History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

By Judith M. Bennett | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
The L-Word in Women’s History

In the early 1990s when I first began talking about the L-word in women’s history, some people expected me to be speaking about “liberal.” With the 2004 debut in the United States of the lesbian soap opera The L Word, what was once obscure is now likely much clearer. By “L-word,” I mean to evoke the lesbians and lesbianisms that are so often effaced in the writing of women’s history. This effacement is a long-standing part of Western culture, which, in the words of Judith Brown, has adopted an “almost active willingness to disbelieve” in female same-sex love.1 It is also, alas, a part of feminist scholarship and feminist history. In an article first published in 1977 and much reprinted since, Adrienne Rich urged feminist scholars to cease reading, writing, and teaching from what she later called “a perspective of unexamined heterocentricity.”2 Yet more than a quarter century later, women’s history still skips lightly over the presence of lesbians and the possibilities of lesbian experience. The problem is not lesbian history; it is doing just fine, thank you, with conference sessions, articles, and books galore exploring aspects of same-sex love among women in the past. The problem is women’s history, within which lesbianism remains a tricky subject and sometimes an unspeakable one. Simply put, women’s history has a lesbian problem.

In making this charge, I do not mean to efface the advances of the last few decades. The recent renaissance of lesbian history is an outgrowth, in part, of the safe haven women’s history has provided by opening its journals and conferences to work on women’s same-sex relations in past times. In 2001-4, the three main English-language women’s history journals published a dozen or so articles on lesbians or lesbian-related topics, and at the 2005 meeting of the Berkshire Conference more than two dozen papers did the same; whether this is “enough” or not, I do not know, but it is certainly something.3 Lesbians as lesbians—separated out, segregated, different—have become an accepted and integral part of women’s history, readily included, especially when they were in-your-face, well-documented, self-naming

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