work has been expanded by its incorporation into the CLAGS Outhistory website.

The syllabus is also posted, in the hope that other universities and colleges may emulate our example, either through offering similar courses, or incorporating some of the material. Lesbian history tells a story of grit, determination, courage, flair and a critical contribution to the twentieth century revolution in sexuality, gender norms and the position of women.