Underdogs and outsiders: discovering hidden histories
I loved buying books for my college classes at the start of a new semester. I eagerly anticipated what I’d learn about the world within those pages. Freshman year, astronomy fascinated me, as did a writing seminar on Apartheid in South Africa. I haven’t managed to keep a lot of books from college in the twenty five years that have passed since then, but one that I’ve never let go of is Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, edited by Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson.
I like the new technologies – audio books and e-books – and I even understand the rental market for college, but I also still romanticize books and the value in being able to return to them years later and without technological intermediaries. In college, books broadened my horizons and sparked an interest in women’s and gender history. I found myself especially energized by the readings and discussions in my women’s studies courses. I vividly recall many of the books from my women’s studies class with Professor Biddy Martin, now president of Amherst College, and Powers of Desire was required reading. Our readings and discussions examined the ways that feminist politics spoke to not only sexism but also racism and homophobia and fuelled my desire to learn more about the world I was entering as a young adult. I also learned to have deep respect for the conceptualization and recognition of sex as political and public. Chapters by Allan Bérubé, John D’Emilio, and Kathy Peiss ignited an interest in histories of women, gender, and sexuality. The chapter “My Mother Liked to Fuck”, by Joan Nestle, made me think about how female sexuality was constructed in society. (It’s an essay that also recently came back to me for a project on women’s sexual agency and historical constructions of female sexual pleasure.)
My developing interests in race, women, gender, and sexuality led me to books and classes in Africana Studies with James Turner and Robert L. Harris, Jr, and then gradually to the field of history. In college I took only two courses offered by the History department, one in Native American history with Daniel Usner, and a graduate-level course with Mary Beth Norton who was then working on what would become her Pulitzer Prize nominated Founding Mothers and Fathers. In Professor Usner’s course I read Will Roscoe’s edited volume Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology while I worked on a paper about the berdache or gender-crossing Native American tradition. I was fascinated to see how books about the past could offer a different perspective on gender and sexuality in the present. In Mary Beth Norton’s seminar I discovered my interests in questioning what could be learned from historical documents and I gravitated to colonial America as a site for exploring our society’s roots. Professor Norton encouraged me to examine the case of T. Hall a seventeenth-century Virginian who had lived as a man and also as a woman and who had run into trouble in the community. Hall’s punishment, after intensive community scrutiny over Hall’s biological sex, to wear elements of both male and female clothing for life, sounded nothing like what I’d heard about colonial America as a child and it planted a seed of interest that later would be developed in graduate school.
As a college graduation present, friends gave me the path breaking collection, Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, edited by Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. The shear breadth of the collection overwhelmed me. For me it made gay history leap from activist tellings of the past to academic history. It furthered my interest in sexuality as a viable field of study in history. Too many of my books from college classes eventually got returned, traded, or sold as I moved around — but their worlds stayed with me. They had changed me, not only in the ways that they boldly portrayed histories previously unknown to me, but also by inspiring me to explore. By their example, they drew me toward historical archives armed with my own questions about race, gender, and sexuality – archives that I always approach with an excitement and anticipation that I also felt when I purchased books at the start a new semester in college.
Thomas A. Foster is a Professor in the History Department at DePaul University. His most recent book is Sex and the Founding Fathers: the American Quest for a Relatable Past (Temple University Press, 2014). His next book will be Women in Early America (NYU Press, 2015.)
The image featured at the beginning of this post is of the Cincinnati Old Main Library, demolished in 1955. The photographer is unknown.