"To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America"

A noted historian offers a substantial contribution in a less than crowded field.

Published June 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Lillian Faderman's "To Believe in Women" is a classic example of what PC neologists call "herstory." It's lesbian history plucked out of obscurity and plunked down center stage -- sort of the dyke's equivalent of one of those Budweiser commercials where you land on an island populated entirely by Amazons, except this time they're all wearing blue stockings instead of string bikinis. You get to pretend for a while that at one time practically every formidable woman in America was gay, and if you're a dyke, it kinda makes you feel normal for about 10 minutes. If you're not a dyke, of course, the experience won't mean much to you, and there's nothing about Faderman's prose that would otherwise entice you to make the leap onto planet Lesbos.

But then again, Faderman, who has made a career out of writing lesbian herstory, isn't slaving away in the archival trenches because she wants to give you a good time. She's out to leave a record of a small but very real part of American life that, until a little over a decade ago, had never found its way into print, except distortedly in sexology manuals written by crackpots like Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing. In this regard Faderman is an admirably unselfish scholar. Like her previous books ("Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present," "Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America"), "To Believe in Women" is a thorough and laudable piece of work that should stand up well in the eyes of future historians and curious lay people.

Because "lesbian" is not a term anyone would have recognized before World War I, Faderman concerns herself chiefly with what she is careful to call "women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whose chief sexual and/or affectional and domestic behaviors would have been called 'lesbian' if they had been observed in the years after 1920." She separates her various influential lesbians into four groups: suffragettes, social welfare pioneers, educators and professionals.

Of the suffragettes, Faderman writes: "From its inception, women's fight for the vote was largely led by women who loved other women ... Feminism was the theory, and lesbianism was the practice." Here, she meticulously reconstructs Susan B. Anthony's relationship with fellow suffragette Emily Gross; Women's Christian Temperance Union president Frances Willard's romantic cohabitation with Anna Gordon, a fellow activist, and subsequently with Kate Jackson, a locomotive heiress; the numerous passionate relationships of activist Anna Howard Shaw, onetime president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with women; and the intimacy of Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, with fellow activist Mollie Hay.

In her section on social welfare pioneers, Faderman documents the lesbian attachments of Jane Addams, founder of the famous settlement house called Hull House. She begins: "Addams was responsible for awakening America's social conscience. That being so, how could she have been a lesbian?" By examining Addams' private correspondence, Faderman reveals the decidedly romantic quality of her subject's domestic partnerships with Ellen Starr (the co-founder of Hull House) and, later, with Mary Rozet Smith (a benefactor of Hull House). She likewise makes the case for lesbianism with early 20th century social reformer Frances Kellor.

In her last two sections, Faderman continues in this vein, identifying as "inverts" (to use Havelock Ellis' term) a host of less famous venturers, including various female academics, women's-college presidents, doctors and other professionals. This will bore you quickly if you're not an enthusiast, but you can pick up a few spicy factoids along the way to keep yourself occupied. The most memorable and amusing tidbit is Faderman's citation of a hilariously clever term for female homosexuality coined by the Hearst newspapers in the 1940s; the half-closeted lesbians among you can drop it into conversation. The next time you're at a stuffy cocktail party and somebody asks you if you have a boyfriend or a husband, you can say, "Nah, I'm in the doll racket."

By Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

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