Lesbians and Cultural Issues in the 20th Century


Babe Didrickson, track and field star[1]

Copyright (c) by Emma Garrett and Rachel Silveri, 2008. All rights reserved.

Dominant Representations of Lesbians

The broader cultural archetypes that represent lesbians today did not just appear out of mid air. The figures of the lesbian athlete, the lesbian actress, and the lesbian writer have historically been both productions of mainstream culture in order to represent lesbianism as a “problem,” and also the lived experiences of lesbians within dominant, heterosexual culture. This section will trace the ways lesbians were constructed as stereotypes of failed femininity (and thus failed heterosexuality) within mainstream culture, and also how lesbians used the cultural spaces made possible by these (frequently derogatory) representations to fashion lesbian identities, lesbian cultural spaces, and innovative ways to produce culture that speaks back to and through mainstream representations. Looking first at women’s participation in sports through the analysis of Susan Cahn, then at Julie Abraham’s analysis of the struggles of 20th century authors to carve out narrative spaces for lesbian stories, at Esther Newton’s discussion of lesbian appropriation of gay male theatricality and camp with the Cherry Grove community, we will explore the limitations and possibilities of lesbian’s cultural productions and representations.

Lesbians and the Female Athlete

Women’s participation in sport was an outgrowth of late Victorian feminism and challenges to traditional femininity, movement of towards alternative gender performances. “Some of these ‘New Women’ sought entry into the world of athletics."[2] Represented in heterosexual periodicals such as Good Housekeeping as “tomboys,” female athletes were “a new type of American girl, new not only physically, but mentally and morally."[3] Other popular representations of the tomboy were critical, arguing that athletics damaged women’s reproductive organs and/or unleashed their heterosexual passions, preventing their future success as wives. The derogatory term for women athletes, ‘Muscle Moll,’ referred to “disreputable heterosexually deviant womanhood" one colloquial signal that female athletes were interpreted as unruly heterosexuals rather than lesbians.[4] But American anxiety about female athletes’ masculinity was also bolstered by medical studies that linked mannishness to lesbianism and the popularization of psychiatric case studies of lesbians’ tomboy childhoods.


Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930)[5]

In response to this popular queer-bating backlash against female athletes, women’s physical education professionals used the image of the athlete as a beauty queen to shield them from associations with lesbianism. Yet the stereotypes of female athletes persisted through the 1930s, with gender anxieties raised in the climate of the Depression. Babe Didrikson, Voted the Greatest Female Athlete of the first half of the 20th century by the AP, was widely recognized as a lesbian icon until she married in 1938. Women athletes were seen as “masculine man-haters or lesbians,” in a conflation of gender identity, sexuality, and even gender preference[6]While Hollywood’s mainstream eyebrows were raised (and lesbian visions encouraged) by Marlene Dietrich’s performance in Morocco (1930), and Greta Garbo’s portrayal of the “bachelor” Queen Christina (1933), American gender systems were thrown askew by WWII. After the war, the country entered a period of sexual and gender repression that took traditional, white, heterosexual femininity as its uncompromising ideal, and female athletes “became convenient targets of homophobic indictment."[7] In response, heterosexuality was placed at the center of the professional objectives of physical education majors, curriculum changes were made to include less sport and more beauty and charm classes for women, and feminine dress codes were implemented. African American athletes were particularly vulnerable, as mannishness and black femininity were already conflated in popular discourse and sexualized as promiscuous.

Through the 1950s, female athletes most often show up in mainstream papers like the New York Times as “problem” women, but these alarms at gender (and thus sexuality) out of order on the playing field were not unfounded. The “muscle moll” and the “butch ballplayer” were not only discursive figures deployed to shore up heterosexuality during difficult times, but these characters were also human actors trying to carve out space for new expressions of sexual identity. Lesbians’ challenges of heterosexual models of femininity were accepted in the world of sport, and even rewarded as long as they didn’t call mainstream attention to the “mannishness” of athletics. Sports, specifically “softball, provided an important site for the development of lesbian subculture and identity in the United States."[9] The breakdown of traditional femininity on the field, or on the court, makes straight cultural surveillance of athletes crucial sites for enforcing both gender and sexuality. The recent scandal about the story of Cheryl Swoops’ coming out as a lesbian reveals that mainstream cultural anxiety around the sexuality of female athletes is not all in the past.


Roebling Women's Softball Team, 1950s.[8]

Fictional Representations of Lesbianism

Beginning at least with the American release of The Well of Loneliness in 1929, fiction was another site where lesbians struggled for space within traditional feminine gender roles. Julie Abraham argues that these gender roles are enforced by narrative form, exploring lesbian writing as not only a failure of heterosexuality (which is usually enforced by domestic fiction and the novel form) but a failure of narrative itself to represent new sexual possibilities. Like the female athletes who found themselves “problem women” within the strictly gendered public sphere of the '30s and '40s, authors struggled to represent lesbian meaning as other than a problem within the heterosexual narrative. Instead of the female narrative that propels heroines towards marriage or death, some authors created lesbian narratives by triangulating the lesbian relationship with a heterosexual marriage – as inHERmione, by H.D., where one of the female lovers ends by marrying the other’s husband. Other techniques for representing lesbianism include; superimposition, where one of the lesbians stands “in the male role in the narrative”; counterpoint, where the heroines lesbianism is proved by her rejection of a straight relationship presented in juxtaposition to her relationship with another woman; and the dismantling of narrative itself, as in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. These modernist lesbian texts foreground issues of representation that plague lesbian culture to this day – the codes of sexual identity on the page, and the codes of sexual identity on the sport’s field, are accessible only to certain kinds of lesbian performance, certain kinds of lesbian stories, and speak in (at least) two voices to lesbians and non-lesbian spectators. Some lesbian authors, such as Patricia Highsmith (whose lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, was originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), avoid being “outed” to mainstream audiences by writing stories about heterosexual men and women.

Abraham points out that not only do some lesbian authors not write about lesbian characters, but also that some authors attempt to escape the romance plot by writing entirely about men. In particular, lesbian authors who attempt to write historical fiction often reveal their own and their expected audience’s covert misogyny by using gay men as historical representatives and markers of the novel’s time and place. “The lesbian novel offers a privitized romantic narrative, focused on the problem of lesbianism. But whatever account of relationship that is offered within “history” is taken out of the private.” Abraham discusses the work of famous lesbian pulp author Ann Bannon (known primarily for her Beebo Brinker series), as one example of a novelist who marks history within the lesbian romance through gay male characters such as Jack Mann.

Ann Bannon was recently interviewed by Terry Gross about her contributions to lesbian culture.


Performance artist Holly Hughes[10]

Lesbian Produced Culture

Lesbians and Performance


Lesbian’s techniques of carving out narrative, social, or political space through gay male representation has not been confined to the printed page – as Esther Newton shows in her study of how Cherry Grove’s “lesbians have (and have not) been able to use drag and camp in a dense site of gay and lesbian cultural production."[11] Newton argues that, given the historical dominance of gay men as representatives of and representations within Cherry Grove, lesbian appropriations of gay male drag provided a politicized tool in the struggle to create cultural space for lesbians. Newton historicizes the influence of camp on lesbian cultural production by explaining that “camp as a representational system is more developed than butch-femme” and also that gay male theater has achieved marked social and economic success, and “WOW performers were sick of being poor and performing only in a lesbian ghetto while gay male theater was gaining acceptance and success in mainstream venues.” In lesbian cultural outlets like the WOW Cafe and the Community Theater at Cherry Grove in the late 1990s, a subversion of traditional gender roles is taken for granted as a condition of cultural production. WOW started as an international women's theatre festival in October of 1980. Over the course of eleven days, 36 shows from 8 countries were performed for hungry New York lesbians. Within 18 months the group had a permanent space at 330 E. 11th street, where they began the monster that is WOW today: a year-round festival of women's performance. The space they built was part: café, girls’ social club, performance venue, and art gallery. It took time and money to get things going. In the beginning they worked as a collective of 12 people, by 1982 they had 120 members (paying dues helped to raise revenue), and the “café” opened in March 27th of that year. WOW was an important space for multiple artists—including Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, Holly Hughes, and Carmelita Tropicana—to develop to their work. The cultural space opened up by WOW eventually facilitated the birth of a performance group/touring company called Split Britches that was started by some of the WOW women. This group, along with individuals from WOW who go outside of the café to do performances testifies to their interest in reaching a wider audience that is outside of their own “safe space” that is the WOW café.


Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, 1983[12]

The production of a cultural lesbian “safe space” has also been discussed by Bonnie Morris in Eden Built By Eves with regards to the history of women’s music festivals. Currently numbering over twenty nationwide and with origins in 1970s lesbian-feminist movement, these festivals provide public venues for women- and lesbian-identified music, performances, and comedy acts. The music festivals, according to Morris, offer a collective space where “love between women wins approval and sanction, not punishment and ostracism."[13] Moreover, at these festivals, women have opportunities to learn skills and work at jobs that are traditionally male-dominated, such as serving as producers, agents, security, press, stage crew, and budget planners. Perhaps most importantly, however, women’s music festivals are sites of political debate.


 How can “women’s music” be defined? Sue Fink offers one possible answer in suggesting that “women’s music” ultimately rests within an audience who wants to hear “music by and about women."[15] Morris discusses the tension that occurs at festivals when some artists are looked over because “they are not lesbian enough” and do not create work that is explicitly and overtly “lesbian” in tone and subject matter.[16] Finally, the politics of identity policing are above all present in women’s music festivals. Debates are continually waged between organizers and protestors about how “women” as a category should be defined and about whether or not transgendered women and men, boy children, biological men, and S&M activists should be allowed to attend these “women’s” festivals. For information regarding the exclusion of transgendered women from “women-only” spaces and the resulting forms of protest and activism, see Camp Trans.


Camp Trans logo[14]

Lesbian Families

The construction of lesbian cultural spaces does not occur only within public sites of artistic production, such as music festivals and performing theatre groups. Often, spaces of community are established within an individual networking of friends and family and at times in places of employment. In her essay from 1991, “Families We Choose,” Kath Weston outlines the dynamics of queer family formation. Characterized by choice rather than biological ties, “gay families” have fluid boundaries and often consist of friends with shared pasts, lovers and ex-lovers, and people, as Weston states, “who are ‘there for you,’ people you can count on emotionally and materially."[17] The idea of gay families as chosen kinship shifts notions of “community” away from collective identity-building and into experiences of “interpersonal relations.” According to Weston, the concept of “gay families” is important in part because it “reintroduce[s] agency and a subjective sense of making culture into lesbian and gay organization."[18] Emphasizing choice in family construction, however, does not necessarily imply that such choices are exercised randomly or outside an individual’s social identity. Most gay families are composed of other lesbians and gay men and Weston stresses that the majority of members within a family are of “the same gender, class, race, and age."[19] In addition, Weston also stresses the degree of negotiation that is present in choosing and constructing gay families: for example, she mentions the desire at times to “bridge” the gap between one’s biological family and chosen, gay family.[20]

Lesbians in the Workplace

It is important also to note the types of community building and social spaces that are created within the workplace for lesbians. According to a 1984 study by Beth Schneider, “Peril and Promise: Lesbians’ Workplace Participation,” many lesbians seek to “integrate their work and social lives."[21] In order for such a sociability to occur however, lesbians often have to be fairly open about their sexuality to their coworkers. Facing employment discrimination and the possibilities of losing a job, the ability to maintain an out lesbian identity in the workplace is of course difficult to manage and varies according to different working conditions: professional jobs often require more sociability, working-class jobs less so.[22] According to Schneider, when working environments are more supportive of women with out lesbian identities, these women are more likely to develop friendships and intimate relationships with their coworkers. She writes, “In general, involvements at work are an integral part of a lesbian’s emotional commitments to women.” The ability of workplace friendships to evolve into more intimate relationships and other forms of personal network-building is “consistent with most other research on lesbians that similarly shows fluid boundaries between friends and lovers and friendship networks of former lovers."[23]

Negotiating Cultural Identities

As seen earlier, lesbian identities are formed in constant negotiation with both dominant culture—sports, Hollywood films, and literary conventions—as well as with other minority groups—the gay men on Cherry Grove, transgendered women and S&M activists in the women’s music festivals. What are the effects of policing cultural space and claims to identity? As seen in Eden Built By Eves, lesbian-feminist organizers of women’s music festivals often define what is and is not “lesbian” in regards to art and who is and is not a “lesbian woman” according to a narrow, essentialist biological viewpoint. Instead of regarding a “lesbian” identity (like the identities of “woman,” “man,” “gay” and other social categories) as inherently unstable and constantly constructed, women’s music festivals outline explicitly a rigid lesbian identity and proceed to police it by denying transgendered women entry into their events. Such a policing of lesbianism as an identity category has its historic roots as well: butch-femme communities in the 1950s excluded “kiki” women who switched between butch and femme identities; the 1960s homophile movement sought to present lesbianism as respectable and in opposition to tough bar lesbians; and later in the 1970s, lesbian-feminist communities defined themselves against butch and femme women and worked to define what they considered to be an “egalitarian,” “gender-less” lesbian identity. All three are instances in which rigid policing worked to oppress and exclude lesbian women who already possessed a minority status.

This section will attempt to problematize the seeming solidity of lesbian identity by further examining the ways in which such identities are constantly negotiated and rendered unstable. Analyzing issues such as identification, spectatorship, and representability, we will specifically examine an interview of Patricia White by Annamarie Jagose on “Hollywood Lesbians” and discuss briefly José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of disidentification.

Lesbian Representability in Film

In “Hollywood Lesbians,” Annamarie Jagose interviews Patricia White on her book, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability. Examining “the institutionalization of female spectatorship and its potential coincidence with lesbianism as an emerging cultural identity,” White outlines some of the ways in which lesbianism was encoded and decoded in classic Hollywood films beginning in the 1940s. She emphasizes two key concepts: “inference,” which is the ability to “read into” a film, and “representability,” which White suggests is the use of “favored tropes” that viewers have learned to recognize as coded lesbianism.[24] Using these concepts, White makes clear that lesbian identities were not outright represented in classic films; rather lesbianism was suggested and invoked in order to be inferred by the audience. The conventions of the ghost film and the maternal melodrama as ways in which filmmakers could encode lesbian representability in their work: the ghost film with its haunting phantoms could allude to lesbianism as the invisible “excluded and abjected other,” whereas the maternal melodrama often presents a relationship between an older and younger woman that can be read as an intergenerational or pedagogical lesbian relationship.[25] White also notes that characters that are suggested as being in some way lesbian or queer are often always supporting characters so that “marginalization itself” becomes visible within the film’s narrative.[26]

Interestingly, White seeks to bring attention to the ways in which contemporary viewers engage with classic Hollywood films. “A genealogy of our contemporary sense of lesbian cultural identity,” she writes, “ought to include women’s pictures, female stars, and their reception contexts."[27] As such, she talks extensively of “retrospectatorship,” the ability of viewers to look back upon work and examine the ways in which meanings and significance have become constituted after time and in retrospect. Furthermore, she cites the work of Deborah Bright as an example of lesbian identification with and appropriation of classic Hollywood imagery. These practices—inference, retrospectatorship, appropriation, and borrowing—are all instances of negotiation, of the dialoguing that occurs constantly between dominant culture and lesbian identity formation.


Carmelita Tropicana in Your Kunst is Your Waffen, 1994[28]


Moreover, the process of defining a lesbian subculture often occurs through an identification and disidentification with mainstream representations and cultural forms. For example, a lesbian viewer of Irving Rapper’s classic film, Now Voyager (1942), could have a lesbian identification with the character played by Bette Davis even though the film—mainstream and Hollywood in its origins—presents Davis as heterosexual. The term “disidentification” refers to the process of partial identification with and subsequent reworking of dominant cultural forms. Examined by José Esteban Muñoz in his book, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, disidentification is figured as a means of empowerment for oppressed minorities:

Disidentification is about recycling and rethinking encoded meaning. The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture.[29]


Performer Marga Gomez[30]

Muñoz examines the processes of disidentification specifically within the works of Marga Gomez, the Cuban and Puerto Rican-American lesbian artist, and Carmelita Tropicana, the Cuban-American lesbian performer and member of the WOW Café. Their films and performances, he argues, utilize and rework forms of dominant culture through parody, mimicry, and mockery in order to represent and empower a subject who is both lesbian and of color.

To return to the subject of classic Hollywood film and lesbian representability, Deborah Bright’s Dream Girls series (1989-1990) offers an example of a white lesbian disidentification with dominant culture. In Dream Girls, the artist inserts her butch presence into scenes of classic Hollywood films and interacts with the surrounding characters. As Patricia White suggests, Bright renders lesbian spectatorship and desiring visible within these films: she presents a butch lesbian figure in both camaraderie with the rugged masculinity offered by James Dean and in competition for the affections of the films’ glamorous leading ladies, such as the characters played by Audrey Hepburn. Here, inDream Girls, Bright presents a disidentification with mainstream Hollywood: she utilizes the scenes and stills from iconic movies in order to disrupt their meaning by bringing attention to the heteronormativity of mainstream film, visualizing her own lesbian desire, and queering the films’ female characters. A dominant cultural form, within the example of Bright’s work, is thus the starting point and departure for an envisioning of lesbian identity, desire, and empowerment.


Examining the practices of shifting negotiations and identifications within lesbian subcultures reveals the extent to which lesbian identities are continually reworked and refashioned. Identity categories can be sources of empowerment and political tools for minority subjects while simultaneously acting as exclusionary and policing, but they are nonetheless unstable sites of permanent contestation and reconfiguration. In the context of twentieth century America, the evolving definitions, histories, and representations of “lesbian worlds” that this class has sought to examine reveal the importance of continually examining cultural forms—dominant, sub-cultural, and the exchanges between these two. For, ultimately, it is both within and through culture that lesbianism is constantly contested and renegotiated.

  1. http://www.nmwh.org/images/newsletters/Babe%20Didrikson.jpg
  2. Susan K. Cahn, “From the ‘Muscle Moll’ to the ‘Butch’ Ballplayer: Mannishness, Lesbianism, and Homophobia in U.S. Women’s Sport.” In Lesbian Subjects: A Feminist Studies Reader, ed. Martha Vicinus, 41-65. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996, p.42.
  3. Cahn, “From the ‘Muscle Moll’ to the ‘Butch’ Ballplayer: Mannishness, Lesbianism, and Homophobia in U.S. Women’s Sport.” p.43.
  4. Cahn, “From the ‘Muscle Moll’ to the ‘Butch’ Ballplayer: Mannishness, Lesbianism, and Homophobia in U.S. Women’s Sport”, p.45
  5. http://www.doctormacro.com/Images/Dietrich,%20Marlene/Annex/Annex%20-%20Dietrich,%20Marlene%20(Morocco)_02.jpg
  6. Cahn, “From the ‘Muscle Moll’ to the ‘Butch’ Ballplayer: Mannishness, Lesbianism, and Homophobia in U.S. Women’s Sport”, p.41.
  7. Cahn,“From the ‘Muscle Moll’ to the ‘Butch’ Ballplayer: Mannishness, Lesbianism, and Homophobia in U.S. Women’s Sport” p.47.
  8. http://www.inventionfactory.com/history/RHAoral/ctrilus6.jpg
  9. Cahn, “From the ‘Muscle Moll’ to the ‘Butch’ Ballplayer: Mannishness, Lesbianism, and Homophobia in U.S. Women’s Sport.” p.53.
  10. http://www.citypaper.com/sb/46710/6715.jpg
  11. Esther Newton, “ ‘Dick(less) Tracy’ and the Homecoming Queen: Lesbian Power and Representation in Gay-Male Cherry Grove.” Margaret Mead Made Me Gay. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. p.165.
  12. http://www.margieadam.com/info/images/info7a.jpg
  13. Bonnie J. Morris, Eden Built By Eves: The Culture of Women’s Music Festivals. US: Alyson Publications, 1999. Morris, p. 21.
  14. http://www.sheerchaos.org/img/logos/akowlogo.gif
  15. Morris, Eden Built By Eves: The Culture of Women’s Music Festivals, p. 14.
  16. Morris, Eden Built By Eves: The Culture of Women’s Music Festivals, p. 9.
  17. Kath Weston, “Families We Choose”. In Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Reader, eds. Peter M. Nardi and Beth E. Schneider, 390-411. New York: Routledge, 1998, p.395
  18. Weston, “Families We Choose”, p. 408.
  19. Weston, “Families We Choose”, p.394.
  20. Weston, “Families We Choose” p.391
  21. Beth E. Schneider, “Peril and Promise: Lesbians’ Workplace Participation.” In Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Reader, eds. Peter M. Nardi and Beth E. Schneider, 377-388. New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 380.
  22. Schneider, "Peril and Promise: Lesbians’ Workplace Participation” p.381.
  23. Schneider, “Peril and Promise: Lesbians’ Workplace Participation”, p. 383.
  24. Annamarie Jagose, “Hollywood Lesbians: Annamarie Jagose Interviews Patricia White About Her Latest Book, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability.” Genders 32, 2000, p. 2.
  25. Jagose, “Hollywood Lesbians: Annamarie Jagose Interviews Patricia White About Her Latest Book, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability.” p.6-8.
  26. Jagose,"Hollywood Lesbians: Annamarie Jagose Interviews Patricia White About Her Latest Book, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability.”p.9.
  27. Jagose,"Hollywood Lesbians: Annamarie Jagose Interviews Patricia White About Her Latest Book,Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representabilityp.2.
  28. http://www.itvs.org/showphotos/carmelita.jpg
  29. José Esteban Muñoz, “Chapter 5: Sister Acts: Ela Troyano and Carmelita Tropicana,”and “Chapter 8: Latina Performance and Queer Worldmaking; or, Chusmería at the End of the Twentieth Century.”Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, p. 31.
  30. http://www.afterellen.com/archive/ellen/People/Photos/marga%20gomez/marga.jpg