People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Review of Journal of Lesbian Studies Vol. 1:1 and The New Lesbian Studies
Anne Rubenstein, History Department, Allegheny College
Review of Journal of Lesbian Studies Vol. 1, No. 1, ed. Esther Rothblum,
Haworth Press, 1997; and The New Lesbian Studies ed. Bonnie Zimmerman and Toni A.
H. McNaron, The Feminist Press, 1996.
These two new volumes may sound very exciting to historians and other scholars
interested in gay/lesbian/queer studies: at last, potential substitutes for the
increasingly expensive (for students) and time-consuming (for us) xeroxed course packet.
The first issue of The Journal of Lesbian Studies bears the subtitle
"Classics in Lesbian Studies, Part I" and reprints seven articles that the
editor, psychologist Esther D. Rothblum, considers important work on the question of
"identity." (The next volume will reprint scholarly work in the categories of
"history and literature," "physical and social sciences," and
"politics.") The subtitle reveals some bravery on the part of the editor and the
editorial board; by calling the contents of the first two volumes "Classics"
they invite an argument about what truly constitutes a classic in the field, and -- for
that matter -- what the field really is.
Unfortunately the editor dodges that challenge by announcing in the introduction that
she has decided to exclude some articles -- she uses Adrienne Rich on compulsory
heterosexuality and Carol Smith-Rosenberg on "The Female World of Love and
Ritual" as examples because they "have been reprinted so often"
(p.2) In other words, the subtitle exaggerates the journals project. Rothblum is not
really trying to pull together all the most influential scholarship about same-sex love,
affection, or sexuality among women; and she should not be taking to task for ignoring,
for instance, Judith Butler or Gloria Anzaldúa (to mention only work published first in
English after 1975, which is what this collection limits itself to).
The actual contents of the first volume essays by North American sociologists and
psychologists who study "identity" -- are all rather similar to each other. By
and large, they examine the coming-out process and life course of various groups of
lesbians in the United States after Stonewall: teenagers, older women, bisexual women,
women of color, and so on. (The collection is admirably sensitive to diversity among
present-day North Americans but betrays almost no interest in the rest of the world).
Historians probably will be struck by the shared, and apparently unexamined, assumptions
of the social scientists who wrote these articles. They take for granted the universality
of dichotomies like "lesbian/straight" and "out/closeted." Even the
article on bisexuality, sociologist Paula Rusts "Coming Out in the Age of
Social Constructionism," merely adds a third term bisexuality to the
categories of "lesbian" and "straight." (Furthermore, in order to do
so the author comes up with yet another dichotomy, between "sexual identity" and
"essence" [pp. 44-46]). Thus their studies of identity all ask how individuals
decide to affiliate themselves with pre-existing groups; they never question why these
categories came into being, how they change over time, or how they compare to the
categories deployed by other cultures. This is understandable in the three studies
reprinted here that were published in 1978 and 1979, but more surprising in the rest, all
from 1989-94. Finally, it should be noted that all but two of the articles themselves are
reprints from the Journal of Homosexuality. Some of the contents of the first
volume of the Journal of Lesbian Studies might prove useful in a course packet, but
if your library already subscribes to the older journal there is no reason to duplicate
The collection The New Lesbian Studies: Into the Twenty-first Century, edited by
literary scholars Bonnie Zimmerman and Toni A. H. McNaron, is considerably better. It
offers reports from various branches of academe, combined with nine essays from the 1982
volume Lesbian Studies: Present and Future, which like the present book was
published by The Feminist Press (now a division of CUNY Press). Margaret Cruikshank,
editor of the 1982 book, contributed a preface to this volume, helping to underline its
status as the successor to the previous, highly influential collection.
The New Lesbian Studies squeezes 40 essays besides the preface, an
introduction, a short bibliography and other supporting materials into 295 pages.
Almost all of them seemed far too short, but then it is a rare thing to close an academic
book wishing it had been double the length. The breadth of material is quite impressive:
it ranges from a welcome survey of syllabii from lesbian studies courses, to reports on
conditions for the study of lesbians in New Zealand and Sweden. There are short surveys of
recent developments in sociology, religious studies, anthropology, psychology; there are
three different articles by historians (Leila Rupp on "the Western World,"
Vivien Ng on China, and Yolanda Chávez Leyva on Latinas in the United States). By
including essays on college sports, GLBT program offices, and new information
technologies, the editors also demonstrate that they have thought about the forces that
shape our students academic experience as much as perhaps more than
anything that goes on in our classrooms.
Most of the scholarship represented in the collection privileges personal experience.
The authors tend to begin with memories of tenure battles or searching for
"ourselves" in libraries and archives, only later (if at all) providing to more
formal analysis of current trends in research. Any college professor will find this
fascinating, for much the same reasons that some of us love to read novels about academia.
(And almost all the articles in The New Lesbian Studies are unusually well written,
to add to the pleasure of reading the collection). Most likely, though, students will not
find this book quite so interesting: why should they care about the lives of professors
who are not even their own teachers? The New Lesbian Studies may be helpful to
those of us who are thinking about teaching interdisciplinary courses in gay/lesbian/queer
studies, but will not do as a textbook for such a class.
In conclusion, we are still waiting for an appropriate undergraduate-level primer in
lesbian studies. Do not clean those dog-eared old offprints out of our filing cabinets
just yet -- the course pack will be with us for another few semesters at least.
© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to
promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of
scholars working in the field.
Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a
review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to
the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].
This text is part of People
with a History. People with a History is a www site
presenting history relevant to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people, through
primary sources, secondary discussions, and images..
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© Paul Halsall, November 1998