Faderman, Lillian 1940-
FADERMAN, Lillian 1940-
Born July 18, 1940, in Bronx, NY; daughter of Mary Lifton; partner of Phyllis Irwin; children: Avrom. Education: University of California, Berkeley, A.B., 1962; University of California, Los Angeles, M.A., 1964, Ph.D., 1967.
Office—Department of English, California State University, Fresno, CA 93740. E-mail—[email protected].
California State University, Fresno, member of faculty beginning 1967, associate professor, 1971-72, professor of English, 1973—, chair of English department, 1971-72, dean of School of Humanities, 1972-73, assistant vice president of academic affairs, 1973-76. Visiting professor, University of California, Los Angeles, 1989-91.
Best Lesbian/Gay Book Award, American Library Association, 1982, for Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, and 1992, for Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian life in Twentieth-Century America; Lambda Literary Awards, 1992, for Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, 1995, for Chloe plus Olivia: Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, and 2000, for To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America; Monette/Horwitz Award for distinguished contributions to lesbian/gay scholarship, 1999; James Brudner Award for exemplary lesbian/gay scholarship, Yale University, 2001; distinguished senior scholar award, American Association of University Women, 2002.
(With Barbara Bradshaw) Speaking for Ourselves: American Ethnic Writing, Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1969, 2nd edition, 1975.
(Editor with Luis Omar Salinas) From the Barrio: A Chicano Anthology, Canfield Press (San Francisco, CA), 1973.
(Editor and translator with Brigitte Eriksson) Lesbian-Feminism in Turn-of-the-Century Germany, Naiad Press (Tallahassee, FL), 1980, published as Lesbians in Germany, 1990.
Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, Morrow (New York, NY), 1981.
Scotch Verdict: Miss Pirie and Miss Woods v. Dame Cumming Gordon, Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1991.
(Editor) Chloe plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
(With Ghia Xiong) I Begin My Life All Over: The Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1998.
To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America—A History, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1999.
Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
Contributor of articles to journals, including Massachusetts Review, New England Quarterly, Journal of Popular Culture, Conditions, Signs, Journal of Homosexuality, and Journal of the History of Sexuality. Contributor to periodicals, including Advocate.
Lillian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present "is a comprehensive and illuminating study of women's struggles to live and love as they please," Phyllis Grosskurth wrote in the New York Review of Books. Three historical periods—the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century—are examined from both a literary and a cultural perspective in the book, summarized Benjamin DeMott in Atlantic, noting Faderman's focus on sexual as well as nonsexual woman-to-woman relationships.
According to Carolyn G. Heilbrun in the New York Times Book Review, Surpassing the Love of Men demonstrates that, "except when women preempted male power or tried to pass as men, they were usually, until quite recently, left free to love one another." Faderman's "quite thorough scholarship," noted Washington Post Book World's Joanna Russ, indicates that "the Lesbian did not even exist in Europe until the 1880s and in the United States until 1910." She added, "Love between women, which did exist, was unlike Lesbianism in being socially honored, not secretive, and extremely common." Keith Walker wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Faderman "stumbled over this not startlingly original version of events when she was reading Emily Dickinson's love poems and letters to Sue Gilbert," the woman who later became her sister-in-law, "and noticed that Dickinson showed no guilt and moreover that her niece, editing the letters early in this century, felt obliged to bowdlerize them."
Many critics have found Surpassing the Love of Men praiseworthy. Heilbrun described the book as "a welcome and needed history" and stated that "its account of women loving women before the twentieth century is invaluable." Walker, however, objected to "the cosy glow engendered by the belief that lesbian relationships are finer, more enduring, and more satisfying than heterosexual ones." Grosskurth, similarly, believes that probably "many such relationships exist, but by investing them all with a romantic coloration, [Faderman] never considers the tensions, irritations, or jealousy engendered by most close relationships." According to Russ, "At times she seems to say that sexism and the segregation of the sexes causes love between women, a confusingly negative view that contradicts her assertion of the normality (statistical and other) of such behavior."
"Despite my deep unease at some of these implicit assumptions," Grosskurth wrote, "I think this is an important book; certainly one of the most significant contributions yet made to feminist literature." DeMott concluded that Surpassing the Love of Men remains "a work of genuine interest and value. Its pages are filled with vivid portraits of heroes and heroines struggling to lead their contemporaries out of delusion on sex and gender matter, and with astonishingly fresh disclosures about details of sexist feeling from age to age."
Faderman's other studies of woman-to-woman love include To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America—A History. Faderman asserts that many women who have been important in social reform movements can be considered lesbian, including suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, settlement house founder and peace activist Jane Addams, and medical doctors Marie Zakrzewska, Mary Walker, and Emily Blackwell. In this work, Faderman expands her definition of lesbianism beyond romantic love between women to "intense woman-to-woman relating and commitment." New York Times Book Review commentator Karla Jay called this a "generous definition," allowing that some will consider Faderman's "tendentious claims …a welcome corrective to biographies that erased lesbian existence." Advocate contributor Ricardo Ortiz noted that "whether or not they would have called themselves lesbian, each [of the women profiled] was able to effect change thanks partly to the support of a loving, long-term female life partner." Jay found it problematic, though, that Faderman puts such emphasis on the contribution of lesbian relationships to these women's activism. "Sexual orientation was probably less of a factor for these reformers than the financial wherewithal that freed them from the tedious demands of earning a living," Jay remarked. Also, Faderman holds up these relationships as models for both same-sex and mixed-sex couples to emulate in balancing personal life and career, but these female couples, Jay pointed out, sometimes had a very traditional division of labor, with one partner handling domestic matters so the other could work for her cherished causes. "Faderman may inadvertently be broadcasting a discouraging message about the prospects for combining family life with a profession or social activism," Jay concluded. Despite these reservations, she pronounced the book "a decent starting point for learning about these pioneers and their contributions to American life" and recommends it "for those who need a dose of pride and a slice of history."
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers is a scholarly examination of the transition of women's close relationships of the nineteenth century to the rise of lesbianism in the 1920s, a societal change made possible by women's growing economic independence. However, once women's relationships were capable of supplanting heterosexual marriage, public acceptance of them fell by the wayside. Women's once-innocuous "romantic friendships" became something more sinister as norms continued to shift throughout the century.
Odd Girls was well received as a close examination of a previously overlooked topic, and in time the book became a standard text in many women's studies courses. One of Faderman's assertions in the book is that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, before female same-sex relationships became widely suspect as 'abnormal,' women were able to express their affections for other women, and even to live in female domestic partnerships, without suffering the opprobrium they would during the more restrictive decades of the mid-twentieth century. Patricia Sarles in Library Journal called the book "a necessity for women's studies collections." Jane Mills, reviewing the book for New Statesman & Society, remarked that Faderman illustrates that "even during the worst period of persecution, gay and lesbian subculture grew and defined itself more clearly than ever before." Noting that the contemporary idea of homosexuality didn't exist much more than a hundred years ago, New York Times Book Review writer Jeffrey Escoffier complimented Faderman's "grand narrative synthesis of the cultural, social and political history of lesbian life since the late nineteenth century."
Faderman's life story takes center stage in Naked in the Promised Land, in which she examines her roots as the daughter of a poor, single immigrant traumatized by the death of her parents at the hands of the Nazis. From the sweatshops of Brooklyn, the young Lillian saw her mother and aunt struggle. When the three-some moved to Hollywood in search of a better life, Lillian was determined to save her histrionic mother by becoming a movie star. Years of acting lessons and one nose job later, Lillian was inclined to drop out of school and use her body as a nude model and stripper while she came to grips with her sexual orientation. A vigilant career counselor steered her toward college, but the sex work continued, along with her twisted relationship with her psychologically fragile mother. During her senior year of high school, Lillian entered into a sham marriage with a gay Jewish psychologist—an ill-fated move that pleased her mother immensely. Lillian later put herself through college by posing nude and dancing under the name Mink Frost in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, a double life in the straight-laced 1950s if ever there was one.
After obtaining her Ph.D., Faderman was astounded to discover that the sexism she faced in academia, where all the tenured teaching positions went to her male classmates, mirrored the ostensibly harsher street life she thought she had left behind. Despite her academic standing, Faderman was offered only a low-prestige job at Fresno State. She took it, and as the years passed, rose through the ranks in academia, becoming a leading scholar at her university and helping to pioneer the field of women's studies. Having ended her marriage years earlier, she embarked on a life-long relationship with a colleague, Phyllis Irwin, and together they raised Faderman's son, who was conceived through artificial insemination.
Naked in the Promised Land garnered good reviews. Writing in Publishers Weekly, Michael Bronski noted that though Faderman's previous books "caused considerable alarm in conservative academic circles …uncovering the threads of past Sapphic desire was nothing compared to confessing to being a stripper decades ago." A writer for Publishers Weekly called the memoir "exceedingly honest, endearing and profound." Focusing largely on how Faderman's "identities as working-class, Jewish, female, lesbian, sex worker and student did not neatly mesh," wrote Susan Freeman in the Miami Herald, the story is a "tale of a life stretched long, encompassing the ghosts of Nazi Germany and hope for the future, the possibility not only embodied by the child but also by an extraordinary woman whose struggles and chutzpah merit our attention." Carolyn See, noting the similarities between Faderman's life and her own as a woman breaking new ground in the 1960s, wrote in the Washington Post that "Faderman is strong in her belief that all voiceless humans deserve voices, and a respectable place in our American history."
Other critics thought the memoir could have been more introspective. "Faderman's achievements are nothing short of awe-inspiring," wrote Kera Bolonik in the San Francisco Chronicle, but "a life as daring and rich as hers warrants a more psychologically probing memoir: Had Faderman showed less metaphoric flesh, then Naked in the Promised Land just may have bared a bit more soul." Similarly, Barbara Sjoholm of the Seattle Times called the book "fascinating," but concluded that "Faderman leaves us convinced of her success—yet still wondering, a little, who she is." But as Faderman told Bronski in an interview for Publishers Weekly, her previous books are about "giving public voice to people who had been silenced. This memoir is really about giving so many private parts of myself a public voice." Aside from herself, Faderman told Bronski, the book is about her mother. "From earliest childhood, I understood how difficult my mother's life was. And if fueled my desire to save her. It was my love for her—even when we fought so terribly—that allowed me to open myself up to the love of other women."
My childhood and young adulthood were unusual for someone who would one day become a scholar, but I think the unconventionality of my experiences helped me to envision the iconoclastic books I eventually published. Perhaps if I'd had a more usual youth I would have had some reluctance to undertake subjects that were generally considered inappropriate or odd at the time I began writing about them. From my first book publication in 1969 (Speaking for Ourselves: American Ethnic Writing) to my 1999 book, To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America—A History, my research and writing was for me a form of activism that stemmed from a desire to help bring about social change in areas where I had personally observed the need for change. The books and articles that I published during those years focused primarily on the history and literature of minority groups, whether ethnic or sexual. My primary goals were not only to educate the general reader but also to help provide a voice for those who had been voiceless and to record a history for those who had been denied their history.
My mother, Gitta Mara Luft, was the oldest child in a poor family of tailors in Prael (sometimes spelled Preil), a little shtetl in Latvia. She came to America alone, in 1914, when she was eighteen years old and changed her name to Mary Lifton because she thought it sounded more American. My mother knew very little English when she arrived, and she was only semi-literate in the language at her death in 1979, though she did read and write Yiddish. Like many young immigrants of those years, she hoped somehow to earn enough money (or to marry a man who earned enough money) to enable her to bring the rest of the family to America.
As soon as my mother came to this country, she found work as a draper in the garment trade, an industry that was at the time largely unregulated by maximum hour/minimum wage laws and was subject to seasonal layoffs without even the protection of unemployment benefits. With subsistence wages, she could afford to live only in a furnished room and occasionally to send a few dollars back to her family. Finally, in 1923, she did succeed in bringing her sister Rivka to America. My mother did not marry until 1955, when I, her only child, was almost fifteen years old. By then the rest of her family—a brother, two sisters, and the sisters' families—were dead, killed by the Nazis in 1941, along with all of the other Jews of Prael. My mother's survivor guilt and shock brought on mental illness, manifested in her as obsessive-compulsive disorder but diagnosed in those days as "nervousness," which I witnessed throughout my childhood.
I was born in Bronx, New York, on July 18, 1940. For the eight years prior to my birth, my mother had had a relationship with Morris Federman, who did not wish to marry her even after she became pregnant. My mother sued "Moishe," as she called him, for child support when urged to do so by a caseworker, but he denied paternity in court and the judge declared in his favor. Despite his denials, my mother had him listed as my father on my birth certificate and school records.
For my first years my mother and I lived with my aunt, Rivka, whom I called My Rae. Like my mother, My Rae made her living in the garment trade, but she was sometimes able to do piece work at home; thus she could care for me when, after six months of county "relief," as welfare was called at the time, my mother had to take a job in a garment factory again. Both my mother and My Rae spoke to me mostly in Yiddish, and that became my main language. But once I went to nursery school and started speaking English, my tongue seemed to twist and stumble around Yiddish; and though My Rae and my mother continued to speak to me in that language, I answered them always in English. Soon (to my great regret later) I lost my speaking knowledge of Yiddish.
When my mother learned after the War that all the relatives in Latvia had been slaughtered in the Holocaust, her relationship with my aunt became tumultuous, as she blamed her for not having helped enough in her attempts to bring their siblings to America. My Rae left the Bronx under a hail of my mother's curses and imprecations, and she went to California; I went to day care until I entered Public School 62 in 1946. When the registrar asked my mother how to spell my last name, my mother replied, "Just like it sounds—F A.…" Thus my name was listed on the school records as "Faderman." That became the name I learned to spell, and I have kept it ever since.
My mother continued her relationship with Moishe as long as we remained in New York. On the one occasion that she took me to see him, she urged me to "say hello to your father." When I greeted him thus he announced to me, "I am not your father." Although I've always believed my mother's version of the story, and the blood tests the court ordered taken showed that he could be my father, there was, of course, no indisputable evidence of paternity in those pre-DNA testing days.
On the Saturdays and Sundays when my mother was not with Moishe, we would often go to the movies together, and I was fascinated by the world that Hollywood opened to me, so different from my immediate surroundings. Through the movies I lost whatever vestiges of a Yiddish accent I had; I learned about lives that I could hardly imagine in the Bronx (and later in East Los Angeles); I formulated notions of the American dream that stuck with me well into adulthood. I longed desperately to become a movie actress, not only because I was enchanted by the glamour of the silver screen, but also because my mother encouraged it, and I came to see it as a means toward a noble mission: Coming home from the sweatshop, exhausted by her grueling labors, she would cry, "Rescue me from the shop, Lily!" And when I asked "How, Mommy, what should I do?" she answered, "Become a movie actress." Those words gave me direction for years: I would become a movie actress and rescue my mother from the shop.
In 1948 my aunt returned to New York in order to urge my mother to move to Los Angeles, where we would all be together again; and to my great joy, my mother acquiesced. To me, the move meant that we would be far away from Moishe, whom I despised now because it seemed to me that my mother's love for him increased her suffering. The move also meant we would be closer to My Rae, whom I loved passionately. And it meant too that I would be near Hollywood, where the movies were made. Through much of our train trip across the country, I did Al Jolson imitations—soft-shoe dancing up and down the aisles, singing "Mammy" and "California, Here I Come,"—longing to be discovered. My mother had told me that sometimes movie producers found their future stars in unexpected places, such as drug store soda fountains. Surely on our train there must be at least one movie producer on his way to Hollywood who was on the lookout for new talent.
We rented a furnished room in East Los Angeles, and my mother and aunt found jobs in garment factories while I went to Evergreen Avenue Elementary School and continued to dream of becoming a movie actress and rescuing my mother from her hard work. When the relationship between my mother and My Rae became stormy again, my aunt left us to marry Emanuel Bergman, a widower in his sixties. He was a gentle and generous man who was loving to me, but I felt the loss of My Rae deeply. I also felt more urgently than ever a need to succeed for the sake of my mother, to fulfill the Hollywood dreams which she shared with me, to make up for all the desertions and terrible losses she'd experienced in her life. I think my dreams centered on Hollywood because, like many children of poor immigrants at that time, movie stardom was the only example of significant success I'd had the opportunity to observe in my environment. How else did one escape from poverty? How else did one make a better life? There were certainly no doctors or lawyers or professors or even secretaries or bookkeepers in my ken that might inspire me to more realistic ambitions; nor did life in a furnished room permit me to distinguish between middle class comfort and fantastic wealth: There were rich people and poor people, and my mother and I were poor people.
Thus when a school of music and dramatic arts opened in East Los Angeles in 1952, I was delirious with excitement. I was able to convince the woman who directed the school to let me work in the office on weekends, answering the phone and writing receipts, in order to pay for all my lessons. Her husband, the acting coach, wrote dramatic monologues for me, generally about waifs, such as refugee children who had been separated from their mothers in concentration camps and were reunited in the course of the scene. With my mother's tragic tales of lost relatives in my head and my own worries about her, I had no trouble imagining the requisite emotions of displaced and anxious waifs, so I became the star of the children's acting classes. And when the director of the school signed me to an exclusive management contract after a year, it seemed that at last I was on my way to realizing my Hollywood dreams. Soon I was the mistress of ceremonies and a monologist in a children's amateur entertaining troupe she directed, and I traveled with the group to do shows almost weekly—to old age homes, children's hospitals, Hadassah groups, supermarket openings.
Though my Hollywood dreams never were realized, my childhood experiences as a would-be actress were invaluable because I learned fine work habits that stood me in good stead for the rest of my life—how to focus all my concentration on a piece; how to keep doing it over and over, sparing no efforts, until I got it right. I wonder now if my work-intensive research books would have been possible if I hadn't learned to labor so devotedly on my monologues as a twelve year old.
I also learned other things of value during the three years I took lessons at the East Los Angeles music and drama school. I found the school's director as beautiful, as cultured and sophisticated, as the actresses I admired most in the movies. She was my first fleshand-blood role model, and I strove to imitate her walk, her gestures, her well-modulated voice. I formed my liberal political ideas out of hers. I was convinced of the importance of reading because she valued books.
The director became my first crush. My infatuation with her was an experience replete with all the intense joys and fears that adolescent crushes generally bring to introspective kids. Puzzled about the meaning of such powerful feelings for a woman, I haunted the neighborhood library, trying to find an explanation in books for those emotions that ostensibly no one else in the world had experienced; and I was temporarily relieved when I finally found a couple of volumes that assured me that adolescent crushes were "normal."
In the 1930s and 1940s East Los Angeles had been primarily a lower-middle-class, Jewish community, but by the 1950s, when I entered Hollenbeck Junior High School, most of the Jewish families, who were often second-or third-generation Americans, had bettered their economic status sufficiently to be able to move to the more affluent neighborhoods of the West side. Most of the students at Hollenbeck when I attended the school were from economically disadvantaged Mexican or Japanese families. I became aware of ethnicities and cultures other than my own and of the multiple manifestations and effects of class in America. I felt alienated, too, aware that despite the poverty and minority status we shared, I was different from the other students—my fatherless state, my mother's terrible obsessive-compulsive episodes, the shabby furnished room in which we lived, my Jewishness, my crush on a woman that I could tell no one about. Reading and my work with the children's amateur entertaining troupe and junior high school drama competitions became my only escape from feelings of alienation.
In 1955 my mother, now fifty-eight years old, married a man several years her junior, Albert Gordin, who worked in a janitorial capacity in a hospital pathology laboratory. The marriage was not a love match, but rather one of mutual convenience, as was probably common among middle-aged immigrants in those years. Finally, she was able to leave her sweat-shop labors. I was relieved that my mother could quit the work she had always complained of so bitterly, though I was also sad that it had not been my success that made her escape possible, and I was shocked to have a stranger in our lives. For the next years, until I became an adult and grew to love Albert as a simple, decent man, I distanced myself not only from him as an uncomfortable, unaccustomed presence, but also from her.
Several months after the marriage I graduated from Hollenbeck Junior High School. Though I no longer had to worry about success for the sake of my mother, striving had become a habit of mind for me, and I now wished success for my own sake. My crush on the director of the East Los Angeles school of music and drama had not abated in the least, but I understood by now that I would need to attend a more professional acting school if I wanted to further my career. I enrolled in Geller Theater and School of Dramatic Arts in West Los Angeles. I was not yet fifteen years old, but I presented myself as eighteen in order to get an evening job in the theater office to pay for my lessons. My mother convinced Albert that we must move from East Los Angeles so I would not have to make a nightly across-town bus trip, and we rented an apartment in the Beverly-Fairfax area of Los Angeles, where the Jewish population had migrated years earlier.
I continued at Geller's in the evenings and on weekends even after I started Fairfax High School in the fall of 1955. Because the Geller acting classes and rehearsals kept me up late, I stayed home from high school frequently, and when I did attend I sat in the back row of my classes and read plays or memorized lines. I was visited a few times by a truant officer, who probably didn't pursue me more seriously because I was earning Ds and Fs in my classes and wasting the taxpayers' money when I did go to school. My mother, who had no formal education herself, was passive about my hooky playing—or perhaps she simply realized that she had no control over me. In any case, I continued to skip classes throughout my freshman year. Though I'd been a good student in junior high school I was untroubled by my failing grades now because I intended to quit school at age sixteen and work on my acting career full time.
What did trouble me was the realization that my face looked very little like the even-featured faces of the popular actresses of the 1950s, and I was convinced that plastic surgery on my nose would improve my chances for success. Unbeknownst to my mother or any of my associates, I worked as a pin-up and figure model in order to earn money for the surgery I had the summer I turned sixteen. But not even plastic surgery led to Hollywood offers.
That same summer I encountered again an acquaintance from East Los Angeles with whom I'd worked in the children's entertaining troupe. Now he told me he was gay, and, providing me with a fake ID, he introduced me to the Los Angeles gay bar scene. My visit to the Open Door, a lesbian bar, brought me a virtual epiphany, clarifying the probable meaning of my long crush, showing me the possibility of a sexual identity with which I felt comfortable. Because I was a literary young person, I again went to the library and sought information in books about what it means if a woman is attracted to other women. But the only books I could find on the topic were depressing and frightening. There were serious tomes by medical doctors and sexologists that depicted love between women as pathology; and there were novels, mostly of the pulp-fiction variety, in which lesbians generally met with horrifying fates—committing suicide, going crazy, drowning in wells of loneliness. Almost all the books about same-sex love were terrifying by design: they would probably not have escaped the censors of the era had they not had "redeeming social content," which meant that the lesbians had to end badly in order to affirm society's "moral standards."
I found the outlaw butch/femme life of the 1950s bar culture to be depressing and frightening as well. The vice squad often raided homosexual bars, and the patrons were carted off in Black Mariahs, their names published in the newspapers for the world to see. Just going to and from a lesbian bar was dangerous: the women were frequently harassed by toughs and even ran the risk of being beaten up. My lesbian relationship with Jan, whom I met at the Open Door, seemed to me even seamier than the terrible pulp novels I'd read: she proposed that I go off with her to New Orleans and support us by prostitution. When I left Jan at the end of that summer I was in despair and confusion and felt utterly without direction. What would I do with the rest of my life? Though I was only sixteen, my mother and Albert had no control over me. The law couldn't keep me in school any longer. But if I couldn't be an actress and wouldn't run off to New Orleans with Jan, what could I be? Where should I go?
Shortly before the school year started, I was fortunate to meet a social worker, Maury Colwell, who convinced me that I must not drop out of school—that if I thought I was a lesbian and would not be marrying, it was especially important to graduate from high school, go to college, and get a good job that would enable me to support myself. When Albert announced that we were moving to another area, I was happy because that meant I might go to a new school and start all over. That fall I became a student at Hollywood High School, where I was active in drama and speech, won several state speech tournaments, and with Maury Colwell's skillful urging, took my studies seriously enough to replace all my former Ds and Fs with As and a few Bs.
Though I stayed away from the Open Door, I continued to have gay friends, and through one of them I met a bisexual man, Mark Letson, seventeen years my senior, with whom I formed a friendship. Mark was a psychologist. I was awed by his learning and culture, and delighted that he was willing to teach me—about literature, music, politics, foreign travel. Several months before my high school graduation, I married him in what began as a "front" marriage that would enable him to pass as heterosexual in his office and would enable me to leave home. Soon, however, our relationship became intimate; and after graduation I went with him to Mexico, where he had been offered a visiting professorship in psychology. At the end of that summer, though, realizing that I could not be a wife any more than Mark could be a husband, I left him in Mexico and returned to Los Angeles. I had already been accepted at the University of California, Los Angeles, and now I remembered Maury Colwell's good advice: I needed to continue my education since I did not want to be married and would have to support myself. I would go to college.
I'd been given a small scholarship to cover books and tuition at UCLA, but I had no money for other expenses. If I went back to work for a few hours a week as a pinup and figure model, I decided, I could still have ample time to take classes and to study. I returned to the modeling agency where I'd worked a few years earlier, and now I did photo shoots on the weekends. Under the name "Gigi Frost" I appeared often in 1959 and 1960 pinup magazines, though no one during the course of my college career ever made the connection between Gigi and Lillian. The energy and focus I'd once poured into play acting I transferred now to studying for my UCLA classes.
At the end of my freshman year, in the summer of 1959, I met a woman from San Francisco who asked me to come live with her. Believing myself in love, I went with her to San Francisco and enrolled at University of California at Berkeley. Her father had supported her all her life because she was ill and could not work, but shortly after I met her, he died. I would have to find a job in the Bay Area in which I could make enough money for two and still would have sufficient time to take classes and study. For a while I had a minimum-wage job filing books in a library, but working twenty hours a week, I could not make enough money to pay our rent. I needed to stay in school and do well, and I needed to support myself and my partner. How could I do both? I found a weekend job as a waitress and the "Bubble Bath Girl" at Big Al's Hotsy Totsy Club in San Francisco. Then, a few months later, I took a better-paying job as an exotic dancer at the President Follies, one of the few remaining burlesque houses in America. That job would allow me to sit in the dressing room and study in between my brief stage appearances. It was the early 1960s. If my employment had been discovered by the dean of women at Berkeley, undoubtedly I would have been asked to leave school, but it was not discovered. I made the Dean's List almost every semester.
Though I began at Berkeley as a psychology major, still fascinated with the career I'd seen up close through Mark, I found that the courses that interested me the most were in the humanities. In my junior year I changed my major to English. I was especially excited by literature of social protest and writers that used fiction and poetry to bring about social change. I was very aware of the burgeoning student movements at Berkeley, but because I had to leave campus immediately after class each day to get to work, I could not participate. Yet I was passionately interested in social change, since the status quo seemed so unfavorable to the worlds I'd experienced—to people who were ethnically and sexually different from the main mass of Americans. I kept hoping that writers I read in my classes might sometimes reflect those differences, but in the early sixties, when the literary canon was still very narrowly defined, those hopes were seldom realized. I received a B.A. in June 1962 and entered UCLA as a graduate student in English that fall, wanting still to discover authors who had not been represented in my undergraduate classes at Berkeley and who wrote about diversity.
The course of study at UCLA in the early 1960s included perhaps six or seven women writers—Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, sometimes Willa Cather—and several hundred men writers. Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison were the only writers of color mentioned in classes—and were not necessarily read. The biographical details professors sometimes included in their lectures presented all writers as being either heterosexual or asexual. Any suggestion of homosexuality in a literary text was either glossed over in lectures or interpreted to mean something quite different. I realized quickly that if I wanted to read more women writers or writers who dealt with ethnic and racial experiences different from the mainstream of America, or if I wanted to know more about homosexual writers or the treatment of homosexuality in literature, I would have to make discoveries on my own. The proliferating movements for the rights of underrepresented groups—blacks, women, Chicanos—made me even more determined to discover such voices in literature, which continued to be ignored in English graduate studies.
At my advisor's urging, however, I put aside my interest in minority voices in literature and wrote my dissertation on a minor Victorian author whose complete (voluminous) works had recently been acquired by the UCLA library. But while I was writing my dissertation on B. L. Farjeon, I met a high school teacher, Barbara Bradshaw, who shared my passion for underrepresented literary voices. We began gathering material for a book we would call Speaking for Ourselves: American Ethnic Writing. In addition to literature by writers from underrepresented European-American groups (e.g., Poles) and black writers who were just beginning to be included in school curricula, we wanted to find good fiction, poetry, and drama by Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and American Indians (as Native Americans were still called). Such material was not easy to find in the mid-1960s, but we felt sure there must be strong, though neglected, literary voices among writers of those groups. We did massive research in literary journals of other eras; we put out a call for writing that reflected American diversity. And finally we did get a mass of good material that enabled us to put together a proposal for a unique college textbook of multiethnic literature. Just as I was finishing my dissertation, in spring 1967, Barbara and I received a contract from Scott, Foresman to publish the book.
Though the preponderance of graduate students in English at UCLA was female during the years I was a student, there were only two women on the English faculty. The women students in the department were not ostensibly discriminated against; I, along with most of them, had a four-year teaching assistantship at UCLA and the same perks and training that were given to the male students. But upon graduation there was a significant difference between the employment offered to men and women. UCLA male graduates went on to teach at major universities. Woman graduates were seldom hired by research universities, and most of them took part-time teaching jobs, taught at junior colleges, or were offered lecturer positions with no hope of tenure. I felt lucky to get a tenure-track position at Fresno State College, which later became California State University, Fresno.
When I arrived on the Fresno campus in fall, 1967 there were a number of women teaching in areas such as nursing, home economics, and women's physical education, but I was the only woman on the English faculty, and one of the few women in an academic department. In addition to teaching the Victorian literature survey and composition courses during my first year, I also taught a seminar in multi-ethnic literature, in which I used the materials Barbara and I discovered. Though the student body was almost entirely white in 1967, the students in my seminar seemed as passionately interested as I in the literature that permitted them intimate glimpses of the experiences behind the proliferating movements of identity politics in the 1960s. Their interest was an inspiration for me to continue my work on Speaking for Ourselves. Barbara had taken a leave from her high school teaching job and had come with me to Fresno, where we finished the book in 1968. It was published the following year.
A few months later, in June 1969, I read about gay protests over a police raid in a bar in New York called The Stonewall, but, remembering all too well the repeated police raids of the gay bars in the fifties, the fearful secrecy we felt compelled to maintain about our personal lives, and the internalized homophobia that many of us harbored, I could not imagine that those protests might really be the start of a gay revolution. I did, however, become increasingly caught up in the feminist movement around that time, and was determined to help alter the literary canon by bringing women writers into my classes. In 1970 I offered a course that brought together literature and the women's movement that I called Women's Liberation in Literature, and the following semester I presented the class as a fifteen-week television series on a local TV station. In fall 1971, together with Phyllis Irwin, a music professor who had just been named assistant academic vice president at the college, I proposed and helped found the women's studies program, one of the first such programs in the country.
The nationwide agitation for women's equality had already had some effect on my campus, and more women were being hired in academic departments. I was elected chair of the English department in spring 1971, a position I held for only one year because, when the dean of the school of humanities resigned, I was named acting dean—the first woman academic dean on campus. The following year I was made an assistant academic vice president, in charge of innovative programs and the Experimental College, where, in addition to administering other new courses and methods of instruction, I arranged to have several gay studies courses offered in 1973-74. These too were some of the first such courses in America.
My interest in ethnic studies continued during this time, and in 1971 I began working with Chicano poet Luis Omar Salinas on an anthology of Chicano writers that we titled From the Barrio. At the time we signed the contract there had been no literary collection devoted to the fiction and poetry of Mexican Americans, which Omar and I knew to be worthy of a readership from the unpublished material we'd been gathering. Our book was published by Harper and Row in 1973. Barbara Bradshaw had gone back to Los Angeles, but she and I also continued working on a second edition of Speaking for Ourselves, which Scott, Foresman brought out in 1975.
Phyllis Irwin and I had by then become domestic partners, as we are to this day. When I told her before we lived together of my growing desire to have a child, she encouraged me. I'd wanted a baby primarily because I knew I had the capacity to love a child and to raise it well. But I'd wanted a child too to help make up for all of my mother's family that was killed in the Holocaust. My Rae had no children, I was my mother's only child, and no one else from the family had survived. If I did not have a child I would be the end of their line; and because I loved my mother and aunt so deeply I could not bear to see that happen. But it had seemed to me that it would be extremely difficult to raise a child as a single parent with professional responsibilities. Phyllis assured me that I would not be a single parent, that she would be the child's mother too, and she has kept her word.
I conceived our son, Avrom Irwin Faderman, through donor insemination when I was thirty-three years old. He was born on January 27, 1975. His relationship with my mother until her death in 1979 and with My Rae until her death in 1984 was a great joy to all of us. Avrom received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University in 1998, at the age of twenty-three. He was engaged to be married in 2004.
After the birth of our son, I decided that, rather than continue a career in academic administration, I would prefer to go back to the classroom, not only because teaching would permit me to spend more hours at home with Avrom and because I missed my students, but also because I wanted to do serious scholarship in the area of lesbian studies. Though I'd never done such scholarship, I knew from having worked on my dissertation that I enjoyed research, and I hoped that my experience in bringing the two ethnic studies books to publication was evidence that I could design and execute a large project. I was intrigued with the theories of lesbian-feminism that were current in the early and mid-1970s, and I wanted to explore whether it was possible to analyze female same-sex relationships of earlier eras through the lens of those theories that rejected essentialist explanations of homosexuality in favor of existential and political explanations.
The deeper I got in my research, the more I felt that I wanted to help create a recorded lesbian history, such as had not yet been created and whose lack I had felt so sorely during that difficult period of my youth, when I came out into lesbian culture. It seemed to me that lesbian and gay people had been denied knowledge of their historical past; that such knowledge was vital in helping to define and legitimize a minority; and that without such knowledge those who are different are isolated and alienated, and their victimization (such as I had witnessed in the 1950s) is more easily effected. With Phyllis's encouragement, I got to work on my research in lesbian history early in 1975.
Between 1977-79 I published eight articles, most of them in refereed scholarly journals, on subjects such as the nineteenth-century sexologists' pathologizing of love between women which had earlier been seen as romantic friendship, twentieth-century censorship of lesbian history, and the encoding of lesbian subject matter by early twentieth-century writers. With the help of a German translator, Brigitte Eriksson, I also edited a collection of essays, poetry, and fiction, Lesbian Feminism in Turn-of-the-Century Germany, which was published in 1980 by Naiad Press. Most of the pieces selected for the collection were written during a relatively liberal era, in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Germany, when both feminists and lesbians felt free to articulate their positions and to argue for their rights. Many of those authors suggested that lesbians were protofeminists or that the feminist critique of society was often identical to the lesbian critique. I wanted to show through these selections the large extent to which the ideas of lesbian-feminism had clear historical roots.
The research I did during the mid-and late-1970s was incorporated finally into my book, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, which was published by William Morrow in 1981. I considered a variety of sources from America, England, France, and Germany—trial records, love letters, pornography, canonized fiction and poetry, popular magazine literature, proclamations by the medical establishment—in order to trace the patterns and changing status of female same-sex love relationships over five centuries. I wanted to show the ways in which romantic friendship between women had been widely idealized in earlier eras, and also to make the point that if neither woman in a relationship was found to use "illicit inventions …to supplement the shortcomings of her sex," as Montaigne wrote in 1580, female same-sex intimacy was seldom punished as it had been in the twentieth century, when homophobia reached a height. Perhaps passion between women was not taken seriously in earlier era because it was assumed before the successes of the first wave of feminism (which gave women access to education and decent paying jobs) that a woman would have to marry regardless of her feelings for another woman, for economic reasons if for no other. Thus love between women was thought by many to be, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow characterized it in his 1849 novel Kavanagh, "a rehearsal in girlhood of the great drama of woman's life." Female same-sex love came to be socially threatening in Europe and America, I found, when middle-class women started claiming those freedoms that had been reserved for men and, simultaneously, sexologists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis pathologized what had earlier been idealized or trivialized as "romantic friendship."
I was truly astonished when Surpassing the Love of Men was widely reviewed in the mainstream press, because I remembered so well those days of the 1950s when homosexuality was considered "the love that dared not speak its name" (and if its name sometimes was uttered in the mainstream press it was only to connect it to sickness or evil). But now, in 1981, the Washington Post Book World said that the book was "an important achievement in the process of demystifying social institution" (May 3, 1981). The New York Review of Books dubbed it "one of the most significant contributions yet made to feminist literature" (May 28, 1981). Caroline Heilbrun, writing for the New York Times, said that Surpassing the Love of Men was "a welcome and needed history" (April 5, 1981), and Benjamin DeMott, writing for the Atlantic, called Surpassing the Love of Men "instructive and humane …a work of genuine interest and value …a powerful summons to conscience" (March, 1981).
I must admit to some nervousness when the chair of my department circulated the Atlantic review on campus. Though Phyllis and I had never gone out of our way to hide our lesbian identities from our colleagues and students, over the last years I had heard about several women professors around the country who believed they were denied tenure because their scholarship was about lesbians. I'd been tenured in 1971 and made a full professor in 1974, but, still, I couldn't help feeling some vague twinges of trepidation now. How would people in Fresno, an agricultural community hundreds of miles away from an urban center, react to my having received national attention for writing a lesbian book?
My department threw a big party for me, and when I was named the Outstanding Professor by an all-university committee the following year, the mayor of Fresno officially proclaimed May 1, 1982 "Lillian Faderman Day." Clearly at least some of America had come a long way since I first set foot in the Open Door twenty-five years earlier.
During my research for Surpassing the Love of Men I discovered that Lillian Hellman had based her play, The Children's Hour, on a brief account that she'd read of a Scottish trial, which had appeared in Bad Companions, a book by Scottish law historian William Roughead. I'd been familiar with The Children's Hour since I played the evil girl, Mary, in an acting class when I was twelve years old; and as a young adult I was very disturbed by the play and the movie based on it, in which one of the main characters commits suicide after recognizing that she is a lesbian. Roughead's account intrigued me in the ways it differed from Hellman's play. The incidents that led to the trial actually occurred in Edinburgh in the early 1800s rather than in a little town in America in the 1930s, where Hellman sets her scene; but the most interesting differences were that in Roughead's account the two women who were accused of having a lesbian relationship won their lawsuit when they sued their accuser for libel, and Roughead mentions nothing about suicide.
I decided to analyze the trial transcripts and to try to find all the additional information I could about the principals involved because it seemed to me that this case had real bearing on my theories about the social views concerning love between women in other eras. How did the judges treat the accusation that Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods had a sexual relationship of which the students in the girls' school they ran were aware? How was such an accusation articulated in 1811? What evidence could I find about how the two women regarded their relationship? What would the materials reveal about the various social and sexual pressures that shaped early nineteenth-century women's lives?
Phyllis and I and our seven-year-old son headed to Edinburgh the next summer, and there I set to work—in the National Library of Scotland, the Central Library of Edinburgh, the Signet Library of the Parliament House of Scotland, the Scottish Registry Office, the Georgian House of Edinburgh, and the House of Lords Record Office—trying to recreate the events and the atmosphere of the time, as well as the characters of the women, their accusers and defenders, and the judges. When a friend volunteered to entertain Avrom from time to time, Phyllis worked by my side. Our joint efforts on the research inspired the form that Scotch Verdict eventually took: I present an unnamed twentieth-century American narrator and "Ollie," her partner (loosely based on myself and Phyllis), who go to Edinburgh in order to study the nineteenth-century trial and the lives of those who were its principals. I reveal not only what happened in the case, but also the various possible meanings of what happened, by having the narrator and Ollie analyze the events and the individuals involved and argue over interpretations. The narrator and Ollie are presented as a literary device also to make a historical point that seemed to me worth articulating: They are to some extent twentieth-century versions of Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie—middle-class women, teachers, partners, in love with one another; but the differing eras in which the two couples lived, I wanted to show, made all the difference in their self-conception and how they were perceived by others.
In 1989 I was invited to become a visiting professor of English at UCLA and teach courses in gay and lesbian literature. Phyllis encouraged me to take this position at the university where I began as a freshman and then returned as a graduate student. Avrom was fourteen years old now. He had completed a high school equivalency exam at the age of twelve and had spent the last two years as a student at California State University in Fresno. Now he came with me and enrolled at UCLA. I was happy when my visiting professorship was renewed for a second year and I did not have to leave him, now only fifteen years old, alone at UCLA. Phyllis, who had become chair of the music department at CSUF, spent almost every weekend with us in Los Angeles during those two years.
The changes with regard to the treatment of lesbians and gays that I now saw at UCLA were as astonishing to me as my mainstream press reviews had been. I could not forget that when I first entered UCLA all freshmen had to take a battery of psychological tests that were intended, among other things, to identify "sexually deviant" students, and as UCLA's dean of students Milton Hahn and assistant dean Byron Atkinson wrote in the journal School and Society in 1955, to rout them out of college if they were unwilling to undergo psychiatric treatment to change their sexual orientation. Now, thanks to social progress, I was returning to UCLA to teach both homosexual and heterosexual students about what could not even be uttered aloud a few decades earlier.
I had begun researching a book on lesbian life in twentieth-century America shortly after the publication of Scotch Verdict. During my first year as a visiting professor at UCLA I used material that I had gathered for the book in my classes and I also finished the writing. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers was published by Columbia University Press at the end of my second year, in 1991. I wanted this book to be a comprehensive history of the various evolutions of lesbian subcultures and identities in America, and to that end I examined sources that covered the century, including popular magazines and newspapers, unpublished manuscripts, song lyrics, medical and legal literature, fiction and poetry. I also wanted to bring living voices into the book, and so I interviewed close to two hundred self-identified lesbians between the ages of seventeen and eighty-six. I made sure to speak not only to white women, but also to those who were of Asian, African-American, Latina, and Native-American descent. I sought class diversity among my narrators, who included a woman who milked cows for a living in central California, another who was the primary heir of her grandfather, one of the richest oilmen in Texas, and those who in terms of socio-economics fell everywhere in between these extremes. I interviewed women in big cities as well as small towns, in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Missouri, Texas, and California.
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers is, to some extent, a sequel to Surpassing the Love of Men. In the 1991 book I show how once the nineteenth-century sexologists promulgated the concept that women who love other women are different from the rest of woman-kind—are "lesbians" (or "sexual inverts," as the sexologists sometimes called them)—then women who accepted the label went about creating cultural identities and ideologies. Widespread, diverse lesbian cultures could emerge in the twentieth century for a number of reasons, including the proliferation of jobs for women that allowed them economic independence; the sexual freedom of the 1920s and the 1960s; the social freedom that was a byproduct of World War II, as well as the increase in urbanization that provided a critical mass which made creation of lesbian social communities possible; the civil rights movement; the women's movement; and the radical women's movement.
As I wrote this book, I looked back over my personal experiences and was impressed by how the lesbian communities I had known over a period of thirty-plus years had shape-shifted and metamorphosed. What my research and interviews corroborated for me once again was that self-conception is very dependent on what is going on in the rest of the society. I found, for instance, that lesbians such as those who had frequented the Open Door in the restrictive 1950s, and who had lived in fear and secrecy and saw themselves as outlaws because that's how they were defined by the world outside, had virtually disappeared in the more open society of the late 1980s. Similarly, the separatist lesbian-feminists of the 1970s, who were influenced by the radical women's movement and black separatism, had also virtually disappeared in the calmer, cooler decade. The only constant with regard to "the lesbian," I found, is that affectionally and/or erotically, she prefers women.
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers received major attention from the mainstream press as well as from the lesbian and gay press. The Washington Post Book World praised it for having "the depth and evenhandedness of a scholarly classic" (June 23, 1991). The San Francisco Chronicle called it "an important and challenging work for lesbians and heterosexuals alike" (May 30, 1991). It was named one of the New York Times Notable Books of the year, and was given several awards, including the Lambda Literary Award and an American Library Association award. It had broad distribution when it was issued in paperback in 1992 by Viking-Penguin.
After my stint at UCLA, I returned to California State University, Fresno to resume my position as professor of English. Avrom, who was now sixteen and had taken a double major in math and philosophy, stayed on at UCLA to finish the work for his bachelor's degree. In addition to my teaching, I had an active lecturing career at universities across the country. I also accepted an appointment as co-editor, along with Larry Gross, of a Columbia University Press series, "Between Men/Between Women," which had published the hardcover edition of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. The series is devoted to books of serious scholarship dealing with gay and lesbian subjects in the social sciences and humanities. Through the series, Columbia University Press hoped to contribute to an increased understanding of lesbians and gay men and to provide through that understanding a wider comprehension of culture in general. The "Between Men/Between Women" series was unique when it was established, since most academic presses were still refusing to accept gay and lesbian studies as a serious area of inquiry. Soon, however, several university presses established similar gay/lesbian book series. By the beginning of the twentieth-first century, such special series were less necessary than they had been in the early 1990s because lesbian/gay subject matter was now widely recognized as a legitimate focus for academic study. I believe that the series' considerable successes, as well as the changing times, contributed to the legitimization and proliferation of lesbian/gay scholarship.
My teaching of lesbian and gay studies at UCLA and my editorship of the "Between Men/Between Women" series made me aware of the kind of scholarship that still needed to be done in the area. Though many wonderful texts were already available, I felt that a well-designed anthology of lesbian literature that placed the works in a clear historical context would be a vital addition to the field. Thus, soon after Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers was published, I began collecting work from the seventeenth century to the 1990s that I could include in such a volume, which I would call Chloe plus Olivia, a title that refers to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own: "Chloe liked Olivia," Woolf says, and then admonishes the reader, "Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." In Chloe plus Olivia I wanted to present lesser-known writers that might be unfamiliar to the reader and also writers whose literary importance had been widely acknowledged but who had seldom been read in a lesbian context. Therefore, I included work by poets and fiction writers such as Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Amy Lowell, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and Carson McCullers.
In the introduction to Chloe plus Olivia, which was published in 1994, I examine the various attempts to define lesbian literature, and I postulate that none of the existing definitions were complete: some works (though certainly not all) showed the lesbian as an outsider; some depicted her as challenging gender roles; some lesbian literature followed the mother-daughter model or the Amazonian model; some depicted either a narrative of damnation or a narrative of enabling escape. But not one of those definitions could incorporate the diversity of lesbian literature. I attempt to categorize that diversity and then to select the very best examples of the various categories, including the literature of romantic friendship, sexual inversion, lesbian exoticism, encoded lesbian literature, the literature of lesbian-feminism, and recent experimentations in lesbian writing. I was fortunate to be able to test the materials and theories I eventually incorporated into the book on my own classes in lesbian/gay literature that I now taught at California State University, Fresno.
In 1996 I was asked to write a regular column for the Advocate, the nation's largest gay/lesbian magazine, which combines national news pertinent to gays and lesbians with articles on gay/lesbian culture and opinion pieces. I accepted because I thought it would be an interesting challenge to write for the popular press. My columns were on topics such as the relationship between gays and lesbians or lesbian parenting or my observations of the lesbian/gay scene in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Phyllis, Avrom, and I had visited on our way to discover what I could about my mother's shtetl in Latvia. I continued the column, called "The Last Word," for over a year with some pleasure, though I found that it was not easy to write in the requisite breezy style and to put aside a more serious voice, in which I was continuing to write for academic periodicals such as the Journal of the History of Sexuality, essay collections such as Professions of Desire, published by the Modern Language Association, and a new book of lesbian history on which I had started working the previous year.
Late in 1996 I paused in my work on the lesbian history book because I found myself very involved in a different kind of project, one that would take me back to the area of ethnic studies, in which I had not published for many years. I undertook this new work for the same reason I undertook any of my projects: I felt strongly urged to do so because of personal experiences and personal observations. When I began teaching in Fresno, in 1967, almost all of my students were white and middle class, but by the 1970s, the college student population was changing all over the country. Because of various social movements, higher education came to be seen as the virtual right of all who were smart enough to complete a college curriculum, regardless of their race or the class into which they born. These changes were reflected especially in the state university system, which was more affordable than private colleges. Soon, I had many students who were the first in their families to go to college. Many of them came from homes in which little English was spoken. I felt a particular bond with these students, whose struggles and problems of adjustment to a culture so different from their parent culture made me recall some of my own battles in youth.
I was especially moved by a new population of students that came to my campus in the early 1990s: Hmong people, refugees from Laos who had to leave Southeast Asia because their parents had assisted America in the "secret war" we conducted in Laos during the Vietnam conflict. Almost all of my Hmong students had come to America as children in the 1980s and learned English as a second language in American schools. Their writing was often grammatically imperfect, but I found myself deeply moved by many of their essays. They wrote about the horrors of losing family members through the violence of the war, their difficult escapes from their little Laotian villages, their hard lives in Thai relocation camps as they waited for their families to get refugee status that would allow them into the United States. They wrote about their parents' difficulties moving from a society without plumbing and electricity into a confusingly technological world, their own sadness that they were forgetting their mother-tongue as they were learning English, their painful intergenerational conflicts due to becoming Hmong-American or even American while their parents remained Hmong. I imagine I was so stirred by their stories not only because they were moving in themselves but also because they reminded me of my mother's story and my own.
In one of my composition classes I had a student in his early twenties, Ghia Xiong, who had come to America at the age of ten. He was bright, articulate, well-respected among the other Hmong students, and seemed to be a natural leader. His essays about his life in Laos and Thailand were vivid and remarkable. I was right in thinking he would be an ideal assistant in a project of research and writing about the Hmong. Ghia introduced me to over fifty people in the Hmong community and helped me gather their oral histories. I sought people with diverse backgrounds—those who had grown up in Laos and fought in the war, those who escaped when they were young, those who were born in America and were fully Americanized. Through their narratives I wanted to tell the story of their group's experiences, which were different from and yet similar to those of many of the immigrants that came to America before them. In the introductions I wrote to the various sections of the book, I compared the Hmong's story—coming to America from little villages in Southeast Asia, to my mother's story—coming from an Eastern European shtetl (strong in traditions but technologically undeveloped, as the Hmong villages had been), and I showed the similarities in their experiences of culture shock. I also made comparisons between my life as the child of an immigrant to the lives of the younger people who told me their stories. This book was published by Beacon Press in 1998 as "I Begin My Life All Over": The Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience.
After I finished I Begin My Life All Over I was anxious to return to the lesbian history project, on which I'd gotten a good start earlier and that I now called To Believe in Women. It was important to finish it, I believed, because it could be precisely the kind of book that would have made a huge difference to me when I first assumed a lesbian identity and perhaps it would make a huge difference to young people now. To Believe in Women is a historical study, but it was inspired by the insights I'd garnered from sharing my life with another woman for the preceding twenty-five years as we both worked in professional-level careers. My focus was on women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who were social pioneers and also shared their lives with a same-sex partner. In many instances both of the women in the relationship had been at the forefront of the battles that helped secure the privileges and rights that Americans enjoy today. I recognized that these women couples of earlier eras were different from myself and Phyllis because of their times: for instance, most of them probably did not even know the then-seldom-used word "lesbian," and if they did, they certainly would not have applied that term, which had such negative connotations at the time, to themselves. Nevertheless, in some important ways they were similar to us: They lived together in long-term, intimate relationships; they conducted careers that required great commitment; their domestic arrangements—their encouragement of one another, the balance and stability they created as a dyad—helped to make their pioneering professional lives possible. I was interested in showing in this book, as the various section titles indicated, "How American Women Got Enfranchised," "How America Got a Social Conscience," "How American Women Got Educated," and "How American Women Got Into the Professions." The book's title, To Believe in Women, came from an early twentieth-century letter by a former student at Bryn Mawr, then a women's college, to M. Carey Thomas, the pioneering president of the college, who had lived her entire adult life in intimate same-sex domestic arrangements. "I have forgotten everything I learned at Bryn Mawr," the woman wrote, "but I still see you standing in chapel and telling us to believe in women." Phyllis traveled with me to archives all over the country, assisting me in my research, encouraging me in word and deed toward the completion of the book, which was published in 1999 by Houghton Mifflin.
To Believe in Women was, I think, my major research effort and felt to me like the culmination of all my work in lesbian history. I received for it my third Lambda Literary Award, and I believe that book was partly responsible for other awards I received about that time, including the Monette/Horwitz award (1999), funded by the estate of Paul Monette and his partner, and Yale University's James Brudner Award (2001), both lifetime achievement awards in lesbian/gay studies, as well as the American Association of University Women's national award as Distinguished Senior Scholar (2002). I felt very gratified that others had found meaning in what to me had been a labor of love. I was especially flattered when the Lambda Book Report named my 1981 book, Surpassing the Love of Men, among the 100 best lesbian/gay books of the twentieth century, putting my work beside writers who had been so crucial to me all my adult life, such as James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf.
My writing about lesbian literature and history has come always out of my commitment to telling the stories that could not have been told when I entered the lesbian culture. I have written the kinds of books that I myself had longed to read. I believe I'm not unique among writers in that the passion I had for writing all my books—lesbian history as well as ethnic studies—is rooted in my deepest experiences and needs. But as a writer associated with the academy, I have had to look primarily outward rather than inward in my writing. Perhaps it was turning sixty that made me decide to move on to a different kind of work that would permit me to look inward. I became fascinated by the genre of creative nonfiction, which is so different from most of the academic writing in which I'd been engaged, and soon I was teaching creative nonfiction courses in my university's M.F.A. program and writing the memoir Naked in the Promised Land in the creative nonfiction style. Creative nonfiction demands that the writer tell a factual story using the literary devices of fiction: characterization, plot, dialogue, vivid scene setting, and literary language such as image and metaphor. The facts may never be made up, but the writer of creative nonfiction must develop the imaginative talents of the novelist, and that became for me an exciting challenge.
I wanted to show in Naked in the Promised Land, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003, how I became the person that I am. I wanted to look at all the seemingly contradictory parts of my life and see how they fit together, to make sense of them for myself as well as for my readers. I like to quip with my friends that writing this book was as good as ten years of psychoanalysis. And I think that I did learn a great deal about how my drives and dreams were formed and realized, from my childhood to 1979, the year of my mother's death, when the book ends.
But mere self-exploration is mere self-indulgence for a writer. I hope that I was successful in making Naked in the Promised Land transcend that pitfall, and that the book explains how a girl who had been a pin-up model and a stripper could become a university professor, how a daughter born to an unwed immigrant woman who could barely read and write could get a Ph.D. and become an author, and how my story is not just a personal one but also a story about how America gives us freedom to create and recreate ourselves.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 167-168.
Gay and Lesbian Biography, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997, pp. 160-163.
Advocate, June 22, 1999, Ricardo Ortiz, review of To Believe in Women, p. 127.
Atlantic, March, 1981.
Chronicle of Higher Education, June 11, 1999, p. 14.
Library Journal, August, 1991, Patricia Sarles, review of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, p. 128; March 15, 1998, review of I Begin My Life All Over: The Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience, p. 81.
Miami Herald, March 9, 2003, Susan Freeman, "Nazi Ghosts Shape a Life of Courage Resilience."
New Statesman, July 17, 1992, p. 48.
New York Review of Books, May 28, 1981.
New York Times Book Review, April 5, 1981; June 28, 1992, Jeffrey Escoffier, "Out of the Closet and Into History," pp. 1, 24; October 3, 1999, Karla Jay, review of To Believe in Women, p. 23.
Publishers Weekly, May 16, 1994, review of Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, p. 48; February 23, 1998, review of I Begin My Life All Over: The Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience, p. 59; November 18, 2002, review of Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir, p. 49; February 24, 2003, Michael Bronski, "Memoir and Mystery," p. 48.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 2003, Kera Bolonik, "A Scholar Laid Bare."
Seattle Times, June 29, 2003, Barbara Sjoholm, "Memoir Reveals Too Little of Inner Self."
Times Literary Supplement, September 4, 1981; September 23, 1983.
Washington Post Book World, May 3, 1981; February 21, 2003, Carolyn See, "Pleased to Meet Me," p. C4.
Women's Review of Books, December, 1999, Nan Alamilla Boyd, review of To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America—A History, p. 6.