Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Lillian Faderman's "Woman: The American History of an Idea"

Lillian Faderman is an internationally known scholar of lesbian and LGBT history and literature, as well as ethnic history and literature. Her books on the history of gender and sexuality have won numerous prizes, including seven Lambda Literary Awards, two Stonewall Book Awards, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

Faderman applied the “Page 99 Test” to her newest book, Woman: The American History of an Idea, and reported the following:
On page 99, it is 1805 and Abraham Luckenbach, a Moravian missionary who is determined to save the Indians from the demon alcohol by baptism, mocks Beate, a Delaware wise woman, for her own efforts. Beate has tried to convince her people that they must “live again as in olden times and drink no more whiskey.” To Europeans such as Luckenbach, who scoffed at women as spiritual leaders, Beate is reduced to “a babbling old woman.”

If readers opened my book to page 99 they would get a fair hint of what Woman: The American History of an Idea is about. The book covers 400 years of the notion of “woman” as it was conceptualized and reconceptualized for and by American females of all races and classes. I begin in 1637, with the utter bafflement of Puritan leader Roger Williams when a woman leader of the Pequot Indians comes to the colonists to negotiate peace on behalf of her tribe. I show in these opening pages how different the colonists’ idea of woman and her role was from that of the Pequot.

Woman examines the persistence through the centuries of the ideas of “woman”—“the weaker vessel,” “yielding subjugation to her husband,” forbidden to be “a rash rambler abroad.” I show how race or class affected those ideas; I tell stories of women who were complicit and women who resisted; and I depict how rebel ideas frequently became the catalyst for an evolution in the concept of “woman.” I conclude the book by asking whether women have now moved so far from the confines of “woman” that never again can the tyranny of old notions reemerge—as they did, for instance, in the 1950s, after the upheavals of the Depression and World War II. Will “woman” always be the default concept that takes hold in times of duress? Or have the ideas of “woman” now mutated so completely that there will never again be a long return to the prison of gender?
Visit Lillian Faderman's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Gay Revolution.

--Marshal Zeringue