Lifting our skirts: Sharing the sexual past with visitors

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Editor’s Note: In “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth issued a call to action to public historians to include the public more fully in our work by “pulling back the curtain” on our interpretive process—how we choose the stories we tell. In this series of posts, we’ve invited several public historians to reflect on projects that do exactly that, assessing their successes and examining the challenges we face when we let the public in through the door usually reserved for staff.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. Simeon Solomon.  Photo credit:  Tate Museum

In his presidential address, Bob Weyeneth calls for public history sites to “lift the curtain” and reveal to the public the “interpretive fluidity of history.” I have good news for Weyeneth from my little corner of the profession. When interpreting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) history, we can scarcely do anything but display the messy underpinnings of our work. With regard to same-sex love and desire, sound evidence and clear-cut categories rarely exist. In place of definitive statements, usually the best we can offer is a scant handful of clues. Let me first describe the aspects of LGBT history that lend themselves to Weyeneth’s suggestion, then consider one example of these ideas in practice: the alternative labeling project at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (JAHHM) in Chicago.[1]

To begin with, there is the problem of evidence. Because of the stigma—and criminality—attached to same-sex sexual activity, people were understandably reticent to leave a written record. Those who did record their activities tended to be maddeningly circumspect. In addition, even when evidence did at one time exist, it all too often did not survive. Individuals worried about incriminating themselves or families mindful of potential scandal after the death of a loved one too often destroyed documents that may have revealed troves of knowledge. Indeed, LGBT historians grow accustomed to references of sources being destroyed. The reasons behind the destruction are not certain, but circumstantial evidence suggests it may well have been because of homoerotic content.[2]

Then there is the question of categories and definitions. As historians, we pretty much all agree that sexuality is socially constructed.  One’s sexuality is a product of time and place, as well as biology. We know that to be a sodomite in the seventeenth century, to have a romantic friendship in the 1850s, to recognize oneself as an invert in the 1910s, to engage in a homosexual lifestyle in the 1940s, and to embrace a queer identity in the 1990s is to claim distinct and historically specific identities, even though each shares the characteristic of same-sex desire. As professionals, we resist using modern labels, such as lesbian or transgender, to describe the past.[3]

Simple declarations about same-sex love and desire elude us, and we need to be honest about that with visitors. We must admit that sexuality is not immutable, even though most people in this time and place—our visitors—believe that it is. We must admit that we don’t have all the answers.  Although historians are ruled by evidence, that evidence is often scanty or contradictory. In short, we just have to show them what we have: “We know this generally about the time period; we have this specific evidence about the person. It seems possible that this was the case, but we have no definitive proof.”

This doesn’t always go over well. It takes practice not to jump to conclusions, and most US visitors in the twenty-first century, when presented with a long-term same-sex partnership and some tantalizing love letters, will quite readily see an LGBT relationship. Our reticence as interpreters to call it such can easily read more as discomfort and homophobia than as professional ethics. And perhaps there is merit to this accusation. Why, in this era when our society is finally accepting that affection comes in different forms, do historians spend so much time differentiating between romantic unions, sexual relationships, and identity labels? Isn’t it enough just to say they loved each other?[4]

These are valid questions, to be sure. That, in fact, is the point. If we struggle with these issues, shouldn’t our visitors do the same? The staff at JAHHM took this approach with an alternative labeling project they hoped “would inspire visitors to think more critically and broadly about the history that is represented at the museum and to reflect on what was at stake—the determining of the meaning of history and who gets to decide.”[5]

Jane Addams was the founder of the settlement house movement in the United States and the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She also shared her life with a woman named Mary Rozet Smith. We know a number of intriguing things about their more-than-thirty-year relationship, but we do not know if they were lovers in the modern sense of the word. How then to interpret this union?[6]

Focusing on a particular object—an 1898 portrait of Smith by artist Alice Kellogg Taylor—JAHHM created three separate labels with which to engage visitors. One label identified Smith as Addams’ “companion” and focused primarily on Taylor, as the artist. Another label identified Smith as Addams’ “life partner,” acknowledged the hypothesis that they were “lesbians,” and emphasized the difficulty of applying precise categories to the relationship. The final label identified Smith as Addams’ “partner,” did not mention the word lesbian, identified same-sex unions as a common choice for college-educated women of the era, included a romantic quote from one of Addams’ letters to Smith, and noted that most of their correspondence to each other had been destroyed at Addams’ request.[7]

The museum exhibited the portrait with the three labels and asked visitors to choose which they found most meaningful. Visitors also had the opportunity to write their own comments and share them on a public response board. Although some of the comments were negative—questioning Smith’s relevance to the Jane Addams story or objecting to the project as a violation of Addams’ privacy—visitor response was largely positive. In the words of Lisa Yun Lee, JAHHM director at the time, “Almost immediately, the response board began to fill with comments that revealed a hunger for information beyond the ‘forensic’ truth that labels often provide.”[8]

Based in part on the response to this project, JAHHM decided to interpret the Smith-Addams relationship as part of its new permanent exhibit, which opened in 2010. For the first time, the museum literally opened Addams’ bedroom to the public and uses the space to interpret her personal life. Exhibit panels describe the relationship between Smith and Addams using the women’s own words and documented evidence (such as the fact that, when traveling, the two would wire ahead to request a double bed to share). The Smith portrait hangs across from Addams’ bed, where it hung during her lifetime. However, the museum avoids drawing conclusions about the nature of the relationship, instead leaving that question open.[9]

As the JAHHM example illustrates, LGBT history provides a particularly exciting opportunity to discuss the realities of historical research. The truth is, we don’t know everything that came before and what we do know is often more complex than visitors assume. By presenting what evidence and context we have and allowing visitors to ponder its implications, we bring them into the historical process and welcome them to perform their own historical analyses.

~ Susan Ferentinos is a public history researcher, writer, and consultant based in Bloomington, Indiana. Her book Interpreting LGBT History is due to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in early 2015.

[1] For a more in-depth view of interpreting LGBT history at museums and historic sites, see Kenneth Turino and Susan Ferentinos, “Entering the Mainstream: Interpreting GLBT History,” AASLH History News, Autumn 2012.

[2] Historical figures suspected of having same-sex desires whose personal documents were destroyed include suffragist Alice Paul, educator M. Carey Thomas, interior designer Henry Davis Sleeper, and reformers Jane Addams, Molly Dewson, and Miriam Van Waters. See Estelle B. Freedman, “`The Burning of Letters Continues’: Elusive Identities and the Historical Construction of Sexuality,” Journal of Women’s History 9, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 181–200. For further discussion about sources and the history of sexuality, see: John D. Wrathall, “Provenance as Text: Reading the Silences around Sexuality in Manuscript Collections,” Journal of American History 79, no. 1 (June 1992): 165–78; Timothy J. Gilfoyle, “Prostitutes in the Archives: Problems and Possibilities in Documenting the History of Sexuality,” American Archivist 57, no. 3 (Summer 1994): 514–27.

[3] On the difficulty of easy labels, see Victoria Bissell Brown, “Queer or Not: What Jane Addams Teaches Us about Not Knowing,” in Out in Chicago: LGBT History at the Crossroads, ed. Jill Austin and Jennifer Brier (Chicago: Chicago History Museum, 2011), 63–75; Leila J. Rupp, A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 1–11; Martin B. Duberman, “‘Writhing Bedfellows’ in Antebellum South Carolina: Historical Interpretation and the Politics of Evidence,” in About Time: Exploring the Gay Past, rev. and expanded ed. (New York: Meridian, 1991), 3–23.

[4] For some discussions about strict vs. broad definitions, see Brown, “Queer or Not;” Gail Dubrow, “Deviant History, Defiant Heritage,” Friends of 1800, 2002; William Benemann, Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2006), ix–xiv.

[5] Lisa Yun Lee, “Peering into the Bedroom: Restorative Justice at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum,” in Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum (New York: Routledge, 2011), 180.

[6] Brown, “Queer or Not;” Lee, “Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics,” 177–179.

[7] Lee, “Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics,” 179–180.

[8] Ibid., 181.

[9] Ibid., 183–185; “Hull-House Museum Reopens,” Windy City Times (Sept. 8, 2010): 10; Jane Addams Hull House Museum, Chicago IL, Visit by the author (July 26, 2013).

1 comment
  1. Susan, thank you for your ongoing work to interpret LGBT public history and for referencing the Hull-House Museum’s alternative labeling project. You’ll be interested to know that we have recently launched an entire tour devoted to gender and sexuality in the Progressive Era. Our museum educators who are students at UIC wanted to delve deeper into the topic and provide additional context what has become a hot button topic at the museum. The tour moves beyond the question of Addams’ sexuality to share stories of gender non-conformity, diverse definitions of family, and fierce self-expression at the turn of the 20th century. For those who aren’t local, I recommend the following radio piece, which asks, “should we use the ‘L’ word for Jane Addams?:

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