Stereotypes of the 1950s family generally include a hardworking husband, a diligent housewife, their children, and a white picket fence. However, research by Lauren Gutterman and others suggests a much more flexible family system that could sometimes include same-sex relationships. In today’s episode, we talk to Dr. Gutterman about the postwar family, her book, Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage, the stories of the women who “who struggled to balance marriage and same-sex desire in the postwar United States” and how this new history expands the landscape of LGBTQ history in this period to include the “homes of married women, who tended to engage in affairs with wives and mothers they met in the context of their daily lives: through work, at church, or in their neighborhoods.”
- Lauren Jae GuttermanAssistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
Welcome to today’s episode of 15-minute history. I am Alina Scott, a history Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Today I am super excited to be talking to Professor Lauren Jae Gutterman, an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies at UT Austin and a core faculty member in the center for Women’s and Gender Studies, and a faculty affiliate for LGBTQ studies. And the history department. Professor Gutterman specializes in the history of women gender and sexuality, LGBTQ studies, marriage and the family, popular culture, public history, oral history, and digital humanities. Professor Gutterman is the author of Her Neighbor’s Wife: a History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage published with the University of Pennsylvania press in 2019. And the winner of the 2019 Berkshire conference of women historians Book Prize. Today, we are talking to Professor Gutterman about post-war lesbian history. Professor Gutterman, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me.
My first question is about how you came to this topic and this might be all over the place. But I was really struck by how many examples you have of, you know, these things happening in the post-war years, and at least in my own assumption about, you know, what was private versus public knowledge regarding the family in this time period, I imagined, I guess the archives reflected that. And so I was really surprised by how many examples there were. So can you talk about how you came to this topic, but also maybe what the archive of this topic looks like?
Sure. Well, in grad school, I realized that I wanted to do a dissertation project that centered on women’s lives. And I also realized through other research projects that I did in graduate school, how, looking at a lot of the conventional archival sources that historians have used to document the LGBTQ past that cisgender men’s lives are often at the forefront of those. So I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to really center women and I was kind of hunting around for a project and I was reading a lot of things kind of written about lesbians in the post-war era. And I came upon the Pope, novelist Valerie Taylor, who wrote a bunch of pulp novels, which one of her best-known series featured a woman who was married and engaged in lesbian affairs. And then I found out that she herself had been married, it seems like probably engaged in a lesbian relationship. Ultimately, her marriage ended and she had a series of lesbian relationships openly became a bit of a lesbian activist. So I came upon her and then I was also reading kind of postwar psychoanalytic writing, also reading newsletters that were published by the Daughters of Bilitis, which was the nation’s first lesbian rights group founded in San Francisco in 1955. And so in all of these sources, in the daughters of the latest news newsletters in the post-war, psychoanalytic writing, and also pulp novels, this kind of figure of the lesbian wife or married lesbian kept cropping up. So originally, I thought the project would just focus on the post war period, and I had plans to write about three different women, Valerie Taylor was one of them. And for various reasons, those three women writing their stories kind of fell apart. But I traveled to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, where the papers of the Daughters of Bilitisare located. And there I just discovered tons and tons of letters that married women had written to this organization, you know, from the 1950s, through the 1980s. And it was really that collection of letters that made this project possible.
That’s so interesting. So I want to talk about some of the examples that you give in your book. And it starts with the story of Betty Duran and Alma Routsong, two women who divorce their husbands and start this life together in I believe, the 1960s.* And I think I’m curious, and I’m sure our listeners are too. But what about this time period makes this possible? Is it something about the post-war years or a certain decade that makes this a safe option?
Well, I mean, I think Betty Duran and Alma Routsong’s story is pretty exceptional. So Betty Duran was not married and she was a very accomplished woman. She was an economist, you know, so she could financially support herself and she moved To Champaign Urbana to conduct this economic study at the University of Illinois where Alma route songs husband worked, and they just met, you know, in one way that their story is typical of the kind of post-war period is that they met through their church, right? It wasn’t through a lesbian bar or an explicitly lesbian space and, you know, became friends. And in many ways, contrary to what we might expect, it was really Alma, who was married, who was the one who pursued a sexual and romantic relationship with Betty Duran, who was more reticent to become romantically involved. And so in that way, the fact that they met in the course of their daily lives is typical of the women in this post-war period. But what was exceptional was that Alma route song left her husband and she did so you know, even though she had four daughters, part of the reason she was able to do so was because she knew that Betty could support her financially but also Alma Routsong and her husband had long been open about her attraction to other women. And when you know, she and it’s not entirely clear, he may have had affairs, or at least romantic connections with women outside of their marriage as well. And so she, they talked really openly about her feelings. He knew about Betty. And when she wanted to divorce, he agreed to play the guilty party in the divorce and said on truthfully, you know, that he had hit her whatever the minimum number of times was in Illinois law in order to get a divorce in that period. And he agreed that he would take custody of the children, she did not want custody of the children. But he also said that he would allow her to see them and continue a relationship with them. And that became harder, and he became less supportive of her continued relationship with the daughters over time. But in terms of your question about what in the post-war years made this kind of possible these same-sex relationships within the context of marriage in the book, you know, I point to a lot of different things that I think contributed to this part of it was just the fact that divorce was so stigmatized and marriage so necessary, especially for women that many husbands like Alma route songs husband, who knew even if their wives had this kind of romantic or sexual relationships with other women didn’t necessarily see them as threatening in the beginning, because they didn’t think it would be possible for their wives to actually divorce them, they thought this would pass, you know, understandings of homosexuality and lesbianism in particular in that period portrayed it as something that was not serious, that was a kind of, that would be something that would pass. And so many husbands kind of waited for that to happen for these relationships to go away. And I think another thing that contributed to this was, you know, there were very different ideas about marriage in the post-war period. So by the 1970s, there’s a kind of new ethos in which marital experts and psychologists are stressing openness and honesty in marriage and communication, especially around matters of sex and sexuality. But in the 1950s, the advice that women were getting, in particular from marital experts was keep your feelings to yourself, don’t confront your husband with things that might distress him, you need to maintain a stable house. For him, the expectation was that you would largely be living kind of separate lives, and that for women in particular, you don’t share a lot of your deepest feelings with your husband, especially around sexuality. And so that kind of emotion, greater emotional distance, and emphasis on not revealing everything to your spouse was something also that I think made it possible for husbands and wives to kind of maintain this discretion around wives affairs, or a willingness not to talk about it or just to look the other way.
So kind of on that topic, and I realized self-identification is really complex and difficult to determine, especially from archival texts. But I wonder how these women are seeing themselves, you know, whether they decided to leave their husbands or whether they remained married to a man and had this kind of openness in their relationship, but I wonder how they are seeing themselves in their sexuality in this time period?
I mean, one of the things that I point to in this project are the ways that language and conceptions of sexual identity changed over time. And so in the post-war period, in letters that women wrote to the daughters of Bilitis, their language often reflected post-war, psychoanalytic writing about homosexuality, and so they would say, I have lesbian inclinations or lesbian tendencies. And because everything was telling them that these feelings weren’t serious, they would pass you know they’re a distraction from true mature heterosexual desires. Many of the women Who were writing to the Daughters of Bilitis didn’t necessarily claim the identity lesbian for themselves, even as they’re aware of these same-sex desires, and the label bisexual was even less kind of available to women at that period, it was really seen by post-war, mental health experts is a false identity that was just a cover-up for homosexuality. And so they tended to use this kind of flexible language of lesbian inclinations. I mean, I also depend a lot on oral history interviews that were conducted since the 1980s for lesbian and gay Oral History Collections. And so that’s also influenced the study in terms of whose voices I have. And so a lot of women in this book did ultimately come to claim a lesbian identity over time, but there’s evidence of other women often through secondhand stories through their former lovers or through some of their children who I spoke with that married some married women engaged in lesbian relationships without necessarily ever claiming that identity for themselves lesbian or bisexual or anything. So there’s, there’s really a range. And another thing I talked about in the book is that that the term bisexual did in some ways become more available to women over time in the 1970s, there was this so-called moment in popular culture of bisexual chic. And so kind of the language of bisexuality certainly began to circulate much more frequently appear much more frequently in popular culture In the 1970s. But at the same time, lesbian feminist communities were many of these women were very judgmental and not accepting that of women who identified as bisexual. So, so overall, even as that language and that identity became more acceptable, there aren’t a large number of women in the study who claimed that identity. Oh, that’s
I’m also interested in the women who did decide to leave these relationships with men, I wonder if there are ramifications for this for them, or what that process was like for them to leave these relationships in the postwar years?
Yeah, I think all my route song and the fact that she was able to leave her marriage in the 1960s was really exceptional. And part of that, as I said, was because Betty Duran had an income also, Alma route song had published some books as a novelist, although that wouldn’t support her life financially, but very few women, you know, I that I was able to find, were able to leave in the 1950s or 1960s. And I think that was both because they feared losing custody because of the tremendous discrimination that existed against gays and lesbians in this moment. So that the idea of kind of leaving a marriage and in most cases, raising children outside of it seemed next to impossible. And most of the women in the study also, you know, depended upon their husband’s financial support, particularly if they had children. You know, for some women, it was possible to support themselves financially outside of marriage, but to support children was, was a lot more difficult. So few women were really able to do that in the first part of this study. But that changed over time, and increasingly, because of what people have referred to as the divorce revolution in the late 1960s, and 70s, which entailed both kind of transformation of divorce law nationwide, as well as a shift in national attitudes towards divorce, so much greater acceptance of divorce, as well as the growing I don’t know, not necessarily acceptance, but growing visibility of gay and lesbian communities, it became more possible for these women to leave their marriages after the late 1960s. But those women who did leave it was really after leaving their marriages that they encounter the kind of most brutal state repression right typically in child custody cases in which you know, judges and lawyers ask them about their sexual experiences explicitly the names of lovers what they did in bed, what lesbian sex entailed. And they also not only gave primary custody to ex-husbands, but also put restrictions on openly lesbian women’s ability to see their children often they couldn’t see their children in the presence of their lover. They couldn’t take their children to, you know, gay community spaces are pride parades are places where gay and lesbian community-centered, they couldn’t involve their children in any kind of gay and lesbian activism. So there were new kind of restrictions put on openly lesbian mothers in the 1970s.
I also wonder how this fits with the gay liberation movement. And I wonder, you know, are these women participating women who are still in their marriages or women who have embraced Coming out whether or not they’re participating in that movement.
Absolutely. I mean, many, many formerly married women participated in gay liberation participated and lesbian feminism. In particular, I think I include a quote from the book from a lesbian activist in the 70s, saying, you know, a large number of lesbian feminists at the frontlines of the movement or the 1950s housewives. So there was recognition about that. And, you know, for many of the women in this book, to leave their marriages to come out as a lesbian to participate in abroad, or gay and lesbian community was something that was they experienced as liberating is freeing. But other women that I try and draw attention to in the book as well didn’t necessarily experience those changes in the same way. So even though there was tremendous discrimination in the post-war era, a lot of married women who experience same-sex desires, didn’t feel the same pressure to choose right between marriage and lesbian life as they did in the 1970s. You know, and many women also felt really badly about ending their marriages, I conducted about 30 of my own oral history interviews for this project. And a lot of the women that I spoke with felt still really sad about ending their marriages, they talked about their husbands as being good men, they felt that they had lied to them or been dishonest to them. Or they felt like they should have recognized this about themselves earlier. So many women also felt really badly about the kind of repercussions that divorce had on their children, you know, whether they retain custody of them or not. So I guess I’m trying in the book to complicate a kind of simplistic liberation story. And to reveal that, you know, it’s more was more complex than that.
So this is our last question. To conclude, I’d like to ask how your book and these women fit into the larger history of the family in the post-war period, which is very straight, and also LGBTQ history, because I think that’s right where your book is- at the intersection of LGBTQ history and history of the family. So yeah, how does it fit into that larger history that connects the two of them?
Well, I think that until very recently, that the histories of kind of American marriage and the family and LGBTQ history have been pretty separate. And so I think that hope you know that my book is doing some work to bring those fields together. And in that way, I think it’s part of a broader group of books that include Daniel rivers, radical relations, which is about how gay or lesbian or bisexual people were able to raise children inside or outside of conventional heterosexual families from the post-war period until the 1980s, or Heather Murray’s book, not in this family, which is about gay and lesbian, bisexual people’s relationships with their parents, and also books like Rachel hope Cleves, book, charity, and Sylvia about a marriage, essentially a marriage-like relationship between two women in early America. And so I mean, one of the big things that I hope that readers take away from this book is that in many ways, this kind of separation that we see in the historical literature between marriage and the family on one hand, and LGBTQ history, on the other, is really an artificial separation and that the family and marriage even you know, in that period of the post-war period, which we think is like the quintessential June cleaver, suburban white middle-class family period, that queerness was a part of marriage, that marriage was flexible enough to coexist with married women, same-sex relationships, so that LGBTQ history and the history of marriage and the family are just much more entangled than we often think.
* NOTE: Betty Deran was not married.