SEX VARIANT WOMAN by Joanne Passet


The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster
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Admiring, exhaustive portrait of a pioneering lesbian author.

Confidence and the courage of her convictions served as powerful forces against homophobia in the life of Jeannette Howard Foster (1895–1981), writes Passet (History/Indiana Univ. East; Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality, 2003, etc.). Growing up in Illinois, Foster accepted with equanimity and enthusiasm the sexual and emotional attractions she felt toward her own sex. She had crushes on female Sunday school and grade-school teachers; at the University of Chicago, she wrote poems with titles like “Sapphics to One Called Helen.” Prejudice against homosexuals did, however, steer Foster’s life in two significant directions that ultimately proved rewarding. Lacking role models, she became a voracious reader, tracking “coded” lesbian characters in literature. She also sought employment where lesbians felt comfortable, at libraries and all-female colleges. Library work afforded Foster the opportunity to catalogue thousands of printed works about lesbians, crossdressers and bisexuals. For three decades she searched out relevant titles, being careful not to arouse the curiosity of librarians who might have disapproved of her project. In 1948, she signed on as a librarian with the Kinsey Institute, which afforded her further access to sources relevant to her study. Given the repressive climate of the McCarthy period, not even a university press would touch Sex Variant Women in Literature, Foster’s richly detailed, landmark study of more than 300 titles written between 600 BCE and the early 1950s. She was forced to pay a subsidy publisher, Vantage Press, for its 1957 release, and it didn’t get many reviews. It did, however, electrify a rising generation of lesbian activists. This pioneering achievement gets slightly buried under a surfeit of minimally relevant detail: excerpts from Foster’s poems; descriptions of her lesbian-themed short stories; the title of a girlfriend’s dissertation; notes on Foster’s late-life problems with arthritis, insomnia and constipation.

Overly inclusive, but focused and smoothly written—a solid contribution to the history of gay literature.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7867-1822-1
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Da Capo Lifelong
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2008