Why, then, the burning of letters? Even if Van Waters did not consider herself a lesbian, the world around her was not as thoroughly convinced. Although her close associates insisted to me that the relationship was much too spiritual to have been homosexual, Van Waters’s partnership with Thompson made her increasingly vulnerable to the insinuations of her political opponents.
In the conformist atmosphere after World War II, accusations of communism, often conflated with homosexuality, fueled an attack on liberalism. Thus, in 1948, claims that Van Waters tolerated homosexuality at the Massachusetts women’s reformatory facilitated her dismissal from office. Aside from the widely publicized claims about the “doll racket” among inmates, rumors about Van Waters’s sexuality circulated underground, though never in print. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt— a friend of Thompson’s and supporter of Van Waters — learned of the whispering campaign when she received several “vile” letters that were so disturbing that she destroyed most of them. Similarly, a hostile postcard sent to supporters referred to Van Waters as “supt. (or Chief Pervert)” of the reformatory.32 It was at this time that Van Waters burned most of Thompson’s correspondence, carefully locking away only that one year of “courtship” letters.
Despite the private insinuations that led her to burn Thompson’s letters, Van Waters survived the attempt to fire her. The publicity surrounding prison lesbianism during her hearings, however, contributed to a national preoccupation with homosexuality and to the naming of lesbianism as a social threat. No matter how confident Van Waters may have been that she was not a lesbian, outside observers often assumed that she was. Late in my research, after years of waiting to receive Van Waters’s fbi file, I found a 1954 document that seemed to place an official government seal upon Van Waters’s identity. While carrying out surveillance on Helen Bryan, a suspected communist sympathizer with whom Van Waters had a romantic friendship later in life, a local FBI informant read the correspondence between the two women. Shocked by the “unusual” nature of the letters, which contained “numerous repeated terms of endearment and other statements,” he came to “the definite opinion that Dr. van waters and bryan are Lesbians.’^ It
was to prevent just such a conclusion from being drawn that Van Waters had earlier burned Thompson’s letters.
That identity formation is often a social as much as an individual phenomenon is further revealed by a final anecdote from my research on Van Waters, a coda of sorts that brings the story into the 1990s. My book completed, I turned to the task of acquiring permission to quote from sources, including Geraldine Thompson’s courtship letters. With trepidation, I sent a permission form to Thompson’s eldest surviving granddaughter, who soon called to discuss the request. Her initial words, “I will not grant permission,” struck further terror in me, until I absorbed the rest of her sentence: “I will not grant permission to repeat any lies; I want the truth.” Too much had been concealed in her family, she explained, too much smoothed over. By the end of our conversation, she had told me with confidence that her grandmother had been a lesbian and that she was sure that Thompson and Van Waters were lovers because they had shared a bed during family vacations. “Do you know what we grandchildren called Miriam when she came to visit’?” she asked. “Grammy Thompson’s yum-yum.” She gladly granted permission to quote when I seemed willing to reveal “the truth.”34
I would like to close this retrospective account of my construction of Miriam Van Waters’s sexuality with several reflections on the burning of letters. My research affirms the insights of such historians as Blanche Cook and Leila Rupp who claim that we cannot depend on either labels or direct evidence of sexual behavior to locate the subjects of lesbian history. At the same time, however, we need to be historically specific about the meaning of sexual identity. For many middle-class women of Van Waters’s generation, lesbianism connoted a psychopathology that did not resonate with their experience of loving women. Rejecting the label did not mean rejecting the practice, but it did mean distancing themselves from other women — notably the working-class and African American women who were forging an explicitly erotic lesbian community in the postwar era. Class and race privilege thus took precedence over sexuality as a source of identity, especially for women in public office. Ultimately, however, even Van Waters’s resistance to labeling could not prevent the public discourse on homosexuality from imposing an identity on her that seemed to be at odds with her self-understanding.
Social-construction theory emphasizes how either medical, legal, and literary discourses or economic and familial relationships create the pos-
burning of letters continues
sibilities within which individuals can act out and interpret their sexuality. One weakness of social-construction theory, however, is that as a collective argument it tends to flatten individual differences and does not account well for individual agency. Writing a biography of Miriam Van Waters allowed me to explore an individual case study of identity formed both in tandem and in conflict with the social construction of sexuality.
Van Waters came of age at a transitional moment when the social possibilities for romantic and sexual love between women increased but also when medical labeling pathologized these relationships. As an educated, professional woman exposed to such sexologists as Ellis and Freud, she was both conscious of the erotic and aware of the psychopathic label then attached to same-sex relationships. At the same time, Van Waters was attracted to women; she was able to live outside heterosexual institutions; and she could and did take advantage of the opportunity to establish a partnership with another woman, even as she fiercely resisted lesbian identification.
Perhaps the fear of losing her job and her social standing kept Van Waters from identifying as a lesbian. But her rejection of lesbianism as an identity was not merely self-serving because she just as fiercely resisted the labeling of working-class prison inmates as lesbians, and during her dismissal hearings in 1949, she more or less placed her class and race privilege on the line to defend these women from such charges. In the end, it was Van Waters’s privileges — combined with her distinguished career of service and her upper-class political connections — that protected her from public disgrace. The working-class women she tried to protect would forge their own public lesbian identity, one that equally rejected the pathological discourse of the early twentieth century.
I suspect that Miriam Van Waters would have liked to live in a world that no longer existed, one in which neither labels nor stigma surrounded women’s passionate relationships. To contemporary feminists who value our own historically constructed ideal of the openly lesbian sexual subject, Van Waters seems anything but progressive. Yet if we are serious about the feminist scholarly enterprise of recognizing women’s historical agency, we have to be willing to accept beliefs, and possibly behaviors, that go against the grain of a “progressive” narrative that embraces categories we have claimed for ourselves. And we must keep in mind that this narrative rests heavily upon a highly class – and race-specific lesbian identity constructed since the 1960s, one that depathologized white middle-class women’s love for women but simultaneously failed to recognize a range of other sources of identity.
For complex reasons, then, I think that historians must be careful not to impose upon the past identities constructed in our own times. Rather, we must read for past constructions and consider where they originated, how they changed, and how multiple layers of meaning — intellectual, emotional, and political — could influence individual identity. Miriam Van Waters’s case suggests the ways that some women could simultaneously internalize, resist, manipulate, and ignore the cultural constructions of sexuality in their times. Above all, her story reminds us to look beyond our sources, to read both silences and speech, and, at times, to accept the historical integrity of elusive personal identities.
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