Elusive Identities and the Historical
Construction of Sexuality
The story behind Miriam Van Waters s burning of her personal correspondence illus-
trates the problem of interpreting sexual identities historically. Like the working-class
lesbians in prison, the administrators and staff of women's reformatories were vulner-
able to charges of sexual deviance. Long before I became her biographer, I had heard
rumors about Van Watersspersonal life, so the question “Was she a lesbian?” lurked
in the background as I wrote. Each discovery of new sources contributed to my analy-
sis. When I finished the book, I wrote this essay to retrace my interpretive process. I
wanted to show not only what the evidence revealed about Van Waters but also howl
came to reframe the question of lesbian identity by breaking it into historically useful
components. This essay, more than my earlier work, acknowledges the inseparable
layers of subjective, discursive, and social meanings that constitute sexuality.
ON A CLEAR June morning in 1948, the controversial prison reformer Miriam Van Waters made a painful and momentous decision. For months, she had been embroiled in a political struggle with conservative state officials who wished to dismiss her as the liberal superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women. Local newspapers headlined the claims that Van Waters coddled prisoners, hired ex-inmates, and condoned homosexual behavior in prison. Investigators from the Department of Corrections interrogated her staff and seized inmate files as evidence.
As she sat before a glowing fireplace in her home that June morning, Van Waters fueled the blaze with some of her most precious possessions. “The Burning of Letters continues,” she wrote in her journal that day. “One can have no personal 'life' in this battle, so I have destroyed many letters of over
Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “'The Burning of Letters Continues': Elu-
sive Identities and the Historical Construction of Sexuality,” Journal of Women's History
9, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 181–200. © Journal of Women's History. Reprinted by permission
of The Johns Hopkins University Press.