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Spinsters and Lesbians: Independent Womanhood in the United States

Trisha Franzen
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 258
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  • Book Info
    Spinsters and Lesbians
    Book Description:

    Americans have long held fast to a rigid definition of womanhood, revolving around husband, home, and children. Women who rebelled against this definition and carved out independent lives for themselves have often been rendered invisible in U.S. history.In this unusual comparative study, Trisha Franzen brings to light the remarkable lives of two generations of autonomous women: Progressive Era spinsters and mid-twentieth century lesbians. While both groups of women followed similar paths to independence--separating from their families, pursuing education, finding work, and creating woman-centered communities--they faced different material and cultural challenge and came to claim very different identities. Many of the turn-of-the-century women were prominent during their time, from internationally recognized classicist Edith Hamilton through two early Directors of the Women's Bureau, Mary Anderson and Freida Miller. Maturing during the time of a broad and powerful women's movement, they were among that era's new women, the often-single women who were viewed as in the vanguard of women's struggle for equality. In contrast, never-married women after World War II, especially lesbians, were considered beyond the pale of real womanhood. Before the women's and gay/lesbian liberation movements, they had no positive contemporary images of alternative lives for women. Highlighting the similarities and differences between women-oriented women confronting changing gender and sexuality systems, Spinsters and Lesbians thus traces a continuum among women who constructed lives outside institutionalized heterosexuality.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2892-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xviii)

    Despite the efforts of lesbian and feminist publishing houses and a few university presses, the bulk of the most important lesbian works has traditionally been available only from rare-book dealers, in a few university libraries, or in gay and lesbian archives. This series intends, in the first place, to make representative examples of this neglected and insufficiently known literature available to a broader audience by reissuing selected classics and by putting into print for the first time lesbian novels, diaries, letters, and memoirs that are of special interest and significance, but which have moldered in libraries and private collections for...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xx)
  5. Progressive Era Spinsters
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  6. Contemporary Lesbians
    (pp. xxv-xxviii)
  7. Introduction: Spinsters and Lesbians
    (pp. 1-10)

    Spinsters and lesbians—the images associated with these words are seldom positive. We have no simple, nonjudgmental terms for the women who are this book’s focus—never-married Progressive Era women and contemporary lesbians. Introducing these women and titling this book has been a challenge because our language offers no expressions that easily position these women to be viewed in a positive light. There are no quick phrases that capture the energy of their full, creative, often amazing lives. The culture’s vocabulary for never-married women forces us to start from characterizations of them as negative, inherently deficient, or even perverted.


  8. ONE “What Are You Going to Be?” Families and Childhoods in the Progressive Era
    (pp. 11-24)

    Sara Josephine “Jo” Baker, M.D., was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1873, the daughter of a seemingly solid middle-class, Euro-American family. Writing her autobiography,Fighting for Life, in the mid-1930s, Jo recalls an idyllic childhood, unexceptional for her class and racial background. She was both a tomboy and an accomplished student of the domestic arts, privately educated at a progressive school and planning to attend college as her mother had before her. Though raised in a strict household, Jo nevertheless found means to adventures, often in the company of her brother. Yet, when her father’s death left the family...

  9. TWO “I Knew I Was Odd” Growing Up Female, 1936–1965
    (pp. 25-46)

    Robin Edwards, a forty-two-year-old teacher, born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, knew as long as she could remember that she was going to be a teacher. Marriage, along with motherhood, was “something I was not going to do. And I knew that early too and I don’t know how … that’s just what I was going to do. Live with my parents all my life, taking care of my dad and mom.”

    Robin never did marry, and she did become a teacher. She didn’t continue to live with her parents; her father died when she was twenty and she...

  10. THREE “O, the Glorious Privilege of Being Independent” Defining Independent Womanhood in the Progressive Era
    (pp. 47-78)

    Edith Stedman graduated from Radcliffe College in 1910. Taking a position at the Framingham Reformatory for Women, she appeared to be situating herself for a life and career within the women-centered social welfare networks of the Progressive Era (Gordon 1994). Her plans were disrupted when her brother pressured her to resign from her position to run the family-owned candy store. She hated this job and left after two years, escaping the business in spite of her brother’s continuing efforts to control her life and work. At the age of twenty-nine, she joined the World War I effort in Europe with...

  11. FOUR “I Was Going to Have to Do It All on My Own” Toward Independent Womanhood after World War II
    (pp. 79-106)

    After five years away, completing her education as a health care provider, Bobbi Denova moved home to her parents’ house. One night, viewing the movieThe Sound of Music, she fell in love with the mountains of Austria. A short time later she happened to meet an Austrian ski instructor who encouraged her to go to Europe. She decided that she would, and “the minute I got home [from the ski trip] I wrote to every Embassy.” She received information about an overseas program through the American Council of Nurses. “I got myself a passport. And I went.” She had...

  12. FIVE “Such Beautiful Lives Together” Community and Companions among Progressive Era Women
    (pp. 107-132)

    Mary Elisabeth Dreier and Frances Kellor met in 1904 when Kellor became general director of the Inter-Municipal Committee on Household Research and Dreier headed its legislative group. By Christmas of that year the notes between them were affectionate and loving. In August 1905, Dreier wrote, “But you know I do love you and how beautiful and pure and true you are, I shall be glad to see my darling. Surely next week.” That year Kellor and Dreier began to live together. Twenty years later, in 1925, the shyer and publicly reserved Kellor writes, “We have had such beautiful lives together...

  13. SIX “We’re Not the Only Ones” Lesbian Identities and Communities after World War II
    (pp. 133-158)

    Jo Martinez had been involved in a relationship with Alice Henry for more than four years when she discovered a larger lesbian community.

    When I met all these lesbian women it finally occurred to me that there was a community like this. Not just me and her. In Mt. Gold, I’m sure there were other gay women, but even when they came over, to be with Alice, to visit or whatever, they were so hidden, that I never saw it. … But when I found gay bars, I loved them. … And it was, “This isn’t so bad. We’re not...

  14. SEVEN Spinsters and Lesbians Resisting and Surviving as Independent Women
    (pp. 159-178)

    Jo Baker tells us very little in her autobiography about her private life past her childhood. She doesn’t speak about the women with whom she lived and whom she loved. But Jo Baker and the women in her social and political circles were not isolated women, ignorant of the battles that were taking place over gender and sexuality during their adult years. We know, for example, that Jo Baker traveled in 1934 to Great Britain with her partner at the time, Ida Wylie. There they met with Radclyffe Hall and Lady Una Troubridge, women who had long been friends of...

  15. On Methodology
    (pp. 179-184)

    In this book I analyze the lives, from childhood through adulthood, of two particular groups of “independent” women: Progressive Era spinsters and contemporary never-married lesbians. For this study, I define “independent” as without economic, legal, or sexual/affectional ties to an individual male. While controlling for the economic and legal ties is a rather straightforward process, determining the sexual/affectional ties is more difficult. While women of both generations had some affectional ties to some men, and at least some of the contemporary women had been involved with men sexually, no women of either group constructed significant portions of her adult life...

  16. Appendix: Tables
    (pp. 185-190)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 191-208)
  18. References
    (pp. 209-224)
  19. Index
    (pp. 225-230)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-231)