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A Woman is a Woman?

Lillian Faderman’s selective histories

Woman: The American History of an Idea by Lillian Faderman. Yale University Press, 600 pages.

“A bitch claims her right to androgyny,” riffs the historian Lillian Faderman as she introduces Jo Freeman’s 1970 pamphlet of women’s liberation, “The Bitch Manifesto,” two-thirds of the way through her latest tome. “A bitch embraces all the dynamic qualities that men have always hoarded for themselves while they reduced females to ‘woman.’ A bitch—not a ‘woman’—is who all women must aspire to be.” Startling as it may appear to the reader uninitiated in feminist philosophy, Faderman’s unifying theme in Woman: The American History of an Idea is this “reduction” of female human beings to the condition of “woman.” She takes pains to lay out her thesis in simple terms, reprising it again and again. In her chapter “Daughters of Liberty,” John Adams praises the writings of Mercy Otis Warren (his wife Abigail’s friend) in 1776, but then turns around and sends her, as Faderman puts it, “back to the sphere of mere woman.” In “Woman on a Seesaw,” she writes that a 1944 congressional report on the U.S. military “expressed outrage at the idea of women flying [and] reduced them to mere woman.” And in 1664, when New Amsterdam became New York, one is told that the merchant Margaret Hardenbroeck went to court and “was reduced to woman” despite her (unwomanly) business acumen as a slave trader. There is nothing, as this last example highlights rather gruesomely, automatically good about being a “bitch.”

Despite stumbling blocks like Hardenbroeck and the other female slavers who were her peers, it is quite possible, especially if you are white, to wax lyrical about America’s long line of bitches and witches, so long as you train your imagination primarily on premodern proto-feminisms involving colonial bluestockings, heretics, healers, lady poets, and Quaker preachers—and then women’s liberation manifestos from 1970. With the exception of “Elizabeth, an enslaved eleven-year-old Maryland girl” whose fate Faderman compares to Thomas Jefferson’s daughter of the same age, enslaved women are not named in Faderman’s history; her somewhat incoherent take is that their “gender was unacknowledged most of the time,” rather than that they were ordered, say, into a different gender altogether. Indigenous womanhoods, too—or rather, female Indigenous people upon whom colonists inscribed “woman”-hood by force—feature in Faderman’s early narrative insofar as various tribes’ matriarchal customs and creation stories are described. But there are very few named Indigenous people in the text besides Handsome Lake, the religious leader whose reforms, encouraged by Jefferson, led to what Faderman calls the “Iroquois’s own version of Salem.”

Lillian Faderman was a working-class parvenu, a habituée of deviant subcultures, a breakout star who wrote highly accessible prose—and/but not a radical.

Leaving the largely unposed possibility of Indigenous feminist resistance to the colonial gender order to one side, Faderman focuses with infectious delight on the women who “kept cropping up, like the Hydra’s heads” all over the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay Colony and resisted being “reduced to ‘woman’”: Anne Hutchinson, Mary Oliver, Katherine Finch, Philipa Hammond, Mary Dyer. But four hundred pages and four hundred years after the Salem witch trials, the historian’s tone has grown glum. Today, the euphoria of the Bitch Manifesto is but a distant memory, and the “lean-in movement,” as Faderman calls the offshoot of Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 manifesto for corporate professionals, is dormant: “According to a U.S. Census Bureau report half a year into the pandemic, about a third of working women ages twenty-five to forty-four quit their jobs because of child-care demands.”

Her aim is to chronicle the entire American story of how an ideological persona she calls “woman” struggled to enter the public sphere, left home, survived setbacks, went to college, entered the professions, fought for citizenship, seized her sexuality, radically reinvented herself, and then—potentially, in the new millennium—began to autodestruct. (From the epilogue: “Is it conceivable that political, economic, or environmental forces could again reduce most women to traditional ‘woman’? Could she again be tied to the domestic sphere where childbearing and child rearing would be her great and sacred duty? Are such possibilities only in the realm of speculative fictions, handmaid’s tales?”) Throughout the centuries of “seesawing” progress Faderman documents—another image deployed is the “jig”; two steps forward, one step back—it is news of women quitting their jobs, “retreat[ing] back to the home,” and leaning out that most reliably dampens her mood as a prose stylist. Faderman regards waged work as a moral good and compulsively writes about the crossing of “the threshold of [the] home” as a measure of progress.

Thus, for her first nine chapters—presumably because there are relatively few jobs for women to quit—her writing is colorful and boisterous, especially in those passages she devotes to plucky early American gender-nonconforming “women” (whom we might nowadays call transmasculine), lesbian spinster utopias like Elizabeth Norris’s mid-eighteenth-century Pennsylvania estate Fairhill, or the late nineteenth-century same-sex unions between ladies known as “Boston marriages,” all of which have previously constituted Faderman’s scholarly specialty. Across Woman’s comparatively dull final pages, in contrast, my sense is that she is hamstrung by an unwieldy uncertainty as to why reduction to woman is still happening, and in particular why women are (still) doing it to themselves by “opting out,” reinventing the mommy mystique, campaigning against abortion, or rejecting the feminism of their “second-wave mothers”—developments that grieve Faderman deeply.

Despite failing to supply a theory of why woman-ization is imposed on populations (and her fondness for 1970s lesbian separatism), Faderman on the whole does not pretend that men alone—or even white, ruling-class men alone—are responsible. While her heuristic is idealist, lacking the materiality of feminisms that seek to make sense of “woman” as a labor relation, she understands that certain women have always numbered among the most despotic parties doing the imposing. Faderman, in fact, spends significant time on the “very long line” of women—from Sarah Josepha Hale to Catharine Beecher to Marynia Farnham to Phyllis Schlafly—“who stepped far beyond the home but had phenomenal success in telling other women that the home was where they belonged.” Schlafly, the author notes acerbically, “led an all-out war aimed at women who fought for the right to do the things she did.” When it comes to the temperance movement, Faderman perceives that some women’s “collaboration in notions of woman’s innate ‘modesty’ or her ‘fitness’ to keep house paradoxically served as their visas out into the world.” Some of the strongest sections of this history are those that expose the hypocrisy of bourgeois flappers and “New Women” (such as Rheta Childe Dorr) whose feminism translated into deeply classist, whorephobic Lady Bountiful-style initiatives to rescue working girls from the lure of prostitution, even as they claimed for themselves the right to sexual libertinism. Faderman has managed surprisingly well to integrate an account of this ever-present fifth column into her hugely ambitious feminist battle-epic.

The ambition in question is to render a unified narration of gender in the United States as a meliorative process. To be sure, the long journey Faderman documents suffers from constant interruption, backlashes, and backslides, its destination undependable. But the epilogue still bears the hopeful title “The End of ‘Woman’?” and the book’s overall arc of enlightenment should be clear to anyone who glances at the table of contents. “It would be a mistake,” one is told at the beginning of the book, “to believe with whiggish optimism that changes in the idea of woman have been linearly progressive.” The tension between this awareness and the book’s always-audible drumbeat to the march of progress makes the experience of reading Woman as fascinating as it is, ultimately, dissatisfying.

Mother, Comfort Us

I do not envy the pressure Faderman may feel not to demoralize her readers, some of whom have looked to her for a sense of community and self-knowledge for over fifty years: this is Faderman’s eleventh book. “For many of us who were out in the 1980s, Faderman quickly became an icon,” the poet Yvonne Zipter explains. This is almost an understatement. Faderman’s first two books, Surpassing the Love of Men, a field-defining history of “romantic friendship and love between women from the Renaissance to the present,” and The Scotch Verdict, an account of an early nineteenth-century Scottish boarding school’s collapse following a student’s testimony of staff lesbianism, earned her the accolade “mother of lesbian history” as early as 1983. It remains her media tagline to this day.

But Mother branched out into gay history more broadly in 2006, when she coauthored Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians with Stuart Timmons. Her most recent book before Woman is a 2018 biography of Harvey Milk. In 2015, her chef d’oeuvre, the eight-hundred-page history The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, was hailed as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and as a definitive moral account of the “arc of history” by The Economist. Albeit sorrowful, righteous, and grave in all the right chapters, its overall tone is strikingly upbeat and unvengeful vis-à-vis American government and society, concluding contentedly with the enshrinement of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court in 2015: the final step of the gay revolution, it is implied, is family respectability. (Living in California, Faderman married her longtime partner Phyllis Irwin in 2008 as soon as the state allowed for it.) Whether or not Faderman encourages the role in which she is increasingly placed for public consumption—namely, the role of the model first-generation American who is proud yet grateful, self-made but a team player, formerly feisty, now an elderly sage—her present place at the heart of the liberal literary establishment probably depends on it.

It seems plausible that becoming a national treasure—some might say getting recuperated—was Faderman’s consciously or unconsciously desired trajectory from the get-go. Back in the early 1980s, within academic historiography, the young Faderman was a working-class parvenu, a habituée of deviant subcultures, a breakout star who wrote highly accessible prose—and/but not a radical.

Her original publisher was William Morrow, which had midwifed, in 1970, the sudden success of another Jewish feminist: the leftist revolutionary Shulamith Firestone, who completed The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution at the age of twenty-four. Faderman notes in Woman that Dialectic, “an intensely passionate screed,” “became a best seller,” while reproducing an annoyingly common misrepresentation of its ideas as “suggesting Brave New World-type solutions to parturition, such as mechanical wombs.” Firestone in fact goes out of her way to insist that ectogenetic technology in the hands of capitalists would usher in dystopia: the goal, for her, is to abolish capital along with “nature” and the entire culture of the United States. It is evident that Faderman sees many parallels between the young anticapitalist theorist’s life and her own, even beyond sharing a publishing house and visceral involvement with the women’s liberation politics of the year 1970. But unlike Firestone, Faderman did not disappear forever from the scene of feminism after her smash debut. Rather, following a contract with Columbia University Press, which published her brilliant third monograph Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (1991), Faderman returned to trade publishing with her lesbian literature anthology Chloe Plus Olivia (1995), an intervention that cemented her reputation as a giant of women’s studies, shortly followed by a pop history To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America (1999). The latter subtitle, in retrospect, very much foreshadows the tone of liberal patriotism that The Gay Revolution would perfect.

Faderman is unquestionably one lesbian who has done much “for America”—this being a good thing, in her own estimation. And whether you view these two things as overlapping or distinct, she has equally done an extraordinary amount to foster lesbian community. At the age of sixty-three, the professor published a memoir, awash with plucky Lebenslust that gradually ages into an ethic of civic duty. It recounts how Faderman and Phyllis Irwin founded the women’s studies program at California State University, Fresno. Appropriately humble about its achievements, the memoir pays homage to a number of mentors, including a high school teacher, “Maury,” who used to coach little “Lilly”: “There’s no such thing really as class in America, not like in the old country,” said Maury. “You know who Horatio Alger was? Rags to riches. It happens,” and so on. Comparing this melting-pot ideology to the shtetl-incubated fatalism of her Yiddish-speaking aunt, Faderman writes: “How could I not have preferred Maury’s messages of hope and righteousness and free will?” It is unironically the frontier spirit that buoys her, rendering the bildungsroman a page-turner that begins with her origins in Latvian-Jewish first-generation poverty in the Bronx and traces her transformation into the dashing “Lil” and progress through East Coast underworlds of sex work, petty crime, and illicit gay promiscuity before she lands a feminist professorship and eventually settles down into married lesbian middle-class Californian parenthood.

It seems plausible that becoming a national treasure was Faderman’s desired trajectory from the get-go.

The memoir’s first chapter, which sets the stage for the “American Dream” plot to follow, is disarmingly entitled “How I Became an Overachiever.” Meanwhile, the title—Naked in the Promised Land—refers simultaneously to the young Lillian’s stints as a nude pin-up model and stripper and to the existential condition of Faderman’s unwed immigrant parent, Mary Lifton; “her losses and her struggle for existence here in the promised land.” The traumatized and traumatizing figure of Mary looms large for Faderman. In 2015, the overachiever followed up with My Mother’s Wars, a biographical labor of forgiveness, celebrating Mary’s sexually promiscuous joie de vivre, unimaginable bereavements during the Holocaust, and participation in Lower East Side garment factory disputes. The section of Woman that deals with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Yiddish-speaking shirtwaist worker strike of 1909, and organizer Clara Lemlich, makes for poignant reading if one knows of Faderman’s filial connection to this uprising. Mary’s life cannot plausibly be called happy; and it is presumably for this reason that Faderman’s biography elects to spend its final pages on the moment of Lillian’s own birth. It is tempting to compare the epic structure of Lillian and Mary’s respective narrative developments—beginning in suffering and ending on a forced note of joyful promise—with the grand sweep of the 2022 biography of U.S. “woman”-hood. Faderman knows that the Whig concept of history is foolish, but her endings must be happy.

It is true that the dream of gender freedom feels, to most queer feminists today, far from being realized. It is not at all true, despite Faderman’s frequent grousing, that the dream is dead, killed by a post-second wave mood that is postmodern and “decidedly post-feminist.” Rather, it is Faderman’s pro-androgyny and anti-gender ideas that require updating, especially in an era where, as she repeatedly says (while deploying scare-quotes), “‘transgender’ and ‘nonbinary’ people” are the ones pushing the envelope of feminism. There can be no dancing around the question: Does Faderman think trans women are part of the politics of womanhood? If so, why are so many trans-mascs included in this book about woman-ness—Mountain Charley, Joe Monahan, Frank Dubois, Franklin Thompson, Harry T. Buford, Frances Willard, the Chiricahua Apache “woman” Lozen, thousands of cross-dressing female hoboes, and more—whereas not one single transfeminine person appears until the epilogue, at which point Faderman suddenly points to a stealth trans woman, a “psychiatrist, Olivia Dunning (a pseudonym),” who “understands gender in essentialist terms”? Why is transmisogyny—the refusal, in a sense, to welcome, let alone “reduce,” some women to womanhood—never addressed? And who is the uncited, unnamed “gender scholar” who inspires Faderman to make the following incoherent, profoundly phobic assertion?

As one gender scholar points out, a growing number of transwomen identify as butch lesbians. That is, they reject the sex they were assigned at birth, but their gender identity (butch, masculine) and choice of sex partners (women) are like those of cisgender males (men whose gender identity corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth).

This sounds to me like Sheila Jeffreys, the anti-transgender campaigner who has been publishing books on the subjects of spinsterhood and lesbianism in dialogue with Faderman since the 1980s.

Faderman knows that the Whig concept of history is foolish, but her endings must be happy.

Certainly Faderman is a little coy about the provenance of her core “reduction to woman” framework. “In the 1980s,” she observes with forced neutrality, “feminists of the second wave, such as Monique Wittig, inspired by de Beauvoir’s ideas, called woman a ‘myth, an imaginary formulation,’ conceived to make women weak and subservient. Wittig proposed the killing off of woman to free women.” It is up to the reader to decide whether Woman: The American History of an Idea is Wittigian in the crude sense Faderman supplies or indebted to some more dedicatedly trans-exclusionary version of radical feminism. In any case, Faderman is unlikely to fool many people with her crypto-avoidance of one of the central struggles in contemporary feminism—namely, the movement for Black trans sex-working lives—nor will she impress by failing to account for why the state and labor markets, far from driving forward a reduction to “woman,” reserve some of their worst punishments precisely for those who assert themselves as such.

In this sense, Woman sits oddly next to other recently published sweeping historiographical works about American womanhood, notably Kyla Schuller’s The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism (2021). In Schuller’s book, canonical feminist figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, Margaret Sanger, and Sheryl Sandberg—for whose “sins” Faderman apologizes as though her life depends on it—come in for an overdue reckoning. The penultimate chapter of The Trouble with White Women juxtaposes the radical feminist arch-transphobe Janice Raymond with the transfeminist lesbian Sandy Stone, telling the important American story, ignored by Faderman, of the 2015 implosion of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival over the definition of “woman” undergirding “sisterhood.” As Faderman is well aware (but omits from her history), the shutdown of “MichFest,” hotly opposed by trans-affirming lesbian feminists, became necessary when a minority of lesbian feminists refused to tolerate the presence of transsexual sisters in their midst. How will all women be liberated if historians refuse to own the violence some feminisms have wrought? Schuller’s and Faderman’s approaches to eugenicist, white supremacist, colonialist, conservative, capitalist, and cissexist feminisms could not be more different.

Bad Cop, Worse Cop

Woman’s distance from contemporary social movement-borne and critical feminist perspectives is reflected in Faderman’s non-academic contributions to public life, as well. In a couple of op-eds for The Advocate in 2011, Faderman sang the praises of the Israeli state, denounced the “proposed” Palestinian one, and argued not only that “Americans have every reason to envy Israel’s enlightened policies toward its LGBT citizens” but that “there can be no explanation for LGBT groups participating in wrong-headed actions such as the BDS movement” other than “insane logic or misinformation.” Sure enough, this type of “pinkwashing” of apartheid enjoys popularity as a Zionist tactic across mainstream America. (The theorist Jasbir Puar famously dubbed gay-rights-based apologias for the West Bank occupation “homonationalism” in 2007.) But in the world of lesbian politics, to Faderman’s explicit chagrin, the increasingly dominant tendency since the 1970s has been Jewish women fighting for Palestinian liberation, solidarity, and socialism: we have a well-established pantheon which includes Sherry Wolf, Sarah Schulman, Judith Butler and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz (RIP), alongside transgender Jewish radicals like the late Leslie Feinberg, Jewish Currents culture editor Ari Brostoff, and countless others who have upheld BDS and organized with groups like “Siege Busters” and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Faderman’s proactive conservativism emerges, too, in her opposition to efforts to make queer spaces no-cop zones: “It’s very sad,” she said in 2021, “that police officers and sheriff’s deputies have been disinvited to march in pride parades.” Sure, in the 1950s, “the police were our enemies. They were out to get us,” she told Vox in 2017; however, the honoring of a trans policewoman at the Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast fundraiser in San Diego bespeaks a “miraculous” transformation, “such an incredible turnaround from the way things used to be.” As such, Faderman explicitly goes out of her way to undermine a movement—to abolish policing, to give no quarter to attempts to pinkwash the police—that is disproportionately spearheaded by proletarian Black trans women whose experience at the hands of the police has undergone no such transformation. In 2020, Faderman even mounted a one-woman anti-anti-police protest, resigning from her post as historian-in-residence at the Lambda Archives of San Diego and accusing Lambda of not collaborating with the sheriff’s department. According to Faderman’s resignation letter, a trans policewoman had floated the idea of a San Diego Police Department exhibition documenting the history of LGBT–police relations locally, but the officer had not received sufficient assistance from the archives to go ahead. “The officers who want to be educated are not the goons who are gratuitously choking the life out of people like George Floyd,” Faderman wrote.

Faderman’s “revolution,” be it gay or “woman”-abolitionist, is ultimately assimilation.

Faderman’s anger at the idea of police officers being treated badly recalls, to me, the startling level of anger she reserves in Woman for anarchafeminist radicals like Emma Goldman, whose criticisms of the women’s suffrage movement earn her a whole two pages of contempt: Goldman “was as much an essentialist as [the nineteenth-century seminarian] Catharine Beecher was,” Faderman proposes preposterously. Meanwhile, devout white supremacist Carrie Chapman Catt, just a few pages later, is earnestly defended against Alice Paul’s charge that NAWSA—the National American Woman Suffrage Association, under Catt’s control—“had taken up war work and abandoned its true goal—getting votes for women.” This “was untrue,” Faderman says, and unfair. “Catt was a consummate chess player: she had correctly calculated how one move must lead to the other.” Hers is an understanding of social movements based on the harmonious interplay of—in a favorite phrase—“good cops and bad cops” (good racists like Catt and rowdy terrorists like Paul). Hers is a theory of change based on law, which in turn is shaped by whoever has—in another favorite phrase—the “loudest megaphones.” President Wilson’s “promissory note” to the suffragists “came due with women’s participation in the war,” Faderman writes, rehashing a bourgeois version of suffrage history I honestly thought had been discredited decades ago.

As a historian, Faderman does not question the legitimacy of the U.S. settler-colony, nor does she delve deeply into the function of its carceral apparatus. And while her approach to sexual identity, most fully exercised in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, is wonderfully anti-essentialist, her social constructionism unfortunately does not extend as far as the cis/trans distinction, or, for that matter, to classes or markets. Her “revolution,” be it gay or “woman”-abolitionist, is ultimately assimilation: through heroic action, sexual minorities can and must be brought into the civic fold. It is the polis alone—not economics—that governs the production and reproduction of gender order. Nothing more material than the laws of public life, except perhaps the distribution of “megaphones,” hence need to change. Justice will be a matter of androgyny, but only the transvestism of people assigned female at birth, apparently, contributes to that goal. The choice of “woman”-hood, even or especially for the purposes of living trans “butch” lesbianism, is incomprehensible; impossible to knit into the story.

It is depressing, in a way, to juxtapose Faderman’s opposition to people being “reduced to womanhood” with her support for their subsumption into American-ness. Listening to Faderman’s podcast appearances and reading her interviews, it did not surprise me to learn that she dislikes “queer,” a term that, howsoever diluted, still sometimes signals an antagonistic relation toward private property and the state. Faderman’s gender history, while spiritedly horny, is nonetheless unabashedly homonormative, oriented toward inclusion rather than, you know, revolution.