The word ‘lesbian’ only came to be coined as a noun in 1925, meaning “a female homosexual” (Online Etymology Dictionary), but American women had been challenging societal norms by finding same-gender partners for much longer. The view of lesbian women changed throughout the centuries, however, from refusing to believe that lesbians existed (Queen Victoria in England refused to pass a law criminalizing female relationships because she thought they were impossible), to considering them strictly platonic friends even if they were living together in a ‘Boston Marriage’ set up. It wouldn’t be until the sexual revolution of the early 1900s, and the open hostility that followed, that lesbians would begin to form together as a group. This newfound community led the twentieth century to be a time of progress. There was a newfound freedom afforded by female troops fighting World War II, and organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis and the Radicalesbians of the 1970s were founded. Even as things remain shaky in the present day, the history of lesbians in America is one of steady progress and is constantly moving forward.
There aren’t many accounts of lesbians prior to the nineteenth century and few even within that time because society simply did not believe that two women could be romantically involved. Indeed, one historian, John D’Emilio, went so far as to claim that there were no gay men or lesbian women before the turn of the nineteenth century in his essay Capitalism and Gay Identity, stating that “Their emergence is associated with the relations of capitalism; it has been the historical development of capitalism – more specifically, its free labor system – that has allowed large numbers of men and women in the twentieth century to call themselves gay” (Hutson). His argument is certainly not strictly true for while there were no lesbians that fit the twentieth century definition before the 1900s, a lack of sexual acts between women, except for those who were deemed to be ‘immoral’, did not mean women did not share love (Faderman). It was simply not seen as an entity before the word “lesbianism” was created in the 1870s (Marsh). We cannot put twenty-first century labels on nineteenth-century women but it does not mean that they didn’t exist.
Sexologists who first identified “lesbianism” in the late nineteenth century said lesbians were abnormal or sick and “men trapped in women’s bodies”. Although this is not the definition that we use today, for obvious reasons, and despite it being extremely harmful for women who experienced same-gender attraction, it served the purpose of allowing women to form a lesbian subculture during the twentieth century that led, fundamentally, to the reshaping of the way that the lesbian community was viewed by society as a whole (Hutson). Prior to a lesbian subculture, however, many women experienced what was considered ‘romantic friendship’, a concept that can be traced back to the Renaissance but which became much more popular during the late 1800s and early 1900s as feminists banded together to fight for more educational and career opportunities. As they were increasingly able to make enough money to support themselves, “ambitious women of the middle class who loved other females no longer needed to resign themselves to marriage in order to survive” (Faderman). Indeed, in the nineteenth century, it was easy for well-educated, middle class women to form a romantic friendship due to a combination of sexism and homophobia that had reassured the public that nothing sexual could occur between two women (Civitello).
The sexual revolution of the 1920s completely changed the views of most of society as the Freudian theory that to repress sexual urges was counterproductive and so the idea of two women having sex was more broadly spread and began to seem possible to many men who had denied it fervently before this point. Along with this openness, many women went through phases of ‘experimentation’ as they explored sex with other women even if many saw it as an isolated event and expected to marry a man as they were supposed to. This period of experimentation was referred to as “lesbian chic” and was helped along by World War I which, while not creating a lesbian subculture as it did in many places in Europe (that would have to wait until World War II), did send many men overseas just as women were being taught through Freudian psychology that exploring their sexuality was alright. This phase of lesbian chic exploration was also helped along by the increasing value placed on the unconventional and daring that also created flappers, with their bobbed hair and short skirts. Although most women during this time lived beyond the lesbian subculture, love between women began to be assumed to be sexual in nature and was popularly referred to as ‘homosexuality’ for the first time (Faderman).
Following the second World War, the issue of gay rights began to become more well-spread and organizations were set up to benefit those who identified as gay or lesbian. The reason for this newfound solidarity was the community set up during World War II that had allowed people who identified as homosexual to find each other – and themselves – for the first time. Neither the Army nor the Navy had developed policies concerning lesbians at the beginning of the war, both because women had not served in the military prior to World War II and because lesbians in the United States during the 1940s were dismissed as being nonexistent or not as big of an issue as gay men. Due to open regulations, many queer women joined the fight as a result, either due to patriotic reasons or because they wanted access to a space with many women. Officers moved to enforce a psychiatric screening to detect lesbians who were being hired by the WAC, the Women’s Army Corps, in 1943 but were forced to remove it due to a shortage of women applying. They needed to fill certain quotas and this was a lifesaver for many queer women in the military. In fact, for the very reason of needing to keep a certain number of women employed, WAC policy stated that officers were not to engage in witch hunts to find lesbian activity within the ranks and that “Sometimes [a relationship] can become an intimacy that may eventually take some form of sexual expression. It may appear that, almost spontaneously, such a relationship has sprung up between two women, neither of whom is a confirmed active homosexual” (Bérubé). Even women not in the army found other women, as they left male-run households to do defense work with many other women. Two women who met during World War II were Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who would go on to found the Daughters of Bilitis with three other lesbian couples (Gallo). The DOB was the first national organization for lesbians and had two main goals: to serve as a safe space for lesbian women, despite the fear of police raids, and to educate the public so that they would understand that gay men and women could be good citizens (“Daughters of Bilitis”).
The Second Wave of feminism during the 1960s served as just another hurdle for lesbian women, since most feminist organizations ignored the issues of lesbianism. In fact, the leader of NOW at the time, Betty Friedan, described lesbianism as the “Lavender Menace” and refused to allow them to join the women’s movement. There were many speculations as to why this was the case, one being that “the introduction of sex troubled many heterosexual feminists who had found in the women’s movement a welcome respite from sexuality” (Echols). The Radicalesbians formed in 1970 in response to their exclusion from the women’s movement and the Gay Liberation Front. They wrote “The Woman Identified Woman”, a political text with the purpose of convincing feminists at the second Congress to Unite Women that their goals could align and that lesbians weren’t inherently ‘scary’ (“Radicalesbians”). This text stated that the categories of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ were created to separate and control women in a male-dominated society (Westerband)
Lesbians tried to seperate lesbianism from sex to make heterosexual feminists more comfortable and often did this by making men the enemy – they painted themselves as the ultimate form of feminism since their lives did not involve men on any level. They wanted to make heterosexual feminists believe that they were inferior since they refused to stop associating with men, and this distinction would go on to separate the women’s movement. As feminism began to be associated with radical lesbians, many heterosexual women left the movement and the division would go on to give the word ‘feminist’ a bad name to this day (Westerband). Many heterosexual women had a fear of no longer belonging in the movement because a woman who is not radical feels that “she is not a Marxist, she is not a lesbian or a man-hater, she is not the kind of pro-abortion fanatic who views motherhood as a male-imposed tyranny. The question thus arises: Is she actually a feminist?” (McCain). The problem is not the Radicalesbians form of feminism. It is the marketing of this as the only way to be a feminist.
In the twenty-first century, things have begun to be easier for lesbian women in the United States. In 2001, 57% of Americans opposed gay marriage as opposed to 35% who supported it – but as of 2016, these numbers have reversed to 37% opposing it and 55% accepting it (Mitchell). While this is one small issue in the grand scheme of things, and things certainly aren’t perfect, it shows the progress that has been made and continues to be made. In 2013, a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults from the United States were asked whether they believed that society had become more accepting of them in the past decade than it had been previously, and 92% of them said that this was the case (“A Survey of LGBT Americans”). Progress continues, even if it is done slowly.
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