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Spinsters and Lesbians

Independent Womanhood in the United States

Trisha Franzen

Publication Year: 1995

Americans have long held fast to a rigid definition of womanhood, revolving around husband, home, and children. Women who rebelled against this definition and carved out independent lives for themselves have often been rendered invisible in U.S. history.

In this unusual comparative study, Trisha Franzen brings to light the remarkable lives of two generations of autonomous women: Progressive Era spinsters and mid-twentieth century lesbians. While both groups of women followed similar paths to independence--separating from their families, pursuing education, finding work, and creating woman-centered communities--they faced different material and cultural challenge and came to claim very different identities.

Many of the turn-of-the-century women were prominent during their time, from internationally recognized classicist Edith Hamilton through two early Directors of the Women's Bureau, Mary Anderson and Freida Miller. Maturing during the time of a broad and powerful women's movement, they were among that era's new women, the often-single women who were viewed as in the vanguard of women's struggle for equality.

In contrast, never-married women after World War II, especially lesbians, were considered beyond the pale of real womanhood. Before the women's and gay/lesbian liberation movements, they had no positive contemporary images of alternative lives for women. Highlighting the similarities and differences between women-oriented women confronting changing gender and sexuality systems, Spinsters and Lesbians thus traces a continuum among women who constructed lives outside institutionalized heterosexuality.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. c-viii

Title Page

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pp. ix-ix

Copyright Page

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pp. x-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xviii

Despite the efforts of lesbian and feminist publishing houses and a few university presses, the bulk of the most important lesbian works has traditionally been available only from rare-book dealers, in a few university libraries, or in gay and lesbian archives. This series intends, in the first place, to make representative...

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pp. xix-xx

Over the many years of this book's gestation, I have been privileged to have the support and assistance of many wonderful people. My words of appreciation will be inadequate. At the University of New Mexico, Jane Slaughter supported me and my work throughout my graduate career. Jane kept me on...

Progressive Era Spinsters

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pp. xxi-xxiv

Contemporary Lesbians

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pp. xxv-xxviii

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Introduction: Spinsters and Lesbians

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pp. 1-10

Spinsters and lesbians—the images associated with these words are seldom positive. We have no simple, nonjudgmental terms for the women who are this book's focus—never-married Progressive Era women and contemporary lesbians. Introducing these women and titling this book has been a challenge because...

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ONE "What Are You Going to Be?": Families and Childhoods in the Progressive Era

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pp. 11-24

Sara Josephine " J ° " Baker, M.D., was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1873, the daughter of a seemingly solid middle-class, Euro-American family. Writing her autobiography, Fighting for Life, in the mid-1930s, Jo recalls an idyllic childhood, unexceptional for her class and racial background. She was both...

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TWO "I Knew I Was Odd": Growing Up Female, 1936–1965

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pp. 25-46

Robin Edwards, a forty-two-year-old teacher, born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, knew as long as she could remember that she was going to be a teacher. Marriage, along with motherhood, was "something I was not going to do. And I knew that early too and I don't know how . . . that's just what I...

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THREE "O, the Glorious Privilege of Being Independent": Defining Independent Womanhood in the Progressive Era

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pp. 47-78

Edith Stedman graduated from Radcliffe College in 1910. Taking a position at the Framingham Reformatory for Women, she appeared to be situating herself for a life and career within the women-centered social welfare networks of the Progressive Era (Gordon 1994). Her plans were disrupted when her brother...

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FOUR "I Was Going to Have to Do It All on My Own": Toward Independent Womanhood after World War II

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pp. 79-106

After five years away, completing her education as a health care provider, Bobbi Denova moved home to her parents' house. One night, viewing the movie The Sound of Music, she fell in love with the mountains of Austria. A short time later she happened to meet an Austrian ski instructor who encouraged...

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FIVE "Such Beautiful Lives Together": Community and Companions among Progressive Era Women

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pp. 107-132

Mary Elisabeth Dreier and Frances Kellor met in 1904 when Kellor became general director of the Inter-Municipal Committee on Household Research and Dreier headed its legislative group. By Christmas of that year the notes between them were affectionate and loving. In August 1905, Dreier wrote, "But you...

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SIX "We're Not the Only Ones": Lesbian Identities and Communities after World War II

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pp. 133-158

Jo Martinez had been involved in a relationship with Alice Henry for more than four years when she discovered a larger lesbian community.

When I met all these lesbian women it finally occurred to me that there was a community like this. Not just me and her. In Mt. Gold, I'm sure there were other gay women, but even when they...

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SEVEN Spinsters and Lesbians: Resisting and Surviving as Independent Women

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pp. 159-178

Jo Baker tells us very little in her autobiography about her private life past her childhood. She doesn't speak about the women with whom she lived and whom she loved. But Jo Baker and the women in her social and political circles were not isolated women, ignorant of the battles that were taking place...

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On Methodology

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pp. 179-184

In this book I analyze the lives, from childhood through adulthood, of two particular groups of "independent" women: Progressive Era spinsters and contemporary never-married lesbians. For this study, I define "independent" as without economic, legal, or sexual/affectional ties to an individual male. While...

Appendix: Tables

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pp. 185-190


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pp. 191-208


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pp. 209-224


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pp. 225-bc

E-ISBN-13: 9780814728925
E-ISBN-10: 0814728928
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814726426
Print-ISBN-10: 0814726429

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 1995

OCLC Number: 45843998
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Spinsters and Lesbians

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Subject Headings

  • Lesbianism -- United States.
  • Single women -- United States.
  • Feminism -- United States.
  • Women -- United States -- Biography.
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