Lesbians in U.S. History Thesis

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lesbians in U.S. history

Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of a natural given power which tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct." (Foucault 1979:105 in Weeks: 16). Foucault's historical approach to sexuality gave rise to a series of questions regarding this notion, such as the connection between sexuality and power, its role in Western society, as well as how it is socially constructed (Ibid). This paper investigates into the historical development of the concept of lesbianism in the United States. Furthermore, the present research looks into how political conflicts and confrontations were echoed into the cultural expressions of homosexuality in general, and lesbianism in particular. In America, similarly to most countries, the history of homosexuality was directly influenced by political and economic changes that affected the American population in its entirety. Thesis: This paper argues that although lesbianism emerged at the same time as the American people, it was not until the 1950s that it was treated as a social phenomenon rather than a psychiatric deviation. In this sense, one can argue that lesbianism stepped into the light thanks to the social movements of the 1960s.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Thesis on Lesbians in U.S. History Assignment

The discourse of American politics is focused on individual rights, action and identity. This trait was developed as a result of the social movements that took place during the 1960s and 1970s. American social changes have been correlated with the so-called 'voice of the people' which in turn, is directly linked to social identity. In this sense, the 1960s highly contributed to the birth and development of a common identity for individuals who shared a particular characteristic, be it ethnic origin, sex, religion, etc. This shared identity enabled their voices to be heard more loudly and clearly, and their discontents to be expressed as a coherent common pain; this pain was no longer restricted to individual life, but transformed into a discontent that was publicly voiced and widely shared. Consequently, this feeling of release and public expression had beneficial effects in terms of the individual who ceased to feel isolated and found comfort in knowing others shared the same identity and thus the same problems.

Historical background is perhaps the key to the analysis of the birth of collective identity. The American Revolution was synonymous to a period of unrest and upheaval which also generated the emergence of new ideas and philosophies. The total population in 1783 was 3.25 million (Tully 25) and industrialism was beginning. This was also the time of the development of the American democracy and its federal government. By the middle of the 19th century, the union encompassed 36 states. Also, significant industrial progress had been made: there was now a railroad which connected most of the country, industrialism was advancing, and there was also a great movement of people towards the west of the union. However, it was again time for war. The civil war was based on the differences between Northern and Southern states as far as the industrial revolution and slavery. The end of the Civil War in 1865 was marked by terrible statistics, with over one-fifth of the total male population killed, and the economy of the South in complete disarray (Smith and Smith 1980; Trattner 1994 in Tully 26). However, between 1865 and the beginning of the 20th century there was an enormous increase in population, with 75 million persons by 1900.

The 19th century was also incredibly relevant as far as the history of gays and lesbians in America. It was during this century that the concept of reproductive responsibility slowly started to change and transform into two completely different concepts, i.e. romanticism and erotic love (Tully: 27). Nonetheless, this change in public perception was not without consequences. A more profound understanding of the nature of human emotions, behavior and expression led to an increase in the number of people who sought romantic and sexual pleasure outside the boundaries of marriage. The newly found sexual liberation was the perfect setting for the development of the notion of free love which did not exclude polygamy and a variety of sexual relationships. However, even during this period of great sexual freedom, same-sex couples were looked down on, and considered immoral. Of course, these views did not directly influence the existence of relationships between men, or women. Industrial development brought about an evolution in social order. Middle-class, as well as upper-class families sent their children to sexually segregated schools. This, twined with the fact that the ideals of 19th century America encouraged the romantic idea that men and women could express their feelings for one another in a myriad of ways which had been frowned upon until that time, led to the development of same-sex sexual expression. The latter emerged and developed in parallel with heterosexual expression, and was also fueled by the fact that in newly developing western towns men worked hard in coal mines with virtually no women around for long periods of time. World War I saw the emergence of the United States as a world power. At the domestic level, this generated migration from rural areas to cities, as well as the birth of the first gay subcultures which appeared in cities. Increasing educational and economic opportunities allowed women to gain independence in relation to men, and to feel free to explore their sexuality. Same-sex unions became more and more frequent in urban areas with the middle-class holding on to the ideal of romantic friendships that had appeared in the 19th century, and the working class where the idea of "Boston marriages" emerged. These unions of two women were based on the idea that one woman assumed the role of the man in the relationship. The 1920s and 1930s brought about the Great Depression and the New Deal. Unemployment rose tremendously with more than 12 million people unemployed in the early 1930s. This was a period of hardships also for the gay and lesbian communities; however, homosexual subculture survived the Great Depression, and became stronger with the economic recovery of the country. However, economic improvement did not come with any kind of change as far as popular mentality. The general belief remained unchanged with most heterosexuals blaming homosexuality on psychiatric disorders which required medical treatment (Altman 1982; Bullough and Bullough 1977 in Tully: 36). However, despite slow, there was a historical transformation of the perception of homosexuality in America. In the beginning of the 1900s, homosexuality was viewed as a temporary affliction whose 'victims' could, at least in theory, recover. Towards the 1930s, homosexuality became to be regarded as a lifelong condition which demanded medical intervention. It was these two beliefs that triggered the changed of the decades to come. The 1940s and World War II helped American economy and generated jobs for large demographics who had been unemployed. During WWII, women took on previously male jobs. America needed the female part of the population to enlist for employment, and support the war industry. Women started working in factories building planes, tanks and ships as World War II was a war deeply based on production. The U.S. government realized the contribution that American women could bring to America's war effort; thus the War Manpower Commission started working closely with the media and women's organizations in a collective effort to convince women to join the labor force.

The image of the woman worker was important during the war, but the prewar image of women had not disappeared. On the contrary, women were still seen as wives and mothers, and not as factory workers. American society handled the change in their status during the war because necessity was placed above prejudice. Nonetheless, as soon as the war was over, women were expected to return to their lives and previous social status. In this sense they were undesirable as permanent employees (Kessler-Harris: 277). This assumption can be explained if one considers the social stigma that career women carried. They were supposedly unfit to take care of their homes and were thus destined never to marry or have a family. This social perception of women was widespread, and can account for the negative connotations of the 'working woman.'

The development of wartime industry had allowed women to gain more independence and even though they faced discrimination, their situation was far better than before the war started. The immediate post-war period was the first time women were able to benefit from a considerable degree of financial and social mobility. The implications and effects of World War II would be felt for years to come. Aside from the economic and social changes, the role of women in society would never be the same again. The war meant new opportunities for women, as well as a newly gained sense of independence and individuality. Moreover, the war was an opportunity for women to claim, and consequently, fight for their rights. In fact, the discriminatory working conditions… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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