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Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America

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Lillian Faderman tells the compelling story of lesbian life in the 20th century, from the early 1900s to today's diverse lifestyles. Using journals, unpublished manuscripts, songs, news accounts, novels, medical literature, and numerous interviews, she relates an often surprising narrative of lesbian life. "A key work...the point of reference from which all subsequent studies of 20th-century lesbian life in the United States will begin."—San Francisco Examiner.

400 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1991

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About the author

Lillian Faderman

23 books273 followers
Lillian Faderman is an internationally known scholar of lesbian history and literature, as well as ethnic history and literature. Among her many honors are six Lambda Literary Awards, two American Library Association Awards, and several lifetime achievement awards for scholarship. She is the author of The Gay Revolution and the New York Times Notable Books, Surpassing the Love of Men and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. (photo by Donn R. Nottage)

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5 stars
1,326 (34%)
4 stars
1,516 (39%)
3 stars
812 (20%)
2 stars
164 (4%)
1 star
53 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 164 reviews
Profile Image for Abby.
183 reviews31 followers
September 27, 2015
for all intents and purposes, this is a good, extensively researched book on the history of lesbianism as it stands in the united states (although she does occasionally bring in a bit of history from britain, france and germany). so why three stars? well, there are a few reasons, firstly and mostly to do with personal taste, and secondly to do with tone/inclusivity. but before i delve into all of that, let’s talk about the book itself a little first. i love lillian faderman’s conclusion that “the only constant truth about the lesbian in america has been that she prefers women,” and i think it’s a great basis to go off of. it’s obvious that lillian faderman has put a ton of work into this book, and i greatly admire that; even though she references various novels, songs, films, researchers, and psychologists, she speaks to women who have actually lived their lives as women who love women, and who have subsequently had unique experiences because of it. that’s what’s refreshing. if we’re completely honest, a lot of the time, even researchers don’t take into account all of the varied experiences of human life. they come up with a “majority”; but faderman doesn’t fall to such conclusions. her overlying message throughout the novel is that the community of women who love women, and how we interact with the world, is constantly changing. just like heterosexuals, there is no one definition for “lesbian.”

this book is by no means a massive volume, but it is a very, very extensively researched one (as i’ve said several times, i’m growing predictable). however, it doesn’t feel dry or academic, even though it does feel and sound professional. there is a lot of feminist and academic lingo, but it’s used in a way that feels accessible to those who are going into this without much prior knowledge of either history, the gay rights movement, women’s rights movement, or anything similar. i do feel that faderman has a strange tendency for repetition, however. we’ll finish a chapter, concluded and all, and then on the very next page she’ll launch into what we just discussed; it’ll only last for a page or two, but it becomes slightly grating. it’s like, yes, we’ve established that! how many times do we need to go over a particular aspect we’ve already spent a full chapter talking about?

those are mainly small, nitpickish things. the bigger issues, for me, are the ones of inclusion. at first, as when faderman is writing about harlem in the ‘20s, it does feel like she is both open to and understanding of the racism that goes along with the white tourists who come to gawk at “oddities” in harlem; but over time, when we get to the more modern chapters (like those discussing lesbian-feminism and cultural-feminism in the ‘70s, or in the conservative ‘80s) her tone seems almost dismissive. there are a lot of “quotation marks” when discussing the concerns that people of color had towards feminists and gay communities, despite the fact that they’re completely valid. it’s honestly a little irritating. there is very little rumination on the organizations that popped up that catered solely to lesbians of color, latina lesbians, asian lesbians, the list goes on and on…and while there’s a small chapter on lesbianism in the black community during the ‘20s and the ‘30s, particularly concerning women like ma rainey, bessie smith, and a’leila walker, it doesn’t go into as much depth as the other chapters, and it’s left at that.

next, there’s absolutely no inclusion here of transgender lesbian history. even when discussing “women who passed as men,” there is no consideration for the fact that they might have, indeed, truly identified as men. there’s a ton of conversation on the sexologists definition of lesbianism as “sexual inversion,” a man trapped in a woman’s body, but no reflection (aside from a sentence or two) on trans women and trans men. and then we get onto the stonewall rebellion, and is there any acknowledgment of the fact that trans women, marsha p. johnson and sylvia rivera, led the movement, created a space even for those who were more privileged than they were? created a movement that led to gay rights being established? no. she glosses over the stonewall rebellion without really talking about any of it, in fact. what about people like renee richards? or when we discuss daughters of bilitis, why don’t we mention that “in 1973 lesbian beth elliot was ejected from the west coast women’s conference because she was a transgender woman, despite having served as vice-president of the san francisco chapter of the lesbian organization daughters of bilitis and having edited the chapter’s newsletter sisters”?

so while this is an excellent basis for academic research, it does fall short in revealing some of the history of lesbianism, and how it affected women of color, transgender women, and even sometimes anyone who wasn’t able-bodied, cis, middle-class/upper-class and white. i have a lot of respect for faderman and what she accomplishes here, but i still can’t help but feel that this volume sorely misses the inclusion of a large number of women who love women.
Profile Image for Michael.
657 reviews966 followers
April 20, 2020
A dated but engaging work of American history, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers charts the rise of lesbian subcultures across the nation over the course of the twentieth century. Lillian Faderman begins by considering the forms women’s romantic bonds took before the formation of lesbian identity at the turn of the twentieth century, but she soon shifts to tracking how robust lesbian communities were established in the decades following the end of WWI. Her research is as meticulous as her prose is clear, and she does an excellent job of consistently differentiating working-class and middle-class experiences among lesbians. Unfortunately, Faderman doesn’t much consider racial differences among lesbians in the middle chapters, and the scope of her analysis becomes limited for some time.
Profile Image for Mo.
330 reviews46 followers
August 11, 2007
I read this when I was in my early 20's, way before Ellen and Rosie and Margaret Cho and The L Word and Will and Grace were out and about. I was glued to this...it's amazing to me that now there's an entire gay TV channel. That was unimaginable just 15 years ago. We still have a long way to go, but wow...
Profile Image for Wendy.
277 reviews4 followers
March 4, 2014
VERY briefly at the moment, I will say this: Faderman's research is interesting, and the history of lesbianism in the 20th Century US is a good reminder of where we came from (and how far we still have to go).

But I take exception to Faderman's suggestion that romantic friends (what women who likely lived as lesbians before the term came into popular usage) were sweet and romantic with each other, but asexual. Despite female socialization, I find it difficult to believe that women who lived together as romantic friends would rarely, if ever, engage in sex. They might not have talked about it, they might not have written about it, but sex has been very powerful throughout the ages for all genders.

Speaking of genders, I also take great exception to Faderman's barely-concealed scoffing at the idea of transgenderism and transsexualism. She seems to think that it is only a gender-biased kind of socialization that makes people feel they are in the wrong body, and this kind of attitude is apparent throughout the book. I think she tries to be objective, but she does not succeed.
70 reviews3 followers
February 22, 2008
Lots of really interesting facts, but troublingly glides over less enfranchised lesbian communities.
Profile Image for Rayna.
384 reviews25 followers
January 3, 2022
I knew I was going to be disappointed with this book before I even finished reading the introduction.
Not even a sexual interest in other women is absolutely central to the evolving definition of lesbianism[...] On the other hand, women with little sexual interest in other females may nevertheless see themselves as lesbian as long as their energies are given to women’s concerns and they are critical of the institution of heterosexuality. The criterion for identifying oneself as a lesbian has come to resemble the liberal criterion for identifying oneself as a Jew: you are one only if you consider yourself one.
So this book is not about the history of lesbians; it is about the history of women who identify as lesbians. Unfortunately, there is very little overlap between these two groups.
In effect, the sexologists gave many [homosexual women] a concept and a descriptive vocabulary for themselves, which was as necessary in forming a lesbian subculture as the modicum of economic independence they were able to attain at about the same time in history.
Faderman credits the early twentieth-century sexologists—those homophobes who thought that homosexuality was a disease to be cured—for giving American lesbians the words to describe themselves, but I think this is a disservice to lesbians from the past. The sexologists were probably the first to use the term lesbian to mean homosexual woman, but it’s odd to assume that homosexual women never came up with their own words to describe themselves before the word lesbian existed. And it was a gay man, Karl Maria Kertbeny, who coined the terms homosexual and heterosexual, which the sexologists later adopted.
Ignoring the evidence of the 1970s, when many women came to be lesbians through their feminist awareness, essentialists say that biology alone explains lesbianism, which is a permanent, fixed characteristic. One is a lesbian if one is born a lesbian, and nothing can make a lesbian heterosexual. Heterosexuality is “natural” only to one who is born heterosexual, just as homosexuality is “natural” to the born lesbian. [...] An adherence to the congenital theory is perhaps the safest position homosexuals can take during homophobic times when they fear they might be forced to undergo “treatment” to change their sexual orientation.
This is the closest Faderman comes to acknowledging the frustration actual lesbians had with hetero and bi women who treated lesbianism as a feminist choice rather than a sexual orientation. But Faderman agrees with the polilezzers, so she writes like this a lot. She regularly uses phrases like “women who chose to live as lesbians” and “women who became lesbians.” Her suggestion that homosexuals who describe themselves as “born that way” only do so to evoke sympathy is stupid, and also puzzling. If homosexuality were not innate, then wouldn’t conversion therapy work for self-hating homosexuals who voluntarily sign up for it?
Unlike romantic friends of other eras, who would have happened upon lesbian genital sexuality only by chance if at all, their counterparts of the ’20s knew all about the sexual potential that existed between females. Having been given concepts and language by the sexologists—from Krafft-Ebing to Ellis to Freud—they could consciously choose to explore that potential in ways that were not open to their predecessors.
Faderman again giving credit to heterosexual male sexologists for lesbians having sex. I know sex education in the U.S. has never been great, but the idea that lesbians couldn’t figure what their own clitoris is and what to do with it without the help of these misogynistic, homophobic men is preposterous. Faderman takes for granted that the belief in the 19th and early 20th centuries that women (well, white women, anyway) had no sex drive was true.

American lesbians like Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, Natalie Clifford Barney, and Charlotte Cushman were writing about their affairs with women at the very time period that women were thought to be asexual. These women spent a lot of time in Europe because the lesbian scene was way better there.
[T]o live as a lesbian in the 1930s was not a choice for the fainthearted. Not only would a woman have considerable difficulty in supporting herself, but also she would have to brave the increasing hostility toward independent females that intensified in the midst of the depression, and the continued spread of medical opinion regarding the abnormality of love between women.
Lesbians who never find a partner due to either lack of opportunity or fear of consequences for being discovered in a lesbian relationship don’t stop being lesbians. A lesbian is always “living as a lesbian” because she is a lesbian. The way Faderman writes about lesbianism as though it’s a choice that a woman can make only when she’s lucky, feels safe, and has all her economic needs met annoys me so much.
Some wealthy females adopted a butch identification when young but dropped it as they grew older, often opting not only to appear more feminine but to live as a bisexual rather than a lesbian.
This sentence is followed by a bunch of tidbits about women who had affairs and marriages with men, which I don’t care about.
Many of the young women who experimented with lesbian sexuality in the context of hippie milieu saw it as only an experiment and nothing more. Others took it far more seriously, sometimes through personal inclination, sometimes through sexual politics. Although hippie culture had permitted women like Clare to have their first lesbian experiences, some of them realized, once they discovered radical feminist issues (which had considerable appeal to their radical natures), that hippie culture was sexist and patriarchal. [...] The hippie milieu both liberated many women to have their first lesbian experience and pushed them into lesbianism as a way of life in order to escape hippie sexism.
There it is, more polilezzery. Lesbianism being treated not as a natural sexual orientation like any other, but rather as a response to misogyny. Someone should have told those dumb hippies that lesbians are lesbians because they are romantically and sexually attracted to women, not because men are shitty.
Since they were convinced through feminism that the root of the problem was male—caused by the greed, egocentrism, and violence that came along with testosterone or male socialization—they believed that only a “woman’s culture,” built on superior female values and women’s love for each other, could rectify all that had gone wrong in male hands. Thus not only was love between women—“lesbianism”—destigmatized among them: it was “aristocratized.” Although women before the 1970s often became lesbians because of their discontent with the way men behaved, the lesbian-feminists were the first to articulate such motivation and to create a coherent philosophy out of it.
“became lesbians because of their discontent with the way men behaved” 🤡 These bitter heterosexual and bisexual women created a cancer that continues to harm actual lesbians to this day, and then they went back to their cushy hetero lives. They are a big part of the reason that nobody takes female homosexuality seriously.
Even sex was scrutinized for political correctness. Lesbian-feminists pointed out that men ruined heterosexual sex by objectifying women and being goal-oriented. As one writer complained in a 1975 essay, “Nobody Needs to Get Fucked,” she, like most lesbian-feminists, had learned her sexuality from “The Man” and thus thought in terms of couples and of orgasms as the main goal of sex. But lesbian-feminists had to unlearn such values, she proclaimed, and construct their own way of loving that would be different:

“Lesbianism is, among other things, touching other women—through dancing, playing soccer, hugging, holding hands, kissing.... [Lesbians need to] free the libido from the tyranny of orgasm-seeking. Sometimes hugging is nicer.
If we are to learn our own sexual natures we have to get rid of the male-model of penetration and orgasm as the culmination of love-making.
Holding hands is love-making.
Touching lips is love-making.
Rubbing breasts is love-making.
Locking souls with women by looking deep in their eyes is love-making.”

Mutual sensuality became more politically correct than genital sexuality, which might too easily imitate the exploitative aspects of heterosexual sex.
The tyranny of orgasm-seeking...hug women and play soccer to express your lesbianism instead...ha, ha, ha! This is how you know there were a bunch of hetero women in those communes. Some of these women were completely disgusted by the thought of having sex with a woman and viewed sex as something bad that only men could be interested in. I just can’t understand why they wanted to call themselves lesbians. As if a hetero woman can’t cherish a female-only space and hug women and play soccer with them. I wonder how many of these “lesbian-feminists” are still alive today and if any of them look back on their polilez phase and cringe with embarrassment.

Faderman spends some time talking about the divisions that eventually ended these feminist communes, but she doesn’t talk about the division that I wanted to know about the most: the actual lesbian women who asserted that they were innately homosexual and clashed with the self-identified “political lesbians” who thought that lesbianism should be redefined to include all women who wanted to identify that way.
Without women’s economic independence, lesbians, as they emerged in the twentieth century, could not have existed, regardless of the nature of their love for other women, since they would have had to obey papa or to lock themselves in heterosexual marriage for the sake of survival alone.
It’s clear that Faderman views female homosexuality as a luxury that only wealthy and privileged women can engage in. There are numerous examples of lesbians throughout history, including in this book, who struggled and fought fiercely for the freedom to live as they wanted. And like I said, a lesbian doesn’t have to have a girlfriend at all times in order to remain a lesbian.

Some of the chapters contained some good information, and I particularly like reading love letters written by lesbians to each other. The chapters about lesbians during World War II, how lesbians dealt with McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the beginning of the gay rights movement were the most interesting to me. But most of this book is about bisexuals and polilezzers, which severely limits its usefulness as a resource for learning about lesbian history.
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
865 reviews835 followers
July 4, 2018
Lilian Faderman's Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers examines the development of lesbian culture in 20th Century America. From the early 20th Century, where intimate friendships between women were seen as acceptable, often even encouraged, through the Puritanical backlash that developed later and forced lesbians underground; the codification of homosexuality as mental illness that led to stigma, shame and heartache; media and pop culture treating lesbians as deviants doomed to self-destruction and despair; and their awakening following the civil rights and feminist movements. Books of this nature can often seem dry and sociological, but Faderman deftly avoids that by focusing as much on individuals as broader cultural trends. Thus we see a wide and fascinating array of gay women, from feminists and suffragettes who barely hide their sexuality to Eisenhower's wartime aide who talked him out of purging his staff of lesbian secretaries, those who suffered in silence and those who embraced their identity and refused to be silent. An excellent, accessible look at queer culture.
Profile Image for Luca Suede.
61 reviews40 followers
April 2, 2022
A lovely historical depiction & analysis of what it mean for two cis women to love one another & have sex long before the construction of the identity “lesbian.” Always lovely to be reminded that romantic friendships have long been a ways for femmes to keep each other alive & held. If you are queer and AFAB or a woman and interested in history, I strongly recommend! Warning- a little dense & academic.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,287 reviews731 followers
May 5, 2021
The only constant truth about The Lesbian in America has been that she prefers women.

I truly wanted to like this book. The first part was invaluably informative, especially when it came to giving me context about historical figures and works that I had already thought myself passingly familiar with. I also acquired a great deal of evidence that heterosexuality was formally invented in the late 19th c./early 20th c., which will be very useful in the arguments that are inevitably to come. However, I came of age in the nuclear fallout of Faderman's lack of inclusivity, and considering that one GR 'friend', who I suspected of being a radfem, voluntarily got rid of herself from my list during the course of my reading and commenting on this, one can see that I have issues. The closer Faderman gets to the present, the more she dances around but never actually rejects classism, racism, biophobia, and, above all, transphobia, minimizing queer contributions to the queer stronghold in certain places and flat out ignoring/insulting them in others. As such, this is both a great and a horrible introduction to lesbians in the USA, as the end goal of it seems to be nothing less than total succumbing to the white bourgeoisie settler/police state, regardless of those lesbians/wlw who can't or justificably won't do so for the sake of the lives of their people, whoever those people may be. I was going to bequeath my copy to a young lesbian in one of my classes, but now, I'm not sure if the valuable knowledge is worth the risk of running the gambit without the critical skills developed after long and arduous rejections of TERFs, SWERFs, and all their associated poison.
One researcher has estimated through Union Army doctors' accounts that at least four hundred women transvestites fought in the Civil War.
As this is a very white, middle-class look at things, you're going to get a lot of white, middle-class viws, feminism and/or lesbianism notwithstanding. If you don't mind some 19th century white women being talked about instead of a more thorough look at non white and/or other queer women communities in the 20th century, this is the book for you. Even in 1991, certain things that Faderman says when she doesn't stick to cold hard facts are wildly insulting and/or defensive and/or apologetic, and it detracts from her preivously methodical and almost scientific approach to the lesbian when she gets into pseudo objective portrayals of 'sex wars' (asexuality is broadly passed over, despite evidence of its coalescing into a paradigm since at least the 1980s, so that's another uncritical mess for someone to disentangle). In some ways, I finally have a baseline for the history I've slowly put together form various theoretical texts and/or Tumblr posts, so it was not only necessary, but inevitable that I read this. However, I've come to it amidst a new wave or puritanical radfem behavior in the form of the 'q-slur' and associated biophobic/transphobia/wh*rephobic behavior, including broad swathes of Hays Code level paranoia and desire to censor, so if more GR users leave me friends list over this review of mine, so be it. That was then, this is now, and Faderman would have been able to fit far more objective fact had she not spent so much time white guilting all over the last chunk of pages.
A Columbus, Ohio woman recalls walking into a lesbian bar in the 1950s and finding that no one would speak to her. After some hours the waitress told her it was because of the way she was dressed—no one could tell what her sexual identity was, butch or femme, and they were afraid that if she did not know enough to dress right it was because she was a policewoman.
I know a lot more about the effect Freud had on incipient queer identities/movements, as well as associated topics such as queer formation in the US as compared to parts of Europe and queer in the earlier, pre-21st century/US same sex marriage echelons. I do not, however, have any sense of sex work, which was without a doubt a vibrantly queer area, or trans lesbians, or even a true overview of 20th century US lesbianhood. I didn't expect an encyclopedia, but the dismissiveness Faderman took the time to express in the ideas that lesbians and heterosexuals could ever access bisexuality without being bisexuals just reminds me my second and last meeting with a so-called "queer" group, mostly wealthy white lesbians, who wanted to know how I could bear to be bisexual and thus be doomed to constantly cheat on any potential partners. Real life trumps theory, so until I acquire better experiences, I have the right to be suspicious of any and all touted names/materials that, subtly or actively, encompasses such dehumanization. As such, to any baby queers out there: read this if you must, extract what gold you can, but always, always have ready your bag of salt.
Most middle-and upper-class lesbians who could pass for heterosexual could believe that policemen, whose salaries were paid by their tax money, were there to serve and protect them. But butches and their partners seldom had the luxury of that illusion.
Profile Image for Lauren Stoolfire.
3,475 reviews259 followers
August 1, 2022
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America by Lillian Faderman read more like a textbook than I was expecting it to. At times, it suffered for being too dry but for the most part it's a solid and educational read. The book was originally released in 1991 and is a bit dated now. I found myself especially interested in the sections on the 1930s, WWII, and McCarthyism. Anyway, it makes me wonder what an updated version of this book could look like. I may have to look into more from this author in the future.
Profile Image for Dana.
17 reviews
April 19, 2008
I found Faderman to be stuck in middle-class gender biases, which may work for explaining some histories, but left others drenched in rehashed stereotypes.
Profile Image for Leah Rachel von Essen.
1,181 reviews160 followers
October 15, 2017
ODD GIRLS AND TWILIGHT LOVERS: A HISTORY OF LESBIAN LIFE IN 20TH CENTURY AMERICA by Lillian Faderman is a useful but very, very outdated portrayal of the growth and transformation of lesbian subcultures and community from 1900 to 1990. Perhaps one of the reasons it is so outdated reading it now is that it was published in 1991, and that Faderman herself was part of the 1970s movements, which she herself admits in an antidote near the end of the book keeps her from fully realizing the ways the world has changed for lesbians of the 1990s.

It’s still a useful read for those, like me, who know little about lesbian history—particularly the discussions of the ways feminism and lesbianism grew together, the ways it was embraced in many ways in the 1900s as romantic friendship and later in the 1920s and then repressed by the condemnation of sexologists, and the Sex Wars of the 1980s, were all fascinating. I knew little of LGBTQA+ history, and this definitely filled in some gaps for me as a beginner.

But that’s also part of why this work by Faderman is so dangerous: underlying this history is a set of preconceived notions that she outlines in her introduction. She erases bisexuality and trans* identity in her introduction. She also states outright that she believes that lesbianism is a social construction, and did not exist until the 20th century. She draws a sharp line between “lesbianism” and “women loving women”—except that she doesn’t. She believes that women choose to be lesbians, rather than are born loving women, and as a result, this history is ingrained with a sense that being a lesbian is a conscious choice, which obviously has the potential to significantly change the narrative of lesbian history. Rather than making the crucial distinction that the lesbian subculture or the lesbian identity was only possible in the 20th century given few freedoms for women, she believes those social freedoms led to a choice for women to become lesbians and love women, which pervades the whole book, making me feel awkward about many of her analyses. She fails to separate the ability to realize, define, and label your love of women, and the ability to come out as loving women, with a choice to love women.

In addition, she holds many of the biases that she describes the lesbian community as having struggled with. She does an excellent job of separating out the working-, middle-, and upper-class lesbians, how it led to very different communities, and the prejudices that existed between them. But she fails desperately at bisexuality, transsexuality, and racial disparities. She deals with discussing non-white lesbians so little and often so briefly, that when she does, she turns to wide generalizations (she fails to engage any diverse group except black lesbians until her section on the 1980s, as if they didn’t exist before they were brought into larger lesbian communities). Perhaps because she believes lesbianism is a choice, she depicts bisexuality as a choice of lifestyle, describing them almost as lesbians who stray, often erases them in the same ways she describes lesbians as doing—as questioning or confused lesbians, as closeted lesbians, or as experimenting heterosexuals. She only engages with trans* people when discussing the misconception that lesbians were men in women’s bodies, and every time she describes those who are transgender, her narrative voice takes on a detached tone.

Perhaps this is all because Faderman wrote this book in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it still grates on a 2017 reader (particularly a bisexual 2017 reader), and her constant bias that lesbians love women by choice lurks behind the way she tells the entire century of history, which often made it difficult to read, and which complicates the history she tells. I recommend reading this only if you feel confident in your ability to parse the facts out of Faderman’s biases.
Profile Image for Becca.
425 reviews18 followers
April 11, 2010
A relatively succinct, yet comprehensive history of lesbian women in America, which also touches on feminism, civil rights and relations between the gay and lesbian communities. As far as I am aware this is the most comprehensive work on lesbian history available. Faderman did extensive research and the book is rife with footnotes and comprised predominately of interviews conducted for this book.

Faderman is upfront about her biases, although her disbelief in "congenitalism" may make modern readers uncomfortable. She does seem to view the 80's as a terminal point in lesbian history, and it would be interesting to see her characterize the 90's and 00's.
Profile Image for Maggy.
36 reviews5 followers
August 22, 2012
I can't really recommend this book unless you need it for an academic reason. Faderman's research is excellent, but the writing is sometimes dull and repetitive, so it's not an easy book to read cover-to-cover. More troublesome, her rhetoric is both obvious and extremely dated. The book was originally published in 1991, which should have put her into second-wave feminism, but her reasoning and politics come off as even older than that, and therefore anachronistic and occasionally irritating. In all it's not a good read, as such, but it is a useful reference book and bibliographic source.
Profile Image for Evelyn.
3 reviews
June 1, 2022
The ultimate account of 20th century American lesbian history. This book, as most history books do, change the way you view the current world. There are few things that could make a lesbian prouder than reading Faderman’s work. The amount of care and research put into this work is astounding - countless interviews, journal entries, novels, and more are referenced in this complete masterwork. Highly highly recommend.
397 reviews24 followers
May 28, 2011
A history of the emergence of identities and subcultures. Lillian Faderman's political argument is omnipresent, interpreting her source material: to take a random example from early on, she writes about social reformers, "Some of those women were cultural feminists, fueled by their belief that male values created the tragedies connected with industrialization, war, and mindless urbanization and that it was the responsibility of women, with their superior sensibilities, to straighten the world out again. Their love of women was at least in part the result of their moral chauvinism. Others were less convinced of women’s natural superiority, but they wanted to wrest from society the opportunities and training that would give women the advantages men had and thus permit them to be more whole as human beings. Their love of women was at least in part a search for allies to help wage the battle against women’s social impoverishment." In her introduction, she writes, "in the debate between the "essentialists"... and the "social constructionists"... my own research has led me to align myself on the side of the social constructionists." Throughout the book, she looks to identify the circumstances that led women toward or away from centering their emotional and erotic lives on other women, intertwined with a search for autonomy.

Faderman is not a graceful writer, but this is nonetheless an interesting pioneering work drawing on sources that are becoming increasingly available as more research is done. She interviewed nearly 200 women, too; that's the advantage of doing recent history. I found that the chapter on subcultures in the fifties and the one on the lesbian-feminist movement particularly caught my attention.
Profile Image for saïd.
5,873 reviews547 followers
January 2, 2022
This is a great book for research purposes. It really does an excellent job at bringing to light a well-researched account of the history of queer women in 20th century America. HOWEVER...

1) Despite claiming to be inclusive, only a few pages were devoted to African-American lesbian communities, which I felt was a glaring oversight, especially given all the rich history there.

2) There was also barely any acknowledgement of the role class(/financial status) and race played in lesbian communities at large.

3) I felt Faderman's research failed to acknowledge transgender lesbians, as well as the not insignificant crossover between queer men's participation in drag culture and transgender women, as well queer women's butch or drag king identities and trangender men -- these are complicated, nuanced, difficult topics, and I don't necessarily fault Faderman for this shortcoming, but I do find it worth noting.
Profile Image for Korri.
584 reviews2 followers
January 9, 2010
Lillian Faderman's book clearly & elegantly draws together the history of women loving women in the United States. I acquired a new reading list from perusing her endnotes and bibliography! Other readers have pointed out the problematic parts of Faderman's work--her focus on white women's experiences at the expense of marginalized communities-- but overall this book is a valuable academic & personal resource. It is lovely to be able to refer people to such a scholarly yet accessible work on lesbian history.
18 reviews3 followers
January 18, 2008
This book was awesome--lots of primary sources, very interesting take on the cultural/historical background surrounding 'lesbians.' However, it was stolen along with the rest of the contents in my backpack when I was mugged, and I haven't found another copy--not that I've been looking, admittedly. Want to loan me yours?
Profile Image for Joshua.
Author 2 books30 followers
June 9, 2019
No hesitation whatsoever when I write this: I've been waiting to read this book for years. Having read plenty of history books about LGBTQ populations I was starving for a book that provided a nuanced, and, most importantly, depthful history of lesbianism. While not trying to bash the work of other LGBTQ+ scholars, a great number of history books about the queer community tend to be broad macro-histories that cherrypick examples of same-sex desire throughout human history and the effect is that the reader can become inundated with endless suggestion of homosexuality, rather than receive anything in the way of an argument or narrative. The other problem tends to be that many of these books dwell on male homosexuality leaving lesbians as a footnote or afterthought.

Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers is a beautiful and vital text because it does none of this. While it does cover most of the 20th, and some later periods of the 19th century, Faderman is able to actually dig into lesbian communities and behaviors giving the reader a nuanced understanding of the way queer women lived their lives, established communities, maneuvered external pressure from society, explored sexuality and sensuality with other women, and ultimately tried to construct an understanding of what being a gay woman actually meant. Faderman's book has amazing depth and the reader, by the end, is left with a wealth of knowledge about lesbians and lesbian identity.

The book ends right at the start of the 1990s, so readers interested in more contemporary lesbian history will be a bit disappointed, but Faberman nevertheless leaves the reader with a curiosity to find more books and knowledge about the topic.

A book like this should be cherished because rather than provide a rambling list of examples of homosexual identity, Faderman gives her reader examples from literature, poetry, politics, drama, economics, and sexual analysis to allow lesbian women to be more than just examples. These women are people, not just examples, and their lives were composed of endless complexity.

Good history should be about contextualizing the lives of a human being in relation to their times and communities, while also showing us how people and communities changed over said times. Faberman does this in spades and by the end of this book, I realized this was arguably one of the most incredible gay history books that I have ever, and also one of the best histories that I've ever read. Faberman has given a tremendous gift to the LGBTQ+ community, and most importantly to lesbians themselves who have as this book demonstrates, too often been side characters in a story that always as much theirs as anyone elses.
Profile Image for Cora.
158 reviews
July 8, 2018
this was really really interesting to read..... very comprehensive history in my opinion - a little annoying that the author sometimes makes some "faux pas" about trans issues but also like... i recognize that it was the 90s
it would be interesting to read a more up to date history though - the last chapter went well with the nat geo issue on gender i was reading because it gives more distance to how we view sexuality today (in contrast to society's Evolving Views in this book)
also big shout out to smith for being mentioned like 10 times lmao
Profile Image for Chloe.
315 reviews4 followers
February 21, 2022
Interesting history but a bit outdated as it was written in the early 90s.
537 reviews49 followers
September 7, 2020
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. ****
Profile Image for Bridget.
5 reviews5 followers
May 19, 2009
This is a FANTASTIC book for any lover of history, especially the history of lesbians in America. The Notes section alone is worth this book's weight in gold.

The book chronicles the history of lesbians from the late nineteenth century into the early 90s. Some of the topics include homosexuality in the military and how it was condoned, butch-femme dynamic and how it ruled the working-class lesbian community, lesbian-sexual-radicals of the 70s, and much, much more.

Very informative. Very interesting. VERY highly recommended.
Profile Image for Sara.
96 reviews
February 10, 2021
Interesting to read this as a primary source itself in terms of how it anticipates (or fails to) the 90s/00s. I'm not familiar enough with historiography to comment on how Faderman "does" history beyond the way it's dated & structured around segmenting history into decades. While strongest in its use of interviews and oral histories underlining the diversity of the lesbian experience, it still attempts to be a comprehensive, almost encyclopedic lesbian history of 20th century America which is (imo) a failed project from the start.
Profile Image for Joey D.
6 reviews
October 6, 2007
this book, though incredibly cerebral is super interesting. having been a natural sciences student in school, i missed all the women's studies and gender theory classes. i think this book does a good job on tracing the history of american lesbianism from the 1900s until now.
Profile Image for Anne Russo.
Author 3 books30 followers
September 25, 2009
Fantastic book and really insightful. I couldn't put it down. One of the best, if not the best book I have ever read on Lesbian history in the US. A wonderful book!
Profile Image for Beth.
453 reviews10 followers
March 26, 2010
Examination of the emergence of lesbian lifestyles during the twentieth century. Interesting and incredibly helpful look at the history of American sexuality.
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