Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wolf Girls at Vassar

A keen-eyed friend of mine recently found the book "Wolf Girls at Vassar: Lesbian and Gay Experiences 1930-1990" at a used book store and passed it on to me. I love this book in its simplicity and its authenticity.

The author, Anne MacKay, who graduated from Vassar in 1949, got back in touch with the school in 1970, "heady with the winds of women's and gay liberation." She simply wanted to start a dialogue in the alumni magazine, but Vassar declined to publish Anne's article, titled "Being Gay at Vassar." In the late 80s/early 90s, she tried again, and put a call out for graduates to share their experiences of being lesbian and gay at the College. Each chapter is a different person's letters, ranging from those who graduated in 1934 to 1990. Eight of the 41 letters published has the author's name withheld at the author's request.

Lesbian scholar Lillian Faderman starts the book off with a fantastic mini-history of lesbianism and women's empowerment in all-female colleges. When women's colleges first started in the 19th century, they "created a healthy and productive separatism such as radical lesbian-feminists of the 1970s might have envied." Many of the presidents were women, and some were living openly with other female professors at the schools, providing positive models of both lesbianism and female power. But then interestingly, after WWI, things changed abruptly. The war allowed women to be more independent and all of a sudden, men in power got nervous that women might no longer have need for the patriarchal system that was so nicely set up in men's favor--with heteronormativity being one of the cornerstones of that patriarchy. If women were allowed to have relationships with women AND they had the possibility of being economically independent, they might no longer be the dominion of men.

This played out at women's colleges through lesbian witch hunts, where "intimacies between two girls were watched with keen, distrustful eyes." Anne then gets into specifics about Vassar's history of open acceptance of "romantic friendships" and then the 30s where "if you were aware you loved women, you knew you were in trouble" through the 60s where there was big effort "to make Vassar more coeducational (read heterosexual)" and so on.

Then the meat of the book is simply people's stories. They range from tragic--women remembering former classmates who felt they had no choice but suicide--to joy--women figuring out in their 70s that they are lesbians or those who met the love of their life at Vassar.

It's really a beautiful book, giving you a little dose of history and then just allowing you to hear the voices of lesbians and (a few) gay men in their own words.


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