kmo: (Default)
[personal profile] kmo
 Today's post comes from [personal profile] fitz_y who asked me to talk about British Interwar lesbians but then let me expand it to include Americans because I know more about them as I am indeed a US historian--although one that happens to be a giant Anglophile, ahem, 

The answer I actually gave to that question is "Because some of your classmates are probably gay or lesbian or some variation of not straight and they deserve to have themselves represented in history, the same way women of color, and working class women also deserve to be represented in this course." I was really tempted to respond "Because I'm a lesbian and they're important because I said so." Again, that restraint they teach us in PhD school. 

Anyway, although I am actually an Early Americanist (pre-1865) I really do fangirl the Interwar Period (1918-1938) hard. I can't actually read fiction about my own time period, because I get too critical or it feels to much like not fun, so I end up reading a lot of historical mysteries set in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Which is not to say that my knowledge of this period comes only from fiction--au contraire! My knowledge, let me show it to you. 

One of the things I love most about this era on either side of the Atlantic as a women's historian, is that it has a lot of the hallmarks of modernism but still a lot of carryover from the late 19th century as far as sexuality and women's relationships with each other. WWI and the use of technology alongside the continuing rise in women's education in the Western world had allowed a trickle of women to start entering traditionally male professions. You see women popping up as journalists and public servants. Though these weren't the first women really to go to college, I think they were the first generation to really be able to expect a career if they wanted one. In the US an "old girl's network" acted as a pipeline from many of the Seven Sisters colleges to Settlement Houses run by such fine lady-loving ladies as Jane Addams and from their into many New Deal agencies. A lot of these women had their primary relationships with other women. And they were still able to do so, operating under that 19th century "Boston marriage" kind of disguise even as sexologists and the popular press were beginning to call lesbianism a psychological disorder. 

As an example, I'll direct you toward the biography of Frances Perkins my grad class and I read this semester. It's not the best biography, and I prob won't assign it again, but it does talk about Perkins partnership with a wealthy Washington doyenne and "horsewoman" (code for lesbian). Really, if I didn't already admire Frances Perkins before for being the 1st female cabinet member, Secretary of Labor, and author of much of the social safety net and workplace protection laws we take for granted in the US (social security, OSHA regulations, forty-hour work week), I love her even more now. The woman created Social Security AND she had a socialite sugar momma. Where is her oscar winning bio pic? 

I'm also super steamed that the recent Ken Burns documentary, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" talked hardly at all about Eleanor Roosevelt's relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok. When people asked him about this, he told them he didn't want to do "tabloid history." Yet. at the same time the documentary goes into great detail about FDR's affairs. So a man's heterosexual affairs are "intimate history" but ER's lesbian past is "tabloid???" Grrrr. 

A grad school friend of mine is also doing great work on African American blues women who had relationships with other women. She's uncovered a ton of material. It's going to be a great book--far more successful than mine. You can see some of this in George Chauncey's Gay New York, which I highly recommend, although it's mostly about men. There was a serious lesbian scene in both Harlem and Greenwich village, and it was more mixed than Chauncey makes it out to be. Lesbians and gay men did have a shared culture to some extent. This book made me decide that for my one trip in the TARDIS, I am going to a drag ball in Harlem in the 1920s. 

As far as British interwar lesbians go, no one will ever be able to convince me that Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby were "just friends." And also the Doctor could drop me off Somerville College in the 1920s and leave me there and I could live out my days as a lesbian Oxford don. Why yes I would like to live inside the pages of Gaudy Night, thank you very much. I also get the sense and maybe fitz_y can help me out that there wasn't as much gender play in Britain and in the US as you see on the continent as far as women dressing as men a la Dietrich?   




Date: 2014-12-17 03:08 am (UTC)
muccamukk: Faiza and Jac drink lemonade and watch cricket. (Marvel: Watching Sports)
From: [personal profile] muccamukk
Just read East to the Dawn and was really impressed at all the close female friendships Eahart had with... just about every woman in America, Roosevelt included, but also social workers and other aviators. She liked men too, but she had so many amazing relationships with women.

Flash forward to post-War, and the same kinds of women are still forming strong bonds with other women, but having to go wildly out of their way to avoid any hint of Dyke, or else. It's amazing how gross it got how quickly.

Date: 2014-12-17 05:18 am (UTC)
likeadeuce: (Default)
From: [personal profile] likeadeuce
This is great, thank you! Any and everything more you would like to expand on this topic at any point would be awesome.

Date: 2014-12-17 10:00 am (UTC)
silly_cleo: black and white image of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, text: an almost all greek thing (Default)
From: [personal profile] silly_cleo
Where is her oscar winning bio pic?

OMG I want this a lot now.

This entry was awesome, thank you so much!

Date: 2014-12-28 07:55 pm (UTC)
silly_cleo: black and white image of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, text: an almost all greek thing (Default)
From: [personal profile] silly_cleo
Ooooh, cunning plan, I approve. :D

Date: 2014-12-18 02:05 pm (UTC)
netgirl_y2k: (Default)
From: [personal profile] netgirl_y2k
Why couldn't I have learned history from you, Dr.kmo?

Because some of your classmates are probably gay or lesbian or some variation of not straight and they deserve to have themselves represented in history, the same way women of color, and working class women also deserve to be represented in this course.

Good answer.

Because I'm a lesbian and they're important because I said so.

Better answer.

This is all really interesting to me. I didn't pay much attention at school, least of all to history, and have always felt vaguely guilty about it and have since been picking up odds and ends from pop-history books and BBC four documentaries, which, alas, are low on information about the history of queer ladies.
Edited Date: 2014-12-18 02:06 pm (UTC)

Date: 2014-12-19 10:39 pm (UTC)
fitz_y: Katharine Hepburn in drag - close up of her cheekbones (Default)
From: [personal profile] fitz_y
LOVE this post!! And all your points about why these histories aren't being told. Where is her oscar winning bio pic, indeed? And argh lesbian history as tabloid history.

Yes, gender play in Germany--Berlin specifically--was huge. Marlene Dietrich always talked about how cross dressing in a tux with a monocle was "her style," when actually, it was just de rigueur in the lesbian nightclub scene. It was also illegal for women or men to cross dress, so one of the big accomplishments of the sexologists of the time was to convince the courts to allow certain "inverted" individuals to be given legal permission to cross dress.

Thanks for this, bb! <3 <3 <3

Date: 2014-12-21 10:04 am (UTC)
fitz_y: Katharine Hepburn in drag - close up of her cheekbones (Default)
From: [personal profile] fitz_y
Maybe I should change my trip in the TARDIS to 1930s Berlin. :) YESSSS!

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