Female Same-Sex Intimacy and the Growth of Modern Sexual Categories in the U.S.

A review of ‘She’s That Way’: Female Same-Sex Intimacy and the Growth of Modern Sexual Categories in the U.S., 1920-1940, by Anastasia Jones.

While there are a number of quality studies of lesbian lives in the United States, too often the experiences of queer women are ignored, misinterpreted, or assumed to mimic those of gay men. In her dissertation, Anastasia Jones demonstrates the desperate need for lesbian-centered histories so that we can gain better insight into queer pasts and better understand the cultural influences at play in shaping and categorizing sexual identity. By looking at the breadth of what she calls “sapphic types,” Jones exposes the missteps of existing interpretations of lesbianism during the interwar years and demonstrates what a fresh perspective can tell us about queer intimacies and cultural anxieties in the 1920s and 1930s (p. 3).  This project disrupts the idea that a firmly entrenched sexual binary was in place at the onset of the interwar years, examining the surprisingly diverse range of popular perceptions about women’s intimate relationships with one another. Jones resists the dominant chronologies of queer history (defined in large part by the gay male experience), the dualisms used to interpret interwar sexualities (traditional/modern, gender/sexuality, heterosexual/homosexual), and the singular authority of sexology (rather than multidirectional paths of knowledge making) to make a compelling case for a much different understanding of female queerness between the wars. Attention to the ways that a spectrum of sapphic types functioned in popular culture allows her to make many significant interventions that are certain to significantly influence the direction of the history of sexuality.

Jones begins by revisiting one of the most common settings for historical lesbianism, the women’s college. She confronts the notion that, by the beginning of the 1920s, a modern conception of female sexual agency and binary sexual identity replaced romantic friendships and mutable notions of intimate behavior in defining women’s relationships. Instead, this was a period of transition in which the sapphic types in women’s educational spaces were understood through overlapping, fluid concepts of womanhood and sexual behavior. In making this argument Jones lays out two key arguments. First, rather than sexologists wielding hegemonic control, sexology and popular culture shaped the meaning of sexuality and queerness together (a process that also included queer women themselves). Secondly, cultural anxieties about change and modernity composed an essential part of the conversations about women’s intimacies. The queer college girl represented a failure to keep pace with the changing, heterosexualizing society when she continued to rely upon outmoded same-sex relationships. However, it was the excessive femininity of the college environment and the failings of administrators, not the “deviance” of individuals, that were to blame for sapphic relationships. In Jones’s subsequent chapters, she emphasizes how these factors—overlapping ideas about women’s sexual agency and anxieties about authority and order in a rapidly changing society—typically functioned together to free women from ruinous labeling, instead placing blame for behaviors with those in positions of power (in this case, school administrators). It is in her attention to these types of flexible interpretations that Jones demonstrates what a problem it is to rely upon rigid boundaries in seeking out interwar sapphic types.

Chapter 2 confronts the long-term cultural and academic prominence of the mannish lesbian by looking to the entertainment industry and feminine sapphists. While recognizing the reasons for this attention in the works of scholars like Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy, Jones explains that this figure was hardly the only, or even central, figure of concern during the interwar period (Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge, 1993). Entertainment women who integrated queer intimacies into their lives marked an important part of the story of an emerging lesbian identity even when their queer dalliances were not central components of their identities.  Jones’s illumination of sapphic types in the industry further exposes the myth of a binary in which the mannish lesbian came to dominate the definition of lesbianism in these years. The attention paid to sapphic chorus girls and queer femme fatales made clear that a woman need not present as masculine to be seen as part of the lesbian spectrum. By including this case study of show business, in which urban space figures prominently, Jones demonstrates why attention to sexually fluid or ambiguous identities is a central component of the story. It also underscores another of her interventions: that lesbianism during this period was shaped as much by beliefs about external forces as they were about women’s internal impulses or deviations. Unlike their college sisters, cultural commentators viewed these sapphic types as indicative of the fast-changing nature of the period, speeding dangerously ahead of modernity as they stood out as “a conspicuous example of urban immorality” (p. 107). Further, in pointing to queer women of the industry as the potential origin of the fetishization of lesbian eroticism, Jones demonstrates a trajectory for lesbianism different than that for male homosexuality.

In the third chapter, we shift back to ideas about personal under-development and the sapphic type lagging behind modern society. It is here, in discussing (heterosexual) marriage, Jones demonstrates how ideas were shared between sexologists and “the cultural mainstream.” Arguing that Jennifer Terry has overemphasized the “uniqueness of the opinions” of the former (p. 189), Jones asserts that sexology’s tolerance for the lesbian wife was also common among the mainstream (Jennifer Terry, American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). Here, Jones also challenges the notion that lesbianism became associated with feminist desires during the interwar period. Scholars such as Christine Simmons have argued for a connection between a desire for independence and a desire for same-sex relationships (Christine Simmons, Making Marriage Modern: Women’s Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Jones does not deny that growing female independence changed marriage and that lesbianism could be an element of a changing system. But attention to the ongoing fluidity of sexual categorization and historical specificity allows her to put forth alternate explanations for wives who desired women. Cultural fears surrounding masculinity and social instability during the Great Depression created a framework in which people worried that husbands could not satisfy their wives. While turning to another woman for emotional fulfillment may have been a demonstration of immaturity, ultimately the husband was to blame for a failure to maintain the new standards of companionate marriage. Jones makes an important point in a fresh way, showing the degree to which lesbianism is defined by and through men. While this often occurs when lesbianism is assumed to fit whatever rules are developed to explain homosexuality generally, here it occurs when same-sex eroticism is viewed as a choice only when men failed to meet marital obligations.

In the fourth and final chapter, we visit another space commonly turned to in search of the interwar lesbian, the prison system. It comes as little surprise that women’s criminality is tied to sexual behavior. Jones demonstrates that it was the heterosexual act, rather than the homosexual one, however, that proved ruinous and worthy of punishment. While acknowledging the important work of Estelle Freedman on the links between criminality and lesbianism, Jones highlights the nuances of the story (Estelle Freedman, “The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915-1965.” Feminist Studies 22, no. 2, 1996). She argues that while the world of female crime proved a hot topic of conversation, “prisons were not positioned as hotbeds of gender inversion or ‘genuine’ lesbianism” (p. 347). The historiography overemphasizes the hostility of prison authorities toward lesbianism while downplaying the public’s. In flipping these positions it becomes clear that prison authorities found the intimacy of women’s relationships situational and an important part of rehabilitation rather than a set identity that shaped women’s paths after release. While the public protested the degree to which those in charge allowed lesbianism, corrections staff generally viewed such behavior as benign. Critics viewed it as indicative of poor management and lack of discipline. Prison authorities also received criticism from African-American commentators who argued that jailers only raised concern about lesbian behaviors when trying to justify racist policies. Through consideration of the intersections of class, race, gender norms, age, power structures, and cultural anxieties, Jones expands the picture of the prison lesbian beyond the working-class deviant, demonstrating once again that the classification of interwar sapphists was a complex and highly conditional practice.

In the 1920s and 1930s, then, female sexual categories were “neither rigid nor prescriptive,” “sexual desire” being only one of many factors that marked one as sapphic type (p. 6).  A wide-ranging dialogue between cultural commentators, sexologists, and the queer women themselves spanned these two decades in an effort to negotiate meanings of female intimacy, tending to expand rather than narrow the ways in which women could experience queerness. Through this process we begin to see ways in which sapphic categories have been put to work to explain much more than lesbian behaviors or identities. In this creative work of lesbian history, Jones demonstrates the blind spots we can uncover when prioritizing intersectionality over rigid categorization. Class, race, institutional affiliation, marital status, age (which Jones deftly discusses in her conclusion) and more all served to qualify the meanings of sexual behaviors. And, as the entire project demonstrates, the work of queer histories cannot overlook the centrality of gender in shaping experiences, categories, and identities. Through her use of gender analysis, Jones recovers the feminine lesbians of the interwar years and demonstrates the many ways that gender qualifies the queer experience. This dissertation is a significant demonstration of why the history of sexuality so urgently needs greater attention to queer female experiences.

Chelsea Del Rio
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History
University of Michigan

Primary Sources
Carney Landis Collection, Kinsey Institute Library
Mabel Hampton and Joan Nestle Interview, Lesbian Herstory Archives

Dissertation Information
Yale University, New Haven, CT. 2013. 382pp. Primary Advisor: Joanne Meyerowitz.

Image: Lesbian couple holding hands, Wikimedia Commons.

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