Teaching and Archiving Lesbian Histories and Subjects

AHA Session 265
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 14
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Leisa D. Meyer, College of William and Mary
Oral History and Lesbian Subjects
Kelly Anderson, Smith College
What’s Her/Story? History and Living Herstory
Amy Washburn, Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York
Teaching and Archiving Lesbian Histories and Subjects
Bonnie Morris, University of California, Berkeley
The Audience

Session Abstract

Session Title: Teaching and Archiving Lesbian Histories and Subjects

How will recent lesbian history be preserved, taught, and interpreted for future generations? This session offers three perspectives from professors who are also archivists. As women’s communities and institutions of the 1970s and 80s now grow distant enough to be scrutinized, their legacy risks being lost to future generations. It is vital that future scholars have access to catalogued materials from radical feminist and lesbian separatist organizations—the better to situate their contributions within the wider history of feminist movements. As movement elders begin to die, their archival records must be housed. How do we preserve the meaning and ethos of vanishing grassroots sites of lesbian-specific women’s history,-- particularly, contested institutions that dared to embrace the identity woman as an essentialist qualification for membership and participation?

Emerging as a provocative field of historical inquiry in the 1970s and continuing through current scholarship, the study of lesbian lives and cultures engaged the best minds in women's history scholarship: Lillian Faderman, Esther Newton, Vicki Eaklor. By the late 1990s, advances in Internet technology and the possibility of digitalizing extant music, photographs and documents gave independent scholars the tools to preserve entire community storylines, complementing community-based digital archives like Brooklyn’s Lesbian Herstory Archives and June Mazer Archives in Los Angeles. The slow but welcome progression of LGBT visibility, rights and political power also ensured greater interest in and mainstream inclusion of lesbian figures in history, and the acceptance of such focus in broader academic studies on women. Furthermore, as those lesbian individuals and communities associated with the activism of the 1970s began to age and to reflect more generationally on their contributions to social change, their lives’ work began attracting investigators whose projects now range from graduate theses to filmmaking. Central to such documentary inquiry is the question of how radical lesbian culture might best be articulated to future historians.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, a new generation of academic theorists shifted their lens from women’s history to queer studies, de-emphasizing overt identification with the L in LGBT. New theoretical questions about gender led many women’s studies programs to rename themselves gender/sexuality studies. This academic restructuring dovetailed with critical interrogation of older lesbian institutions (such as women’s music festivals) perceived as excluding transwomen, influencing how the legacy of woman-only spaces may be critically appraised. Nonetheless, scholars are now racing to gather and preserve information about the creative, dynamic and visionary lesbian activists of the 1970s and 80s as an aspect of activist heritage.

For this session, three historians and archivists will share insights on our own work, offer information on viable archives and depositories, and discuss some of the many political, academic and ethical questions involved in collecting legacies of a still-threatened minority. Those attending will have the opportunity to report on their own efforts as scholars and collectors utilizing current lesbian archives. We hope to offer supportive incentives for other historians to build upon the work of archiving lesbian communities.

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