- Leila Rupp:Scholar, Mentor, and Fashionista
I am deeply honored to be part of this roundtable to celebrate renowned scholar, committed mentor, and fabulous dresser, Leila Rupp. Her intellectual work and her professional guidance have shaped my academic work since I was a graduate student at Stanford University in the 1990s.
It was just over twenty years ago that I began my dissertation, a biographical study of a remarkable woman, Dr. Margaret Jessie Chung who was the first American-born Chinese woman physician. During the 1910s and 1920s, soon after Chung graduated from medical school, she donned the physical appearance of a man and adopted the nickname, Mike. She also developed emotional and erotic relationships with other women. And, during the Sino-Japanese War and World War II, Chung became known as an adoptive mother figure who nurtured and entertained thousands of mostly white US G.I.s, entertainers, and politicians. Although I was enthralled by the colorful life of this woman on its own merits, it was the scholarship of Leila Rupp that helped me to interpret Chung’s life.
Leila’s first book, Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939–1945, was a comparative study of wartime propaganda that focused on analyzing US and German gender mobilization strategies.1 She was doing international and comparative history before transnationalism became a prominent intellectual trend in US history. She foregrounded women’s importance in symbolic conceptions of the nation, thereby asserting the centrality of gender for understanding nationalism. I also turned to Leila’s work on same-sex desire to make sense of Margaret Chung’s gender and sexuality. Leila’s 1980 essay, “‘Imagine My Surprise’: Women’s Relationships in Historical Perspective,” and her 1999 book, A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America, helped to establish sexuality as a field of history.2 Her approach to studying sexuality emphasized the importance of careful historical contextualization and attention to how individuals engaged in sex acts, expressed desire, and articulated or disavowed identity. Leila’s nuanced methodology was enormously helpful for me as I sought to analyze Margaret Chung’s gender presentation and romantic same-sex intimacies, as well as her reluctance to claim lesbianism.
Leila has since published not only a US history of women’s same-sex desire but also a global history of Sapphistries.3 I read this work with wonder and envy as I admired how Leila gracefully offered a historical periodization and intellectually coherent arguments, while drawing upon [End Page 149] examples of same-sex imaginings, acts, and writings throughout all time and around the world.
Given the importance of Leila’s scholarship to my thinking, I was thrilled by the opportunity to become her colleague at Ohio State University (OSU). In fact, it was Leila who convinced me to relocate in 1997 to the Midwest from the West Coast where I had been living during my undergraduate and graduate studies. The idea of moving away from California was like falling off the edge of the world, but I recall distinctly what Leila told me over a recruitment meal. It is so inexpensive to live in Columbus, Ohio, she explained, that one can easily and frequently travel away from the Buckeye heartland. And, in fact, Leila and her partner modeled this ability to balance work and personal needs by regularly traveling to Florida and returning to central Ohio during its palest months with golden tans and sunny dispositions.
It was during Leila’s tenure at OSU that she served as editor and coeditor of The Journal of Women’s History (JWH). She generously facilitated opportunities for intellectual engagement and publication not only for me, but also for many other colleagues and students. It was through Leila’s mentorship that I published my first article in the JWH and received the opportunity to reflect on the intellectual legacies of Adrienne Rich’s ground-breaking 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”4
In addition to this labor of love for the field of women’s history, Leila also graciously served as our department chair. For those who may not be familiar with the history department at...