Not that long ago, an eager reader could have read in a single summer all the books on LGBT history that had been written. Now, more and more books are being published all the time. “Book Shelf” is an attempt to introduce you to some of those books and to encourage you to read them and learn more about their subjects. We provide short summaries of the book, some biographical notes about the author, a link to the publisher, and sometimes a document or two related to the book. We will be adding to the list of books regularly. If you’re an author and want to provide a summary of your book and documents to go with it, please contact us.
Fashioning Sapphism draws on the tools of historical inquiry, the theoretical strengths of feminist and queer theories, and the interpretive strategies of various disciplines to scrutinize the social, cultural and political context surrounding the 1928 publication of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. Banned soon after by the British government as obscene the trial brought about massive media exposure of the subject of same-sex relations between women, and thus can be seen as a watershed event—the crystallizing moment in the construction of an English lesbian identity and subculture, and marking a great divide between innocence and deviance, private and public, New Woman and Modern Lesbian. As suggested by each of the key terms in the subtitle (The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture), my approach constitutes a new direction in lesbian historiography by its insistence on a particularized national context and temporality in interrogating anew a range of myths long accepted without question (and still in circulation) concerning, to cite only a few, the extent of homophobia in the 1920s, or the strategic deployment of sexology against sexual minorities, or the rigidity of certain cultural codes to denote lesbianism in public culture.
Based on extensive new archival research, I examine a wide range of public and private documents, such as parliamentary records, diaries, letters, newspapers accounts, photographs, and so on. Through close reading of such texts, the book unsettles many of the received understandings of lesbian history, producing a revisionist intervention into terrain well trodden by others. Using an approach that might be called “lesbian cultural history,” I investigate the lives of lesbians of the past by engaging—or connecting—with a range of other areas of enquiry, such as medicine, psychology, sexology, law, literary representation, visual culture, and fashion, to demonstrate the importance of interdisciplinarity in recording the emergence of an increasingly visible lesbian subculture in England in the early 20th century. Emerging from the fruitful interactions of lesbian cultural studies, modernist studies, cultural history and queer theory, this project constitutes a new direction in lesbian studies and invites different perspectives on the formation of past sexual identities.
In the end, the aperture of social and cultural experimentation that modernity facilitated for women in the decade preceding the obscenity trial was illusory and ephemeral. After 1928, Hall’s fashioning of chic modernity, published in press reports everywhere, her daring in troubling the conventions of gender, and her powerful literary representation of the female sexual invert would coalesce to become the classic iconic type of the mannish lesbian. Henceforth Hall’s name would become the byword for a cultural figure far more threatening than the modern woman. What distances us from cultural perceptions of such relationships in the 1920s is that we no longer find tenable some of the options available to readers of that time, especially when the women in question appear to us today as ‘obviously’ mannish and/or lesbian. Fashioning Sapphism explores that moment of fluidity before this image became iconic.
For decades, the history of sexuality has been a multidisciplinary project serving competing agendas. Lesbian, gay and queer scholars have produced powerful narratives by tracing back as continuous or discontinuous a homosexual or queer subject. Yet organizing historical work around modern categories of identity as normal or abnormal often obscures how the sexual was known or talked about in the past. Set against the backdrop of women’s work experiences, friendships and communities during the First World War, Disturbing Practices draws on a substantial body of new archival material to expose the roadblocks in current historisizing practices and imagine alternatives.
In my project’s earliest stage I sought historical evidence to better substantiate claims that women serving in military organizations were thought abnormal or masculine, or that the war increased the visibility of lesbianism, a view popularized in Radclyffe Hall’s classic “lesbian” novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928), which idealizes the activities of an all-female ambulance unit working near the front lines and fantasizes about erotic possibilities. Of the myriad forms of war service, ambulance-driving attracted a number of well-known adventure-seeking women we now identify as lesbian, such as Gertrude Stein, who was joined by her partner Alice B. Toklas; the flamboyant Dolly Wilde, niece of Oscar; the eccentric speedboat racer Joe Carstairs; the former suffragettes Vera “Jack” Holme and the Hon. Evelina Haverfield (rumored to have been lovers); and Barbara “Toupie” Lowther, the model for Hall’s protagonist, Stephen Gordon. Soon my research interests expanded to include women like Violet Douglas-Pennant, the one-time commandant of the Women’s Royal Air Force, who had been accused or suspected of same-sex relations, and Florence Harley, a British Red Cross nurse who went to court to defend her reputation against allegations of sexual immorality. But then something unexpected happened that completely transformed the project: I began to take seriously the theorist Lee Edelman’s proposition that “queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one,” which struck me as profoundly unsettling in its suggestion that queerness might better serve the historian of sexuality as a tool or method rather than as an identity.
This seemed a far cry from current practices in lesbian, gay or queer history-making intent on recovering, remembering, imagining, touching or reconstructing lesbian, gay, or queer beings in the past. Disturbing Practices may have started out as a history of lesbianism (or a queer history of lesbianism) but it was becoming instead a historiography of sexuality, with (at least) two objectives: first, to examine the specific political interests, purposes, and investments of the project of recuperating and/or tracing a lesbian, gay or queer past as continuous or discontinuous in relation to identities we know about now and, second, to envisage alternative histories of sexuality to think differently about historicizing the sexual past.
Working out some of the problems in how we write the history of sexuality is best explained through historical example, which is the rationale that informs this book’s two-part structure in its movement from historiographical and theoretical problems to a set of case studies, focusing on Douglas-Pennant, Nurse Harley and women ambulance drivers, such as the “Angels of Pervyse,” Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker. Ordinary Britons in the first half of last century seem not to have viewed sex or sexuality as we do in the present; sex-talk buzzed all around, legible to some and baffling to others—the aware, self-aware, and unaware sometimes gathered around a table to converse on a topic at once present and unfathomable.
Disturbing Practices clarifies the ethical value and political purpose of identity history, indeed its very capacity to give rise to innovative practices borne of sustained conversations between queer studies and critical history. It seeks to explore questions we have not yet posed about the modern sexual past.
Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present was first published in 1981 by William Morrow; was a New York Times Notable Book of 1981; won the Stonewall Book Award in 1982; was named by Lambda Literary Review as One of the 100 Best Lesbian/Gay Books of the 20th Century; and is considered a great feminist classic. Drawing on intensive research in literature, history, and a variety of records, from private correspondence to pornography, Lillian Faderman argues that passionate love between women is a historic fact (regardless of whether the love was genital, erotic, sensual, or platonic), and that lesbianism was “once universally condoned in the Western world... and now condemned,” as Faderman states in her introduction to a 1998 edition of the book.
Surpassing travels through five centuries and weaves hundreds of literary and historical details into a compelling larger vision. As Faderman states in the 1998 introduction, her hope is that “in some modest way, by offering a usable past, this book has served and will continue to serve as solace and ammunition—that it will help justify one’s right to be when one is living as a lesbian in an environment that is not yet entirely friendly.”
The book’s first part, which covers the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, is divided into two sections: A. Lesbianism in a Phallocentric Universe; and B. The Enshrinement of Romantic Friendship. In this male-dominated world, women were practically invisible and, as long as they appeared to conform to society’s strictures, they could conduct lovely, intense, even erotic romantic friendships with women as freely and openly as they wished. Men and women spent most of their lives in completely separate spheres. However, if women dressed as men, married women, and tried to step outside their restricted roles as women, they could be severely punished and even put to death, especially if they were poor and lacking connections to those with status and power. Particular attention is given to the Ladies of Llangollen (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby), two upperclass Irish women who shared a romantic friendship for 53 years. The popular poet Anna Seward memorialized the Ladies in her poems, as well as the woman she loved.
The book’s second part, which covers the nineteenth century, is divided into two parts: A. Loving Friends; and B. The Reaction. As women became more restless and dissatisfied with the restrictions placed on them by men, they began to participate more fully in the world and society. The mistresses of a girls’ boarding school, Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie, were accused of a sexual relationship but exonerated in court because it was believed they must be, like all women, asexual. Women turned to each other for courage and support, and lived together in so-called “Boston marriages,” Feminism began to grow in part through the work and lives of such women. The works of Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Michael Field are discussed in terms of romantic friendships between women. But society’s backlash against this nascent feminism was swift and merciless. Lesbians were demonized by the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis as sick, crazy, and evil, and feminists were demonized as lesbians. The influential French writers Balzac, Gautier, Baudelaire, and Belot are discussed as purveyors of images of lesbians as exotic, decadent, sexual creatures. Lesbians internalized the sexologists’ lies and the writers’ fictions, and the sweet innocence of romantic friendships began to die, replaced by self-hatred and morbidity, as expressed in the writings of lesbians such as Radclyffe Hall, Renée Vivien, and Djuna Barnes.
The book’s third and final part, which covers the twentieth century, is divided into two sections: A. Sophistication; and B. When It Changed. As false knowledge about sexuality and lesbianism spread, it grew into a devastating weapon against women and feminism. All relationships between women appeared sexual in the public’s eye, the lesbian was criminalized, and lesbians entered a precarious, dangerous, and difficult era of witch-hunts, despair, and alienation. But some strong lesbian writers and activists kept the faith, and as their literature and deeds seeped out into society, lesbians gained courage, developed a liberation movement, and began to reverse the negative image that had become so deeply rooted. Particular attention is paid to the lesbian writers Amy Lowell and Gertrude Stein, both in Boston marriages, and both writing about their lesbianism in code.
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America was first published in 1991 by Columbia University Press; won the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award for non-fiction in 1992; was selected as the “Editor’s Choice” at the 1992 Lambda Literary Awards; was a New York Times Notable Book of 1992; and in 2011 was 99th on Ms. Magazine’s list of top 100 feminist non-fiction books. Unlike Lillian Faderman’s first historical work, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, which surveyed five centuries and the Western world, Odd Girls focuses on one century, the twentieth, and one country, America. The subject remains the same: lesbian history.
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers presents—along with research derived from journals, unpublished manuscripts, songs, media accounts, novels, medical literature, and pop-culture artifacts—a symphony of living lesbian voices, composed from extensive interviews conducted by Faderman, who makes it clear that lesbians deserve to speak for themselves and not be defined by outsiders. This book is not concerned with speculations surrounding the definitions of “lesbian” or “sexual drive,” but with “tracing the development of lesbian subcultures,” and with “the metamorphoses and diversity of lesbians as they related individually and/or collectively to changing eras in American life,” as the introduction states.
Odd Girls approaches the history of lesbian life from a social constructionist point of view (in which “certain social conditions were necessary before ‘the lesbian’ could emerge as a social entity”) rather than essentialist point of view (the belief that “one is born a lesbian and that there have always been lesbians in the past just as there are lesbians today”). Faderman explains in her introduction that the “possibility of a life as a lesbian had to be socially constructed in order for women to be able to choose such a life. Thus it was not until our century that such a choice became viable for significant numbers of women. This book traces the ways that happened.”
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers is divided into 11 chapters:
1. “The Loves of Women for Each Other”: “Romantic Friends” in the Twentieth Century
The early American feminist movement opens the door to financial self-sufficiency for thousands of women. This enables women to have romantic friends and/or Boston marriages, in which they “could make their lives with another woman.”
2. A Worm in the Bud: The Early Sexologists and Love Between Women
The theories of the European sexologists who characterized same-sex relationships as “abnormal” and “unhealthy” worm their way into American consciousness, putting an end to the innocence of romantic friendship, but giving lesbians “an identity and vocabulary to describe themselves,” which makes it easier for lesbians to find each other and “organize publicly.”
3. Lesbian Chic: Experimentation and Repression in the 1920s
Communities of lesbians spring up in unlikely places such as Salt Lake City; and in Harlem and Greenwich Village, bisexual experimentation becomes chic, despite the growing scrutiny and devaluing of lesbianism by sexologists and psychologists, whose nasty characterizations of lesbians would be “reflected in literature and popular culture for the next half century.”
4. Wastelands and Oases: The 1930s
The economic hardship of the Depression, and the moral shame inflicted by society, renders lesbians speechless and intimidated, but the now inescapable knowledge of “female same-sex love” is “essential to the formation of a lesbian subculture” since it helps women to define themselves as lesbians, both individually and collectively.
5. “Naked Amazons and Queer Damosels”: World War II and Its Aftermath
The military during World War II was “the ideal breeding ground for lesbians,” producing a “government-sponsored” subculture; pants become “acceptable garb for women,” which helps produce a “distinctive lesbian ‘style’;” and the migration of lesbians to big urban centers increases the number of bars that cater to lesbians. But after the war, the public image of the lesbian as sick and unpatriotic reinforces the secrecy and shame that make large lesbian subcultures not yet visible.
6. The Love that Dares Not Speak Its Name: McCarthyism and Its Legacy
The “age of authority,” in which the opinions of authority figures are held sacrosanct, causes more suffering than ever to lesbians, who are hounded in witch-hunts and live in perpetual fear of losing their hard-won jobs and homes, and closely guarded reputations; “[h]owever, even the persecution of the 1950s aided in further establishing lesbian subcultures,” as thousands of American women are made aware of lesbian identity.
7. Butches, Femmes, and Kikis: Creating Lesbian Subcultures in the 1950s and ‘60s
Young and working-class lesbians develop a subculture around gay bars, softball teams, and butch/femme roles, while upper- and middle-class “kiki” lesbians prefer to blend in to society; however, neither subculture has the conviction, knowledge, or clout to demand their rights as a minority group.
8. “Not a Public Relations Movement”: Lesbian Revolutions in the 1960s Through ‘70s
Young gay women and lesbian-feminist revolutionaries, free of the indoctrination in shame and self-hatred of earlier decades, explode onto the scene and begin to change society. These lesbians refuse, to begin with, to deny their own existence, while other lesbians are angry at the revolutionaries and want to keep a low profile. But all agree that “[i]t was not lesbians...but society that was sick.”
9. Lesbian Nation: Creating a Women-Identified-Women Community in the 1970s
Radical lesbian-feminists grow more organized and effective, breaking down barriers to gay and lesbian rights, and creating a whole new world of “women’s culture,” which gives hope and courage to all lesbians, even those more moderate lesbians who are critical of the radicals.
10. Lesbian Sex Wars in the 1980s
Lesbian sexual radicals and cultural feminists disagree about how far lesbians should be liberated from the “sexual limitations that had been imposed on them as females.” The radicals’ goal is for women “to demand freedom and sexual excitement as lesbians seldom dared before,” but the AIDS epidemic puts a damper, for the time being, on sexual experimentation.
11. From Tower of Babel to Community: Lesbian Life in the 1980s
An increase in economic opportunities for lesbians results in an expansion of the visible lesbian middle class; “clean and sober” lifestyles become fashionable; the visible lesbian community becomes more diverse; there is an increase of lesbians with children; and “the sense of family and the larger sense of community” grows stronger. Young lesbians, meanwhile, react with more activism for the “Queer Nation.”In her “Epilogue: Social Constructions and the Metamorphoses of Love Between Women,” Faderman concludes that “there are no constants with regard to lesbianism...Circumstances and events that once seemed inextricably a part of lesbian culture and even of the definition of lesbianism itself have constantly come and gone throughout this century.” To limit the definition of “lesbian” to one “rigid and simplistic” category or classification is counter to the actual “lived experiences of love between women,” in which a wide variety of subcultures are created by lesbians themselves.