As a beginning graduate student intent on forging a new women’s history, I had not yet made the analytic link between hierarchies based on gender (that is, socially constructed categories of male and female) and those based on sexuality (that is, erotic and reproductive practices and identities). Two incidents that occurred while I was in graduate school, both around 1972, reveal my early blinders. First, when a classmate announced in a seminar that he wanted to write about the history of sexuality, I felt embarrassed by his revelation. To me, women’s history seemed important and grounded in abundant evidence, while the study of sexuality felt both indulgent and his­torically elusive. Second, while a group of us were editing a student newslet­ter article in which we called for a feminist history, a fellow graduate student suggested to John D’Emilio and me that perhaps we should also call for a gay history. Both of us ignored the comment. Just as I had reconsidered my early aversion to women’s history, only a few years later, these reservations would lift.

Along with my personal disengagement from what Adrienne Rich has termed “compulsory heterosexuality,” my reading of both socialist feminist and lesbian theorists such as Sheila Rowbotham and Gayle Rubin cleared the way toward rethinking the categories of biological sex, social gender, and sexuality. After moving to California in 1976, I joined a feminist study group that read sexual theory from Havelock Ellis to Michel Foucault. By the late 1970s, the feminist “sex wars” — largely a debate over defining female sexual­ity primarily as a source of power or as a source of vulnerability — loomed large. As I navigated through this political divide, I wanted to make sense of it historically as well.8

Around 1978, I joined the fledgling San Francisco Lesbian and Gay His­tory Project, a small and intensely stimulating group of scholars, lay histo­rians, and filmmakers committed to making gay history accessible to the public. Both sexual theory and the prospect of excavating past lesbian and gay experience opened new historical vistas for me.9 As with the revival of feminism, I wanted to know why lesbianism had remained invisible to me until the contemporary political wave. Through the Lesbian and Gay History Project, I helped create a video for community and classroom use, She Even Chewed Tobacco, which illustrated women who had cross-dressed and lived as men in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.10 At the same time, to make a place for lesbian history within the profession — and despite well – intentioned advice that I not do so, lest I appear to be “slumming” — I began to organize lesbian panels at history and women’s studies conferences.

My work on women’s prison reform strongly shaped my approach to the study of female sexuality in general and lesbian history in particular. Many of the women in jails and prisons were sexual offenders; their incarcera­tion established a boundary that helped define a white middle-class purity ideal. Women served time for minor “crimes against chastity” that included not only streetwalking but also “manifest danger of falling into vice,” a cat­egory intended to protect young women from sexual experience. Although the women’s reformatories attempted to uplift these “fallen women,” their founders accepted the line dividing pure and impure. Prison sources also re­vealed sexual liaisons between women, but heterosexual offenses dominated the early records. Over time, I became curious about how the boundary defining female sexual deviance shifted from a heterosexual purity divide to the criminalization of lesbianism.

Just a few years after my premature dismissal of sexual history, then, I was immersed in questions about sexual deviance and purity. By the early 1980s, after being invited to review recent scholarship on some aspect of women’s history, I decided to map out the rapidly developing literature on subjects such as prostitution, contraception, abortion, and same-sex relationships.

As I drafted this article on the “history of sexuality,” the territory kept ex­tending beyond the confines of the assignment. One colleague who read the massive draft essay suggested that I could write a book on the subject, and I took her advice.11 Given the scope of the project, I asked John D’Emilio to share this challenging task. At the time, we felt that collaborating on a book about the history of sexuality would, at the very least, allow us to continue our decade-long conversation about sexuality and engage in regular work during a period when we both anticipated unemployment (given my tenure case and his prolonged search for an academic position). In fact, we both soon found job security, but we had already decided to coauthor a synthesis of the emerging subfield of sexual history.

Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (1988) mapped the transition from a reproductive society in the colonial era to a sexualized society in the twentieth century. The book argued against a linear, progres­sive march from repression toward sexual liberation and emphasized instead sexual politics, particularly the ways that sexual regulation reinforced race, class, and gender hierarchies within the context of economic commercial­ization. We attempted to integrate same-sex relations throughout the nar­rative and to highlight both the sexualization of women and the politiciza­tion of sex by progressives and conservatives alike. Looking back over the literature in preparing the second edition, which appeared in 1997, we felt gratified both by the maturation of the field and by the staying power of our analytic framework. Lesbian and gay history, in particular, had begun to emerge from the margins of the profession. For this collection, I have selected my article, “The Historical Construction of Homosexuality in the United States” (chapter 6), to represent the analytic overview that character­izes Intimate Matters.

While our book mapped the broad contours of sexual history, I had also been exploring the treatment of sexual deviance in the twentieth century. I wanted to understand the effects on women when the boundaries of accept­able female behavior expanded to include heterosexual desire but simultane­ously stigmatized homosexual possibilities. However, my research took an unexpected turn when I noticed how much attention the American public paid to male sexual crime after the 1930s. “Uncontrolled Desires” (chapter 7), my article about the waves of sex crime panics in the mid-twentieth cen­tury, corresponded to a broader historiographical turn toward the feminist analysis of men as well as women. It reflected as well the influence of Fou­cault in mapping new sexual discourses and interrogating shifting sexual boundaries. Like Intimate Matters, this article pays attention to the contra­dictory effects of sexual liberalization, such as the demonization of certain men as monsters amid the growing acceptance of “normal” male aggression and the heightened vulnerability of sexualized women and children. It also foreshadows my current work on the changing meaning of rape in American history.

I further examined the construction of deviant identities in “The Prison Lesbian” (chapter 8), which illustrates the racially specific impact of female sexualization. By the time I began my biography of Miriam Van Waters, both American feminism and women’s history were expanding their scope beyond white middle-class lives, and explorations of racial and class distinc­tions permeated feminist scholarship. Reviewing my earlier prison research, along with sources in Van Waters’s papers, I noted a shift in the racial mean­ings of lesbianism. In the early twentieth century, it was primarily African American women in prison who were labeled as aggressive homosexuals. After World War II, however, white working-class prisoners also came to represent the “lesbian threat.” Moreover, by the 1950s, the earlier boundary between the pure (chaste women) and the impure (prostitutes, women of color, working-class women) competed with the line drawn between nor­mal heterosexual and pathological homosexual women. Another essay re­printed here, “The Burning of Letters Continues” (chapter 9), explores the impact of the growing stigma surrounding lesbianism on elite women like Van Waters. Here, too, I wanted to show how identity can be complicated by layers of race, class, and sexual desire, using a close exploration of the sexual subjectivity of one woman to do so. Although I did not ground the essay in the queer theory that was infiltrating the academy in the 1990s, the themes of multiple, malleable, and elusive identities within that literature resonate with my interpretation.

The final essay in this book (chapter 10) addresses the dilemmas and the joys of applying historical research to contemporary policy issues. On sev­eral occasions I have done so, for example, when I offered expert testimony about the history of female institutions in a Canadian legal case in defense of a women’s teachers union that wished to remain a single-sex organiza­tion. In response to Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’s charges of a “high tech lynching” at his 1991 confirmation hearings, I felt compelled to correct the record to include the equally horrendous history of violence against African American women, many of whom, like Anita Hill, survived sexual exploitation and were disparaged as sexually impure.12 But my col­laborations with other historians in several major court cases highlighted distinctions in the use of historical interpretations in legal arguments. In this chapter, I reflect on the tension between continuity and change in three episodes when historians have prepared amicus briefs: in Webster v. Repro­ductive Health Services (1989), which upheld state restrictions on access to abortion; in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), in which the Supreme Court over­turned antisodomy laws; and in contemporary cases addressing the right to same-sex marriage. Bringing my exploration of history and politics full circle, this essay argues that historians cannot selectively emphasize positive and linear paths to current policies; we can look for precedents, but above all we must explain the process of change, including the contradictory lessons of the past.

looking back over the essays collected here, I recognize the influences on my work of family, community, and mentors, as well as the energies un­leashed by student movements and second-wave feminism. The theoretical insights of academic feminism and of theories ranging from social construc­tionism to postcolonial histories recur throughout these pages. But this nar­rative leaves out many of the personal encounters that have also shaped my thinking. Training graduate students, for example, continually enabled me to expand my own historical expertise. Directing the Program in Feminist Studies, as well as the faculty seminars it sponsored, fostered interdisciplin­ary literacy. In the early 1990s, the program also gave me a critical opportu­nity to rethink my own politics through workshops on intersecting identi­ties and “unlearning oppression.” And while time has tempered the utopian aspirations nurtured during my academic and feminist awakenings, the undergraduates who are drawn to my courses constantly renew my hopes that insight into the past can foster a more egalitarian future.

With this goal in mind, I offer these essays to explore the diverse ways in which women’s history allows us to question social hierarchies and contrib­ute to the process of social change. They illustrate the scholarship crafted by my generation, and for their influences, I am grateful to all of the feminists whose writing has so enriched both history and women’s studies. I hope that this collection will introduce lay readers to the study of gender, sexual­ity, and feminism and that students reading it will be able to deepen their understandings of the connections among these subjects. At the same time, I would like these essays to inform the work of activists and policymakers who, I am confident, will put this scholarship to good use.