In the early twentieth century, highly educated women such as Miriam Van Waters might have been exposed to published literature that clearly named both male and female homosexuality. Only a generation earlier, even romantic female friends and women who passed as men perceived their experiences within frameworks largely devoid of sexual references. The “female world of love and ritual” mapped by historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg allowed same-sex attractions to “pass” as sexually innocent, whether they were or not. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, a modern conception of homosexuality emerged, articulated first as a form of gender inversion and later as an expression of erotic desire.13 Gradually, an explicitly sexual language characterized the literature on same-sex relationships. Helen Horowitz’s insightful interpretation of M. Carey Thomas provides a good example of the transition. In the 1870s, Thomas’s reading of romantic and pre-Raphaelite poets afforded her an initial and asexual framework for understanding passion between women; after the 1890s, however, the Oscar Wilde trial and the availability of works by sexologists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing allowed Thomas to name sexual acts between women. Similarly, Lisa Duggan’s analysis of the Alice Mitchell trial suggests that during the 1890s the popular press helped create a complex—and contested — erotic lesbian subject, associated in part with insanity and crimed4
As a graduate student at Clark University between 1910 and 1913, Van Waters easily discovered the scholarly literature on sexuality. She read Havelock Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, and some Sigmund Freud, as well as the work of her adviser, psychologist G. Stanley Hall. Her own writing recognized the power of sexuality and stressed the importance of sex education and the strategy of channeling youthful energies into recreation and social service. She also became curious about gender identity and same-sex relationships, as a questionnaire she designed reveals. The survey of adolescent girls asked, for example, “Did you wish to be a boy?” and “[Was your first] love for some one you knew closely, or for some distant person. . . or for some older woman or girl friend?” A separate questionnaire for teachers asked if “crushes” between girls were “based on mutuality of interest and inclination; or are they more likely to exist between ‘masculine,’ and excessively ‘feminine’ types?”15 The questions suggest Van Waters’s interest in whether same-sex attractions correlated with gender identity, an inquiry prompted in part by Ellis’s notion of sexual inversion, which associated “mannish” women with lesbianism.
Although Van Waters never conducted this survey, her intellectual curiosity about gender nonconformity and its relationship to homosexuality recurred in her doctoral dissertation, “The Adolescent Girl among Primitive People.” At this time, she consciously rejected Freudian interpretations of sexuality and adopted Ellis’s language of inversion — albeit without the pathological notions of deviant sexuality. Her views also reflected the cultural relativism of Franz Boas. After describing institutionalized gender-crossing among North American Indians, for example, Van Waters concluded that “among primitive peoples, a useful and appropriate life-role is commonly furnished the inverted individual. . . . It is quite possible that modern policy could profitably go to school to the primitive in this regard.”i6 Similarly, in an appendix on contemporary American approaches to adolescent delinquents, Van Waters analyzed the case of a cross-dressing young woman accused of being a “white slaver” because she brought girls to her rooms at night. Reluctant to label the girl a “true homosexual,” she reported that “it is impossible for her to earn an honest and adequate living while dressed as a woman” and claimed that sympathy for women of the underworld rather than sexual proclivities accounted for her behavior/7
During her subsequent career working in juvenile and adult female reformatories, Van Waters retained a liberal tolerance for homosexuality, even as she increasingly incorporated Freudian views of sexual psychopathology. When she discussed the management of “ ‘crushes’ and sentimental attachment” among reformatory inmates in her 1925 book, Youth in Conflict, she advised that a trained social worker should draw out the girl and replace unhealthy attachments with healthy ones through a beneficial “transference.” A harsher passage reflected conservative medical views of sex and gender when she labeled as the most perverse juvenile case she had encountered a narcissistic girl whose “emotional life will be self-centered or flow toward those of her own sex” and who would “never wish to live the biologically normal life.”i8
Despite these published critiques of unhealthy homosexual attachments, as superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in Framingham from 1932 to 1957, Miriam Van Waters consistently resisted the labeling of prison relationships as homosexual. Her liberal administration emphasized education, social welfare services, psychiatric counseling, and work opportunities outside prison for the 300 to 400 women inmates, the large majority of whom were young, white, Catholic, and working class. Although the criminological literature at the time identified black women in prison as the aggressors in interracial sexual relationships, Van Waters and her staff did not draw a racial line around prison homosexuality. Even when staff discovered two women in bed together — of any racial combination — they hesitated to label them as homosexual.
Van Waters’s tolerance of prison homosexual liaisons contributed to the conservative assault on her administration in the 1940s. The commissioner of corrections who dismissed her from office charged that she had failed to recognize or prevent the “unwholesome relationship” he called the “doll racket.”19 Van Waters evaded the charge, invoking psychiatric authority to draw a distinction between a homosexual act and a possibly repressed homosexual tendency.20 Thus, she protected the mannish women and female friends in prison without directly questioning the view of homosexuality as pathology.
In the 1950s, partly in response to her reading of the Kinsey reports and partly in the wake of accusations about prison lesbianism during her dismissal hearings, Van Waters’s public lectures urged greater tolerance. Homosexuality, she explained, could be “found in all levels of society,” in all types of people. Her emphasis, however, was on treatment. Once revealed through use of the Rorschach test, she believed, homosexual tendencies could be reversed with the aid of psychiatry.21
In short, for Miriam Van Waters, lesbianism was a curable social problem not unlike alcoholism. Although she initially encountered lesbianism among working-class, immigrant, and black reformatory inmates, she recognized that it occurred within other groups as well. Rather than emphasizing a heterosexual solution, Van Waters placed great faith in “healthy” female bonding as an alternative to lesbianism. In this sense, whether or not she had internalized modern medical categories, she strategically invoked an earlier discourse of sexually innocent and nurturing female friendships as a corrective to the increasing stigmatization of women’s love for women as a form of perversion.