- Whistling Women: A Study of the Lives of Older Lesbians
In the first act of If These Walls Could Talk II, a lesbian character circa 1961, played by Vanessa Redgrave, is stunned when she discovers that she has no claim on the home that she shared with her long-time partner. Her lover died without a will, and the house was in her lover's name alone. While I am happy to watch Vanessa Redgrave do most anything, I have always wondered if this naiveté was an accurate portrayal. Until recently it was hard to know since there have been few studies of lesbians of this era and class background. That situation may be changing. Claassen's Whistling Women: A Study of the Lives of Older Lesbians was inspired by lesbians whose lives seemed to contradict what we saw in this video.
Claassen interviewed 44 women over 55, 43 of whom were white. Her subjects were overwhelmingly financially savvy and successful. Several were wealthy enough to own second homes, and many could retire early. Claassen gives both qualitative and quantitative analyses of her findings. Though she chose to present the life stories of these lesbians in "snippets" to preserve a level of anonymity, most of the transcribed interviews have been placed with the Clio Foundation in Gulfport, Florida.
Claassen states that her themes will be economics and politics. The first focus responds to literature that argued that earlier generations of women were ignorant of financial matters. The second interrogates the role of middle-class and wealthy lesbians in the lesbian and gay liberation movement. Along with these explicit themes, Claassen addresses a full range of life issues.
Even though Claassen's sample is limited in its diversity, the greatest strength of this book is its contribution to an understanding of the range of lesbian lives in the twentieth century. Though literate and mostly financially comfortable, these women, it is clear, would not have left their life stories if not for Claassen's study. As a result of Claassen's focus on finances and wealth, we hear more about the wide variety of methods these women used to achieve their economic autonomy, an important topic when older women still face high levels of poverty. Toward the end of her book, Claassen reflects that it might have been useful to compare women who never married with those who had been married since she finds that marriage is a significant influence on wealth accumulation. This finding is worth additional attention.
Though the focus of this book is important, it was difficult and frustrating to read for several reasons. Major themes and the threads of the main arguments often get lost or are left hanging among the numerous topics [End Page 216] Claassen attempts to address. Claassen raises questions about families, self-definitions, class differences, communities, political activism, and butch-femme roles, but she doesn't treat any of the issues with great depth or cohesion. In one example, she states her disagreement with a central thesis in Kennedy and Davis's Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, but she doesn't grapple with their analysis about the differing roles of working-class and middle-class lesbians in creating public communities. She never returns to this issue after presenting the political activities of her narrators.
While having enough money to live comfortably as we age is a major concern for all of us, there are other factors that complicate financial planning and aging that are particular to lesbians. Our legal, health care, and governmental systems for the most part still ignore the specifics of lesbians' realities. While Claassen's narrators cite the importance of lesbian-created alternative institutions, we hear little from them on how they have and plan to protect their wealth. It would have been interesting to hear how these women wrote their wills and contracts, interacted with financial advisors, or found health care services that respected their lives.
Claassen's findings, though limited, suggest that Redgrave's character might not...