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Circles of power

Exploring the rich history of lesbian leaders



“My Dear Chicky Dicky Darlint” began a letter from suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony to her lover Anna Dickenson. In this l868 letter, Anthony professed her love to Anna and counseled her to commit herself to the cause of women’s rights rather than marry a man. Although Anthony and Dickenson would not have used the term lesbian to define themselves (or even been familiar with the word), Lillian Faderman contends that their lives could be described as lesbian.

To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America focuses on 19th and early 20th century women for whom the adjective lesbian “accurately describes their committed domestic, sexual, and/or affectional experiences.” Faderman argues that these women emerged as leaders in early struggles for women’s rights precisely because their lesbian lifestyle provided them the freedom to commit themselves to the cause much more effectively than had they lived in a heterosexual arrangement.

Freedom from the roles of wife and mother gave lesbian women the luxury to dedicate themselves to women’s rights. It also gave them an extra incentive to fight for equality, as they did not rely on a man’s income for their livelihood. Resisting the norms of proper female behavior, women who rejected marriage had far less to lose than their heterosexual sisters whose activism may have offended potential husbands. Lesbian women’s commitments to each other, and their independence from heterosexual limitations, best positioned them to “wage the necessary grueling and often brutal battles on behalf of women.”

Faderman divides her book into four sections. She describes how these pioneering lesbian women pursued suffrage, social justice, education, and the professions for themselves and, by extension, for all women. From the outset, women who loved other women were often at the head of movements for women’s equality.

From Susan B. Anthony to Carrie Chapman Catt, lesbian suffrage leaders collaborated with their female partners. Personally and politically they stood side by side, offering each other the strength and encouragement needed to persevere. When Catt died, she arranged to be buried in a double plot with her life partner, Mollie Hay. On the gravestone that covers them both, Catt had inscribed: “Here lie two friends, for thirty-eight years united in service to a great cause.”

Working to create a more just world for women demanded the collaboration not only of individual lesbian couples, but of a vast network. Many of the leading women in New Deal politics moved in the same circle of friends. Their success depended on utilizing their networks to help one another into positions of power. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (herself a member of lesbian circles) brought “unprecedented female political leadership to the Democratic Party.”

In the battle for women’s equal education, the president of Bryn Mawr College, M. Carey Thomas, networked with lesbian friends in the Women’s Trade Union League to establish a summer school for working-class women. In the professional realm, perhaps the most hostile environment to women, pioneering lesbian lawyer Florence Allen recognized that “females could succeed only by acting as a constituency and noisily pushing for one another.” Other lesbian women served as Allen’s major mentors and supporters.

As Faderman chronicles the contributions of specific lesbian women to America, she also provides the social context to understand the shifting ideologies of womanhood and same-sex relationships in which these women lived. Anti-suffragists—those men and women who opposed granting women the vote—believed that real women neither wanted nor needed the vote. Victorian ideology dictated that “true women” had the protection of men and therefore did not need the vote. Society labeled women “unsexed” if they rejected their true nature of womanhood as dependent on men. Still, lesbian women in the nineteenth century were not deterred by this label.

The label of “unsexed” seemed relatively innocuous compared to the ideology created by sexologists in the post-World War I era. Sexologists, led by Freud, deemed women who rejected the norms of womanhood sexually “inverted.” The virulence of this new notion created a more dangerous atmosphere as inversion suggested abnormality, pathology, and disease. This ideology, combined with the post- World War II obsession with creating the perfect heterosexual nuclear family, resulted in the vilification of female same-sex love between 1920 and 1970. This era also saw a related lull in women’s rights activity. Not until the mid-sixties did the movement pick up and lesbian women again begin to express their love for each other with relative impunity.

Faderman deserves much credit for her finely detailed documentation of the activist world of same-sex love between women. Until recently, much of lesbian history has been, if not nonexistent then largely invisible. Faderman’s pioneering efforts to create a “lesbian history” began in 1981 with the publication of the now classic text, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. Faderman’s other works include Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (1994) and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America (1991). To Believe in Women, Faderman’s most ambitious work to date, complements this impressive collection of lesbian history.

Homophobia has, for too long, hidden lesbian contributions to society. Without reservation, Faderman prompts us to proudly proclaim and reclaim the accomplishments of lesbian women.

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