From Women’s Liberation to the Gender Turn: The Politics of Lesbian History

The participants in this conversation represent two distinct moments that shaped the history of lesbians.

Carol Smith-Rosenberg began the conversation about female intimacy among feminist historians with her pathbreaking article “The Female World of Love and Ritual” in 1975. Published in the first issue of the feminist journal Signs the article made a case that the history of women, and a lesbian history that preceded the emergence of the category, were hiding in plain sight. Claire Potter came to the practice of history a decade later, when the category of “woman” and “lesbian” were giving way to a new history of gender that was heavily influenced by theories than emphasized social construction.

This conversation will focus on the mechanisms by which the unified, essential subject gave way to the socially constructed subject within the history of sexuality, and particularly lesbian history. What were the political stakes of these positions as feminism, and queer politics, were transformed in the 1980s? Were there intellectual routes that were dismissed, or went unexplored, as the shift towards the social construction of gender became central to the history of sexuality? How did this debate affect the emergence—or lack thereof—of a distinctly “lesbian” history within the history of sexuality? Are the essential and social constructed subjects necessarily at odds with each other in our work? Finally, this panel will address the ways in which these debates over gender and sexuality have brought both Smith-Rosenberg and Potter to their current work.

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