Lillian Faderman, “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America” (1991) – I was raised more or less to believe in a straightforward arc of history that progressed towards greater and greater acceptance and freedom. Any real learning of history complicates this picture, showing that “progress,” to the extent it exists at all, is highly uneven and given to major setbacks. Lillian Faderman illustrates this in her history of American lesbian communities in the twentieth century. Beyond a preference on the part of women for women, there’s nothing about lesbian communities, in Faderman’s telling, that is predetermined, that isn’t given to influence from the society at large.
Faderman begins her story with the Victorian period, where a degree of intimacy between women, even to the exclusion of intimacy with men, was considered normal and wholesome, if not the norm. This is not normally how we think of that period, but it makes sense. These “romantic friendships” were accepted in no small part due to a prevailing gender ideology that held that women were basically non-sexual beings, and so no one thought there was anything sexual about two women basically being in long term love relationships with each other. Faderman is unclear whether these couples did, in fact, have sex, or whether that would even be germane. These couplings were by and large limited to middle and upper class women who did not need to rely on marriage to a man for economic support, and received a boost with the opening of women’s colleges and of careers for (again, mostly middle and upper class) women such as social work in the late nineteenth century.
Things took a turn once, around that same time, the (almost exclusively male) sexologists got a hold of things. Many of them, like Havelock Ellis and even to an extent Sigmund Freud, tried to relativize gay and lesbian behavior by explaining it as congenital. But they still pathologized queerness and brought lesbianism to the public consciousness as something defined by sexual behavior and as abnormal.
From then on, the conditions of the now-defined lesbian community had a number of ups and downs. In large part, these were occasioned by changes in the economy and social order at large. It’s hard to have a lesbian community without independent women and relatively safe spaces for community gathering. Good economic times, like the 1920s, were generally better for the community than bad times, like the 1930s, though of course results will vary by social class, race, and other factors. The forties were something of a boom time for lesbianism, Faderman writes, as the military and wartime employment both brought many women together in relatively male-light environments and allowed them a degree of independence previously unknown. The political and cultural lockdown around the Cold War threw all that out the window and lesbians were targets of the lavender scare along with gay men.
A consistent theme in this book is the ways in which social class conditioned what lesbian communities looked like. In the wake of the crackdowns in the fifties, working class and younger lesbians developed an elaborate culture around the tiny enclaves of relatively safe space they could build around lesbian bars. This centered around the dual roles of the butch and the femme, and in an echo of the gender conformity all around them, Faderman writes, lesbians enforced subscription to these roles strongly (something tells me this may be something of a controversial point). Upper and middle class lesbians, for their part, avoided the bars and tried to blend in with mainstream society, in an echo of the “romantic friendships” of yesteryear. You didn’t get the sort of class mixing you got in gay male environments, according to Faderman, anyway.
This arrangement was partially upended by the social revolutions of the sixties and seventies. If there’s one thing I’d ding Faderman for it’s not any of the lesbian history — I’m hardly in a place to criticize there — but in the way she sometimes summons a hazy “spirit of the times” as an actor in her history. But whether attributed to a spirit or to socioeconomic/political factors, the sixties were indeed a decade of change for lesbians. Attitudes loosened, organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis got together, and at the end of the decade, the Stonewall uprising ignited a general gay and lesbian surge into the public sphere.
Faderman is a little vague as to how it happened, and given what we know about counterculture/New Left sexuality I’m not sure I would place as much explanatory weight on the “hippie spirit” of “liberated” sexuality as she does, but seemingly overnight the phenomenon of a specifically lesbian feminism rose to prominence in the seventies. This proposed to remake society (or, anyway, to carve out niches within or outside of society) through liberating the essential goodness of woman, away from the corruption and violence of men. Not that I’m the target audience here, but I’m of a few minds about this one. On the one hand, I think it denies agency and full humanity to anybody to say they are not capable of the full panoply of human expression, and a brief look at the history of women given power over others, from Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi on down to many of the assistant managers across the broad land, will show they are indeed capable of expressing the very human attributes of aggression and love for power. On the other hand, given the miserable history of relations between men and women, you really can’t fault women for wanting to pitch in the shitty hand they’ve been dealt and try something, anything else. Luckily, the women of the world, neither in the seventies before I was born nor today, haven’t exactly been knocking my door down to know my opinions about their political options, so I think we’re safe to leave it at that.
For her part, Faderman seems sympathetic towards, even a little wistful about, the lesbian feminist utopian project of the seventies. She ultimately judges it too utopian, too impractical, it’s youthful proponents given to “fanaticism,” by which she means given to rigorous application of a program. A lot of lesbians at the time, excited by the potential for creating their own communities, chafed under the pressure to conform to expectations like performative non-aggression, refusal of patriarchal beauty standards, the wiping away of previous generations of lesbian culture as “politically incorrect,” a term apparently used unironically by lesbian feminists at the time. One lesbian Faderman talked to lamented that no one was allowed to play as a butch or femme, even as they all looked butch in the accepted uniform of overalls and sweaters. This, in turn, led to a reaction the other way, as lesbian cultural militants attempted to unleash a more robust and active female sexuality, complete with s&m, (negotiated) gender roles, and other aspects the utopians deemed patriarchal and taboo.
All was not for naught, however. While lesbian utopia broke up in the conservative turn in the 1980s (I don’t remember the eighties, but I do remember it’s slag collecting in the nineties, and the way tropes derived from lesbian feminist utopianism found their way into everyday reactionary expression), aspects of it carried over into the increasingly out and integrated lesbian communities that came to exist. These included a concern for inclusion; indeed, many of the inclusionary measures we use in leftist organizing today come from lesbian feminist organizing culture, it seems. Faderman seems to land on a sort of Goldilocks conclusion for where the community was at in the late eighties/early nineties as she was writing. Having (mostly) rejected separatism for increasing opportunity in the mainstream and also having (mostly) rejected sexual radicalism in favor of the tried-and-true serial monogamy, contemporary lesbians take the best from both and leave the rest, though Faderman saw the involvement of lesbians in AIDS activism as a sign things might get more militant in the future.
I am, by definition, “out of the loop” here. I do hear rumblings of rejection of the assimilationist compromises of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, critiques of “homonationalism” and the like. Faderman seems more worried about attack from outside of the community, of denial of opportunity, than about what taking these opportunities costs (and who they’re still denied to), understandably enough, I think. The rise of the far right in this country complicates the picture further, as does the participation of queer people (anyone remember that Yiannopolous guy?) in it. I don’t know what the future holds, or what the thinking of the future will mean for how we conceptualize the lesbian history Faderman tried to tell. I will say that this book was informative and readable. Faderman ranged impressively widely to get sources, including many interviews with lesbians of all ages, races, and social classes, many of whom were speaking about their experience for the first time. Their resilience, having lived through hard times and always under the shadow of persecution, was heartening to see. From the cheap seats, this was a pretty good introduction to American lesbian history. ****