Lauren Jae Gutterman’s new book, Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage, begins with novelist Alma Routsong writing in her secret diary. Routsong would later gain acclaim and notoriety as the author of A Place for Us, one of the earliest American novels that deals in a nuanced way with lesbian relationships. Initially self-published in 1969 and hand-sold by Routsong and others, A Place for Us generated enough grassroots buzz that McGraw Hill re-published it in 1972, marking a milestone in the progress of mainstream American acceptance of gay people and their relationships.
Routsong, in other words, is an unsurprising person with whom to begin a history of gay liberation in America. Gutterman starts her own book not in 1969, however, or in 1972. She begins almost a decade earlier, when Routsong is a writer of heterosexual novels and is married to a man.
“It was Halloween night, 1961, in college-town Champaign, Illinois, but Mrs. Alma Routsong was not carving pumpkins,” writes Gutterman, associate professor of American studies at The University of Texas at Austin. “With her four daughters momentarily out of the way, likely out trick-or-treating with their father, Alma was sitting down to write at a small card table in the bedroom of her lover, Betty Deran.”
Routsong and Deran had met each other only a few months before, at the local Unitarian church. They were introduced by a mutual friend, who said, upon introducing them, “I just know you two ladies are going to love each other!” A friendship formed, rapidly developing into a romance. Routsong would eventually leave her husband and children for Deran, but what’s interesting to Gutterman is not what it looked like when their lesbian desire and romance came out into the open, but something like the opposite—what those things looked like within the confines of heterosexual marriage. What’s important is how Routsong’s story, like so many others in Her Neighbor’s Wife, complicates a narrative in which gay desire and straight marriage in post-war America were wholly incompatible.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat the experience,” says Gutterman. “I think many of these women were deeply unhappy, and were in really difficult situations, torn between a sense of responsibility to husbands and children and these desires that they may not even have come to recognize until after they were married. But at the same time there was often a flexibility within post-war marriage that narrowed after gay liberation and lesbian feminism and changing expectations of what marriage should be like. In that stereotypical post-war marriage, you don’t tell your husband about your day. You don’t reveal your struggles. It’s understood and expected that you will in some ways have closer, more intimate relationships with your female friends than with your husband. Divorce was so much more stigmatized, which created this freedom or elasticity within marriage, and therefore allowed women to act on these desires to a greater extent.”
Gutterman’s road to writing Her Neighbor’s Wife began in college, at Northwestern University, when she began taking courses in women’s and gender studies. It was while researching her senior thesis, on anti- burlesque campaigns during the Depression, that she discovered a passion for the archives. “It was my first experience doing archival research, and I just loved it,” she said. She moved to New York City after graduation, working for a few years as a sexual health educator in the public schools, and then entered the doctoral program in history at NYU.
When Gutterman got to the dissertation phase of her study, she began looking for a topic in gay or queer history that drew on archives but was not focused on the male experience. It was tough going. “A lot of the focus has been on bars, public meeting places, public sex,” she said. “In these spaces, men’s stories predominate. There is some evidence from women’s bars and arrest records, but their numbers are very limited.”
She hit dissertational gold only after her adviser suggested she look into the genre of post-war lesbian pulp novels, bodice-rippers that masqueraded as morality tales. She began reading, and reading about, the novels, becoming fascinated by the recur- ring figure of the “lesbian wife,” who was both an erotic fantasy and a cautionary tale, an object of desire for the readers and a symbol of the supposed moral decadence of the post-war affluent society.
Gutterman’s research brought her to the papers of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization in the United States. In them, she found an extraordinary repository of letters to the founders, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and to the organizational newsletter, The Ladder. Many of the letters were from married women who were seeking and finding romantic connections to other women in the midst of their outwardly conventional lives.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” said Gutterman. “What I expected was either women who went to lesbian bars, or women who felt entirely trapped and unable to act on their desires.”
Instead, these letter-writers, some of whom Gutterman would later interview, found each other at church, on the PTA, in the office, on the softball team, some- times right next door. And while forming and sustaining romantic relationships with other women in such contexts wasn’t easy, it wasn’t always that hard either. Women were already expected to live so much of their domestic lives in the company of women, while their husbands were at work or the bar or the golf course.
Even when husbands suspected or found out what was going on, Gutterman writes, that didn’t always spell catastrophe for the marriage. Many husbands were willing to look the other way to keep the marriage together. Others were willing to grudgingly tolerate their wives’ romances as long as they were kept sufficiently covert. Some husbands were even supportive. Routsong’s husband, for instance, had known that she was attracted to women from the beginning of their marriage, and was tolerant and even encouraging of her relationship with Deran. “Perhaps he felt relieved that Betty had finally been able to pull Alma out of years of depression,” Gutterman writes, “or perhaps he was just thankful that their affair had made it easier for him to pursue his own extramarital romance.” The two divorced only after Deran forced the matter, moving away from Illinois for a job with the U.S. Treasury Department in D.C. Routsong agonized about it, but ultimately chose to follow.
Understanding and generosity among husbands wasn’t the rule, says Gutterman, but nor was fury and spite, though that certainly existed as well. The rule was that it was complicated. The fact, too, was that women who desired women were hardly alone in the post-war period in not expecting marriage to meet all or even most of their emotional and romantic needs. Many gay men married women but found ways to participate in relationships or simply have sex with other men. Many straight men and women slept with people other than their spouses. Marital sex, particularly from the woman’s perspective, wasn’t expected to be very good. Husbands and wives often spent long stretches of time apart, because of work or complex family situations or simply because they couldn’t stand being around each other. The accommodations, deceits, and silences that women deployed to stay in their marriages while seeing other women weren’t always so different from the compromises their straight counterparts made to keep their heterosexual marriages in equilibrium.
Recognizing these similarities, says Gutterman, can alter our perspective from both directions. It makes gay romance in post-war America seem more familiar than we may have imagined. At the same time, it destabilizes our stereotypes of post-war domesticity. “The big takeaway, in a nutshell, is the way in which Lauren queers the home,” says Janet Davis, professor of American studies at UT Austin. “She totally reframes these spaces in cold war America, like the suburbs, that we usually think of as the models of heteronormative behavior. She’s a really exciting thinker.”
The first half of Her Neighbor’s Wife covers 1949–1969, a time when lesbian desire was largely a taboo subject. The second half, which is just as revelatory and complex, begins in the 1970s, when that taboo is cracked open. What burst forth was a dizzying mix of new sexual communities, identities, practices, and ideologies. At the vanguard of this transformation, writes Gutterman, was lesbian feminism, a political ideology and movement that framed lesbianism not just as an acceptable option for women who desired other women, but as an affirmative feminist act, maybe even the only acceptable one. From this lesbian feminist perspective, explains Gutterman, “choosing to become a lesbian, to build one’s life around other women, and to surrender the privileges that came with heterosexuality, represented the fullest manifestation of a feminist politics.”
To go halfway, however, to explore lesbian desire while holding on to loyalties and identities that weren’t exclusively lesbian, was a unique kind of failure. Gutterman writes of Karen, for instance, a married mother of two living in rural North Carolina. She was “madly in love” with another woman in her neighborhood, and gradually coming to the conclusion that she was a lesbian. But when she brought her two kids along to a gathering of out lesbians in a nearby city, she got a frosty reception. “Karen was, as she put it, ‘a straight woman to them,’ and their treatment briefly convinced her that she was not a lesbian after all,” writes Gutterman.
This was a common experience even for women like Karen who may have been ready to leave their husbands and self-declare as lesbians. For women who wanted to stay in their marriages, were more comfortable identifying as bisexual, or who preferred not to put a label on their sexuality at all, the response could be even harsher. The prominent feminist activist and thinker Kate Millett, for instance, got blowback from lesbian feminists after a 1970 Time magazine story highlighted her marriage
to the male sculptor Fumio Yoshimura. “Say it! Say you are a lesbian!” demanded an activist at a book event for Millet’s then-recently published Sexual Politics. Millett said yes in the moment, but subsequently struggled with how to honor and represent her complex commitments, which included lesbian relationships and lesbian feminist activism as well as her marriage to Yoshimura, which would last well into the next decade.
Even Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the Daughters of Bilitis co-founders who in the past had expressed a great deal of compassion for married women, began to condemn rather than sympathize. Gutterman quotes a passage in their 1972 book Lesbian/Woman that describes women who stay married despite their lesbian desire as having “swallowed, hook, line and sinker, society’s male-imposed dictum that the role of woman is to serve man as his wife and mother of his children.”
For Gutterman, this depiction is far too simple. It doesn’t adequately characterize many of these women’s marriages, which could be deeply caring and even in some cases quite egalitarian. It also doesn’t evince nearly enough compassion for how complicated most of their situations were. There were typically children, who might be hurt by a divorce. Most wives didn’t have the earning power of their husbands, and were likely to be worse off, perhaps far worse off, after a divorce. Custody was a huge issue in an era when many family court judges weren’t sympathetic to women who left their husbands for other women. Many women didn’t feel morally entitled to break their vows to their husbands, or at least didn’t make such a decision lightly. Many women genuinely loved their husbands and didn’t want to hurt them.
“I feel like we have oversimplified these women, branded them as closeted or cowardly, when they are dealing with emotional issues that are so complex,” says Gutterman.
If complexity is the dominant melody of Gutterman’s book, its counterpoint is compassion. She writes compassionately of husbands and children who suffered when their wives and mothers left for other women, as well as of lovers who suffered when wives chose to stay in their marriages. There is compassion for lesbian feminists who were struggling to figure out how to exist and act in a transformed world. Above all, there is compassion for the struggles of married women with lesbian desire, torn between romance and obligation, committed to exploring their same-sex desire but not ready to wholly reject their more conventional families and communities.
When Gutterman was able to interview some of the women whose letters she’d read in the Daughters of Bilitis archives, she was surprised by how sharp the pain of these struggles still was for most of them, even decades later.
“It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” she says. “I was in my mid-20s when I began the project and kind of naïve about these experiences and how much sadness and regret and guilt many women would feel. I thought I would be told uplifting happy stories about forming and affirming new relationships, about discovering one’s true identity.
That is not at all what I got. Most women I spoke to did leave their marriages, and did come
to identify as lesbian or bisexual, but they had really complex and really negative memories about that period of their lives. They felt regret and sadness. I was expecting a liberation narrative.”
The main history in Her Neighbor’s Wife ends in 1989, before the extraordinary advances in gay rights of the last few decades. In a brief epilogue, however, Gutterman comes to the present, and argues that for everything that has changed, the challenge of the “lesbian wife” has not wholly disappeared. Women who desire other women still marry men, and women who marry men still discover, after marriage, that they have desires for other women.
What has shifted, along with the expansion in rights and cultural acceptance, are some
of the ways in which we under- stand these women’s sexuality. In the early post-war era, married women who desired women were seen, if they were seen at all, as threats to the heterosexual order. In the 1970s and ‘80s, they were seen by lesbian feminists as failed lesbians. Today, they are much more likely to be seen, writes Gutterman, as “emblematic of the cultural embrace of female sexual fluidity.” Maybe they’re lesbian. Maybe they’re bisexual, or maybe they just love different people of different genders at different points in their lives. The choice of self-definition is theirs, as is the choice about whether to leave their husbands or not.
She points to a few high-pro- file recent examples, including Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert left her husband for the writer Rayya Elias, with whom she had been close friends for many years. The two were together until Elias died of cancer. Gilbert’s next publicly disclosed relationship
was with a man.
“What we’re perceiving now is that identity categories are affected by our life choices, and by circum- stances outside our control,” said Gutterman. “Consider Elizabeth Gilbert’s partner passing away.
If she had lived, maybe Gilbert would have felt more of a pressure to claim that label of lesbian.
We can’t know.”
That we remain so fascinated by the question, though, points to one of the ways in which things haven’t changed. We’re still compelled, and confused, by married women who desire women.
“I definitely don’t think the story is over,” says Gutterman. “It continues to evolve.”