- The Ruppian History of Sexuality
As many readers of this journal know, Leila Rupp is the model feminist scholar. She is frighteningly prolific, she is the administrator you always wanted—the chair, the dean, the editor who is thoughtful, organized, and completely on top of things—and she is kind, funny, and smart, and, I have to add, stylish to boot. I met Leila years ago when I was a graduate student giving my first conference paper. She came up afterwards and said something nice about my work, and then I had the temerity a few months later to ask her whether she would sponsor me for an Ohio State University postdoctoral fellowship that I had seen advertised. The postdoc was, I learned later, designed for scientists, and Leila could have just said, “sorry, this isn’t for you”; but instead, with her trademark generosity, she said “sure.” I ended up spending a year, soon after graduate school, at Ohio State University with Leila as my mentor, revising the dissertation that became the book that won me tenure. So I owe my career (and I am not alone here) to Leila’s generosity. Thank you, Leila.
Now, to the assigned task. When Leigh Ann Wheeler organized this roundtable, she asked me to comment on Leila’s scholarship on the history of sexuality. Given that Leila has written extensively on sexuality and its ramifications in social movements, there is much that could be said. For the sake of brevity, I will focus here on just three signature contributions: the way Leila decenters the standard histories by placing women-loving women at the center instead of the margins; her consistent attention to comparative, international, global, and transnational history; and her use of social science, especially social movement theory.
The Ruppian History of Sexuality #1
Leila puts women-loving women at the center of her historical inquiry and at the center of both women’s history and queer history; and in so doing, she destabilizes the mainstream narratives. Early in her career, for example, she talked back and revised the work of biographers who refused to acknowledge the intense intimacies between various well-known women. Most notably, she critiqued scholars who downplayed the loving relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Her field-shaping article, “Imagine My Surprise: Women’s Relationships in Historical Perspective,” came out in 1980 in the journal Frontiers.1 Note the date, 1980: that was well before our recent outpouring of scholarship on LGBT history. [End Page 160] In her foundational piece, Leila argued against using the label “lesbian” to encompass all women who loved other women, but she also refused to ignore the intimate bonds of love and desire that appeared in the historical record. She told us to pay careful attention to women’s attachments, emotions, and solidarities without assuming lesbian identity and without denying same-sex love and same-sex erotics. Because she was so spot-on, her intervention may simply sound like common sense today, but in 1980 it was a critical revisionist move.
When queer history emerged as a scholarly field later in the 1990s, Leila revised the histories that used gay men to construct periodization and threw lesbians in as add-ons (or left them out altogether). Her survey of US queer history, A Desired Past (1999), brings lesbian and gay history together, tracking parallel but not identical women’s and men’s histories.2 It is one of the very few works that treats both gay men and lesbians without subordinating the history of lesbians to the history of gay men. And to alert her readers to the centrality of lesbians, she put two women, M. Carey Thomas and Mamie Gwinn, on the book’s front cover.
Much of Leila’s scholarship has focused on feminism in the twentieth century. With her careful attention to women who loved other women, she complicates our understanding of the “female worlds” of activism that included bonds of friendship, love, and sex. She does not romanticize what we used to call “women’s cultures,” but she does not take the romance out of them either. She shows us how women’s intimacies inspired...