- Making Girls into Women: American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity
With Making Girls into Women, Kathryn Kent enters a popular debate in literary and historical studies over the emergence of lesbian (or "protolesbian") identities in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century culture of the United States. Forerunners in this discussion include Lillian Faderman and, more recently, Lisa Duggan, both of whom have [End Page 110] attempted to articulate a tradition of publicly sanctioned and forbidden affections between women and to expose the cultural ideologies and networks that informed them. Several chapters of Making Girls into Women have appeared embryonically in print before: Kent's 1996 dissertation and also portions of the chapters on Djuna Barnes's Ladies Almanack, the Girl Scouts, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Oldtown Folks.1 In the book at hand Kent relies lightly on queer revisions of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis in order to argue that the structure of "disciplinary intimacy"—the maternal-tutelary method of "making girls into women" that was pivotal in the subject formation of white, bourgeois women—underwent reorganization because of the rise of market capitalism. Through newly available "semipublic/semiprivate" social spaces, women encountered identificatory models that enabled the development of specifically queer female identifications and relationships.
For Kent, "identificatory erotics" subtend all processes of subject formation. She claims that her theory of such balances competing commitments in literary studies—to valorize the invisibility of a lesbian presence in turn-of-the-century U.S. culture, to recover a solid history of (proto)lesbian identifications and practices, and to avoid anachronistic usage of the term "lesbian" to understand pre-twentieth-century female-female relationships. To this end, she employs the terms "protolesbian" and "queer"—the former as "a way to signal historical connection to modern lesbian subjectivity while at the same time acknowledging the difference made by the shift from a sexuality organized primarily through acts to one defined as identity" and the latter as "a [general] term that is simultaneously oppositional and nonspecific" (2), differentiated from "gay" and thus divided from sexual practice. Kent offers the above definitions in the introduction to her text, presumably as framework concepts upon which her argument depends; yet, tellingly, she employs them infrequently within the body of the text itself. While she succeeds in drawing insightful connections between semipublic/semiprivate spaces and the new possibilities for identification between the women that they introduce, the erotics in "identificatory erotics" seems misnamed (except, perhaps, in parts of her discussion of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons).
Kent's account of subject formation relies heavily on historical developments specific to postbellum U.S. culture. Marked by the end of legally sanctioned slavery and the beginning of Reconstruction, this era saw pronounced concerns about reproductive rights (women were thought to be [End Page 111] responsible for repopulating the nation), fear of nonwhites as well as immigrants and invasions from abroad, and uncertainty about capitalism's effects on gender roles and "character" building more broadly. As these anxieties converged, "home," Kent argues, became invested with special meaning, signifying a space separated from the "heartless capitalist world." John D'Emilio, in "Capitalism and Gay Identity," makes the same observation, but Kent builds upon it by highlighting precisely the changes that occurred in the formation of (especially white, bourgeois) female subjects as the distance between the private and public fell apart. New semipublic/semiprivate spaces such as colleges, boardinghouses, workplaces, and Girl Scout meetings presented young women with different opportunities for identification beyond the maternal-tutelary model of disciplinary intimacy: "identificatory erotics" emerged as girls negotiated the possibility to "be" and to "have" mentors and as commodity culture dispensed "accessories to identity" in the form of serial novels, handbooks, and Girl Scout uniforms, all of which aided in the "recruitment" of girls and encouraged them to "try on" new identities.
The primary observations in Making Girls into Women unfold along roughly two lines: the first regards Kent's overarching argument...