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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 83-87
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The Unasked Question
Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor
In 1983, when we interviewed Pauli Murray for our book, Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women's Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s, we had no idea that Pauli Murray might be a lesbian. 1 We were interested in her because she was one of the key women who linked pre-National Organization for Women activism with the resurgence of the women's movement in the late 1960s. We knew about a number of her remarkable achievements but wanted to find out more about her activities in the 1940s and 1950s and her connections with the network of women in Washington who began to come together around Kennedy's President's Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW).
On an extremely hot and muggy June day, we drove from South Jersey to Baltimore, in an un-airconditioned car, and arrived at Murray's home hot and sweaty. We still remember how she struck us when she opened the door, a slight woman dressed in slacks and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, with a kind of butchy haircut. In the course of the interview we admitted that we both thought she would be a larger woman, and she said that people often had that response. We also commented on her powerful voice. We both remember thinking that she might be a lesbian, although now we cannot remember what we decided. We certainly did not ask her. Although we were convinced that lesbianism—or what we then thought of as what poet Adrienne Rich called "lesbian existence"—played a powerful role in sustaining feminist activism historically and in the present, we did not ask the women we interviewed about their relationships with women. 2
Why not? Mostly, we think, because we thought they would be horrified. We had found evidence in our archival research of women who lived together in marriage-like relationships and formed communities with similar couples. Former Vassar College roommates and National Woman's Party members Alma Lutz and Marguerite Smith, for example, shared a Boston apartment and summer home in the Berkshires from 1918 until Smith's death in 1959. Mabel Vernon, a militant suffragist and peace activist, and her "devoted companion" Consuelo Reyes, who had met through the Inter-American Commission of Women, spent every summer in the Berkshires with Lutz and Smith, and two Woman's Party members, Alice Morgan Wright and Edith Goode, described by their friends as "always together," visited on occasion. Further evidence suggested that at least [End Page 83] some National Woman's Party members viewed such relationships as lesbian or lesbian-like.
But such evidence indicated disapproval, and other testimony confirmed that women active in the women's rights movement in the 1940s and 1950s did not approve of lesbianism. The charismatic leader of the Woman's Party, Alice Paul, who herself attracted intense devotion from women followers and formed close relationships with a number of women, spoke scornfully in the 1970s of Ms. Magazine as "all about homosexuality and so on." 3 We interviewed another Woman's Party member living with a woman friend who, while we talked, went about the house doing the laundry, cooking us dinner, and bringing us drinks. Yet the woman we were interviewing made it clear that she disapproved of "lesbians and bra-burners" whom she contrasted to the "respectable" women like herself involved in the ERA struggle in the old days. 4
At bottom, we felt that bringing up lesbianism—even in a general rather than personal way—would have been imposing contemporary conceptions and violating the atmosphere of the interaction. Barbara Levy Simon, in her book Never Married Women, describes a similar dilemma. 5 In fact, her attempt to initiate questions about sexual activity with her older women interviewees broke their rapport and, in at least one case, led to a request that she leave the house. Similarly, Pauline Newman, a working-class Jewish labor organizer...