Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review - Cameron Duder - Awfully Devoted Women

Duder, Cameron. Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-1965. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Cameron Duder's Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-1965, traces same sex relationships of middle-class women from the period of early-twentieth century romantic friendship, through to the post-Second World War era of working-class lesbian bars. The work uses several collections of letters and interviews of middle-class and lower-middle-class women to correct a historiography which focuses largely on post-war bar scene and the rise of political and community groups from the late 1960s. Awfully Devoted Women notes that the experiences of women need not fit into the dichotomy framed by the literature of the allegedly nonsexual "romantic friendship" or sexually charged butch-femme relationships. Duder also notes that, contrary to the historiographical consensus, there is evidence that women in pre-war romantic friendships were physically intimate.
Dr. Duder.  Photo: Social Photography
        Duder's goal is to describe women's lives not to theorize about lesbian identity, yet identity issues are breached in addressing the "medicalized discourses of sexuality" in the post-war era and especially in the power of social expectations. For lower-middle-class lesbians, concerns of respectability, class and safety meant that the bar scene was an unacceptable place to socialize. As the author states, "it would be incorrect to portray these women whether as closeted middle-class women whose place in lesbian history is therefore marginal or as [...] faultless heroines who countered the odds and formed community in the face of homophobia. They are at once both of these things and neither. Their stories indicate, rather, that class and sexual orientation are always entwined and that they can work with and against each other in the same individual and simultaneously."
       Sources are a tremendous limitation for those who would wish to take Duder's emotional and personal analysis further in the pre-war period. In this way, Awfully Devoted Women may be a one-off study. The question arises as to whether universal conclusions can be drawn about visibility and physicality of pre-war lesbian lives from Frieda Fraser's papers at the University of Toronto archives (the "richest collection" of papers in Canadian lesbian history), and the handful of smaller collections available. Duder may be content with correcting historiographical notions, which posit that there was no genital contact in romantic friendships, by offering select cases which suggest otherwise. The reader is left wondering if the few relationships that Duder features were typical of the time. In showing the sexual naivety of lower-middle-class women in the post-war years, the Lesbians Making History collection of interviews, and personal testimony from women themselves, allows Duder to assert a more authoritative statement, from a wider body of evidence. Despite the rise of sex education, a lack of knowledge about sexuality meant that women necessarily experimented when forming sexual relationships.
"Queer Affair" Lori Newdick. Heroines Series. Library and Archives Canada.
        Awfully Devoted Women traces the history of same-sex relationships on emotional, sexual, and social levels. The narrative is driven by the voices of the women subjects, in their letters and interviews, which makes for a very readable account. Bedroom details of genital contact are sure to keep pages turning, but details of how lesbians remained visible to like-minded women, yet still remained respectably distanced from the bar-scene, as well as  relationships with families who were still expected to provide for their lesbian children, are equally interesting. Academics will perhaps rail for more gender-theory, but Duder does address interesting historiographical and theoretical currents without writing explicitly for the expert. A particularly interesting theoretical construct is seen in the use of queer theory in analyzing how pre-war lesbians used Freudian language to describe their "libidinal desires", yet remained aloof from these text's pathological implications of deviant sexually.
        Awfully Devoted Women was selected for the 2011 Over the Rainbow Book List, by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table of the American Library Association. As an important work in Canadian gender history, and perhaps the book on early-twentieth century middle-class lesbianism, it is sure to also grace the reading lists of graduate seminars for some time.

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