Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeanette Howard Foster

Overview

Jeannette Howard Foster was to lesbianism in the mid-twentieth century what out authors such as Gore Vidal and James Baldwin were to gay men. She unapologetically blew the lid off Cold War sexual repression in 1956 with her Sex Variant Women in Literature-the first-ever study of homosexual, bisexual, and cross-dressing characters appearing in more than 300 works, from ancient times to the present. Joanne Passet’s Sex Variant Woman is a fascinating portrait of Foster, who served as the first librarian at the ...

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Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeanette Howard Foster

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Overview

Jeannette Howard Foster was to lesbianism in the mid-twentieth century what out authors such as Gore Vidal and James Baldwin were to gay men. She unapologetically blew the lid off Cold War sexual repression in 1956 with her Sex Variant Women in Literature-the first-ever study of homosexual, bisexual, and cross-dressing characters appearing in more than 300 works, from ancient times to the present. Joanne Passet’s Sex Variant Woman is a fascinating portrait of Foster, who served as the first librarian at the Kinsey Institute before leaving to publish her controversial book. It is also a riveting look into the pre-Stonewall past, the intense sexual repression and persecution endured by homosexuals, the groundbreaking advances put forth by a cadre of activists, and the rise of feminism and gay and lesbian liberation decades later.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Passet, a professor of history and author (Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women's Equality), captures both the personal and professional obstacles faced by Jeanette Howard Foster, the foremother of lesbian literature. Passet begins with Foster's childhood and adolescence, a cold and confusing time with parents enthralled by their own business failures, living distantly from each other and their daughter. Tumultuous undergrad years take her through multiple colleges and her first few broken hearts. As a series of often-intellectual women traipse in and out of her life, a very driven Foster succeeds in obtaining her PhD and eventually works for famed sexual scientist Alfred Kinsey as the institute's first librarian-all before finally completing her own highly controversial book, Sex Variant Women in Literature. Somewhat ironically, Foster's personal life (especially her love life) take precedence over her accomplishments in nearly every chapter; still, Passet does justice to Foster's important place in both literary and lesbian culture. Photos.
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Kirkus Reviews
Admiring, exhaustive portrait of a pioneering lesbian author. Confidence and the courage of her convictions served as powerful forces against homophobia in the life of Jeannette Howard Foster (1895-1981), writes Passet (History/Indiana Univ. East; Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women's Equality, 2003, etc.). Growing up in Illinois, Foster accepted with equanimity and enthusiasm the sexual and emotional attractions she felt toward her own sex. She had crushes on female Sunday school and grade-school teachers; at the University of Chicago, she wrote poems with titles like "Sapphics to One Called Helen." Prejudice against homosexuals did, however, steer Foster's life in two significant directions that ultimately proved rewarding. Lacking role models, she became a voracious reader, tracking "coded" lesbian characters in literature. She also sought employment where lesbians felt comfortable, at libraries and all-female colleges. Library work afforded Foster the opportunity to catalogue thousands of printed works about lesbians, crossdressers and bisexuals. For three decades she searched out relevant titles, being careful not to arouse the curiosity of librarians who might have disapproved of her project. In 1948, she signed on as a librarian with the Kinsey Institute, which afforded her further access to sources relevant to her study. Given the repressive climate of the McCarthy period, not even a university press would touch Sex Variant Women in Literature, Foster's richly detailed, landmark study of more than 300 titles written between 600 BCE and the early 1950s. She was forced to pay a subsidy publisher, Vantage Press, for its 1957 release, and it didn't get many reviews. It did, however,electrify a rising generation of lesbian activists. This pioneering achievement gets slightly buried under a surfeit of minimally relevant detail: excerpts from Foster's poems; descriptions of her lesbian-themed short stories; the title of a girlfriend's dissertation; notes on Foster's late-life problems with arthritis, insomnia and constipation. Overly inclusive, but focused and smoothly written-a solid contribution to the history of gay literature.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786718221
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 6/9/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Joanne Passet is a professor of history at Indiana University East. Her previous books include Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality and Cultural Crusaders.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Foreword Lillian Faderman Faderman, Lillian

1 Early Years 1

2 Romantic Friendships and Voiceless Longings 27

3 Unrequited Love 67

4 Libraries and Loves During the Great Depression 97

5 Another Philadelphia Story 123

6 The Sex Researcher and the Librarian 147

7 Sex Variant Women in Literature 175

8 Hail and Farewell 203

9 Gaiety Must Be Gaining Respectability 227

10 Exit Laughing 253

Epilogue 279

Notes 285

Selected Bibliography 325

Index 333

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