Lesbian Activism and Women’s History in the Cold War Era

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Which women do we remember when we think about
women’s history and which do we forget? What kind of
woman has remained invisible when the idea of Women’s
History itself becomes institutionalized? Questions like
these are not challenges to the idea of Women’s History—in
fact they are the part of the powerful legacy of decades of
feminist challenges to conventional ways of organizing
knowledge. The political stakes of such questions are all
the more important in a world where only some women
have been able to reap material benefits from those challenges.
Women’s history—its formation as a discipline, its
innovative scholarship, its political energy and even its
internal conflicts—has been instrumental in introducing
women histories into the archive, but its most important
cultural work lies in its disruption of how the very idea of
the past is constructed and reproduced.
Women’s History is a way of understanding the cultural
work of gender itself, of interrogating how commonsensical
knowledge about gender identities is constructed, and of critiquing
how gender structures the political and social experiences
of historical subjects. Women’s History can help us to
see familiar events, eras, and social actors in a new way
because it reminds us that our own practices of remembering
and forgetting are deeply structured by gender inequality.
That central insight can also help us see how gender
influences the way we tell the stories of progressive political
movements as well as how we critique entrenched
institutional power. One easy example can be seen in the
near consensus about the origins of gay and lesbian political
organizing in the U.S.. Conventional (if progressive)
histories inaugurate the queer politics with which we are
most familiar with the Stonewall Inn Uprising of 1969.
The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar with a substantial clientele
drawn from the Latino/a and trans community, was wellknown
to the police, who, as they did with most gay bars
in the mid-twentieth century, raided it with some regularity.
In the early morning hours of June 28th, the clientele of
Stonewall responded to a police raid by attacking the
police with rocks and bottles. The news of the riot spread
throughout Greenwich Village and the lesbian, gay, and
trans community gathered and intensified the protest
against the police. Eventually, riot police were dispatched
to quell the uprising, but news of it was already working
its way through the gay and lesbian community.
Stonewall, which gathered together protesters across the
spectrum of queer life in New York, became a beacon for
the gay rights movement. Stonewall is now as much myth
as history, and like most myths, it provides a powerful
foundation for queer politics and activism. It is central to
how progressive historians in the later twentieth century
have understood the queer movement, the critique of the
state launched by gender and sexual dissidents, and the
political potential of broad based alliances between gender
and sexual dissidents, people of color and transpeople.
But where did the Stonewall riot come from? What
other histories and experiences enabled it? What previously
invisible people become visible if we do not imagine
that Stonewall is the origin of the modern queer political
movement? What happens if we look at the smaller stories,
the more localized dissent, the less world-shaking but no
less history-making day to day activities that made something
like Stonewall possible? What happens if we use the
challenges of Women’s History to open up the historical
archive even further?
It seems counterintuitive to argue that women in the 1950s
helped to make Stonewall possible. The 1950s have bad
rap all the way around as an age of intense political, social,
and individual repression. The 50s summon up the
specters of McCarthyism, black lists and witch hunting.
That decade’s drive toward normalization seems embodied
by the iconic straight, white, heteronormative family, and
especially by June Cleaver, the perfect and perfectly antiseptic
housewife of the Cold War Era. For both queer politics
and feminism, the 50s seem best passed over in silence.
The fifties might be fetishized by popular culture as the
ideal of the middle-class white family, and scorned by
activists as the dead zone in political organizing, but
Women’s History Month gives us an opportunity to see
some of the work of the lesbian activists and writers whose
contributions have been largely forgotten. For the lesbian
community, the fifties are a vital moment when lesbians
began to create a rich but too often forgotten history of
struggle against normative definitions of gender and sexual
identity. They did this work as women and as lesbians, and
they did it by taking advantage of the very stereotypes and
assumptions that had most demonized and pathologized
their understanding of gender and sexuality.
First, they took advantage of the decade’s fascination
with sex and especially with the dangers of sexual and gender
dissidence. Despite its reputation for being buttoneddown
and straight-laced, the 50s saw a remarkable proliferation
of books about sexuality and sex, as well as a series
of quasi-medicalized texts devoted to a popular Freudian
self-analysis and mental and sexual health. Publishers like
Cadillac printed best selling sex manuals and marriage
manuals like The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex. Kinsey
published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and
Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953. Among the
most controversial of Kinsey’s arguments was that an extraordinary
number of men and women had had homosexual
relations at some point in their lives. Both of his books also
introduced social analysis to the study of sexuality. Kinsey
correlated such factors as age, class, and educational level
with sexual experiences, without arguing that such factors
caused particular kinds of sexuality.
The effect of Kinsey’s book was immediate. Publishers
Weekly’s anonymous “Note on About the Kinsey Report”
reported in 1948 that interest in Kinsey’s work was so high
that a book that merely interpreted Kinsey’s findings had
actually outsold the Kinsey report. Five years later, Publishers
Weekly announced the release of a medical book that
aimed to counter aggressively the Kinsey’s view of female
sexuality (“Note on Response to the Kinsey Report“1953).
The mainstream popular media followed suit, becoming
intensely interested in the “problem” of sexuality, especially
homosexuality. Time magazine, The Nation, and The New
York Times, for example, all carried stories about “the” homosexual
presence, as they tended to call it, in society, concentrating
especially on legal reports, such as Great Britain’s
1957 Wolfenden Report and on the psychiatric community’s
assessments of homosexuality’s causes and potential cures. In
part, though, this incredible production of talk about sexuality
and the intense interest in how sexual identity was
formed shows us that the ideal of the straight, white, heteronormative
family was under immense pressure even at the
moment of its greatest apparent strength.
There is no question that public interest in sexuality
and gayness did not translate into greater tolerance,
despite what some “experts” argued in their articles, sex
manuals, and popular medical books. Police raids of cruising
areas in public parks and gay bars were standard, as
was the enforcement of postal regulations to prohibit the
circulation of “pornographic” sexual material. But even
within these restrictions, women took advantage of the circumscribed
public sphere for discussion of sexuality to
reach out to one another.
One way was by writing what we now call pulp fiction.
Publishers of mass market paperbacks and even more staid
and respectable publishers did a brisk business in nonfiction
work dealing with sexuality, including popular
accounts of psychoanalysis and book-length analyses of homosexuality, most of which were written
by “experts” and pitched to a general audience.
Popular paperback publishers like
Gold Medal saw dollar signs. Enabled by
new technologies that allowed them to print
a great number of books and market them
in places like train stations and drug stores,
paperback houses produced best selling
books about devious lesbians that were
designed to titillate male readers but which
also convinced lesbian readers that they
were not alone. Within the lesbian pulp
subgenre, lesbian writers used pseudonyms
to write novels about lesbians that relied on
the lurid pulp conventions while also creating
out a subterranean but self-conscious
lesbian literary genre. Among the most
famous of these 50s pulp writers was Ann
Bannon, who went on to write five books in
a pulp series. Her first novel in the series,
Odd Girl Out (1957), was based partly on
her undergraduate experience at the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The pulps were only one response to the
restless questioning of sexual and gender
normativity in the 50s. In 1955 the Daughters
of Bilitis (DOB)—the first national association
of lesbians—was formed, and in
1956, the first issue of its magazine, The
Ladder, appeared. The magazine ONE,
founded by ONE, Inc (which had developed
out of the larger Mattachine Society) had
begun to circulate (in 1953), and in 1955
the Mattachine Society began the monthly
Mattachine Review. In 1956 Jeanette Foster
published her important reference work The
Sex Variant Woman in Literature.
The magazines produced by formally
constituted gay and lesbian groups are a
particularly important source of a radical
queer politics that found more general
expression in the decades that followed.
The magazines’ editors engaged often and
directly with members of the medical and
psychiatric community, inviting debate
from its members on various theories as
well as searching out members of that community
who did not pathologize gayness
indeed, conversing with that community
was part of the mission statement of The
Ladder. Perhaps more importantly, the editors
of these early homophile journals recognized
that it was by organizing–even if
only in print—that gay people could combat
being labeled as deviant individuals.
Their argument: A single person is a patient
but a group of people form a political community.
At least as crucially, all of the
groups were intensely concerned with the
day to day life of gay people in the United
States and interested in negotiating the relationship
between visibility and invisibility.
Later characterizations of these early
homophile groups were not kind. The DOB
for example was critiqued for seeking to
assimilate into mainstream culture. Early
pulp novels and pulp writers were dismissed,
too, for blindly following publishing
conventions that posited gay and lesbian
character as abnormal. There has been a
very welcome resurgence of interest in the
pulps, as well as in the homophile organizations
of the 1950s, and new readings see
how ingeniously and sharply the pulp writers
and the first gay organizers critiqued
straight culture at the very points they
appeared to be palliating it. The men and
women who helped to shape those organizations
were not the first, nor will they be
the last social actors to be denigrated by
their heirs for not being radical enough.
They are not the first nor the last to fall apart
from infighting, to struggle over political
issues and even over how to define themselves
as groups. They did not form the first
gay organizations, and they did not produce
the first self-consciously gay publications
aimed at a gay market. They represent one
very small story in a history that is still
unfolding and incomplete. But the very act
of remembering forgotten histories is
important, even if we inevitably forget
something else by doing it, and even if we
inevitably narrate those histories from our
own preconceptions about what and who
counts. Women’s History reminds us to
interrogate how we seek and claim knowledge,
just as Women’s History Month
reminds us that the official versions of history—
and even the official critiques of those
official histories—are always in process, and
that it is often in the most unexpected
decades and places that we will find not just
a different past, but a different future.

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