To say that Lillian Faderman’s new book was a broad undertaking is, to put it mildly, a vast understatement.
The title of the book alone is indicative of this fact: “Woman: The American History of an Idea.” It sounds like a dense concept on the surface — a comprehensive history of womanhood in the Americas, exploring both the idea of what it means to be a woman and, more pressingly, how the definition of what it means to be a “woman” throughout. the history of the region has shifted nearly as much as the country itself.
“I’ve been collecting the research for this book for about 20 years,” Faderman says from her home in La Jolla. “Most of my books come from some kind of personal drive to find out more about whatever interests me.”
The fact that Faderman has spent multiple decades and countless hours on “Woman” should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the author, professor and historian. She’s often referred to as the “mother of lesbian history” and sometimes the “foremother of gay and lesbian studies,” two distinctions that are certainly apt considering the length and breadth of her career and her extensive literary oeuvre.
Bombarded by images
While Faderman says she’s been working on “Woman” for 20 years, one could make the argument that the real genesis of the book began over 60 years ago.
The daughter of a Latvian Jewish single mother, Faderman grew up in Boyle Heights, a primarily Mexican neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Being “one of the few White girls” in school didn’t stop Faderman from making friends with the pachucas (gang girls or rebellious Mexican American girls) in her school, and she says she became a “juvenile delinquent of sorts.”
Faderman mentions this in a small introduction in “Woman” not as a means of showing off some sort of cultural cachet. After all, she’s already written about her life de ella at length in her excellent 2003 memoir, “Naked in the Promised Land.” Rather, she speaks about it as a means of pointing out precisely the moment where she became fascinated by the conceptualization of women — the idea of what women are supposed to be and act like and how that idea is often perpetuated by outside forces.
“I realized I was gay already back then, and I came from this working class family and my mother was not married and worked in the garment industry,” Faderman recalls. “So these images of the 1950s that absolutely bombarded us, myself and my classmates, those images had nothing to do with us. They impinged on our psyches, and they made us feel like we were lacking because we were not like those images.”
These images of clean-cut nuclear families were not particularly relatable to a young lesbian woman who admits that she just as easily could have ended up in a juvenile detention facility or a boarding school had she not been a decent student, eventually ending up in a doctorate program at UCLA. Still, she says, that idea, that question of “why had that ideal of women been created” and, more importantly, “why had its grip on her been so tenacious,” had continued to vex her all these years.
“For years, I wanted to find out how those images got established, and I think that was the reason I began working on the book,” Faderman says. “To understand for myself how what influenced me so much as a kid, something that I knew I would never fit into, why that was the dominant image.”
“I think this book was in the making even when I was a kid, when I couldn’t understand how I was so different from the ways girls were supposed to be,” Faderman continues. “So yes, it has been decades in the making in that sense.”
A seesaw effect
Like any diligent historian and archivist — Faderman once served as the Lambda Archives’ historian-in-residence — she says she took “working backwards” approach to the research that went into “Woman.” She began in the early 20th century and began working back all the way to the early 17th century when the Americas were first colonized. Faderman also took special care to contrast the way in which women were characterized and treated among both White colonizers and the Indigenous communities that were already in America.
“I was interested in what they encountered through the Native Americans, and how that was very different from the immigrant woman that they knew and that they promulgated and enforced,” Faderman says, referring to the White settlers who colonized the Americas.
She says that, as a historian first, her first order of business is collecting the data. This process, in addition to taking years, also took her to various libraries and archives all over the United States, not to mention the countless hours searching for information on the Internet. When asked if the real challenge was condensing this minutiae of information and material into something that was both readable, informative and entertaining, Faderman says she definitely had to be discerning at times.
“All of the information is a possibility, but of course you have to narrow it down to what it is that the book really has to say,” Faderman says. “You have to decide what aspects are crucial and which ones you can dismiss. I would imagine most writers who do broad histories like I usually do, they work the same way. We have a very broad palette to begin with and you begin to narrow it down.”
Chronologically ordered in chapters that rarely span more than 30 pages, the book is a fact-filled treatise that is both intellectually stimulating and historically enlightening. Faderman meticulously recounts the importance of women leaving the home and entering the work force, as well as how the dawn of psychoanalysis in the late 19th and early 20th century informed the “sex radical” movement of the time and later informed both the sexual revolution and first-wave feminism. Some of these interconnected threads even surprised a historian as accomplished as Faderman.
“I think what surprised me the most was how tenacious that image of woman that was established by the early European settlers really has been. It just kept appearing and reappearing over and over,” Faderman says.
Faderman goes on to say that these ideas — mentalities such as women are weaker vessels and need to be subservient to men — would disappear for a while and then reappear later. She pinpoints these “seesaw” fluctuations where women made huge strides toward something resembling equality, such as in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only to have see something of a “retreat,” as she puts it, during periods like the Great Depression .
“It was just that there was always a reaction anytime women moved forward, and I think that women were often complicit in the reaction, because they took high-powered jobs or they made a decent amount of money,” Faderman says, speaking specifically about the most recent seesaw effect in the late 20th century. “They went out into the work force in great numbers, and then they would come home and had to do a second shift, because men were taught that things like housework was the job of women. They’d walk the dog and maybe take care of the car, but the rest was up to the woman. And it was too much for women.”
And while she is careful to give each of these periods its own thorough examination, Faderman does well to inform the reader just how these periods are interconnected. For example, a chapter examining women proclaiming their sexual autonomy in the late 19th century, and how that may have contributed to them entering the work force, seamlessly moves into another chapter on women during the Great Depression and how those gains seesawed back. They are, as she says, “interconnected” with one not happening without the other.
“I think it continues to be very connected and that’s what, in a lot of ways, our contemporary #MeToo movement is all about,” Faderman says. “Just that recognition that as long as men feel free to sexually harass women who are working for them, women can never really be equal. They’re always reminded that their boss has jurisdiction over their salary and their boss is making demands that there is nothing to do with their work.”
What might be the book’s greatest strength, however, is the attention paid to lesser-known historical figures such as Mary Dyer, Lieutenant Harry Buford (real name: Loreta Velázquez) and Victoria Woodhull, the latter of whom ran for president nearly 150 years before HillaryClinton.
“I had known of Woodhull, and I knew that she was a pretty out there woman for the time,” says Faderman. “She practically caused a riot in the 1870s when she said to her audience that women have the right to form love relationships with whomever they please without marriage.”
There are some fantastic sections on queer and BIPOC women such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Zitkala-Sa, Anna Julia Cooper and more. Faderman says she didn’t necessarily go out of her way to include the stories of these women, but that they were representative of a larger historical offense — how history often overlooks women precisely because they don’t fit into the patriarchally perpetuated concept of what women were supposed to be within that particular time period.
“I think we’ve come to realize that America is very diverse, and it’s important to tell those very diverse histories. I wanted very much to include not only White middle class women, but women of all classes, colors and ethnicities. That was of enormous value to me.”
A historical outlook on the future
At this point in his career, Faderman has nothing to prove. Having researched, authored and edited over a dozen books, including, one would argue, the consummate history of the LGBTQ community and movement (2015’s “The Gay Revolution”) and a biography of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk (2018’s “Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death”), Faderman could have easily retired at 81 years old.
But what “Woman” represents, other than being something of a definitive source on the concepts and ideas it explores, is something of a culmination of Faderman’s life’s work. That is, this is not a book she could have written as a young historian. The skills she has developed over the years chronicling LGBTQ history, and especially lesbian history (“Surpassing the Love of Men,” “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers” and “To Believe in Women”), have prepared the author for this moment. That is, to snatch the historical record back from the people (read: men) and give a much more nuanced, objective and equal account of American women.
Asked whether she sees things more optimistically looking forward or still sees the seesawing of the idea of women at play, Faderman briefly takes off her proverbial historian hat and gets personal.
“You know, when I was in junior high school, I could not have imagined a world like our contemporary world,” Faderman says. “The progress that women have made during my lifetime seems absolutely astounding to me.”
But just as quickly, she switches back into a more objective outlook.
“But as a historian, what I see is that it often seemed astounding to others at other points in history,” Faderman says. “Like the ‘new woman’ of the early 20th century and then when we went backwards. I speculate a bit on the final chapter of the book, in the epilogue, about whether we could ever again retreat to what a woman was, and there are possible ways that a retreat can happen again.”
Faderman points to the recent COVID-19 crisis as something that is concerning.
“Millions of women left or had to leave their jobs, in some cases because the jobs didn’t exist anymore and in some cases because they had school-aged children who were now home and there was no one to take care of them but the woman,” Faderman says. “So that was a bit of a step backwards.”
Time will tell, of course, but Faderman does point out that the younger generation of LGBTQ people gives her hope that it will seesaw back, and that progress will still be made, however incrementally.
“I saw a recent Gallup poll in which 21 percent of Gen Z now identify as LGBTQ. Many of them are “Q” and what that often means is that they’re genderqueer and non-binary. The number of people who are transgender has grown significantly. So I suspect that in past eras, there were people who felt this way but couldn’t talk about it. You had to repress it.”
What this means for women or the woman as a conceptual idea, she isn’t sure, but she hopes to write about that as well one day.
“I’m exploring new topics for a book and haven’t figured one out quite yet, but they have to come from within,” Faderman says. “Maybe one will in the near future.”
Warwick’s presents Lillian Faderman
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 10
Where: Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla
Price: $32.50 (ticket price includes copy of the book)
Combs is a freelance writer.