A Bed of Their Own?

Sep 09, 1999 |Sean McMeekin

When are good female friends more than friends? When a lesbian historian says they are.

Review of To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America — a History

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Although still popular with the general public, the traditional genre of heroic biography has fallen into disrepute among academics over the past several decades. The careers of men of action — generals, politicians, explorers, entrepreneurs — are no longer deemed respectable historical dissertation topics. Famous authors do, sometimes, still merit books by literature professors, but we are more likely to learn from such books about, say, the deleterious social or linguistic "negotiations" of Shakespearean England than about the nature of Shakespeare's literary achievement. Generally speaking, heroes are out, and victims are in. Or, if we are to judge by Lillian Faderman's curious new book, it's still possible for academic scholars to salute heroes — so long as they were victims, too.

Faderman is herself something of a hero to many contemporary academics — she was recently hailed as a "pioneer of lesbian studies" in the Chronicle of Higher Education — and the publication of her already much-praised History of What Lesbians Have Done for America reveals a great deal about what passes for heroism in the academy today. After a brief stint early in her career writing about ethnic minorities (which she later described as "compensation for wanting to write about lesbians"), Faderman, a lesbian, has spent most of the last quarter-century writing about "women-loving women," about women, that is, like herself. Her previous books, with revealing titles such as Surpassing the Love of Men, have flattered lesbians present and past in their insistence that there is something noble in same-sex love among women, and she has won virtually every laurel the ever-growing gay and lesbian studies community has to offer, from the relatively obscure "Paul Monette/Roger Horwitz" and "Lambda" awards to the American Library Association's "Best Lesbian/Gay Books of Year" prize (twice). Faderman has not yet won major acclaim from the "straight" academic community, but the enthusiastic reception already accorded her ambitious new work hints that such accolades will be soon forthcoming. For better or worse, the complete works of Lillian Faderman, until now known only to lesbian-studies majors, may soon be coming to a required-freshman-core-class catalogue near you. Gay pride, meet History 101.

Faderman's latest book aims high: she has set out to break new ground in the historiography of the American women's rights movement by zeroing in on "how certain late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women whose lives can be described as lesbian were in the forefront of the battle to procure the rights and privileges that large numbers of Americans enjoy today."

Say that again? Women "whose lives can be described as lesbian"? Did they describe themselves as lesbians? Well, no. Nor did these "lesbians" necessarily have "sexual relationships with...women." But, Faderman insists, "that term used as an adjective accurately describes their committed domestic, sexual, and/or affectional experiences." Deep female friendships, often described as "Boston marriages" in the 19th century, easily qualify in Faderman's scheme as "lesbian," for "regardless of whether these relationships were specifically sexual, they were also much more than sexual." Sex or no sex, at the very least these female partnerships involved "intense women-to-woman relating and commitment."

Faderman's strategy, it must be said, is ingenious. Having admitted that her various heroes may not have had sexual relations with women, nor even considered themselves homosexual, she declares nonetheless for the sake of her argument that they are "lesbians," thus seizing their illustrious names and accomplishments for the cause of gay pride. Even if (as it often turns out in the book) such women were married to men, even to several men over the course of their life, so long as they exhibited traits of "intense woman-to-woman relating," they were "lesbian" pioneers.

So who were these "lesbians"? It will come as no surprise to students of the women's-suffrage movement that Susan B. Anthony meets Faderman's criteria. Not only did Anthony famously renounce marriage and encourage women activists who worked for her not to marry, but it has long been known that she often signed letters to other suffragettes as "your friend and lover," and that she expressed passionate feelings for her friend Anna Dickinson. Faderman has uncovered passages in these letters that seem flirtatious, as when Anthony invited Dickinson to share her bed (which was, she emphasized, "big enough and good enough to take you in") or called Dickinson a "naughty Teaze." Anthony also once referred to Emily Gross, a married woman not actively involved in the suffragist movement, as "my new lover," and Gross accompanied Anthony on several summer trips to California in the mid-1890s (when the latter was, it seems apropos to mention, about 75 years old). Of course, Anthony was a deeply religious woman who lived according to a strict Quaker moral code, a code which frowned on frivolous or self-indulgent pursuits of any kind (she once berated a pregnant Elizabeth Cady Stanton for succumbing to the lure of "a moment's pleasure to herself or her husband") but in the Faderman rulebook, such scattershot evidence of Anthony's "intense Woman-to-woman relating" outs the mother of women's suffrage in America as a closet lesbian.

Faderman's "outing" of Susan B. Anthony is typical of the evidentiary methods deployed throughout the book. Ambitious women who refuse to marry (this includes nearly everybody in the book), women recalling youthful "tomboy" frustrations about being forced to wear dresses and play with dolls (again, nearly everyone), accomplished women who choose to live for long periods or travel with younger female domestic "partners" (such as Anna Howard Shaw, a disciple of Anthony's who settled down with Anthony's niece Lucy), social reformers who devote their affections to wealthy female benefactors (most famously, Jane Addams' relationship with leading Hull House patron Mary Rozet Smith), women whose correspondence with female companions tantalizingly hints at romantic longing, if not at active sexual relations — on the basis of such clues one heroic female reformer after another is "outed" as a lesbian. On a few occasions, the letters cited by Faderman do reveal that the women in question shared a bed (this is clear with Addams and Smith); more often, we have little but Faderman's assurance that the affection women expressed for each other was other than platonic.

Because documentary evidence of sexual activity is by its very nature hard to come by, there is inevitably a lot of innuendo in this book. It's difficult either to prove, or disprove, that any of these women carried on affairs of a sexual nature with other women. Even if, however, we give Faderman the benefit of the doubt and assume that most of the women in question were not merely emotionally close to their "partners" but were in fact closet lesbians, there are serious problems with this book's argument.

Faderman, you see, is not merely arguing that many famous women reformers happened to be lesbians. She wants us to believe that lesbianism was in fact central to their accomplishments. "In their eras," Faderman writes, "lesbian arrangements freed these pioneering women to pursue education, professions, and civil and social rights for themselves and others far more effectively then they could have if they had lived in traditional heterosexual arrangements." Such same-sex "arrangements," however defined, provided women in Faderman's formulation with an "escape from loneliness while maintaining their 'dreams of self-realization.'" A healthy expression of lesbian sexuality, that is, provided female reform pioneers with the emotional sustenance they needed to survive their battle against gender discrimination.

Thus each of the four sections of this book, devoted respectively to (putatively lesbian) suffragettes, social reformers, educators, and pioneers in the learned professions, ends with a "post-1920" chapter when the achievements of earlier "lesbian" heroes are all but squandered by ungrateful straight women. Section I ("How American Women Got Enfranchised") ends with Faderman's lament that within two decades of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, more than 90 percent of married women voted just like their husbands, cutting short the lesbian-feminist goal of women as an "autonomous voting force." Section II ("How America Got a Social Conscience") concludes with a dark chapter entitled "Poisoning the Source," where we learn that the popularization of sexual psychoanalysis in the 1920s created "pressures for compulsory heterosexuality" and widespread "lesbophobia." Without healthy lesbianism, Faderman argues, "social conscience fell out of fashion between the Great War and the Depression." Section III ("How American Women Got Educated") starts off in the same-sex paradise of radically-minded, pioneering turn-of-the-century women's colleges — "virtually the entire English department at Wellesley was paired off in lesbian arrangements," Faderman gleefully exclaims — before descending into the co-educational hell of the mid-twentieth century, when nearly half of college students were women, most of whom — gasp! — chose to get married after they graduated. (This presumably disagreeable phenomenon Faderman calls "following the heterosexual imperative.") Finally, in Section IV, the demanding professional career paths first trodden by pioneering "lesbians" such as Emily Blackwell are abandoned by women in the twentieth century in a mad heterosexual "Rush to Bake the Pies and Have the Babies" (yes, this is actually the title of Chapter 17). In case we have missed the point, Faderman labels as "doldrum decades" the half-century between the achievement of women's suffrage in 1920 and the return of "lesbian-feminism" in the modern gay rights movement around 1970.

A mere glance at these sometimes obnoxious section and chapter titles might easily lead one to the conclusion that Lillian Faderman is an angry feminist, but this is not your average angry feminist tract. Although no fan of patriarchy, Faderman's real villains are not men, but the women who fall for them. In fact, I'm hard pressed to recall a single male character of note in this book. There are a few obtuse male sexologists; an assortment of unaccommodating university administrators; several extremely distant political leaders who either appoint, or don't appoint, lesbians to positions of power; and an array of unsupportive, absent husbands who often seem to be hospitalized for long stretches of time. If this is all the male world has offered American women in terms of erotic attraction, one might understand Faderman's befuddlement that the "heterosexual imperative" has been so dominant. There is a palpable sense of frustration in her story as educated women continually refuse to become lesbians, and more than a little defensiveness. Don't these women know, Faderman asks at one point, that homosexuality "comes naturally to all mammalians — attraction to members of the species regardless of gender." Why can't these women do without men? Faderman certainly does: As if to set an example for women lured dangerously towards male companionship, the acknowledgments of her book list no less than 21 positive female influences on her work (versus only four men). She is herself living proof of the career-advancement strategy of "lesbian arrangements." Why can't these all these ungrateful heterosexual women, Faderman all but cries in the autobiographical section of her conclusion, why oh why can't they be more like me?

In a way, one feels sorry for Faderman after reading this book. It's clear that she would have been much happier living the life of a flirtatious woman professor in the golden era of the radical women-only colleges, with no men around, instead of being stuck in the confusing heterosexual mix of contemporary co-educational life. Then again, she obviously has taken pride in her rebellion against the "heterosexual imperative." With a contemptuous flair recalling Hilary Clinton's notorious disdain for cookies, Faderman at one point trumpets her own rejection of social norms: "The feminist mystique did not have the same impact on me as it apparently did on girls whose mothers had three pies bubbling in the oven." She obviously enjoyed writing this book, and it's not hard to see why it has already inspired a gush-fest among lesbian reviewers, one of whom confessed to "erudition envy" after reading it. Just think, wrote Deborah Peifer in the Bay Area Reporter in a burst of pride after learning from Faderman that lesbianism had won American women all of their rights and given birth to America's "social conscience": "It turns out that not only are we everywhere, we were everywhere." The perils of the "heterosexual imperative," naturally, remain; but Faderman has in the meantime given lesbians something to shout about.

What about the rest of us? What are we to make of Faderman's admittedly bold attempt to claim much of the history of American social reform for the contemporary gay-pride movement? Should parents start encouraging ambitious daughters to embrace the inner lesbian? If they refuse to do so, should they be encouraged to abandon thoughts of achieving great things in the world — thereby nipping in the bud years of inevitable heterosexual "restlessness"? "Mommy," one can imagine Jane intoning on National Take-Our-Daughters-to-Work Day, "do I have to be gay to become a doctor?"

Because few ordinary people would voluntarily slog through these 300 plus pages of soul-deadening prose laden with theoretical academic jargon, it is tempting to conclude that Faderman's book will remain a harmless exercise in circular lesbian self-congratulation. But many reasonable people dismissed Derrida's literary "deconstruction" as a harmless fad, and this did not prevent the complete takeover of dozens of university English Departments by theory-guzzling weirdoes. It seems almost inevitable that History Departments, already invaded by Foucault-obsessed "cultural studies" advocates, may now bow down to the gay and lesbian studies juggernaut as well, with Lillian Faderman leading the charge.

Moreover, it seems clear that in this era of group-think madness, Faderman represents a larger phenomenon. Already, fashionable efforts to "expand historical horizons" have given birth to a litter of hyphenated-American studies departments supported by vigilant political action groups not above staging hunger strikes to increase funding levels for academic courses in ethnic self-celebration; to newfangled literary canons dominated by authors chosen on the basis of race, sex or sexual orientation; and to the lionization of questionable victim-auteurs such as Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, among other intellectually dispiriting developments. Might Faderman's book be followed by questionable paeans to the heretofore unacknowledged historical contributions of promiscuous gay men? Of transsexuals? Or politically inclined pot-smokers? As a vegetarian myself, should I, after Faderman's logic, write a book asserting group pride in the achievements of famous fellow vegetarians — who, after all, have given the world both nonviolent resistance (Mahatma Gandhi) and the Holocaust (Adolf Hitler)?

For my part, I'd like to think that it is still possible to write history about complex individuals that does not reduce them to group categories, or to signifiers of cultural forces discernible only to clever late-20th century American university professors.

Copyright 1999 Sean McMeekin. All rights reserved.

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