“Treacherous Sweetness”: Interwar College Girls, Lesbianism, and the Specter of Unchecked Femininity

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 2:10 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1A (Colorado Convention Center)
Anastasia Jones, University of Toronto
This paper addresses popular attitudes towards same-sex intimacy amongst female college students during the interwar era. I show that lesbian tendencies amongst students were considered both problematic and widespread, especially amongst students at women’s colleges and girls’ boarding schools. While “romantic friendships” are hardly new territory for historians of sexuality, my research offers a fresh reading. Drawing upon the spate of “college girl” novels that attracted considerable attention (and readership) during the era alongside works of popular psychology—particularly advice columns—I show that intimacies amongst female students were commonly regarded as outmoded, and nefariously sentimental. Rather than a sign of worryingly rapid social change, collegiate lesbian practices were frequently seen as backwards. Intimate friendships were regarded by many as pathetic bulwarks eroding in the inexorably rising tide of heterosexuality.

Interwar denouncements of lesbian-leaning college girls revolved around gender deviance—though perhaps not in the way historians of sexuality have come to expect. Intimacies amongst the nation’s students initiated popular criticism, not of mannishness, inversion, or deficient femininity, but, rather, excessive femininity. Commentators from various social spheres worried that the overly feminine environments of women’s college campuses inculcated psychological rot amongst college girls: emotional maladjustment and sexual repression. The college girl with a “mash” on her best girl chum was seen as the embodiment of twisted female innocence, a signifier of the cultural wreckage entailed by uneven and excessively rapid social change. Highlighting the potential significance of femininity for lesbian history, this paper offers a challenge to the primacy of traditional understandings of gender transgression within queer historiography.

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