Today’s post is by Deborah Cohler, associate professor of women and gender studies at San Francisco State University and author of Citizen, Invert, Queer: Lesbianism and War in Early Twentieth Century Britain.
Why do we care if Elena Kagan plays softball? Are women who smoke cigars lesbians? This isn’t the first time that a political woman has been accused of conduct unbefitting a lady. But what exactly is Elena Kagan being accused of?
As Kagan’s appointment to the Supreme Court has given rise to more speculation about her sexual orientation than about her juridical bent, the history of representations of political women brings a new perspective to the current media storm.
I began researching my book, Citizen, Invert, Queer, “looking for lesbians” – or more accurately, looking for lesbian-baiting – in the pre-World War I suffrage debates. I didn’t find any. Instead of anti-suffrage accusations of homosexuality, I found fears of female masculinity. Masculinity, in other words, was not equated by anti-suffragists with female homosexual behaviors, but rather was viewed as a requirement for full citizenship.
Citizen, Invert, Queer argues that the historical shift from “masculinity equals citizenship” to “masculine woman equals lesbian woman” was enabled by certain events that occurred toward the end of World War I. Women’s participation in the war effort, the granting of partial suffrage to women, and several highly publicized court cases equating male homosexuality with pacifism, all conspired to align female masculinity with the emerging erotic identity of “(masculine) lesbian.” This equation of female masculinity to female homosexuality has dominated much U.S. and British mass culture since the mid-twentieth century.
Elena Kagan’s reported penchant for poker, her unmarried status, and her opposition to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy while dean of Harvard Law School, have all provided fodder for right-wing insinuations and nervous leftist queries. In much of the chatter about Kagan’s possible lesbianism, both insinuations of masculinity and cultural signifiers of lesbianism drive the speculation. This has led feminists to rightly assert that neither an interest in softball nor a disinterest in high fashion necessarily produce a lesbian identity. True enough. Writing for NPR, Patricia J. Williams asserts that the Kagan discourse indicates that “[f]orty years after the birth of modern feminism, we are still not able to think about women who attain certain kinds of professional success as normatively gendered.” And, as my research reminds us, gender deviance is widely, if erroneously, equated with sexual deviance today. In a broadly circulated piece for the New York Times, Maureen Dowd’s satirical memo from “Joe Biden” to “Obama supporters” seeks to reassure its readers that “Elena” is “a girl’s girl … like Carrie Bradshaw (and definitely not like Cynthia Nixon).” Here Dowd pokes fun at the equivalence of femininity and heterosexuality, but the accusation of their absences is still potent enough to worry Dowd and her liberal feminist readership.
At the turn of the twentieth century, women who sought the right to vote were taunted as masculine women. In 1907, antisuffragist Marie Corelli defined the suffragette as “a nondescript creature who, while aping to be like a man, makes this attempted semblance of man ridiculous.” As Corelli illustrates, suffrage women were accused not of homosexuality, but of masculinity, by their detractors. So today, when pundits on the right whisper concerns about Kagan’s cigar-smoking habits, and liberals mop their brows with worry, my research helps me to understand that two forces –- gender policing and homophobia — are at work.
Let us consider the charge of lesbianism itself: this threat is more analogous to fears about second wave feminists than suffragist first-wavers. In the 1970s, it was commonplace for women who sought equality under the law through the passage of the ERA to be called lesbians, regardless of their sexual desires, marital status, or gender presentation. However, the Kagan kerfuffle goes further, bringing together a century-old concern about masculine political women with late twentieth-century ideologies of leftist lesbian feminists. Such narratives collapse early twentieth-century fears about women “out of place” in a masculine public sphere with more recent homophobic smear campaign tactics. If today’s whisper campaigns of the right, and the nervous echoes of Jerry Seinfeld from the left – “not that there’s anything wrong with that” – fail to gain purchase in the coming weeks, then perhaps we might hope that we are witnessing the failure of gender policing to enact a “gay panic” assault on women in the public sphere. As the senate confirmation hearings unfold, we shall see.
Find out more about Cohler’s new book, Citizen, Invert, Queer: Lesbianism and War in Early Twentieth Century Britain.