Rediscovering Dr. Kinsey's librarian -- a lesbian pioneer
In 1948, Jeannette Howard Foster became the first librarian at the Kinsey Institute's precursor, the Institute for Sex Research, where she contributed to Alfred C. Kinsey's work on homosexuality. In 1956, she published Sex Variant Women in Literature, a full-length bibliography cataloguing hundreds of same-sex female relationships in literature. The book was controversial at the time, but proved to be a landmark in scholarship about the homosexual experience and raised general awareness of lesbianism.
Indiana University East Professor Joanne Passet is the author of Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster, a new biography published by De Capo Press ($27.50). Passet is a professor of history at IU East and has also taught in the School of Library and Information Science and the Women's and Gender Studies Program. She recently gave a public lecture about her new book at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at IU in Bloomington.
Since arriving at IU East in 2001, Passet's research has focused on the intersection of U.S. women's history, the history of sexuality and the history of print culture. Her 2003 book, Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women's Equality, explored women's participation in the 19th-century free love movement. Articles growing out of that work examined feminist utopias in radical sex literature and the use of free thought children's literature in socializing children. The Foster biography was Passet's first venture into 20th century history. Live at IU sat down with Passet to discuss her latest work.
LIVE AT IU: Why is Jeannette Howard Foster an important figure in history?
JOANNE PASSET: Jeannette Howard Foster is a significant figure in U.S. history for several reasons. First, she devoted several decades of her life to researching a book that became the foundation text of lesbian studies, the first work to systematically document the presence of lesbian, bisexual and cross-dressing women in literary texts. Second, she is significant because of her contributions to the work of Alfred Kinsey. In addition to sharing her sex history with him, she helped him connect with other interview subjects, and in 1948, after publication of his path breaking Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, she joined the staff of the Institute for Sex Research as its first professionally trained librarian. Third, as one of the first women to earn a doctorate in library science, Foster had a distinguished career that included service on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Advisory Committee on Education and as a faculty member at the Drexel Institute of Technology's library school. Finally, Foster's life is noteworthy because of the lesbian poetry and short fiction she wrote from the mid-1910s through the 1940s.
LIU: What was it about Jeannette Howard Foster's life that intrigued you?
J.P.: I am grateful to Liana Zhou, librarian of the Kinsey Institute, who initially brought Foster to my attention. As a historian of women who also has a doctorate in library and information science, I have explored the history of women in the professions. As I investigated Foster's story, I realized that she offered an excellent opportunity to explore the life of an educated, middle-class career woman and to shed light on lesbian culture in the Midwest and South. Once I read her letters, prose and poems, I became captivated by her wit and intrigued by the breadth of her connections with writers and publishers. Her literary friends and pen pals included essayist and poet May Sarton, English writer Mary Renault, New Yorker columnist Janet Flanner, novelist Glenway Wescott, lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow and many others.
LIU: Did you learn anything while conducting research for this book that you thought was particularly interesting but not
J.P.: Aside from the fact that Foster wrote Sex Variant Women in Literature, few other aspects of her life were widely known. I was especially interested in the lesbian culture that existed on college campuses in the 1910s and 1920s. Foster's formative experiences at Rockford College, for instance, contributed to her healthy sense of self and confidence, but after World War I the negative stigma associated with same-sex relationships heightened. A year after she graduated in 1918, scandal rocked the college and led to the dismal of several homosexual faculty.
LIU: Foster was born in 1895 and wrote her book, Sex Variant Women in Literature, during a time when homosexuality was not widely accepted. What risks did she take to conduct her research and to write the book, and why did she feel this was such important work?
J.P.: Jeannette Howard Foster was a student of lesbian sexuality at a time when it could not be openly discussed. She lived at a time when families disowned homosexual children, and when a student could be expelled from college and a faculty member or librarian fired if she was known to be a lesbian. As a young woman, Foster was discreetly closeted when the situation dictated (and in fact never came out to her family), but was comfortably out with those she trusted and knew to be sympathetic (like Kinsey and her co-workers at the Institute for Sex Research). Armed with her doctorate, she tackled her research on lesbian literature with the confidence of a scholar on a mission and in 1952 even had the audacity to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of her research on sex variance. In her lifetime, she lived in 17 states and changed jobs frequently in order to gain access to library collections that would advance her research. The gay activist and Professor Karla Jay, who interviewed Foster in the mid-1970s, claims that she would have become a nun if it would have gained her access to lesbian literature in the Vatican Library. Foster boldly published Sex Variant Women in Literature under her own name in the wake of the McCarthy era. As a lesbian who had come of age early in the 20th century, she understood the significance of her research and how it would help others who felt isolated by silence and invisibility.
LIU: When published, her book did not receive much attention. What effect did the book have on society?
J.P.: Sex Variant Women in Literature didn't receive much formal recognition when it appeared in 1956, but it did become a cult classic, with lesbians "borrowing" it from library collections or purchasing treasured copies, which they shared with countless friends. The historian Lillian Faderman was a graduate student at UCLA in 1962 and felt as though she were the only homosexual on campus. This is how alone she and others of the era felt. Then she happened upon Foster's book in the stacks of the English Reading Room. Reading it in the stacks, a few pages at a time, she took great care not to be discovered reading the book that would be her inspiration. She could not come out during her graduate career, or during the early years of her academic career for fear of being dismissed, but in 1976 she began the research that culminated in Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981). Faderman is just one of Foster's heirs. As Susan Wiseheart, one of the founding members of the Arcadia lesbians' land collective, told me, "What I didn't have (before reading Sex Variant Women in Literature) was any knowledge of the community of lesbians." Foster's work went a long way in countering the negative messages confronting 20th century lesbians and gays.
LIU: Was this Foster's only work? Did she make any other contributions through her work?
J.P.: In addition to Sex Variant Women in Literature, Foster's poetry spanned from 1914 to the early 1930s, and was published in 1976 by Womanpress under the title Two Women: The Poetry of Jeannette Howard Foster and Valerie Taylor. Also that year, Naiad Press published Foster's translation of Rene Vivien's A Woman Appeared to Me. Her short stories appeared in serialized format in The Ladder during the 1950s and 1960s, and her two unpublished novels are available in the Barbara Grier/Donna McBride Collection at the San Francisco Public Library. Sex Variant Women in Literature was reprinted in 1976 by Diana Press, and again in 1985 by Naiad Press, and became a selection tool for libraries establishing core collections of lesbian literature.
Passet is now working on a biography of sex radical physician, Juliet H. Severance (1833-1917), and she is beginning to explore the impact of the path breaking and controversial publication of an anthology by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan, entitled Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence (1985). She would like to hear from anyone who remembers reading this book via e-mail, email@example.com.