"The House on the Borderland": Lesbian Desire, Marriage, and the Household, 1950-1979
Abstract

Abstract:

Using interviews, diaries, memoirs, and letters to the Daughters of Bilitis and/or its long time leaders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, this article examines the lives of more than 160 wives who expressed lesbian desires from the 1950s through the 1970s. Scholars have typically understood such wives as being trapped within marriage in the postwar era, before breaking free and building new lesbian lives in the midst of the women's and gay liberation movements. While I do not overturn this narrative entirely, I demonstrate the remarkable extent to which wives were able to create space for lesbian desires within their homes and marriages throughout this time period. Confined to their local communities by the responsibilities of childcare and housework, and ambivalent about publicly claiming a lesbian or bisexual identity, most wives had limited access to "out" lesbian worlds. Instead, they transformed the nuclear family household into a lesbian space. They contacted lesbian communities remotely, found lovers among female friends within the context of their "straight" lives, and engaged in affairs within their own homes. Initially, such wives carried on affairs without their husbands' knowledge, but by the 1970s they chose with greater frequency to tell their husbands directly about their lesbian relationships and to openly balance marriage and affairs. The women's experiences described here compel us to reconsider how marriage and the household have functioned, as well as what constitutes lesbian space.