Mama Dyke. The Third Sex. Babes Behind Bars. Madame Butch. Odd Girl Out. And, of course, my favourite: Satan Was a Lesbian.
For any LGBTQ reader looking for historical representation in literature, particularly queer women, the pickings can be slim. Pioneers like Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness established sympathetic narratives of lesbians in fiction that emphasised the pain of being marginalized by a homophobic society, while Virginia Woolf’s ground breaking modernist classic Orlando broke down gender barriers and was re-examined by scholars as a key lesbian novel (partly based on the rumour of the story being inspired by Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville West). The second wave of feminism saw a rise in the political lesbian novel, from the works of Adrienne Rich to Audre Lord and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. Over the past couple of decades, the category saw a mainstream resurgence thanks to the acclaimed works of women like Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson and Alice Walker, and an array of wonderful young adult fiction. Waters, in particular, is notable for the ways she redefines a historical narrative for the queer woman, inserting them into eras where they lacked a sturdy lineage of fiction. What is Fingersmith, if not a Dickens novel that reminds the world gay women have always existed?
We have a wider, more accessible variety of LGBTQ fiction available to us now, but for many women in the post-World War Two era, representation was often nigh impossible to find, or at least stories of gay women that didn’t end with murder to “correct” the heteronormative status quo. However, there was a lifeline available in the form of cheaply printed pulp novels with garish titles and provocative covers, promising a stark insight into the lurid world of lesbianism. Gay pulp fiction featuring men did exist, with similar plots and fates, but that’s a different kettle of fish (although I am dying to read The Man From CAMP).
Most of these novels, which cost a few cents and could be found for sale in drug stores and the like, were written and printed at minimal cost, with buxom cover models in stockings being gazed upon by short haired butch seductresses or strapping young men waiting to save the day. The stories were of a predictable formula, the prose questionable in quality, and the endings primarily straight. The majority of these stories were written by straight men with the assumption that their audience would be too, and so frequently, the plot follows a heavily feminised damsel being seduced by a steely-eyed butch bitch, only to be saved by the epitome of “proper” masculinity in the form of the ideal man. Sometimes this so-called happy ending would not materialized, and our poor lesbian protagonist would end the novel drunk, insane or dead.
While hardly respected by the literary mainstreams, these pulps were wildly popular. Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torres, widely considered the first of this era, sold over 4 million copies in the 50s. The novel, a fictionalised account of Torres’s army experiences during the Second World War, was even used by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials as an example of “moral degeneracy” being promoted in pop culture. This was a particular concern for the US Government, during a time when homosexuality was still considered a curable ailment, as the women’s branch of the American Navy (WAVES) included hygiene lectures for new recruits that heavily demonized lesbian behaviour. The most prominent story of female recruits in the armed forces focusing on the passionate underbelly of the barracks was not something they were keen to endorse.
In the footsteps of Women’s Barracks followed authors like Marijane Meaker and Ann Bannon, who published in the genre, following the constraints of the time - tragic endings, seeming punishment for being gay - but creating rich, textured stories with gay women at their heart. The necessity of this tragedy was not just a result of societal pressure. During the 50s and 60s, the American Postal Office had right of censorship over anything travelling through the mail, so material seen to be promoting homosexuality could not be sent.
There were exceptions. While The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (writing under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan”) is not technically a pulp in its genre styling, it was published mass-market like pulp stories after a hardback run. Better known today as Carol, the novel is a deeply melancholic but unashamedly hopeful story that dares to depict the possibility of two women making a life together as a couple in the 1950s. Both within the limiting contemporary confines of the genre and the wider world of literature, it’s a compelling read. Ann Bannon’s most famous lesbian pulp series, the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, give more layers to the accepted tropes of the genre, establishing a more satisfying world for women readers. Bannon herself was influenced by her own struggles as a closeted woman married to a man, and used her fiction to gaze into a world denied to her. She remained unaware of her incredible cultural influence and crucial role in LGBTQ culture until the 80s, when her work was republished.
To understand these novels and their importance, it’s key to remember what was going on in America following the Second World War. With millions of men off to the frontlines, it was up to the women left behind to fill roles in factories and positions of manual labour previously denied to them. The government spent massive amounts of money mounting ad campaigns to encourage women to take up the mantle, with symbols like Rosie the Riveter emerging from the marketing. That image of a strong, muscled and decidedly non-feminine woman was a marked contrast from the image of the homemaker popular throughout that period. Being a figure of strength wasn’t just an empowering moment: It was a woman’s patriotic duty. Women were still paid less for this work than the men they replaced, but it was an unprecedented cultural shift that pushed back against the binary gender roles expected of both men and women during the 40s.
Of course, once the war ended and the men came back, the status quo was demanded. Some women left voluntarily, but many others were laid off to make way for the returning men. Black women were hit hardest by this, often being last hired and first fired once the war ended. For those who found immense satisfaction in being a worker and breadwinner for their families, the prospect of returning to the homemaker role proved un-enticing. Step in the US Government with another campaign, this time to emphasise the patriotic duty of the American woman to return to the housewife role. Out goes Rosie the Riveter, and in comes the June Cleaver-style perfect housewife: Nipped in the waist by a frilly apron, clad in a pristine but sensible dress and heels, contently stirring a pot by the cooker and getting dinner ready for the table. On top of that, a housing crisis hit the nation, so further campaigns were mounted to encourage families to leave the big cities and live the suburban fantasy. The image presented is clear: The perfect wife, the perfect family (always with children and always white), the top model car and appliances, and everyone living side by side in a community of identical but perfect homes. It was the hugely (and expensively) propagated belief that “fulfillment as a woman had only one definition for American women after 1949— the housewife-mother” that Betty Friedan would refute in The Feminine Mystique, but that was still over a decade away at that point in time.
Lesbian pulp fiction may seem like a quaint distraction now, and it fell out of favour by the mid-60s as the anti-Vietnam protests, Stonewall Riots and women’s movement gained traction, but for that solid decade and a half, these stories were a crucial force for a marginalized group living under immense oppression. Nowadays, things are somewhat better but progress remains incremental. The “dead lesbian” trope is still rampant, LGBTQ representation frequently desexualised or softened for straight audiences, and, in the Trump age, change is more necessary than ever. So if you’re in the mood to delve into an oft-overlooked area of our cultural history, why not pick up a copy of Katherine V. Forrest’s anthology of lesbian pulp fiction? And don’t be afraid to read it in public.