"It's people that matter, Mar, not sexes or ages...The monsters are those who go rutting around like monkeys, not those who choose to be human whatever it costs."
Certain brave humans have fought over the centuries to make those around them realize that love between people is love between people, and it exists in many forms. This idea has been viciously denounced, smeared, lambasted, and beaten into silence. But someone new has always appeared to carry the torch and continue the fight.
Jane Rule, for those not living deep in the forest of Lesbian Literature, is the author of the rather famous lesbian novel Desert of the Heart. She wrote a book in 1975 called Lesbian Images, which while being a title you'd rather hide while reading on the train, is in fact very worth reading.
Lesbian Images starts with a chapter on 'Myth and Morality,' which is where 1975 Jane Rule has to talk out why we believe what we believe, and make us think about whether what we believe is justified. She gets in points like "for morality also is a test of our conformity rather than our integrity," saying that morality is not so much based on if you're doing something that feels right to your soul, but if society as a whole sees you going along with its established conduct and therefore approves of you. Then you are being "moral."
"Women have lived not outside the law so much as beneath it," and yes. I love this. Because you can make these arguments about the past like "oh, well, by being ignored by lawmakers to a great degree, we had more freedom," but it was tremendously denigrating to half of the population. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton pointed out in The Woman's Bible, women were excluded from civil and religious law, resulting in things like having no place in the Jewish covenant with God through circumcision, and having little to no voice in the public sphere. Women practically did not exist, except when being mentioned as part of a property exchange.
As mentioned in my post on Same-Sex Dynamics Among 19th Century Americans: A Mormon Example, Rule is writing this intro as part of a pushback against mainstream thought. Arguments still had to be made for making someone even begin to think that their wholesale condemnation of homosexuality was maybe not completely correct. Rule points to us living in a Judaic law-inspired society, which does not quite fit us, as the ancient Jewish tribes were survivalist nomads for much of their existence, and their laws were formed around the idea of surviving.
She goes from this opening chapter to a discussion of 20th century authors whose work can be interpreted as having lesbian overtones. Rule doesn't condone all of these authors and their usually cruel and prejudiced portrayals of lesbians, but she discusses their influences and the author's background. I found it all to be a helpful survey of those whose work I've either avoided, overlooked, or never heard of.
Gertrude Stein, who I've heard either criticized rather viciously, or found myself scared of after hearing her work described as "experimental," wrote in a rather readable way early on in her career, allowing fantastic quotes like, "You are so afraid of losing your moral sense that you are not willing to take it through anything more dangerous than a mud-puddle."
Rather than letting herself be bowled over to these towering or at the least extremely well-known literary figures, Rule dissects them in a cold, academic way and says things like this about Colette, author of Gigi: "If she was ever troubled about hurting herself with the image she created of a precocious and cruel schoolgirl growing into the indulged wife of an aging libertine, she does not say so."
Radclyffe Hall, Willa Cather, Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth Bowen, Dorothy Baker, and others are covered, giving one a brief look into their background and work, making criticisms where they seem merited while giving some leeway to the pressures working against these women while they were writing.
Having even a vague idea of who more authors are is better than not, and while I will still inveigh against the bad writing of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, I can admit that to end your 1928 lesbian book with this is an act of bravery that makes my eyes well up:
'God,' she gasped, we believe; we have told You we believe...We have notdenied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, beforethe whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!'
Rule rounds out the book with a chapter on the contemporary feminist movement, i.e. what was happening in 1975, which was extremely eye-opening and made me check out Kate Millett's Sexual Politics. Much like with the feminist movement of the 19th century, our history seems to only have room for one or two names from the 1960s Second Wave. Suddenly in addition to the usual Steinem and Friedan talk, names cropped up before me like Del Martin, Jill Johnston, and the aforementioned Millett, all of whom made tremendous, sometimes controversial, contributions to the movement.
|...maybe sit this one out, Jill.|
The National Organization for Women disowned the lesbian feminist movement until it was essentially forced not to; psychiatrists fought tooth and nail to retain homosexuality in its list of mental illnesses; Del Martin spoke of "stories of isolation, despair, madness, and suicide that must be told, for in no other way can the oppression of lesbians be understood for what it is."
The book ends with "The silence has finally been broken." Rule speaks of gay women in the 1970s taking the small but revolutionary step of speaking to close friends and family about themselves, and one cannot help but think of how those small steps grew and grew over the decades until 40 years later, in 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges was decided, and marriage equality became the law of the land. All I can feel after finishing this book is gratitude to those of the past for breaking that silence, and for starting this country on a path that has brought its citizens that much closer to true liberty.