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Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality and Women's Experience of Modern War

For decades, the history of sexuality has been a multidisciplinary project serving competing agendas. Lesbian, gay and queer scholars have produced powerful narratives by tracing back as continuous or discontinuous a homosexual or queer subject. Yet organizing historical work around modern categories of identity as normal or abnormal often obscures how the sexual was known or talked about in the past. Set against the backdrop of women’s work experiences, friendships and communities during the First World War, Disturbing Practices draws on a substantial body of new archival material to expose the roadblocks in current historisizing practices and imagine alternatives.

In my project’s earliest stage I sought historical evidence to better substantiate claims that women serving in military organizations were thought abnormal or masculine, or that the war increased the visibility of lesbianism, a view popularized in Radclyffe Hall’s classic “lesbian” novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928), which idealizes the activities of an all-female ambulance unit working near the front lines and fantasizes about erotic possibilities. Of the myriad forms of war service, ambulance-driving attracted a number of well-known adventure-seeking women we now identify as lesbian, such as Gertrude Stein, who was joined by her partner Alice B. Toklas; the flamboyant Dolly Wilde, niece of Oscar; the eccentric speedboat racer Joe Carstairs; the former suffragettes Vera “Jack” Holme and the Hon. Evelina Haverfield (rumored to have been lovers); and Barbara “Toupie” Lowther, the model for Hall’s protagonist, Stephen Gordon. Soon my research interests expanded to include women like Violet Douglas-Pennant, the one-time commandant of the Women’s Royal Air Force, who had been accused or suspected of same-sex relations, and Florence Harley, a British Red Cross nurse who went to court to defend her reputation against allegations of sexual immorality. But then something unexpected happened that completely transformed the project: I began to take seriously the theorist Lee Edelman’s proposition that “queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one,” which struck me as profoundly unsettling in its suggestion that queerness might better serve the historian of sexuality as a tool or method rather than as an identity.

This seemed a far cry from current practices in lesbian, gay or queer history-making intent on recovering, remembering, imagining, touching or reconstructing lesbian, gay, or queer beings in the past. Disturbing Practices may have started out as a history of lesbianism (or a queer history of lesbianism) but it was becoming instead a historiography of sexuality, with (at least) two objectives: first, to examine the specific political interests, purposes, and investments of the project of recuperating and/or tracing a lesbian, gay or queer past as continuous or discontinuous in relation to identities we know about now and, second, to envisage alternative histories of sexuality to think differently about historicizing the sexual past.

Working out some of the problems in how we write the history of sexuality is best explained through historical example, which is the rationale that informs this book’s two-part structure in its movement from historiographical and theoretical problems to a set of case studies, focusing on Douglas-Pennant, Nurse Harley and women ambulance drivers, such as the “Angels of Pervyse,” Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker. Ordinary Britons in the first half of last century seem not to have viewed sex or sexuality as we do in the present; sex-talk buzzed all around, legible to some and baffling to others—the aware, self-aware, and unaware sometimes gathered around a table to converse on a topic at once present and unfathomable.

Disturbing Practices clarifies the ethical value and political purpose of identity history, indeed its very capacity to give rise to innovative practices borne of sustained conversations between queer studies and critical history. It seeks to explore questions we have not yet posed about the modern sexual past.