How do we integrate lesbian history into a traditional Western Civ survey course for first-year college students? How does evidence of lesbian existence, oppression and community across time change the teaching of what we call “Western civilization?”
For over twenty years, from 1996 through 2016, I taught “Women in Western Civilization” to 120 first-year students every fall at George Washington University. The class was cross-disciplinary: required for the women’s studies major, a gateway course for the History major, and satisfying a general Humanities requirement. It included two weekly lectures and small-group discussion sections led by my three graduate teaching assistants. Out in my department and out in my lecture hall, I specifically welcomed LGBT students and incorporated min-lessons on the lesbian past into discrete lectures, emphasizing Sappho, the onset of human sexuality research in the 19th century, women who found one another through war work and/or the speakeasies of the Harlem Renaissance, and the rise of the modern pre-Stonewall movement for lesbian and gay rights in the homophobic 1950s. These sidebars from history were juxtaposed with other readings and themes on gender roles, women’s dress codes, work, education and racial segregation in women’s social spheres.
In the past five years I added a specific focus course to the university catalog as part of our new LGBT minor: a unique seminar called “Lesbian History and Culture,” It drew many students who had been through the Western Civ survey and were ready for more advanced work. In sharing insights gleaned from the years of teaching both of these classes, I hope to offer a cheerful overview of what worked, what didn’t, how students elected to focus their paper topics, and their responses to discovering otherwise invisible source material. Sample syllabi will be available and distributed.
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