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Women Without Men : ODD GIRLS AND TWILIGHT LOVERS: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America, By Lillian Faderman (Columbia University Press: $29.95; 361 pp.)

June 09, 1991|Francine Prose | Prose's most recent book is a story collection, "Women and Children First"; a new novel, "Primitive People," will be published next year

Queen Victoria, so the story goes, declined to declare female homosexuality a crime only because she couldn't bring herself to believe that it existed. Judging from the evidence gathered in Lillian Faderman's "Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers," the Queen was not merely misinformed but spectacularly unobservant. Lesbians were alive and well, not just in the fleshpots of Europe but also in the college dormitories and small towns of the American heartland, where Female Affection was widely held in such high moral esteem that two unmarried women sharing a life and a bed excited only the noblest sentiments of admiration and tender regard.

Drawing on archives, letters and interviews with gay women, this lucid, engaging "History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America" begins with a nod to a more innocent era, when no one (including the women involved in "romantic friendships") had any clue that their happy, fulfilling domestic arrangements soon would be labeled, in the popular mind, pathological and perverse.

Among the intriguing possibilities that "Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers" raises is that "the love that dares not speak its name" was in some ways better off before it knew it had one.

Faderman, visiting professor at UCLA and a faculty member at California State University at Fresno, traces the changes set in motion when turn-of-the-century sexologists such as Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis did so-called "female inverts" the favor of telling them what they were, and same-sex marriages were no longer seen as paradigms of Female Devotion but rather as terminal symptoms of freakish psychic disorder. Once established, this unhelpful diagnosis plagued gay women until the 1970s and '80s, when once again they became free to live as their 19th-Century counterparts--the difference being that this time they knew what they were doing.

As one reads this compelling history, a chilling pattern emerges: Until the 1960s, each decade of liberalization and (relative) sexual freedom was followed by a decade of punishing repression. So the chic, glittering subculture that thrived in the clubs of 1920s Harlem and Greenwich Village was dimmed by the dreary homophobia accompanying the Depression.

The new tolerance that lesbians enjoyed during World War II vanished when the Eisenhower era brought us the nuclear-family-as-icon, and Sen. McCarthy took time out from hunting Commie spies for occasional forays into rooting out "security-risk" homosexuals. The details of this dark period seem, in retrospect, so shocking--the ACLU refused to defend homosexuals and, as recently as 1963, Betty Friedan equated lesbian feminists with CIA provocateurs--that one is inclined to agree with Faderman's sanguine assessment of how much better things have gotten over the last 30 years.

Much of the book is fascinating: quotes from Emma Goldman's homoerotic correspondence, glimpses into the private lives of the great women blues singers and into the rigid butch-femme role-playing of 1950s working-class bar culture.

Much is poignant and moving: the Texas couple who met in the late 1930s and didn't know, until 20 years later, that there were any other lesbians in the world. And much is preposterous, and would be funny were it not so disturbing: "During the Korean War, the Marines not only sent women from their Criminal Investigation Department (CID) into lesbian bars to serve as decoys to catch other personnel, but they also planted informers on women's softball teams on military bases, assuming that an interest in athletics was practically tantamount to lesbianism."

Considering the stories it has to tell, the tone of "Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers" is admirably measured and restrained. But often one wishes it ventured deeper, reached further, risked more. There's a kind of modesty verging on shortsightedness in its analyses and speculations, the connections it makes between historical facts, the causes and blame it assigns.

One doesn't doubt that Krafft-Ebbing et al polluted the unclouded waters that spawned love between women, but it seems at once excessive and insufficient to give so much credit to the sexologists--and so little to Puritan culture, which has had centuries to muck up our notions of pleasure and sex. The Bible had its say on unorthodox desire long before Havelock Ellis.

Faderman only rarely acknowledges the role that religion has played in attempting to legislate our sexuality. (One thinks of the recently published "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven," German theologian Uta Ranke-Heineman's inspired, erudite rant on the subject of the Catholic Church and women--a book suggesting that much of Western culture was formulated not just by garden-variety misogynists but by sex-hating, celibate nut cases.)

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