Posts Tagged With: identity politics

Shattered Past

Jarausch & Geyer

Jarausch, Konrad J. and Michael Geyer.  Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

In this book, Jarausch and Geyer have attempted to set the new direction for writing twentieth century German history.  Gone is the Sonderweg thesis; gone is national history; gone are master narratives of any kind.  What the authors offer as replacement is a collage of German histories that come closer to truly representing what happened in Germany during the last century.  Shattered Past offers new analytical and interpretive frameworks that the authors hope will help explain how Germany went from the devastating Third Reich to the prosperous Federal Republic of Germany.

At the heart of this book lies the contention that there are no master narratives that are adequate to explain Germany’s turbulent past.  The title phrase “shattered past,” refers to the fact that Germany’s past is fractured politically, socially, and even geographically.  The narrative of national history lost credibility when it was used for legitimizing mass violence by the Nazis.  And while Marxist history sought to create an “emancipatory history” (61), it ultimately became nothing but the mouthpiece of the SED dictatorship in East Germany.  Lastly, the authors assert that a liberal, progressive narrative – even one that ‘admits’ that the Great War, the Third Reich, and socialist East Germany were ‘detours’ – is not a satisfying narrative.  Instead of seeing 1918, 1933, 1945, and 1989 as aberrations of a teleological German history, the authors ultimately conclude that “uncertainty might be the principle of twentieth century history rather than an abnormality to be explained away” (350).

While Jarausch and Geyer are leery of single master narratives, they do suggest a historical approach that they feel is most able to create these new, alternate German histories.  By using the methodologies and approaches of cultural history, we may be able to rewrite German histories “from the margins to decenter received conceptions of what it meant to be German at a given time” (83).  In this light, Jarausch and Geyer are interested in German identities.  “Cultural history explores the ways and means by which individual and social bodies constitute themselves, how they interact with each other, and how they rip themselves apart” (15).

The book lays out seven themes that should act as “guideposts in deciphering the shifting map of territories and people that make up the twentieth century German past” (18).  These themes include: war and genocide, the contested nature of German governance, the decline of German power in Europe, migration of German peoples, the struggle over German identity, competing visions of German womanhood, and lastly, the rise of consumerism.

By viewing Germany’s twentieth century past through these seven themes, we may gain a more complex, and thus accurate understanding of the shattered past.  More focus would then be given to peoples that previous master narratives had marginalized, like women and homosexuals.

Women’s history would no longer be a separate “critical counternarrative,” but would be central to understanding the gendered nature of power and identity (247, 268).  Part of these German histories would be the fact that national boundaries would no longer be as important, and people who still claimed a German identity but who did not live within Germany’s geographic borders (emigrants and refugees, for example) could still have an important place in their histories.

The book also has an interesting chapter on individual and collective memory in which the authors demonstrate that just as there are no adequate master narratives for historians, there is a vast array of personal narratives competing to make sense of Germany’s shattered past.

For more books on Modern German History, see my full list of book reviews here

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Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold

Boots of Leather

 

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold:  The History of a Lesbian Community.  New York:  Routledge, 1993.

 

Subject:  The formation of a lesbian identity and community in Buffalo, New York.  The authors pay particular attention to the members of the working class and their creation of – and subsequent interaction with – a lesbian bar scene in Buffalo.

Research Questions:  What form did lesbian identity take in a Rust Belt city during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s?  In what ways did lesbian women form a sense of community?  How did community influence the gay liberation movement that began in the 1970s?  To use George Chauncey’s language, what were the “gay spaces” of the Buffalo lesbian community?  How do members of this community remember these decades and in what historical context do they place their lives?

Authors’ Arguments:  Kennedy and Davis show that the identity formation of lesbians in mid-20th century Buffalo involved a lot more agency than what might be expected.  The authors point out that this community was marginalized not only by the dominant heterosexual society, but also later scholars of feminist theory, who often dismissed the “butch-fem” lesbians as doing nothing more than passively accepting and mimicking the patriarchal structure of “normal” society.  However, the authors show that butches and fems did not passively (or blindly) adopt these roles totally; in fact, these butch-fem roles (Kennedy and Davis hesitate to use the term “roles” because the people involved were not simply “playing”) were adapted from the available model, but were then actively transformed to meet the particular needs of working class (and even middle class) lesbians.

Butch-fem lesbians not only transformed these roles, but these roles also became crucial to the formation of a sense of community.  How?  1) It gave the lesbian community a framework or structure within which it could function.  These roles “were a social imperative” (152) and only after adopting one could a lesbian “participate comfortably in the community and receive its benefits.”  2) Butch-fem roles also helped create a community in a more basic level:  the butch role in particular (with its specific mode of dress, speech, and mannerisms) made butch lesbians visible to other lesbians, and to the straight world.  “The possibility of recognizing one another was essential for the building of a distinct culture and identity.” (153)

The butch-fem roles gendered lesbian relationships, but they also took the sexuality of women firmly out of the hands of men.  Thus, the butch role was, in itself, an act of defiance and resistance.  The authors point out three main ways in which the butch-fem role was a form of pre-political resistance:  1) butches and butch-fem couples, by “not denying” their interest in women, were at the core of lesbian resistance by becoming visibly different than the dominant society and by forming their own culture; 2) in the 1950s, the butch, who was central to the community’s increased boldness, had little inclination to accommodate the conventions of femininity, and pushed to diminish the time spent hiding in order to eliminate the division between public and private selves; 3) the butches added a new element of resistance:  the willingness to stand up for and defend with physical force their fems’ and their own right to express sexual love for women.  (184).

This tripartite list emphasizes a main goal of the book:  to historicize Stonewall; by that I mean, to put the Stonewall Riots into their historical context by showing that the gay liberation movement that many claim began with the Riots in 1969, did not simply emerge spontaneously or randomly.  Instead, the formation of lesbian identities and lesbian community(ies) had been occurring slowly (below the radar) for decades before 1969, when the gay rights/liberation movement emerged and took this community-identity formation to a different scale.  But what’s most important is that the process explored by Kennedy and Davis was a necessary condition that allowed the Stonewall Riots to be successful in starting a nation-wide movement.

The authors also show the intersection of race and class in this community.  The community seemed to transcend race lines, but stop at class boundaries.  For instance, the masculine-feminine roles were present in both white and black couples, though the words used often differed:  white “masculine” lesbians identified as “butch,” while their black counterparts were known as “studs.”  The people at any given bar or house party (both places around which this new community organized) were usually mixed between black, white, and even some Native Americans.   The authors show why the working class was (and had to be) the driving force behind the formation of a lesbian community: while being “out” did not affect the livelihood of upper class lesbians (they could rely on personal wealthy if they lost their job), middle class lesbians often had to strictly distinguish between private and public lives; their life depended on the income of their job, so being “open” was not an option.  Instead, they went to the bars on the weekend to socialize.  A large portion of “fem” lesbians came from this social class, and were often white collar workers like nurses and teachers.  It was the working class group of lesbians, then, that had nothing to lose by being lesbian both in their private lives and in the public sphere.   Therefore, they asserted openly their lesbianism and laid the foundation for a lesbian community (It should be noted that all of the narrators commented that “we didn’t know what a ‘closet’ was” thus showing that the idiom of the closet either didn’t exist yet, or simply wasn’t prevalent in the way these lesbians thought about themselves.) 

The authors also show how these identities changed over the decades.  While in the 1940s, there seemed to be a dominant feeling to keep work and social lives separate (while not denying lesbianism), by the 1950s, the butch began assuming the firm resistance of the permanent, masculine role.  In the 1960s, a younger “rougher, tougher” generation of butch lesbians had emerged that was more aggressive in asserting a larger lesbian community while simultaneously resisting the straight world.  By the end of the 60s, this tension erupted in a national gay liberation movement.

Similar to Chauncey’s Gay New York, Kennedy and Davis show the importance that geographic spaces (namely bars – and also house parties) played in this identity formation.  Not only did it give lesbians a safe place to go and socialize (though, they were not always safe), they also helped to (re)enforce gender roles.  There were “rougher” bars, while there were also bars where the rough and tough butches were welcome, but it was made clear that violence wasn’t tolerated.  Often within these ‘safe places,’ the space was divided:  in the Carousel, fems and gay men often gathered in the front, near the windows (this was also used as a safety tactic, because the mixed appearance wouldn’t so quickly give away the bar’s status as a ‘gay bar’) while the rougher butches gathered in the back room.

Context & Method:  Like I’ve already said, this work seeks to challenge the feminist historiography that also, in its own way, marginalized the working class butch-fem couples of mid-20th century America.  This work also puts the formation of a lesbian community in its historical context (historicizing the liberation movement that began in the 70s and showing that there was resistance to anti-homosexual norms before Stonewall).  The methodology is noteworthy because it is an oral history – the voices of some of the lesbians from this community are given a central place, which also helps give agency to these women.  This work is also an ethno-history, meaning that uses the methodology of an ethnography, the intensive study of the culture and identity of a single community (which may be insightful and descriptive, but provides only a “snapshot in time,” a static glimpse into a culture), but adds the analytical approach of history, that is the analysis of change over time.

My Comments:  I really loved this book.  I liked that it was an oral history and we got to hear from the women themselves.  Because of the marginalization of this group of people, the “traditional” historical documents weren’t available to historians, so without the methods of oral history, this story would not be knowable.

For more works on the history of sexuality or gender, see my full list of book reviews here. 

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Intimate Friends

Intimate Friends

Vicinus, Martha.  Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Subject:  A reevaluation of the ways in which upper class white women in Britain and France expressed and sought to define their love for other women.

Main Points:  The main objective of Vicinus’ book is to complicate or replace a linear understanding of the historical development of “the” lesbian identity.  In this new, piecemeal, kaleidoscope view, medical discourse is downplayed and she focuses on the “lesbian-like” women themselves.  By using diaries, letters, essays, fiction, newspapers, and even court cases, Vicinus discerns how these women understood themselves, their relationships, and their connection to society.  By approaching the subject from this angle, Vicinus succeeds in showing that these women employed many different discourses at different times to describe themselves, thus achieving her goal of complicating the emergence of a singular “lesbian” identity.

In fact, in her introduction, Vicinus explicitly questions the usefulness of “identity” in historical analysis.  Is it too simple to assume individuals were motivated by an impulse to construct an identity for themselves?  Perhaps these women never saw themselves as embodying only one identity (“lesbian” for example), and moreover, perhaps they never wanted to.

Her book is divided into four parts, each of which discusses a particular type of arrangement between intimate women.  Part 1 looks at “husband wife couplings,” though I think it could be more generalized simply as “coupling,” because the pairs of women discussed in these chapters aren’t necessarily trying to mimic the heteronormative marriage of masculine husband and feminine wife.  They simply lived together in monogamous (for the most part) relationships, in the countryside, separated from the rest of society.  It was society that then forced the “husband and wife” rubric on to them.  Part 2 discusses what Vicinus calls “queer relationships” in which complicated love triangles were formed between a husband, his wife, and the woman that the wife still loved.  Far from the traditional understanding of these triangles, which posits that the man viewed his wife’s desire for another woman as trivial, Vicinus paints a portrait in which the relationship among all three is deeply entangled.  In some cases, the man respected his wife’s desire and used his marriage to her as a shield, protecting his wife’s same-sex relationship from the view of society.  His role then shifts from lover to “male mother” who gives a platonic and paternalistic love (132).  Part 3 then addresses “cross age” relationships; in other words, the ones that were built upon an age difference and took on the role of mother/daughter, aunt/niece, or teacher/pupil.  “Whereas same-sex marriages could be more equal than heterosexual marriages, cross-age love accentuated inequalities…disparities of age and power increased the opportunities for intense emotional dramas between women” (109).  These cross age relationships were not always physical, but they often led to ‘husband-wife’ marriages.  And part 4 discusses the “modernist refashioning” of these erotic friendships into a lesbian identity.  At the same time, the medicalization of sexuality provided a wider array of vocabulary with which these same-sex desiring women could express themselves, but it also offered fewer roles for them.  Vicinus highlights the ways in which these emerging, modern lesbians (those who embraced that identity) did not simply subscribe to the medical identities, but negotiated and forged identities on their own terms.

In all of these varied relationships listed above, Vicinus emphasizes that the women involved used their knowledge of family, religion, education, and nature to talk about and understand their desires.  This challenges the traditional view of same-sex relationships among women as characteristic of either romantic friendship or gender inversion (“male”/female marriages).  Her book also shows that sexual, genital contact was not always a defining factor of an erotic relationship.  In fact, sometimes it was part of the drama of self-restraint that added to the passion of the relationship.

My Comments:

The stories that she includes in the book are fascinating, but I think the obvious contribution Vicinus has made is complicating the story of women who have loved women.  Moreover, I think her book has returned agency to these women by showing how they actively maneuvered societal norms and gender roles to define their relationship with their lover.  At first I was skeptical – or just didn’t fully understand – her critique of “identity” as an analytical lens, but after finishing her book, I think I better understand it.  I wonder though, if it’s helpful at all to talk about multiple identities?  Because, I’m convinced that these women (and us today) aren’t ever trying to form a single identity, but that we utilize multiple identities depending on our situation – and one identity is no less sincere or “real” than the other.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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