Some time ago I had a discussion with a friend of mine about the necessity of knowing our ( lesbian) history. I told her I think it’s important to know about the history of women in general and for me, as an out and proud butch lesbian, lesbian history in particular. I personally think it’s sad if women don’t know that the possibilities and rights we have now, didn’t just happen overnight. People have been fighting and dying for these causes and they made change happen. I don’t think I can just take that for granted. That’s why I read women’s history and lesbian history. To know that there were always people who believed that things were unfair or wrong and who acted on that. Or that there were always women who defied the rules of society and who followed their own path.
That makes me a real sucker for the historical fiction written by Sarah Waters. The BBC adapted her novels and made wonderful movies out of them. They give a very nice insight in lesbian life in different times in history. The last movie I watched was ‘The Night Watch’. It’s about a lesbian woman in London who works as an ambulance driver during WW2. The story starts after the war, when she doesn’t have a job anymore, and from there her story is told backwards in time.
It made me think about how it must have been for women, especially lesbians, during the wartime and just after the war, how hard it must have been for them to get sent back to kitchen duty. On the internet I found some interesting background information, but I didn’t find what I had hoped to find: diaries or extensive stories of these women. A bit like the Anne Lister diaries perhaps. I guess it’s all lost, as happened with so much of our history. So I had to settle for what I could find. This quote for instance from an RAF bomber commander: ” You’ll like this girl. She does a man’s work…servicing airplanes, but she hasn’t lost any of her feminine sweetness or charm” (Hartmann 1995, 17). That sounds not so different from nowadays. You can do what you want as a woman, but it’s very important to not lose that feminine charm and sweetness, or you’ll be called a bitch or a dyke or worse: a feminist!
In the U.S. public fear was that the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) either attracting women who were already “sexually deviant” or the experience of military life would make them that way (Meyer 1996, 96). This led Colonel Hobby to demand more strict screening and to determine the motivations of women wanting to join the WAC (Berube 1990, 30). Hobby wanted to create an image of the WAC as chaste, strong, and moral women and the increasing number of working class lesbians within the WAC made that task difficult. (yeah, no morals these lesbians 😉 )
Once in the military lesbians quickly created social networks and a portable environment filled with other WAC lesbians and local lesbians. They were able to meet women everywhere who had replaced men as bus operators, streetcar conductors, taxi drivers, and bartenders in hotels and taverns (Berube 1990, 108).
The end of the war had a big impact on lesbian women and on all women working. The media made it seem that the women were eager to give up there jobs for the men to take up again and were happy to return home. But 80 percent of the women wanted to keep their job and also wanted the same pay as men for the same job.
Despite these forward efforts the acceptance of visible women in the public sphere was becoming increasingly frowned upon. Having lived through the difficult years of the Depression, World War II, and the impending threat of nuclear war, the majority of Americans of all classes were committed to creating a “happy and secure” domestic life. Viable alternatives to marriage did not exist for women in the post war period, and single women were subject to social disapproval if not ostracism (Kennedy and Davis 1994, 69). The aggressive harassment of lesbians and gays was connected to this glorification of the nuclear family and domestic sphere. Homophobia became a way of reinstituting male dominance and strict gender roles that had been disrupted by the war (Kennedy and Davis 1994,70).
If I read it correctly, World War II could have been the changing point in history regarding gender norms. If more women would have stood their ground and would have refused to take up their former roles again, what would men have done? I realize that’s my Utopian vision because history should have taught me that such dramatic changes sadly don’t happen overnight. Patriarchy created a world with norms and regulations and the outcome of that is that most women are conditioned to believe it should be like that. That it is the only way for a society to function. So they blindly settle for that and help keeping other women ‘ in line’.
How did it go for the lesbians after the war? According to history they continued to develop their own, more public, forms of social support and an environment in which they could coexist in a heterosexually dominated world. A part of the lesbians wanted to live a more ‘out’ life, but that was extremely threatening to the post-war society. The butch/femme culture is the best example of this. Butch and femme lesbians refused to be invisible to the dominant culture. They paid the price for their ‘free’ expressions during police raids and beatings (and worse) in their clubs and bars (Stone butch blues by Leslie Feinberg gives a unique insight in this culture). Their were also lesbians who adopted ‘a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society’. Our community is to this day still split between the ones who think we should conform to dominant appearance norms and the ones who refuse to be invisible (Looking queer: body images and identity etc, John Decocco e.a. )
I wonder how it all ended for the ambulance drivers, factory workers, bus drivers and bar tenders like the ones from Sarah Waters novel. If they settled for a ‘normal’ life or not. Their stories are our history. I don’t want them to be erased by time and in a way with my own visibility I remember, celebrate and honor them all, my brave comrades from the past.