Lesbian history from the 1930s to the 1950s

In Female Sexual Inverts, I wrote about how the early sexologists created the social category of lesbian. Once the idea of female homosexuality became common knowledge, lesbians were able to understand themselves as a minority and find other women with their inclinations, thus forming lesbian communities. In the 1920s, LBG communities began to form in major cities. This post is to summarize the 1930s to the 1950s, which corresponds to chapters 4 to 6 of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman.

In the 1930s, not surprisingly, lesbian communities suffered because America in general was suffering. Many women were stuck in low-paying jobs that made it difficult to support themselves without a husband, and of course some women were jobless. There were actually small groups of lesbian hoboes who found that hobo life permitted them to wear pants and travel with female lovers, and Faderman interviewed one such woman called Box-Car Bertha. Even middle-class women found themselves underemployed because during the depression, good jobs were reserved for men. As a result of economic hardship, lesbians became more invisible—many had to marry men and it was not easy to live a lesbian life, so they weren’t in the habit of declaring themselves. When lesbians are made invisible, it is easy to spread false information about them, which is what happened for quite a while. Doctors began trying to “cure” homosexuality, believing that it was an affliction. Apparently, in 1935, the New York Times ran an article that claimed that homosexual women were being cured by having their adrenal glands removed. And apparently, newspapers were also referring to women “suffering from masculine psychological states.” (This sounds really backwards, doesn’t it? But it’s still happening. Now, women who wear comfortable clothing and love other women are told they have a “male gender identity” and need to be put on Lupron and sterilized. This is almost exactly the same thing as in the 1930s, but now we’re supposed to call it progressive.)

Literature in the 1930s depicts lesbians as sick perverts. Faderman quotes a 1931 novel as that describes lesbians as:

“crooked, twisted freaks of nature who stagnate in dark and muddy waters, and are so cloaked with the weeds of viciousness and selfish lust that, drained of all pity, they regard their victims as mere stepping stones to their further pleasures. With flower-sweet fingertips they crush the grape of evil till it is exquisite, smooth and luscious to the taste, stirring up subconscious responsiveness, intensifying all that has been, all that follows, leaving their prey gibbering, writhing, sex sodden shadows of their former selves, conscious of only one desire in mind and body, which, ever festering, ever destroying, slowly saps their health and sanity.”

I’m kinda loving the line about crushing the grape of evil with flower-sweet fingertips. Does the grape represent the clitoris and does “flower-sweet fingertips” mean that the fingers are full of, um, the other woman’s “flower”? I’m not even sure but I think I’ve concluded that homophobic pulp fiction is weirdly awesome. Apparently, lesbian vampires were also a literary theme, and that sounds like something I’d want to read!

There is evidence of lesbian slang emerging in the 1930s, which means there were some lesbian communities, despite all the difficulties.

“An end-of-the-decade study identified many terms used by lesbians during the 1930s, including words such as “dyke,” “bulldyke,” “bull dagger,” “gay,” and “drag,” which had also been current in the ’20s, as well as other terms that became current only in the 1930s such as “queer bird” and “lavender,” which referred to female homosexuals; “sil”—a contraction for silly, that is, infatuated—which meant a lesbian who was currently in love with another woman; and “trapeze artist,” which meant a woman who performed cunnilingus. Much of the argot described butch/femme roles in women’s relationships such as “jockey,” “mantee,” “daddy,” “poppa,” “husband,” and “top sergeant”—all referring to butches, and “mamma” and “wife,” which referred to femmes. Those terms were probably more descriptive of institutionalized and working-class lesbian life, although they were sometimes used by middle-class women also. The author of Diana acknowledges a special lesbian argot even among middle-class women, in words such as “spook,” which referred to a woman who strayed into lesbianism as second best but stayed because she discovered she liked it better than heterosexuality.”

Butches could be called “top sergeant”? Lesbians from the 1930s sound awesome! 😀

The 1940s turned out to be a good decade for lesbians, because joining the military gave them opportunities to meet each other.

“Less than a third of a million women served in the military during the war, but many of them were lovers of other women. For those who already identified themselves as lesbians, military service, with its opportunities to meet other women and to engage in work and adventure that were ordinarily denied them, was especially appealing. For many others who had not identified themselves as lesbians before the war, the all female environment of the women’s branches of the armed services, offering as it did the novel emotional excitement of working with competent, independent women, made lesbianism an attractive option. (p95)”

I really loved a quote from a female sergeant who was asked to remove the lesbians from her battalion and answered that she’d have to fire the whole group.

World War II WAC Sergeant Johnnie Phelps, in response to a request from General Eisenhower that she ferret out the lesbians in her battalion:

Yessir. If the General pleases I will be happy to do this investigation…. But, sir, it would be unfair of me not to tell you, my name is going to head the list…. You should also be aware that you’re going to have to replace all the file clerks, the section heads, most of the commanders, and the motor pool…. I think you should also take into consideration that there have been no illegal pregnancies, no cases of venereal disease, and the General himself has been the one to award good conduct commendations and service commendations to these members of the WAC detachment.

General Eisenhower: Forget the order.

—Bunny MacCulloch interview with Johnnie Phelps, 1982

Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

The most tolerant time for lesbians in the military was in the 1940s, since women were needed and to fire them would have meant getting rid of important personnel. But when the war ended, the tolerance disappeared, and homosexuals were often discharged. Sometimes entire groups of homosexuals were discharged at the same time, and they’d be shipped off to cities together, where they would stay and form gay communities. Because lots of lesbians were coming to cities, bars could cater exclusively to them. Lesbians were able to see themselves as a significant minority group and to develop a political identity.

After the war, the country tried to return to normalcy and took a conservative turn. Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysts named lesbians as sick and needing to be cured. Then came the McCarthy era and the witch-hunts to find and fire anyone who was a communist or a homosexual. Homosexuality became not only a personal affliction but an affront to society. The witch-hunt attitude was not limited to the government—gays and lesbians could be fired from their jobs anywhere, since public attitude was that they were all perverts. Once again, they were driven into hiding.

The next chapter is on butch/femme roles in the 1950s. I am really looking forward to that!


10 thoughts on “Lesbian history from the 1930s to the 1950s

  1. Huh, well. That explains why an old fellow that lived on my block back in the ’70’s routinely referred to me as “Sarge.” Damn. Being in a ‘military’ town, but not in the service, I took it as a compliment, because all the women I knew, who were actually in the service, were really cool and very self-assured…I had no idea…

    Also, a term used in the South in the ’30’s & ’40’s was ‘turned funny.’ Maybe an offshoot of ‘sil?’

    Thanks for the history, looking forward to the next lesson…


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Do read Donna Knaff’s well-researched article “The ‘Ferret out the lesbians legend’ : Johnie Phelps, General Eisenhower, and the Power and Politics of Myth” in my edited issue of The Lesbian Studies Journal, Vol 13, 4, Oct-Dec 2009 on lesbians in history.
    Phelps was interviewed by Bunny MacCulloch (1982) used in the film Free a Man to Fight, and in Word is Out, cited by Lillian Faderman (1991) and Randy Shilts (1994) among others.
    Phelps claimed that she was stationed in Europe, at Frankfurt, where Eisenhower was commanding officer, and that she was his motor sergeant. However, she never served with Eisenhower.

    1.phelps did not serve in Europe during the war – first there 1946-1947 after the war.
    2. Eisenhower was in Washington serving as Chief of Staff from 1945 so he was not in Europe when Phelps served there.
    3. Phelps was never a sergeant, she was a corporal, serving as a clerk.
    4. Truman was President when Eisenhower was in Europe. Truman did not issue any such order to ferret out lesbians.
    Knaff sees the story as a type of “fishing story” (I caught the big one but it got away!) It’s what Phelps would have liked to have said, had she been in Europe, and had such an order been issued.And that lesbians and gays needed the kind of hero she claimed to have been. Hence the popularity of this invented story.
    Which many now realise is untrue.


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