Lillian Faderman might be described as a cat who roars. Soft-spoken, attentive, and highly intelligent, she’s made her name as an academic and activist. Her groundbreaking scholarly texts have been acclaimed and consulted for a quarter of a century. Her more recently published memoir, Naked in the Promised Land, traces her experiences as the daughter of a single immigrant mother, her coming out in the 1950s, and her evolution as a feminist and scholar. Her books, Surpassing the Love of Men, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, and To Believe in Women were recently translated to Italian and anthologised in one volume for the publisher Il Dito e La Luna. When she was invited to Torino, Italy in June to present her work at a conference organized in her honor, PopMatters had the great privilege to speak with her and her partner Phylliss Irwin, before they took part in the Gay Pride Parade that coincided with the conference.
I would like to start with a question that is specific to your visit to Italy. How did you feel when [translator and curator] Margherita Giacobino asked about anthologising work from three separate volumes into one?
Faderman: It was wonderful. Actually, when Surpassing the Love of Men first came out in 1981, an Italian publisher, Rizzoli, immediately asked to translate it. We had a contract and then it suddenly disappeared and I don’t know what happened. Then it went on to be translated in Turkish, as well as Slovenian, Slovakian, Japanese, and German. However, Italy never picked up the book. So I was thrilled when Margherita said she wanted to translate the three of them.
I know that Margherita worried that you would want your books published whole, though in this case, there was not enough money for such a project.
Faderman: I think there are parts that are more pertinent to Italy than others. I don’t speak Italian so I don’t know what exactly was chosen, but I can imagine there are parts of Surpassing the Love of Men, particularly the end, that are very specific to America. I was writing that during the height of the lesbian-feminist movement and maybe that was not as pertinent as the earlier history, where there is a lot of European material. It would make sense to me that one would pick and choose what to translate.
In Naked in the Promised Land, you come through as very tenacious, passionate, and lucid. How do you think you came to be this person?
Faderman: Maybe I learned to be that way precisely because of what I write about in Naked in the Promised Land. Either I had to learn to be tenacious and lucid or I would sink. I think my poor mother had to sink, because she couldn’t be tenacious.
You’ve made a transformation from an academic style of writing to the memoir. But even though Naked tells a personal story, it maintains a certain objectivity.
Faderman: A couple of years before I turned 60, I thought it was time to look inward. I’d spent a lot of my life looking outward and now I wanted to introspect. I suppose mostly I wanted to figure out how I became the person I became. I thought it was worth doing as a memoir because nobody’s story is simply particular to oneself… that other people can’t hear your story and say, “Yes, that’s just the way it is. That’s the way it is for me too.” I guess I wanted to record, not only tell, my own story. And I wanted to affirm other people’s stories with shared experiences.
So it was a natural transition for you.
Faderman: Yes. There were certainly things that when I was younger, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with publicly, like my career as a stripper [laughs]. I think when I was turning 60, I thought, “Well, this is interesting.” I actually tried to write a memoir about 15 years earlier, but I made myself too much of a hero and my mother too much of a nothing. At that earlier point, I was still unable to [see] what my mother had given me.
She had a terrible time in her life. Her lover [my father] refused to marry her. He wanted me to be an abortion. She could have given me up for adoption, had an abortion or gone crazy. What she chose to do was to love me, to keep me and to love me. I realized that was a huge strength in my mother… While I couldn’t remember all the details or the dialogues, I remembered the impression things in my life had on me. As I wrote, it didn’t seem that I invented. I tried to stick to the emotional truth and forget about theory. The writing didn’t come from the head—it came from the heart. This is an interesting human experience. I wanted to explain this path.
In Surpassing the Love of Men, you described women in couples, working together and going beyond erotic passion. How do you view lesbian couples today?
Faderman: Well, I see my relationship as constantly growing. I’ve just finished a book that is coming out in October, a history of gay and lesbian Los Angeles. And I’ve dedicated it to Phyllis, who makes everything possible. Because that’s the way our lesbian couple has been. I’m realistic enough to understand that not everybody is as lucky as I’ve been. I know that there are as many difficult lesbian situations as there are heterosexual situations. I know this is not a stairway to heaven for all people, but it can work in a way that is truly successful. I think heterosexual relationships are changing. My son is 31 now and I see how egalitarian his marriage is. I see how these sex roles that I saw around me when I was coming of age just don’t seem to exist in his marriage or in the marriages of his friends.
I know it was extremely important for you to have a child. You’ve written that you had a deep desire to be a mother, to make your mother a grandmother and your aunt a great aunt. How has it been for you and Phyllis to raise a child together?
Phyllis Irwin: We just shared everything, except for the biological part, of course. I was there through the birth preparation. We went to LaMaze training together. I was in the hospital when she gave birth. She didn’t want me to stay in the room because she was afraid that once the real emergence began that I might become too upset. Taking care of Avrom all those early years was a shared, 50/50 process. Somebody had to get up at two o’clock in the morning. Well that’s what we did. We took turns or we both got up. When he had to be picked up from school or things like this, we shared the responsibility. I was head of my music department for many of those years and I had a large office. So when he would get through with school, I’d bring him to my office. He could do his homework or he could take his music lessons from some of the professors there. I think I had a great influence on Avrom. He certainly has had one on me.
How has being a mother influenced your work?
Faderman: I think being pregnant and then having a child really began to make my work possible. Before that, I had finished my dissertation and did a couple of anthologies, college textbooks, and a book on ethnic literature, which is a great interest of mine. But I couldn’t buckle down. I’m not sure if it was because I was young or restless or too busy doing too many other things. But having a kid kept me home and kept me home after work. I could really sit down to write and to think of doing scholarship. Of course, I couldn’t have done that if Phyllis hadn’t been in my life, taking half the responsibilities of the child.
Towards the end of Naked in the Promised Land, you write about you and Phyllis. After your son is born, you are wanting to return to the classroom, and searching for textbooks for your courses. You write, “But I wished that some historian would place it all in a context for me—trace it from the earliest images, trace what it must have been like for women who made their lives together a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, three hundred years ago, women who loved each other as Phyllis and I did now.” At that point, Phyllis said, “Why don’t you do it?” Her faith in you was so straightforward and simple, AND YET YOU did not seem convinced. But she urged again: “Do it. You can do it.”
Faderman: She’s been an enabler for our whole 35 years together. I should explain that my initial reluctance was probably because my degree is in literature and I am not a trained historian. I think I wrote Surpassing out of passion, out of the feeling that this was a book that needed to be written. It was a book that I wanted to read. I think that probably one’s best books come out of that space. You really want to know something. It’s a book you want to read and so you write it yourself.
You were both at the University in Fresno, California. I remember reading that you were responsible for bringing in more women professors and a Women’s Studies program as well.
Faderman: Yes, when I began in the English department, I was the only woman; now, half the department is female. We drafted the University’s Affirmative Action policy. We wrote and designed the Women’s Studies program in 1971 and it started in 1972. It has been going ever since. It’s not that other women wouldn’t have done it eventually. But we were in the right place at the right time. We were really lucky to be able to do it.
Irwin: We were very fortunate to be able to do it but the University was very open to us and to what we were doing. We never felt that we were being ostracized by any part of the University.
Faderman: But around the same time that we were designing the Women’s Studies program and I was writing lesbian history and had received the Outstanding Professor of award from my University, I knew of other women through the Modern Language Association, at other colleges and universities, who were being fired for exactly the same reason I was being promoted. I’m certainly not saying there have never been problems if one was an out feminist scholar or an out lesbian scholar. There were problems. I know a couple of women who were fired from small, private colleges. They were never told they were fired because they were lesbians, but they were not given tenure.
You’ve remained in the English department throughout your career.
Faderman: I’ve taught in Women’s Studies and chaired Women’s Studies at one point. But for the most part, I’ve been teaching in English and more recently, I’ve been teaching in the Graduate Creative Writing department.
Given your experiences with students, what is your take on feminism today?
Faderman: I think my young students just assume the stuff that we fought for [chuckles]. In some ways, it’s great that they don’t have to think about it. But in some ways, it’s scary, because this isn’t the first wave of feminism or the second wave of the 1970s and ‘80s. It happened before. It happened at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, and then women just took for granted that they could go to college or they could go into certain professions. And slowly it disappeared. Slowly, all of the rights women had gained were eroded because there was no moving force to remind women they had to be vigilant.
What I fear is that the same thing can happen all over again. Women no longer feel daunted about going into any kind of profession they want. Half the medical schools are female, half the law schools are female. If women take it for granted, if they are not vigilant, then once again, it’s going to be eroded. From time to time, I’ve seen signs of that. There have been atrocious books, for instance, about how the real luxury is to not have to work, to be a fulltime wife and mother. I find those books to be really scary, because they suggest a movement to take away solid gains that we’ve made. In the States now, young women assume they are going to work and in a straight marriage, usually both the husband and the wife have to work in order to have a middle class lifestyle. But there is a difference, I think, between assuming you’re going to work to bring in some money to live well and the determination to have a role in a profession. I guess I fear that that edge may be disappearing because women just take for granted that [equality] will always be there should they want it. I don’t think most of my students would call themselves “feminists” if you asked them. But if you asked them if they believed in equal pay, if they believe in equal access to professional schools, well, then they would answer “Yes.”
People—women—still won’t call themselves “feminists” willingly.
Faderman: I think there was a time, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, when women were more willing to use that word. Now young women take for granted that those rights have been won. So they’re not willing to describe themselves by that word, which has such a political meaning.