Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, professor of American Studies and Woman's studies at SUNY Buffalo, addressed students Monday as part of this week's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Concerns Committee (LGBCC) speaker series.
Kennedy presented a paper about her biographical research on the history of what she termed "private lesbianism" in a presentation entitled "But We Would Never Talk About It: Structures of Lesbian Discretion in the 1920s and 1930s."
Kennedy is known for her work on lesbian history. Her first book, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, documented the working-class lesbian community in Buffalo, New York.
William Norris, chair of the sociology department, called the book a "major work in lesbian and gay studies and women's studies. ... It is a very good teaching book, and it's substantively and theoretically important," he said.
Kennedy has also compiled the oral history of an 89-year-old woman named Julia.
Kennedy said she originally undertook the project as "a public service event," but became interested in how Julia's stories reflected constructions of lesbianism in history. Though Kennedy is unsure of the final form the biography will take, the chapter she spoke about will appear in a volume tentatively titled The Lesbian Imaginary.
Kennedy's lecture dealt with what she called "structures of discretion" among lesbians in Deadwood, S.D. in the 1920s. She described Julia's life with her father in Deadwood, and the lesbian identities of Julia and her friends.
According to Kennedy, Julia and her friends never discussed lesbianism. Although she was openly a lesbian and supported by her family, Julia never drew attention to her relationships. Kennedy noted that women like Julia were often stereotyped as "not being out." Many scholars assumed they wanted to be more public and interpreted their behavior as privacy out of necessity.
Kennedy then offered an alternative explanation of these women as being able to enjoy the benefits of upper class female status while maintaining open lesbian identities. This freedom, Kennedy said, allowed them to escape being categorized on the basis of sexuality alone.
Kennedy said the lives of these women could help us "see beyond dichotomized sexuality, and allow us to see what it might be like to live without the stigma of sexual difference."
The lecture was the third speech in a series of speeches. Funding for the series was provided by the President's Office. The committee is currently planning its fall lecture series.
Kennedy presents paper on her research. (photo by Richard Hong)
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 21; April 19, 1996
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