La Jolla author and historian Lillian Faderman explores the history of ‘Woman’

Lillian Faderman of La Jolla is the author of “Woman: The American History of an Idea.”
Lillian Faderman of La Jolla is the author of “Woman: The American History of an Idea,” a comprehensive history of womanhood in the Americas and the idea of what it means to be a woman.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

To say that La Jollan Lillian Faderman’s new book was a huge undertaking is, to put it mildly, an understatement.

The title of the book alone is indicative of that. “Woman: The American History of an Idea” sounds like a dense concept — a comprehensive history of womanhood in the Americas, exploring both the idea of what it means to be a woman and how that idea has shifted through history.

“I’ve been collecting the research for this book for about 20 years,” Faderman said. “Most of my books come from some kind of personal drive to find out more about whatever interests me.”

That Faderman has spent two decades and countless hours on “Woman” should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the author, professor and historian. She’s often referred to as the “mother of lesbian history” and sometimes the “foremother of gay and lesbian studies.”

‘Bombarded’ by images

One could argue that the real genesis of the “Woman” book came more than 60 years ago.

Faderman, the daughter of a Latvian Jewish single mother, grew up in Boyle Heights, a primarily Mexican American neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Being “one of the few White girls” in school didn’t stop Faderman from making friends with the pachucas (gang girls or rebellious girls) in her school, and she became a “juvenile delinquent of sorts,” she said.

Faderman mentions this in a small introduction in “Woman” as a means of pointing out the moment she became fascinated by the conceptualization of women — the idea of what women are supposed to be and act like and how that idea often is perpetuated by outside forces.

“I realized I was gay already back then, and I came from this working-class family and my mother was not married and worked in the garment industry,” said Faderman, who already has written about her life at length in her 2003 memoir, “Naked in the Promised Land.” “So these images of the 1950s that absolutely bombarded us, myself and my classmates, those images had nothing to do with us. They impinged on our psyches and they made us feel like we were lacking because we were not like those images.”

The images of clean-cut nuclear families were not particularly relatable to a young lesbian woman who easily could have ended up in a juvenile detention facility or a boarding school had she not been a decent student, said Faderman, who eventually ended up in a doctorate program at UCLA.

The question of “why had that ideal of women been created” and, more importantly, “why had its grip been so tenacious” has continued to vex her all these years, she said.

“I wanted to find out how those images got established, and I think that was the reason I began working on the book,” Faderman said. “To understand for myself how what influenced me so much as a kid, something that I knew I would never fit into, why that was the dominant image.

“I think this book was in the making even when I was a kid, when I couldn’t understand how I was so different from the ways girls were supposed to be.”

Seesaw effect

Faderman, who once served as the Lambda Archives’ historian in residence, said she took a “working backward” approach to the research that went into “Woman.” She began in the early 20th century and began working back all the way to the early 17th century, when the Americas were first colonized.

She also contrasted the way women were characterized and treated among White colonizers and the Indigenous communities already in America.

The book recounts the importance of women leaving the home and entering the workforce, as well as how the dawn of psychoanalysis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries informed the “sex radical” movement of the time and later informed both the sexual revolution and first-wave feminism.

“I think what surprised me the most was how tenacious that image of woman that was established by the early European settlers really has been. It just kept appearing and reappearing over and over,” Faderman said.

She said ideas such as women being weaker and needing to be subservient to men would disappear for a while and then reappear later.

“It was just that there was always a reaction anytime women moved forward, and I think that women were often complicit in the reaction because they took high-powered jobs or they made a decent amount of money,” Faderman said, speaking specifically about the late 20th century. “They went out into the workforce in great numbers and then they would come home and had to do a second shift because men were taught that things like housework was the job of women. They’d walk the dog and maybe take care of the car, but the rest was up to the woman. And it was too much for women.”

Faderman also describes how those periods are connected. For example, a chapter examining women proclaiming their sexual autonomy in the late 19th century, and how that may have contributed to them entering the workforce, moves into another chapter on women during the Depression and how those gains seesawed back. They are, she said, “interconnected,” with one not happening without the other.

“I think it continues to be very connected, and that’s what, in a lot of ways, our contemporary #MeToo movement is all about,” Faderman said. “Just that recognition that as long as men feel free to sexually harass women who are working for them, women can never really be equal. They’re always reminded that their boss has jurisdiction over their salary and their boss is making demands that have nothing to do with their work.”

“I think this book was in the making even when I was a kid, when I couldn’t understand how I was so different from the ways girls were supposed to be.”

— Lillian Faderman

The book also gives attention to lesser-known historical figures such as Mary Dyer, Lt. Harry Buford (real name Loreta Velázquez) and Victoria Woodhull, who ran for president nearly 150 years before Hillary Clinton.

In addition, there are sections on queer and BIPOC women such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Zitkala-Sa, Anna Julia Cooper and more.

“I think we’ve come to realize that America is very diverse and it’s important to tell those very diverse histories,” Faderman said. “I wanted very much to include not only White middle-class women but women of all classes, colors and ethnicities. That was of huge value to me.”

Historical outlook on the future

Having researched, written and edited more than a dozen books, including a history of the LGBTQ community and movement (2015’s “The Gay Revolution”) and a biography of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk (2018’s “Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death”), Faderman was asked whether she sees things optimistically looking forward or sees the continued seesawing of the idea of women.

“You know, when I was in junior high school, I could not have imagined a world like our contemporary world,” Faderman said. “The progress that women have made during my lifetime seems absolutely astounding to me.

“But as a historian, what I see is that it often seemed astounding to others at other points in history. Like the ‘new woman’ of the early 20th century and then when we went backward. I speculate a bit on the final chapter of the book, in the epilogue, about whether we could ever again retreat to what a woman was, and there are possible ways that a retreat can happen again.”

Faderman points to the COVID-19 pandemic as concerning.

“Millions of women left or had to leave their jobs, in some cases because the jobs didn’t exist anymore and in some cases because they had school-age children who were now home and there was no one to take care of them but the woman,” Faderman said. “So that was a bit of a step backward.”

Time will tell, but Faderman said the younger generation of LGBTQ people gives her hope that it will seesaw back and that progress will be made, however incrementally.

“The number of people who are transgender has grown significantly,” she said. “So I suspect that in past eras there were people who felt this way but couldn’t talk about it. You had to repress it.”

What that means for women as a conceptual idea, she isn’t sure, but she said she hopes to write about that as well one day.

Faderman is scheduled to appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, at Warwick’s bookstore, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla. Tickets are $32.50, including a copy of “Woman: The American History of an Idea.” For more information, visit ◆