Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Lauren Jae Gutterman's "Her Neighbor's Wife"

Lauren Jae Gutterman teaches American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Her Neighbor's Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage discusses the depiction of wives who desired women in The Ladder, a magazine published by the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the nation’s first lesbian rights group, beginning in 1956. More specifically, this page examines why and how the magazine’s editors and contributors became more critical of wives who remained married and “passed” as heterosexual despite their conscious attraction to other women in the late 1960s. Yet even as The Ladder was beginning to demonstrate a more radical gay politics, to emphasize the political importance of “coming out” publicly, and to show less sympathy for wives who desired women, the magazine did not directly instruct wives to leave their marriages as lesbian feminist activists of the 1970s later would.

While The Ladder did not tell married women explicitly how to resolve the tension between their same-sex desires and their responsibilities to their husbands and children, this page of the book describes several personal stories published in The Ladder in the late 1950s and early 1960s in which women explained how they or their lovers had left marriages to build new lesbian lives. In addition, this page mentions a survey of DOB members from 1959 which found that less than a quarter of those members who had been married were married still. In other words, while The Ladder often stressed the hopelessness of lesbian wives’ situation, it did convey a subtle message that wives who desired women could remake their lives outside of marriage if they truly wanted to do so.

In turning to page 99, then, readers do get an accurate sense of this book. The page conveys that a significant number of wives experienced same-sex desires within marriage in the postwar United States. It suggests the struggles these wives faced in negotiating their attraction to women and their familial obligations in the context of rampant homophobia. Page 99 of Her Neighbor’s Wife also conveys something of the ways wives who desired women have been represented in the media, the political problems this population of women raised for openly lesbian activists, and the extent to which lesbian activists changed their interpretation of and response to wives who desired women over time. All of these issues are critical to the book as a whole.
Learn more about Her Neighbor's Wife at the University of Pennsylvania Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue