Whistling Women: A Study of the Lives of Older Lesbians

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Gain first-hand knowledge of how today's lesbians aged 60 and over survived the 20th century!

“I didn’t know we were lesbians. We lived together 13 years!”

Whistling Women is a unique, candid collection of the life experiences of 44 lesbians between 62 and 82 years of age. This book explores new ground with interviews about their memories, feelings, and thoughts on a diversity of perspectives—from growing up during the Depression and World War II, to retirement and old age at the height of the gay liberation movement. This unprecedented resource captures a first-person view of lesbian history and documents the struggles and achievements of the women who lived it.

“All my schooling was women-oriented…so I was able to see what women and girls could give to each other.”

In Whistling Women, these older women share their views on:

  • childhood and young adulthood—family, social factors, religion, schooling
  • marriage—husbands, children, divorce
  • lesbian relationships—coming out/closet relationships, role playing, butch and fem practices
  • conventional politics—party affiliation, activities, concerns, degree of feminism
  • work and money—financial arrangements, home ownership, investment properties
  • life after 60—retirement, health, activities, communities
  • and much more!
“I dated. I went along. I did it because basically it was the thing to do. But I had crushes on girls.”

Whistling Women offers you unprecedented statistics on these women and comparisons with statistics gathered in other analyses on lesbian and heterosexual women. This research includes studies of:

  • socioeconomic class in childhood, mid-life, and at retirement
  • level of education of participants
  • number and duration of long-term relationships—both heterosexual marriages and lesbian lover relationships
  • age of first lesbian relationship
  • retirement statistics—year retired, age at retirement
  • economic resources after retirement (compared to general US population)
“If we had these things in the 1950s [gay bookstores and publications], how different life would be for a lot of people. But we had to pave the way.”

This book is significant for sociologists, gay and lesbian researchers, and gerontologists, as well as anyone interested in women’s history. It also presents recollections of lesbian/mixed bars—some famous—starting in the 1930s, memories of the notorious Greenwich Village, the early development of lesbian social groups, and lesbian friendships with gay men. Whistling Girls identifies many of the organizations that cater specifically to older lesbians, such as OLOC (Old Lesbians Organizing for Change) and SOL (Slightly Older Lesbians).

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What People Are Saying

Ellen D.B. Riggle
FASCINATING-these are the stories of the lives of 44 lesbians with decades of experience to share. These stories are the herstory that is often ignored or passed over. These are the stories of 'ordinary' lesbians, but they are not trivial stories. Cheryl Claassen does a public service by bringing us these stories, honoring the past, and helping to increase our understanding of the present and future for 'whistling women.' The stories illuminate a broad range of experiences in lesbian lives, from identity formation and relationships, to financial decision-making and retirement planning.
PhD, Associate Professor of Political Science and Associate Director of Women's Studies, University of Kentucky
Linda Garnets
This book is ORIGINAL, ILLUMINATING, AND ACCESSIBLE-AND HARD TO PUT DOWN! Any reader will come away with broadened vision and deepened understanding of the issues facing older lesbians. The author beautifully weaves together the life stories of 44 upper middle and upper class lesbians over the age of 60. The book explores their lives chronologically, from a wide range of lifespan issues, including family backgrounds, marriage and family, coming out, lesbian relationships and sexuality, work and financial issues, lesbian politics, communities, and retirement issues. The author integrates the stories with scholarly historical, political, and sociocultural analyses to place their life experiences in context and to help the reader understand the social forces that impacted their lives. We learn so much about the unique social and psychological factors that shaped how these women identified themselves and constructed their lives.
PhD, Affiliated Professor (psychology, women's studies, LGBT studies), UCLA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780789024138
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 12/28/2004
  • Series: Gerontology and Women Ser.
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1. Narrators and Friends
  • The Study Sample
  • The Historic Setting of the Narrators
  • Previous Studies of Gay Women
  • Whistling Women Statistics
  • Writing This Book
  • Chapter 2. Coming to Be
  • Family Situations
  • Tales of Moms and Dads
  • Leaving Home
  • Summary
  • Chapter 3. Marriage and Families
  • Dating Men
  • Marriage
  • Children
  • Divorce
  • Summary
  • Chapter 4. Lesbian Relationships
  • Overview of Lesbian History in the United States
  • Coming to Recognition
  • Coming Out
  • Narrators’ Tales of Coming Out
  • Relationships
  • Politics
  • Summary
  • Chapter 5. Work and Money
  • Women, Money, and Men
  • Careers and Jobs
  • Financial Education
  • Summary
  • Chapter 6. Life After Sixty
  • The Decision to Retire
  • Financing Retirement
  • Lesbian Communities
  • Retirement Activities
  • Health
  • Plans for Self, Partners, and Families
  • Summary
  • Chapter 7. Words and Us
  • Being Wordless
  • Learning Words
  • Other People’s Words
  • Coming Out
  • Chapter 8. Lesbian Spaces, Gay Faces
  • Greenwich Village
  • The Subculture of Lesbian/Mixed Gay Bars
  • Gay Community?
  • Chapter 9. Conclusion
  • Notes for the Conservative Right, Gay Studies Scholars, and Ourselves
  • Do Age Differences Matter in Studies of Older Lesbians?
  • References
  • Index
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