What Lesbians Have Done for America: A History

By Lillian Faderman

Houghton Mifflin. 434 pp. $30

Reviewed by Jeannine DeLombard

The title of Lillian Faderman's most recent venture into lesbian history comes from a Bryn Mawr alumna's letter to M. Carey Thomas, the college's first woman president and one of the many pioneering women whose lives, careers and lesbian "living arrangements" Faderman tracks in her study. Claiming to "have forgotten everything I learned at Bryn Mawr," the woman nevertheless assures Thomas, "but I see you standing in chapel and telling us to believe in women." Faderman proposes that in the era of American history loosely framed by the Civil War and World War II, the most powerful, productive and daring women leaders in politics, social reform, education and the professions were able to put into practice their fervent belief in women precisely because they constructed lives for themselves that, from a late-20th-century perspective, appear to have been lesbian.

Based on her careful research into the personal and public lives of such women as suffragist Susan B. Anthony, reformer Jane Addams, social worker Frances Kellor, and pioneering female doctor Emily Blackwell, Faderman offers several persuasive reasons for the pervasive presence and influence of lesbians in American history. Pointing to women like suffrage activist Lucy Stone Blackwell or Wellesley president Alice Freeman Palmer, who abandoned successful public careers upon their marriage to men, Faderman reminds us that, however supportive heterosexual unions could be, "It was not easy to be a wife and mother while one led a revolution in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" before the advent of labor-saving appliances and birth control.

Furthermore, Faderman asserts, women who avoided such traditional roles "had a unique interest in the advancement of women -- they were fighting for their lives." Without men to support them financially or to represent them in the public sphere, these individual women were driven by pressing personal economic and political motives to achieve self-sufficiency for women as a whole. Perhaps most significant, long-term same-sex relationships provided these early feminist iconoclasts shelter from and alternatives to the persistent cultural mandate that women should devote their lives to nurturing the men and children around them, often at the expense of their own goals.

Like her previous influential and popular studies in lesbian history, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women, From the Renaissance to the Present and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, Faderman's latest work offers solid historical research and analysis in a voice that is easily accessible and often quite moving. Unfortunately, however, the impact of To Believe in Women is weakened by its ill-conceived structure. One of the historical trajectories Faderman is most interested in tracing concerns the shift in attitudes about female same-sex relationships from the mid-19th century, when "romantic friendship" between women was not only tolerated but lauded, to the period after World War I, when such relationships were pathologized as dangerous and unhealthy by post-Freudian sexologists. Thus, at the very moment when American women were achieving unprecedented gains in their public status, they encountered increasing restriction and surveillance of their private lives.

This apparent contradiction is obscured, however, by Faderman's division of her study into four sections, each of which represents a field that profited from lesbian leadership (politics, social reform, education, the professions). Within each of these sections, Faderman rehearses the same shift from 19th-century tolerance to 20th-century repression. These sections, covering the same cultural ground and, often, the same tightly knit communities of women leaders, quickly become redundant. If, rather than providing four parallel narratives, Faderman instead had presented a single integrated account that dramatized the growing pressure on pioneering women to embrace conventional femininity and heterosexuality (or, failing that, to mask their preference for other women), she could have more forcefully illustrated one of her study's most salient and instructive points: that history is not progressive, that social liberalization, far from being inevitable, can easily stall or even reverse itself.

Addressing the lack of a clear historical progression from confinement and conformity to liberation and independence, Faderman asks, "Are the generations of women on a roller coaster?" climbing slowly and determinedly to dizzying social, political, and professional heights, only to careen madly down again and start the climb once more? Demonstrating clearly not only the steps lesbian pioneers made to attain their lofty successes at the turn of the century but also the cultural missteps that contributed to their temporary downfall after World War II, Faderman reminds us not to take the current comparatively high status of women for granted, even as she shows us how we might regain that status if it is ever lost.

Jeannine DeLombard teaches American Literature at the University of Puget Sound, and has contributed to "Dyke Life: A Celebration of Lesbian Experience."