- Elizabeth Kennedy’s Oral History Intervention
To discuss Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy’s contributions to the field of oral history is not to detract from her role as a dedicated mentor, inspirational teacher, and creative scholar.1 Indeed, she has functioned in all of these roles for me personally. Liz has patiently mentored me for over a decade: she has written countless letters of recommendation; she has thoughtfully responded to my work; and many times, she has helped me to figure out how to manage being a women’s studies program director and department chair, especially at a public university during a period of economic collapse. One thing that stands out and stretches across all of Liz’s accomplishments is her exceptionally fine-tuned ethical compass. Liz has high standards for herself and others, and she communicates these standards without apology. At the same time, she is always reaching to grasp all sides of a situation. I have learned a lot just listening to Liz mull things over. She has a wonderfully intuitive sense of fairness, but also the capacity to appreciate people and situations in all their messy complexity. These qualities make for a good scholar, but they also make for a good colleague and friend.
In this essay, I focus on the role Kennedy has played as an oral historian and the great impact her work has had on the field of LGBT/queer history. I remember reading Madeline D. Davis and Kennedy’s 1986 Feminist Studies article “Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community: Buffalo, New York, 1940–1960” in an undergraduate course taught by historian Mary Ryan at the University of California, Berkeley in 1986. At the time, this article seemed scandalous; it talked openly about lesbian sex, and I was spellbound. The content itself was, well, juicy, but the method and analysis seemed revolutionary. In fact, I remember where I was sitting when I read this essay—like a moment frozen in time. In it, Kennedy and Davis explain their commitments to both working-class lesbian history and oral history. As a working-class lesbian history, the subject of their study is a community of women centered around lesbian bars [End Page 84] prior to the emergence of the gay liberation movements of the 1970s. They had a hunch that these women, who had been stereotyped as “low-life societal discards and pathetic imitators of heterosexuality,” might actually have contributed to forging a “pre-political” culture of resistance that shaped the development of gay pride and contributed to larger political movements (7).
To research this history, they chose oral history as a method, because “the women who patronized the lesbian and gay bars of the past were predominantly working class and left no written records” (ibid.). But their method led them to an unlikely place, as they explain:
Our original research plan assumed the conceptual division between the public (social life and politics) and the private (intimate life and sex), which is deeply rooted in modern consciousness and which feminism has only begun to question. Thus we began our study by looking at gay and lesbian bars—the public manifestations of gay life at the time—and relegated sex to a position of less importance, viewing it as only incidentally relevant. As our research progressed we came to question the accuracy of this division.(ibid.)
Through the life stories of over forty butch and fem narrators, mostly white but also African American, they found that working-class lesbian life in Buffalo during the 1940s and 1950s was indeed pre-political, and the political commitments expressed by their narrators could be best understood through shifts in the social meaning of sex and sexuality. Still, without print documents to verify these shifts in consciousness, they were difficult to measure in any objective way. By listening carefully to their narrators, however, Davis and Kennedy found that they could measure change over time through the way central figures in the community expressed and policed social norms and expectations about butch and fem sexual practice. Moreover, it was through these expressed social norms (that is, instructions on how to have sex with your...