Of Her Time and Ahead of It

Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster

By Joanne Passet

Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press, 2008, 368 pp., $27.50, hardcover

Reviewed by Martha Vicinus

For bookish lesbians of a certain age, librarian Jeannette Foster’s pioneering work, Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956), was our first, wonderful introduction to the literary portrayal of women who loved women. It is thorough, judicious, and witty. Knowing that most plots featured “inbred hysteria” or similar psychological problems, Foster peppered her précis with sardonic comments about how so many authors “bow to orthodox standards by ending tragically,” sending their lesbian characters to mental institutions or untimely deaths. She starts one discussion of boarding school novels by noting, “There is at first the usual period of honeymoon ecstasy between the two housemates.”

Many of us read the book at the height of the militant phase of the women’s movement, when it was reprinted by Diana Press in 1975 and again by Naiad in 1985, both times with an afterword by the activist and bibliophile Barbara Grier, who had made her own contributions to the recovery of lesbian literature in a series of essays in the lesbian publication The Ladder that were later published as The Lesbian in Literature. In those days, the quality of the literature mattered less than the fact that it existed at all, for it made an important political statement—“we are everywhere in literature,” even if perennially hysterical or immature.

In its time, however, Forster’s research was utterly without public recognition, on a topic that was considered suitable only for those trained in medicine or abnormal psychology. She spent a lifetime researching a forgotten past, only to have to resort to publishing her work with a vanity press. Her lesbian friends clearly supported her project, but didn’t quite understand it. They were not invested in learning about their culture, or perhaps in acknowledging its importance.

Psychoanalytic theories of homosexuality dominated all discussions, academic or popular, and Forster’s work inevitably affirms this dominant paradigm. Still, her book proved to be a valuable breakthrough because it showed that sexuality had a history and could be studied from an entirely different perspective. Even as Forster conceded the overwhelming number of negative portrayals of those whom she called sex-variant women, she herself was always positive. She insisted that her subject was important and worthy of study, setting a precedent for feminists when they began to write about women’s lives.

Jeannette Howard Foster (1895-1981) was clearly an exceptional woman, although her life, like that of most academics, was not filled with major events but rather with major ideas. At an early age she knew she would never marry, and her father strongly encouraged her to seek higher education and training in an occupation. After earning a Ph.D. in library science, she spent most of her working life in academic libraries and was an active, published member of the American Library Association. While she seems never to have found the perfect job or the ideal mate, she was never unemployed and rarely without a close companion and a circle of like-minded women friends, including well-known lesbians such as Janet Flanner and May Sarton. She spent many summers in New York City, socializing with members of the Greenwich Village avant garde.

Probably Foster’s most disappointing career move was to accept Alfred Kinsey’s offer to serve as librarian of his growing collection of materials about sex and sexuality. She arrived at his Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University 1948, in the midst of the international uproar over the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Kinsey explicitly forbade her to come out publicly, as he did not want any additional notoriety. A micromanager who insisted that Foster catalogue books according to his idiosyncratic method, he treated her as “hired help” rather than as an expert and colleague. Feeling cut off from Kinsey’s team of interviewers, unable to work as a professional librarian or scholar, and having fallen in love with a classics teacher at the university, Foster resigned in 1952. She left with many duplicate copies of books on lesbians that she bought from Kinsey, as well as a broad understanding of sexuality studies that doubtless fortified her humanistic approach to the subject.

Although Foster had retired when the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s arose, she quickly made numerous friends among the new, out-of-the-closet lesbians. Until she became too ill, she kept up a remarkable correspondence with multiple generations of acquaintances. She was not a joiner—how could she be, after a lifetime of discreet openness? But she deeply appreciated the daring and confidence of the young women she met, and she took advantage of their offers to publish some of her stories and poems.

Jeanne Passet tackles the life of this remarkable academic with aplomb and perseverance. Although Foster’s papers are now scattered among many different collections, Passet has read carefully a long life’s worth of writings. She has also interviewed surviving friends and associates, focusing on the crucial four years at the Kinsey Institute and on the 1970s, when Foster’s work was rediscovered.

Her study of Foster raises interesting issues for the twenty-first century biographer, including how we understand heroines of the past whose lives resemble our own in some ways and yet in others are quite different. Perhaps we need to reconsider familiar categories. Despite the fact that Foster led a remarkably full and successful life, Passet squeezes her narrative into the old paradigm of the isolated, outcast lesbian. While I am sure Foster often did feel isolated as a person and misunderstood as a scholar, to what degree this was owing to her lesbianism and sex-variant subject matter, and to what degree it was pervasive sexism and the ingrained conservatism of academia, remains an unanswered question.

I admire Passet’s thorough research, but I wish she had taken a step back to focus on the ways in which Foster’s life was both exceptional and representative of the generation of lesbians between the new women of the 1920s and the gay liberationists of the 1970s. Foster was modern in many ways, traveling, working, cataloguing pornography, and teasing young women about their beautiful legs. But as Passet notes, her erotic imagination was formed during the era of romantic friendships. Did she and her friends differ from the previous generation of academic women who were largely confined to single-sex institutions? I am struck by the degree to which many of Foster’s deepest friendships closely resemble those of that earlier generation. The small women’s colleges where she often worked encouraged close relations between students and teachers; these continued long after graduation.

Were Foster and her friends bound by middle-class norms of respectability? At times Passet insists that they were, yet at others, she reassures us that Foster was especially open-minded. Respectability, of course, is a slippery concept, and the definition of proper behavior changed radically over Foster’s lifetime. We need to know more about the changing mores of middle-class, educated lesbians during Foster’s eighty-plus years. I don’t think it would diminish her if we also knew more about how her attitudes about race and class, since much of her working life was spent in the South at white women’s colleges. From the very few comments included, Foster seems to have inhabited comfortably the prejudices of her time, except in regard to sexuality. She was not alone in this, of course: many pioneering feminists were surprisingly narrow-minded about the needs of other oppressed groups.

Passet’s strongest chapters are those on the 1970s, when she was able to take advantage of so many living informants as well as the rich trove of feminist publications from this period. She avoids the temptation of recounting all the interesting but irrelevant stories that she dug up, although I am sure many readers would have liked to hear more about the mixed successes of shoe-string feminist presses. Sex Variant Women in Literature remains in print, but Foster’s dearest desire—to be published by an academic press—was never achieved. Passet’s book will remain an important source of information when future historians come to write about the extraordinary literary efflorescence of the second women’s movement. But we need to rethink how we frame our stories, for the past is surely much more complicated and contradictory than any single paradigm permits.

Martha Vicinus, Eliza M. Mosher Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, is the author of Intimate Friends: Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928 (2004). She has published extensively on the history of lesbians.


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