What do you think?
Rate this book
400 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1991
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.
[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: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.
“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.
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.
The only constant truth about The Lesbian in America has been that she prefers women.3.5/5
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.