Red War on the Family: An Interview with Erica Ryan

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post an interview with Erica Ryan, author of Red War on the Family that originally appeared on Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality, a blog devoted to promoting criticalnotches Nconversations about the history of sex and sexuality across theme, period and region. Learn more about the history of sexuality at

Interview by Christina Simmons

Erica Ryan’s Red War on the Family (Temple 2014) argues that the first Red Scare–the backlash against and anxiety about domestic and foreign radicals–and its organizational progeny not only deeply shaped the American political world of the 1920s but also fundamentally affected ideas and practices of sexuality and gender, marginalizing feminists and sex radicals. Ryan analyzes the rhetoric of antiradicals who assailed the left (“Bolshevism”) by counterposing an “Americanism” which they built in large part on a conservative patriarchal vision of sex, gender, and marriage. She traces battles of post-suffrage feminists and antifeminists, efforts to reinforce masculine authority through a homeownership campaign, Americanization programs run by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and others by settlement house progressives, including fascinating early sex education classes, and popular debates about the “marriage crisis” and companionate marriage. She demonstrates the interplay and overlap of antiradicalism, antimodernism, and antifeminism as forces that pervasively connected the realm of the intimate and familial with the arena of formal political activity, tightly linking the personal and the political. In this she suggests that 1920s conservatism foreshadowed the New Right’s use of sex and gender as an organizing tool since the 1970s.

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Christina Simmons: You focus your study on the rhetoric and conceptual framework of Americanism, especially the part centered on sex and gender. Obviously, we can never really separate the discursive and the material, but could you reflect on what social forces allowed this conservative discourse about family to carry so much weight? What were the material sources of power for these views? Was familial rhetoric more effective than formal capitalist economic ideology when appealing to ordinary men? In a culture already imbued with reverence for the family, were these popular responses as important as economic and political power, in making the sex and gender aspects of Americanism so salient and so culturally formative?

Erica Ryan: American conservatives responded to the Russian Revolution abroad and upheavals at home by advancing a self-consciously gendered and sexualized politics that they called “Americanism.” These conservatives enacted social programs and a cultural agenda that sought to stymie domestic radicalism and blunt the impact of feminism and sexual modernism, and they did so using language that fused family and patriotism. If we think of heterosexuality as a modern social and political system established in the 1920s, then analyzing conservative activism during the first Red Scare gives us insight into the institutions and actors that helped lay its groundwork.        

Americanism shaped the culture of this era because of the sheer complexity of the conservative consensus, because it managed to encapsulate economic and political concerns even as it focused the local and intimate anxieties of a more popular audience. The social forces animating this movement were numerous. In addition to Red Scare antiradicalism, Americans struggled with nativism against immigrants, the fight over internationalism and the League of Nations, the dislocations and conflicts of the Great Migration, a tidal wave of labor unrest involving more American workers than ever before, the arrival of modernism in American culture, a veritable moral revolt among middle class youth, a growing birth control movement, and of course, the suffrage victory for women. In bearing the impact of these social forces, I do think Americans wished to embrace something that seemed stable, and familiar. Popular contributions to Americanism developed in part out of this desire. Both these popular responses and top-down influences carried the movement forward, giving it substance, so both were equally important.

At heart, this book argues that the salience of the antiradical argument depended on those ordinary men seeking authority in the family. It was the very use of sexuality and gender in configuring antiradicalism that made disparate and confused issues seem cohesive, enabling the widespread acceptance of conservative ideas in the 1920s. Ultimately, this facilitated the maintenance of a range of conservative social and political conventions that may seem distant from discussions about sex and gender.

CS: Do you have any reflections on how important ordinary people’s familial and sexual lives actually were (as conservatives believed) to “social stability”? In other words, were the conservatives right in a way–or at least smart!–to make these connections?

ER: I do think conservatives were smart to make these connections, for a few reasons. While radicals in the 1920s employed urgency and fiery rhetoric, conservatism struck many as more passive. By linking political conservatism to a notion of moral emergency, conservatives fostered powerful links between social stability, gender and family norms, and the political status quo. Also, American fears about family stability were not new in the 1920s. But in this decade conservatives crystallized an antiradical political ideology, one where an apparent family crisis reflected larger political, economic, and social concerns. Stable, heterosexual, cohesive families with breadwinner fathers at the head would, many conservatives felt, maintain a vulnerable moral and political order. The conservative position in the 1920s—and again in the second half of the twentieth century—charged families rather than sound social policies with the tasks of minimizing childhood poverty, assimilating maladjusted individuals, containing labor unrest, lowering crime, and tamping down social and political discord. We still see this position in American political culture today.

CS: Nancy Cott argues in Public Vows that in the nineteenth century marriage served as a form of governance for a (white) population spread out across a vast country with as yet few established governmental institutions. By the early twentieth century society needed marriage less for that purpose, and, she argues, the overt connection of “monogamous morality to political virtue” declined, and the state “concentrated more on enforcing [marriage’s] economic usefulness.” You make a strong case that, at least for proponents of Americanism, the link between monogamous patriarchal marriage and political virtue remained strong. Should we see the proponents of Americanism as fighting a rearguard popular action, while the state (in some ways at least) moved on to less strictly moral approaches?


ER: The shift Nancy Cott describes provides a crucial backdrop for the story I tell in this book. As society began to need marriage less as a form of governance, sexual modernism permeated middle class culture. And, with the Russian Revolution, Americans began to see communism as a threat to family life, to marriage, and to morals. Americanism served in part as a backlash to all of these developments in a charged political culture.

I do think we can situate proponents of Americanism as players in a rearguard popular action against the shifting public framework of marriage, something that was well underway by 1919. But it wasn’t only coming from popular actions. It is worth noting that one of the government agencies directly implicated in the development of this brand of Americanism, the Department of Labor, did similar work with their Own Your Own Home campaign. This national effort to boost home ownership amongst working class men positioned monogamous marriage and family life very purposefully as bulwarks against Bolshevism in both moral and economic terms.

In 1920, when women won the right to vote, conservatives responded by vaunting the political role of women as wives and mothers defending the hearth and home from the evils of Bolshevism. These proponents of Americanism directly sought to limit the liberatory potential of the suffrage win. They crafted and publicized—in the name of national defense—a restrictive citizenship role for women. And by the late 1920s, many feminists, including Democratic committeewoman Emily Newell Blair, wondered aloud about women’s apparent failure to impact the world of politics after 1920. We can attribute this “failure” to several things, including the very significant breakdown in organized feminism, and the antiradical attack on activist women. But this book argues that it was also due to the way Americanism framed women’s place politically as within the confines of monogamous marriage and motherhood. In so doing, conservatives self-consciously advanced a gendered and sexualized political worldview under the banner of Americanism. They sought to stem the tide of change by boosting this sexualized and gendered Americanism, and in the process they blunted the real impact of the suffrage win.

CS: I wonder about the difference between antiradicals like the Daughters of the American Revolution and progressive settlement workers. The former’s programs seemed to address how to run a household–styles of cooking or means of hygiene whereas the settlement workers actually took up gender and sexuality concerns more, as in the Young Women Christian Association’sInternational Institute’s commission to study second-generation girls or the United Neighborhood Houses’ intriguing 1927 sex education programs, which included some very liberal and even radical readings. Did the DAR focus on household work because it found many immigrant families actually conservative enough already on sex and gender? The settlement workers, on the other hand, wanted to convey more liberal attitudes, especially on gender, even though they also hoped to confirm marriage as the appropriate way to organize personal life. Were the antiradicals and the settlement workers really doing the same things?

ER: This tension between conservative reformers and the progressiveswas a surprising development in my Americanization research. While I thought their approaches and intentions would be quite different, it seemed important to me to acknowledge that in fact, both the Daughters of the American Revolution and progressive groups like the International Institutes and the United Neighborhood Houses sought to create orderly American bodies, that their efforts at heart were projects of cultural conformity in support of the developing social structure of heterosexuality. But, within that effort, as you point out, they were not doing the same things. And that is true in two significant ways.

First, they had vastly different views on the conflict between old world culture and new world culture. Conservatives like the Daughters of the American Revolution sought to impose what they saw as a superior American culture upon immigrants. Progressive reformers firmly committed themselves to the prospect of blending old and new world cultures. As proponents of the cultural gifts movement, many progressives celebrated old world customs even as they helped immigrants develop an appreciation for those of the new world.

Second, and perhaps more significantly here, these groups employed different frameworks for reform. The Daughters of the American Revolution’s efforts were focused on creating homogeneity within the material culture of the home, throwing over old world foods, hygiene practices, and homemaking styles in favor of American ones. And as you noted, they may not have gone further because they were satisfied with the family structures they encountered in immigrant households. But however conservative immigrant families appeared to be on issues of sex and gender, immigrant daughters served by the DAR undoubtedly struggled with shifting sex and gender norms, with the clash between a modernizing American culture and their old world influenced homes. And progressive reformers built a framework for reform around this reality. Leaders in the United Neighborhood Houses recognized the unique alienation of the “second generation girl” in 1920s America, and worried that a morally rudderless immigrant youth might completely devalue marriage and family life. They acknowledged the role sexual modernism might play in young people’s assimilation—that point needs to be made.

Yet, in this decade where heterosexuality was being established, I was struck by the fact that both conservatives and progressives fostered a different-sex, monogamous, marital model as the only desirable way to organize personal life. The Americanization effort was in many ways about solidifying popular understanding of American ideals, and heterosexuality as a social system was one of them.


CS: In your final chapter you document how antiradicals attacked women reformers, rebellious youth, and marriage reformers as abnormal and/or as Bolsheviks. On example was the famous Judge Ben B. Lindsey, proponent of companionate marriage. Your research adds a useful perspective on the story told by historian Rebecca Davis about the intense hostility to Lindsey and his ideas in the 1920s–you show the attacks on Lindsey as part of the wider antiradical campaign. But why did the conservatives focus on him rather than people with more anti-marriage agendas? 

ER: This is a compelling question, and one that challenged me in my research for the book. I anticipated many direct attacks on sex radicalslike V.F. Calverton, a reformer, author and editor from the Old Left, but I did not find them, despite the fact that he celebrated the idea of ending monogamous marriage. Calverton overtly applauded Soviet policies as models of a better way, for example, in relation to illegitimacy laws. In an essay collection he co-edited on the “intimate problems of modern parents and children,” he exposed the hypocrisy of capitalism’s influence in determining the status of children as legitimate or illegitimate. “Life acquires value not because of its life, but because it is connected with the matter of property and its transmission,” he argued. “The illegitimate child is scorned, and the unmarried mother stigmatized, because they are a menace to our social order. They strike at the economic foundation of our whole system of morals and marriage.” “In Soviet Russia,” Calverton was quick to point out, “there are no illegitimate children.”

So, given this radical challenge to capitalist and marriage ideals embedded in Americanism, why did antiradicals instead go after Lindsey, whose “companionate marriage” scheme in many ways served only to reinforce monogamous marriage? There are a few things to consider. Lindsey’s support for birth control within companionate marriage was indeed still “radical,” and polemical. Lindsey’s book became a symbol for the sweeping concerns many Americans felt about youth culture, the “marriage crisis”, and radicalism more broadly. The press covered The Companionate Marriage and its contents constantly. Lindsey was well known, certainly more widely known than Calverton and his peers, and when antiradicals attacked Lindsey, it was intelligible to a broader swath of the American public. Conservatives considered him as perhaps a more legitimate (and more worthwhile) target because he proposed a model based entirely in reality. The sexual and social order promoted by Calverton seemed fantastical to many, yet Lindsey called for reforms rooted in changing realities. And indeed, by linking those real changes to Bolshevism, antiradicals hoped to discredit them.

We can read these reactions to Lindsey as part of a sweeping impulse toward reaction in the 1920s. The conservative consensus responded to change by touting tradition, both in personal and political terms. Whether they agreed with it or not, by the end of the 1920s many Americans understood that Judge Ben Lindsey’s name reflected fears of radicalism just as much as Vladimir Lenin’s. Popular understandings of Americanism and Bolshevism created in 1919 developed this connection, while a host of influences sustained it: politicians’ pronouncements about the capitalist family, newspaper and magazine articles about the dangers of women and radicalism, the push for homeownership amongst working class men, a range of Americanization efforts focused on the young, and a perceived crisis in marriage and family life.

In this fraught political and cultural moment, long before the New Right advanced a politics steeped in family values, the conservative consensus made gender and sexuality central preoccupations in their construction of 1920s Americanism. Their activism set the stage for subsequent conflicts over feminism, sexuality, family formation, and reproduction. Scholars need to attend to this history because, then and now, this kind of politics prioritizes monogamous, different-sex marriage and stable family life as the cornerstone of national strength. Sometimes plainly, and at other times imperceptibly, this political logic canonizes the patriarchal family as a social unit, marginalizes women as actors in the political arena, and reinforces the power of heterosexuality as a social and political system.

Christina SimmonsChristina Simmons retired in January 2015 as Professor of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario. Her 2009 book, Making Marriage Modern: Women’s Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II (New York: Oxford University Press), addresses the transformation of the ideology of marriage and women’s sexuality for white and African-American women in the first half of the twentieth century. Her current research focuses on African Americans, sexuality, and marriage education in the 1940s and 1950s.

ERyan Author photo Red WarErica Ryan is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Rider University in New Jersey. She is the author of Red War on the Family: Sex, Gender, and Americanism in the First Red Scare (Temple, 2014). She is in the beginning stages of two new projects: one examines fatherhood in 1990s American political culture, and the other links contemporary American “culture wars” to the political, social, and cultural divides of the 1920s.

An Interview with Miriam Frank, author of Out in the Union, from

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post an interview with Miriam Frank, author of Out in the Union, that originally appeared on Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality, a blog devoted to promoting critical notches Nconversations about the history of sex and sexuality across theme, period and region. Learn more about the history of sexuality at

Out in the Union: An Interview with Miriam Frank

Interview by Katherine Turk

Out in the Union (Temple University Press, 2014) by Miriam Frank tells the continuous story of queer American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013. This book chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s and how these struggles continue to the present day. Frank documents coming out on the job and in the union as well as issues of discrimination and harassment, and the creation of alliances between unions and LGBT communities, organizing drives at queer workplaces, campaigns for marriage equality, and other gay civil rights issues to show the enduring power of LGBT workers. Drawing from 100 interviews with LGBT and labor activists, Out in the Union provides an inclusive history of the convergence of labor and LGBT interests.

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Katherine Turk: The subfield of gay and lesbian history has existed for more than three decades. Why do you think it has taken so long for scholars to write queer labor history?

Miriam Frank: The field of LGBT history includes many studies of queer working-class communities but very few investigations of the actual work lives of queer working-class people in those communities. Traditional labor history considers the everyday lives of working-class people at their jobs in terms of unionization, job mobility, and racial, ethnic and gender segmentation in the workforce. Queer workers and queer issues have not been a topic.

Before the 1970s, this made sense, because LGBT workers rarely revealed their queer identities on the job or in their unions. But customs have changed. In Out in the Union, I show how workplace cultures, community standards, and union traditions have influenced the ease or difficulty workers experience as they come out at work and in their unions. Contemporary explorations by union activists about working class lives and queer identities have led to LGBT-oriented reforms in organizing drives and collective bargaining, in union service programs, and in politically effective labor/community coalitions.

The US labor movement has a great history of strong political coalitions that have pressed for reform on economic and social problems. I wanted readers to consider how LGBT trade unionists developed alliances to apply their organizations’ principles and resources to queer union members’ economic status, basic civil rights, and workplace cultures. The successful LGBT coalitions that first emerged in the 1970s continue today, influencing collective bargaining priorities, community organizing, regional politics, and trade union ethics.

KT: Your book is organized thematically and chronologically; much of the narrative unfolds through case studies that illuminate the issues that have faced gay unionists as they pursued economic justice and the right to be open at work.  Why do you start the book with a timeline?

MF: Out in the Union narrates untold stories of queer labor based on more than 100 oral histories that I recorded between 1987 and 2010. The collection’s scope follows diverse industries, unions, communities, and political events and ranges through more than 50 years of US labor and LGBT history.

A wise reviewer of the manuscript suggested that this complex narrative of communities, organizations, and events could benefit from chronological markers. I made a timeline based on occasions from the larger narrative that would contextualize political issues and decisions that shaped unions and queer working-class communities during that important half-century. I wanted to highlight locations, conflicts, alliances, and negotiations to demonstrate the astonishingly uneven, yet consistently dynamic diversity of these two movements.

KT: You make a strong case that queer and labor histories are intertwined.  The years you chronicle saw the expansion of queer civil rights and the contraction of labor rights; as queer identities have become more accepted, working class identities have declined.  Do you see any causal relationship between these dynamics or are they merely conterminous?

MF: My book begins with the mid-1960s, before gay liberation emerged as a mass movement. Unions then represented approximately 30 percent of the U.S. workforce. Public and service-sector unions were organizing successfully and their gains offset declines in union participation in the private manufacturing sector. Those losses stemmed from manufacturers’ decisions to shift operations to regions where lower wage rates prevailed and “right-to-work” laws disadvantaged labor’s goals.

During this same period, public opinion on queer civil rights began to favor reform, especially in liberal urban centers – and in states where union drives could not be stopped by right-to-work sanctions. These congruencies are neither causal nor coincidental. Rather they indicate politically liberal values: the acceptance of sexual variance in civil life and the encouragement of fair work rules in economic policy.

One early marker of the growing acceptance of queer civil rights was the 40-year-long state-by-state elimination of anti-sodomy laws in 36 states, by ballot or by judicial decree, a trend that began in 1961. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas struck down the anti-sodomy laws of the fourteen remaining states; of those fourteen states twelve maintained right-to-work statutes.

Declines in union membership have steepened, but without real losses in working-class identity. The harm, instead, is economic. Former union members still hold jobs, sometimes two or three, often as part-timers, often at or close to minimum wage. Their positions are precarious: they hesitate to challenge managers about unsanitary and unsafe working conditions, undependable schedules, and scarce raises. An ever-stronger corporate class with ever more consolidated political power threatens the security of working-class people and their unions as well as the hard-won gains of queer communities.

On April 15 of this year, queer and straight skilled laborers in highly-paid unionized jobs rallied in shopping malls and downtown plazas throughout the country. They were joined by queer and straight fast-food workers, big-box store workers, adjunct professors, home health care aids, and others who labor in underpaid and underrepresented jobs. I went to the demonstration in midtown Manhattan. People were demanding a raise in the minimum wage and an end to union-busting harassment during organizing drives. It seemed to me that while decline in union membership remains a serious issue, there is no dearth of people with working-class pride who would gladly reverse the situation.

United Food and Commercial Workers' OUTreach Committee at Local 770 at the LA PRIDE march, West Hollywood, June 14, 2015.    Photos courtesy of Michele Kessl

KT: The book opens with the story of Bill, a covert trans man who worked as a locomotive engine repairman and rose to a leadership role in his union in the early twentieth century.  How does the history of transgender workers relate to that of gay and lesbian workers, thereby rendering the more general term “queer” useful for labor history?  How have transgender workers’ priorities been incorporated or downplayed within broader labor struggles?  

MF: Bill’s fragmentary story of survival and transformation fits in with what little we know about transgender lives a century ago; and his union involvement is unique during an era when transgender working-class people had few options for survival. Some lived openly as outsiders; others would quietly pass. Rarely were any of these experiences recorded.

Decades later, transgender people were active in homophile and early gay liberation movements. But as gay liberation entered the political mainstream during the mid-1970s the strategy shifted from radical confrontation to a lesbian/gay civil rights agenda. Two issues emerged, both of them popular and possibly winnable: legal sanctions to halt sexual orientation discrimination and legalization of domestic partnerships. Anti-discrimination policies were included in unions’ constitutions in the early 1970s and the first collective bargaining agreement to protect domestic partners was ratified in 1982. Lesbian and gay advocates in the labor movement based their claims on union principles as old as the labor movement itself – an injury to one is the concern of all. Absent from the civil rights dialogue was any mention of gender transition or expression.

Nevertheless, transgender workers of the 1960s and 1970s found recourse from straight workmates and union representatives. At one auto plant, a worker who was in transition from male to female suffered hazing from co-workers and supervisors. Her local president broke up the worker-to-worker harassment, then helped her file a lawsuit against the company.

Unions first adopted constitutional resolutions on transgender workers’ rights to equal protection late in the 1980s and then confirmed those rights in their contracts. But not until the late 1990s did any workplaces prioritize health benefits and gender expression as rights specific to the lives and needs of transgender members. A few unions have followed that trail, but many others have yet to highlight transgender workers’ claims in contract negotiations.

Queer progress in the US labor movement has never been easy, but lesbian and gay union members have seen basic civil rights and economic benefits move steadily forward, especially since the mid-1990s. By contrast, transgender union members continue to travel a road that remains remarkably uneven. Now is the time for all queer unionists and their allies to support transgender activists as they press for a trans-friendly bargaining agenda. Their demands can shape improved contracts that will at last address head-on their basic needs: to earn their livelihoods free of harassment, protected from discrimination and supported by good wages and fair benefits.

KT: The second of the book’s three sections emphasizes the significant and often unlikely coalitions among queer and other workers and between queer activists and unionists. But did you also encounter evidence of notable tensions or fissures (sexism or transphobia, for example) within the queer labor community?

MF: Political cultures of the labor movement are actually different from the cultures of many identity-based civil rights organizations. To say it plainly, healthy unions operate with a primary ethic of solidarity when they work with activists from the ranks and with coalition partners from allied organizations.

This is not to say that expressions and issues of sexism, homophobia or transphobia do not exist in the ranks or in leadership. But from my interviews I have consistently found evidence of LGBT union members supporting one another in organizational decisions and working out their differences in frank dialogue. At best that openness flows from the union hall to the workplace and back again. LGBT union members who have come out have usually found fair-minded allies among straight and cisgendered co-workers: on the job and in their organizations

Often what sealed that respect was the willingness of LGBT activists to join in the projects of their unions. Everyday tasks, focused planning, and casual conversations gave people paths for productive collaboration. Queer people were seen less as outsiders and more as compatible volunteers; the energies of new activists lightened everyone’s loads.

That second section of the book consists of two chapters about the politics of coalitions. Labor/queer coalitions have been important to the health of both movements because queer communities, like unions, continue to deal with real and destructive political threats. Both have found reliable allies in one another in national, regional, and local struggles.

I have seen union meetings where waves of mistrust greeted new ideas. But way more often than not, labor’s essential ethic of fairness and equality has made a vibrant difference: “United we stand, Divided we fall — An injury to one is an injury to all.”

KT: Do labor unions still serve a vital role for queer workers, and, if so, is their need greater than other workers’?  Given labor’s precarious position in today’s political and economic landscape, should queer activists continue to pursue the union-building strategies you uncover in Out in the Union? Or should they instead intensify their efforts to boost protections for queer identities in more visible and professional workplace settings?  

MF: Out in the Union shows how unions and queer communities learned to collaborate during a critical 40-year period. During that time, unions were being diminished and weakened by multiple waves of deindustrialization accompanied by right-wing pressures against gains achieved through collective bargaining. And yet the US labor movement has managed to survive.

Currently, unions represent 11 percent of employed people in the US, a sure decline from the high point of 35 percent in the 1960s. Still, in 2013, 11 percent of the number of people represented by unions was 14.5 million. Estimates of how many people in the US are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender vary widely, but if we say 5 percent, we still have 725,000 workers; and that’s not counting partners, spouses, parents, and children impacted by the economic security of their queer family members.

Activists should come to terms with labor’s track record on queer issues and make their own estimations of the value of working in coalition with organizations that still represent 14.5 million people. Queer communities and labor have definitely benefited from mutual support: from the coalitions that overcame anti-gay referendums in California, Oregon, and Washington over a 30-year period to the deliberate and surprising state-by-state adoption of marriage equality reforms between 2003-2013, all in states with union densities of 10-25 percent.

Professional workplaces are increasingly unionized. Adjunct and graduate student campaigns have been popping up on dozens of campuses. Nurses’ unions have been mobilizing aggressively to address current transformations of U.S. health care. And unionized opera singers and orchestra musicians at New York’s Metropolitan Opera made headlines in September 2014 by winning their contract battle just ahead of the annual opening night gala. That fight was professional and militant and community support was very, very gay.

KT: For its subject, scope, and source material, your book is pioneering.  You note that the book is not intended to present encyclopedic coverage or to serve as the last word on its topic.  How do you envision your book as a platform for future scholarship?  What related study would you most like to see next? 

MF: Out in the Union has already served as a research base: for a chapter in a doctoral dissertation in 2014 at the University of California, Santa Cruz, by Sara Smith (on efforts by teachers and their unions to defeat the Briggs Initiative of 1978 in California); and for a senior honors thesis at Columbia University by Jared Odessky on union activity during the notorious Anita Bryant “Save Our Children” campaign in South Florida in 1977. It will be influential in graduate studies and down the line could provide a base for other sophisticated projects. I am aware of two graduate seminars being offered this summer that will use Out in the Union as a core text, and I have been invited to speak to one of those groups.

There are a number of paths that scholars could take. Projects that focus on single industries or on a particular region would offer more intensive research opportunities than the structure of my project permitted. I am thinking on the order of two very challenging and wonderful works: 1)Anne Balay’s Steel Closets (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), a fiery and focused study of 40 queer unionized steelworkers, most of them employed at the U.S. Steelworks in Gary, Indiana. 2) Phil Tiemeyer’sPlane Queer (University of California Press, 2013). I have disagreements with Tiemeyer’s exclusive study of gay male flight attendants, but I do admire the book’s dedicated and unswerving focus on the actual work that these men perform.

Earlier this year I posted a NOTCHES entry, Organized labor, Gay Liberation and the Battle Against the Religious Right, 1977-1984, and became acquainted with Bob Cant and Brian Dempsey, both of them veteran British labor activists. They mused on the dearth of historical review about gay/labor organizing in Britain and the absence of queer consciousness in British everyday life. They discussed the possibility of a British trade union oral history project. This would have to be a huge devotion, but what opportunities that material could offer!

And now, a last word about archives: the Out in the Union oral histories, files, and related organizational materials of the Lesbian and Gay Labor Network have been deposited at New York University’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives in the main Bobst Library. Some scholars have already been working with what is available. By summer’s end, 2015, the entire trove will be available to the researching public.

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Miriam Frank received her Ph.D in German Literature from New York University in 1977, where she currently is Adjunct Professor of Humanities.  She has taught Labor History in union education programs in New York City and in Detroit, where she was a founder of Women’s Studies at Wayne County Community College. Her book, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America(Temple University Press, 2014), chronicles the queer lives of American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013.

Katherine Turk is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Turk has written numerous articles on postwar feminist politics and the challenges of defining and creating sex equality in the workplace, in the law, and in American culture.  Her forthcoming book, Equality on Trial: Sex and Class at Work in the Age of Title VII, will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in early 2016.

Photo: Katherine Turk and Miriam Frank at the “Fighting Inequality” Conference of the Labor and Working Class History Association and Working Class Studies Association, Georgetown University, May 2015. (Photo courtesy of Desma Holcomb.)

Talking about Toilets

1992_regOlga Gershenson and Barbara Penner, editors of Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, discuss their motivations behind their new book, which looks at the culture, meaning, history, and ideology of  public toilets.

Olga and Barbara, what is your fascination with toilets?

Barbara Penner: I stumbled onto the subject in 1995 as a graduate student of architectural history in England. I was in search of a space that demonstrated how architecture shaped women’s experience of cities. Finally, I found it. On a walking tour through Camden Town, the tour guide stopped before an unassuming and (truth be told) somewhat grubby Edwardian female toilet at the intersection of several main roads. “This,” she pronounced with a flourish, “was the only monument George Bernard Shaw ever wanted to his service as a local councilman.” I was struck by this image of Shaw as a proud champion of female public toilets. I was sure there was a story there. But the story turned out to be about much more than Shaw’s efforts to have this one public toilet for women built: it was a window onto the ongoing struggles of women to have access to and to move comfortably through London’s city streets as a legitimate part of the “public.”

Olga Gershenson: Well, for me the subject of toilet was a complete accident (no pun intended). I was teaching a course on gender, and in the process of my preparation bumped into a totally unexpected subject—toilet accessibility for folks who are transgender, gender-variant, or just plainly don’t look their sex. I was stunned that for all these people using a public bathroom—that I took for granted—was a hurdle and a risk. It seemed particularly unfair that most people, like myself, just don’t think about it. So, I tried to do more research on the subject, couldn’t find much material, and realized that there is a need in a book about toilets and gender. Five years later—here we are.

And now with the publication of Ladies and Gents, what are your thoughts on toilets, and/or how have they changed?

Olga Gershenson: To be honest, now my preoccupation with toilets is different. For the last few months I’ve been living in Moscow, doing research for my new project. And the public restrooms in Russia are still—how should I put it?—a work in progress… But seriously, I am really happy that Ladies and Gents is being printed as we speak—it was a long process and sometimes it looked like it might never happen. I am particularly happy that the book talks not only about social justice issues—that are really important—but also about art, film, theater, and literature, in short, about the realms of representations. It was crucial to us to show how this both ordinary and taboo subject is perceived, imagined, and reflected. I think we succeed: the great Peter Greenaway (director of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover) wrote an afterward to our book.

Barbara Penner: The subject is finally being taken more seriously and hopefully this book will help shift things further. But we’d be naïve to think that a book on toilets won’t still shock and offend in some quarters (amuse is okay!). In 2005, when we sent around a Call for Papers for this book, we were accused of triviality, immorality and worse. Although there’s a noble lineage of people who use toilets or scatological humor to deliberately provoke from Jonathan Swift to Marcel Duchamp, this was never our intention. But toilets offend anyway because they threaten to transgress so many well-established boundaries and reveal the way in space, society, etiquette, and academe work to keep certain things in their place. This is something that the archest provocateur of all, George Bernard Shaw, understood full well. And with his keen eye for human foibles, he wouldn’t have been surprised at toilets continuing ability to upset in the noughties. Despite the importance of very real practical issues in toilet design, the discussion of public toilets rarely turns on such issues. It is shaped precisely by those things that we can’t see or touch – social ideas about decency and cleanliness and attitudes towards the body and sexuality – and is a powerful index of status and of belonging (or not). This is why questions about toilet provision, design, and representation continue to be important for those interested in the creation of dignified and genuinely inclusive cities, now more than ever.

For more information on Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender edited by Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner visit:


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