Chapter 6 My Brother Finds Pictures
Lately I’ve been walking around with my head in the 1930s.
I’ve been thinking about my mother and what her life was like as a young person. Mom was born in 1913 and graduated high school in 1929. She came of age in the 1930s. Born in 1949, I came of age in the 1960s. They were two very different worlds.
I thought I’d gone through all the evidence we’d found of our mother’s dalliance with another woman. Love letters we discovered revealed attempts at seduction, but there was nothing to prove that they had been lovers.
Then my brother called me. “I found pictures!” he said.
In an envelope in a forgotten file cabinet, Don found a slew of photos of my mother and her friends in the 1930s. Some were clearly pictures of the YWCA meetings in 1937 and 38 where our mother, Flo, met and roomed with her lesbian admirer, Edna Lauterbach (Eddie). Maybe Eddie is in the pictures! Of course Eddie is in the pictures!
I’m posting some of the pictures here and I hope readers will weigh in. I think these photos are from the 1937 conference where Flo and Eddie first met in Chicago. I’m pretty sure Eddie is in one of these photos, but which one is she? Here is what we know: Flo was 24 and Eddie was 37 in 1937. I know from the census records that Eddie’s father was ethnically German. I would love to know what she looked like.
The photos show groups of women, many with their arms around each other, hands on legs or shoulders. My mother had her hands on several of them. These women seem way more physically affectionate with each other than my generation of female friends ever were in public. Were they all lovers?
In her seminal book Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, Lillian Faderman posits that women in “Boston marriages” and “romantic couples” did not necessarily have sex. She writes that “romantic friendships” between women were accepted in the Western world up until WWI. After that, as women’s status in the culture changed, these friendships started to become less accepted. Today girls and women are not encouraged to hold hands in public or to enter into romantic friendships, presumably because they might turn lesbian. Today if there’s not a sexual component, we don’t take the relationship seriously. But Faderman argues that in the past these relationships were as serious as those between men and women.
By the 1930s American culture was changing, but close physical friendships between women were still more accepted than they were in my youth. My mother couldn’t understand why my generation was so focused on co-ed activities. She told me she had much more fun with her girlfriends than she did with boys. Mom maintained life-long friendships with women. She even named me, her only daughter, after her best girlfriend.
Society was much more permissive by the time I was coming up than it was when Mom came of age. By the late 1960s, sex had become a hot topic. We thought about and experimented with sex all the time. For one thing, we had the birth control pill. For another thing, we had women’s and gay liberation. In three decades, our culture had changed. Women were now free agents. But women were no longer free to be so physically affectionate with each other in public.
From the moment we discovered the love letters, my question has been: Did Flo and Eddie have sex? From Eddie’s letters we know that she was crushed out on Flo. If any of Flo’s letters to Eddie existed it might be easier to determine how she was feeling. But even then we might not know whether they engaged in sex. Faderman uncovered letters throughout history in which women in nonsexual romantic friendships declared undying love for one another.
It’s not as if sex wasn’t going on. There were definitely lesbians involved in the YWCA, unions, and progressive organizations in the 1930s. Eleanor Roosevelt’s inner circle included women in Boston marriages, and Eleanor herself carried on a closeted affair with her press attache, Lorena Hickok. We know from their resurrected letters that they were deeply in love with each other, but there is no evidence that their relationship had a sexual component.
By the 1960s, physical closeness between women had become suspect. I have a lesbian cousin, Sandy, who is ten years older than I. That’s a whole generation in the gay universe. I’ve depended on Sandy to school me about her older gay generation. She was closeted. She worked for the YWCA in Seattle in 1963 and told me there were many dykes there. They all knew each other and they were all closeted. You had to be if you wanted to keep your job. Sandy had affairs with a couple of them. They did not feel so free to show affection in public as my mother’s generation of women did. They worried about being outed.
My guess is Eddie knew what she was doing when she wooed Flo in 1938. She wanted a lover. But, at least in the beginning, I believe Flo was oblivious. I believe she thought Eddie just wanted to be friends. Eddie may have been the first lesbian she encountered in her life. She was probably shocked when Eddie came out to her.
Eddie was a good romancer. She managed to lure Flo to New York City from Yakima, Washington in 1941. She bought Flo gifts, took her out to dinner and the theater, and squired her around the city. And that is when I imagine Eddie came out to her and declared her love. At least, had I been in Eddie’s shoes, that’s what I would have done.
A small town gal, Flo was pretty green when she first met Eddie at the YWCA conference in Chicago. She may not have even known what the word lesbian meant. By the time they met up in New York, Flo was no longer so young or naïve. She was 28 and had traveled to cities across the U.S.
I just had an epiphany. What if I’m culturally biased?
I see now that I’ve been evaluating my mother’s generation through the lens of my own. My generation thinks the word lover describes people who have genital sex. Maybe I need to redefine the term lover. Perhaps we should expand the definition of lover to include what Faderman calls “romantic friendships.”
My mother and her friends were activists in women’s organizations who enjoyed working and playing together. Maybe being lovers then was not all about sex. If we expand our notion, then we can imagine a culture in which physical affection extended to all. It’s fun to contemplate an army of female lovers.
Maybe for women like my mother the defining factor in a relationship was not sex. Maybe there’s a third choice: romantic friendship. Maybe I should stop asking whether they had sex. Maybe I should start with love.