WASM Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2020

Samantha de Vera's picture


On June 15 the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling extending the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to gay and transgender workers. “We must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.” But if the language of the law was clear, it was by no means certain that the current Supreme Court would rule in favor of the three plaintiffs, whose suits were consolidated to form a single case. Social media exploded as soon as the ruling was announced, with LGBTQ individuals expressing a mixture of sentiments — massive relief and celebration, along with frustration that still today the attainment of such a basic protection represents a major victory. Yet it clearly is just that, for countless individuals have lost jobs and seen their careers flounder due to discrimination based on their sexual preferences and identities.  


Our current issue of Women and Social Movements in the U.S., organized around the theme “Sexualities and Bodies,” speaks directly to these issues. Its centerpiece is a new document project by historian Jamie Wagman entitled “Transgender in the Heartland: Transitioning and Seeking Community in Middle America,” which consists of oral history interviews (including both audio files and transcripts) of twenty transgender women and men who grew up or currently live in the Midwest, many in small towns and rural areas. Some of their stories strongly echo those of Aimee Stephens, the sole transgender plaintiff in the recent Supreme Court case, who sued after being fired from her position as a funeral director in suburban Detroit two weeks after transitioning. To cite just one example from the collection, interviewee Steph James describes being frozen out of her high-paying position in corporate sales for an electrical distributor. She ultimately sought employment as a home healthcare aide — work that she found to be emotionally satisfying, but far less lucrative. To this day, she told Wagman in her interview, she still has dreams about her old position. In addition to sharing workplace experiences, the interviewees discuss a wide range of issues related to family, community, religion, personal growth, and identity. The interviews are also notable in that they provide insight into the lived experiences of transgender people who chose to remain near their places of birth rather than flocking to coastal cities: as Wagman writes, their stories challenge the tendency to associate small town or rural America with a closeted existence, while showing that “there is no singular way of coming out or transitioning as transgender, just as there is no singular formula for finding support and community.” Scholars and teachers seeking to integrate more material on transgender history into their courses will find these interviews to be extremely valuable sources.


As you are no doubt aware, our ability to feature such labor-intensive document projects, which make hard-to-find primary sources in women’s and gender history available for research and scholarly use, is heavily dependent on library subscriptions to the database. In our current moment of budget slashing and retrenchment, we hope that people will take a moment to remind university librarians of the importance of this resource. But the best way to support WASM is to make use of our document projects and other resources in your classrooms, since the number of “hits” is what librarians consult when making difficult choices about which databases to retain or purchase. Since many of us will still be teaching online in the fall, our resources are particularly well suited to the moment. If you have had a successful classroom experience using a WASM document project that you would like to share for potential publication on our site, please let us know.   

In addition to “Transgender in the Heartland,” we are thrilled to showcase the cover art of Mignonette Chiu, entitled Liberty’s Pridewhich dramatically highlights the plight of immigrants and LGBTQ individuals in an age when many in power are seeking to criminalize their very existence. In Chiu’s words, “This image reflects what I believe as an Asian lesbian feminist and daughter of immigrants: for all of us who have/are deemed ‘illegal’ and criminal, we know this is wrong, and it is all our obligation to stand up to tyranny and fight, not just for those crossing the border but for our democracy.” Further reflecting on the history of sexuality, we are also pleased to present a roundtable on “Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the Archives,” curated by graduate research assistants Kacey Calahane and Jordan Mylet and featuring contributions from Morna Gerrard, archivist for Women and Gender Collections at Georgia State University Library; Jeff Snapp, formerly National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Project Archivist at ONE Archive; and Liana Zhou, Director of the Kinsey Institute Library and Special Collection. These contributors were invited to reflect on new acquisitions, or “hidden gems,” in their collections that would be of interest to researchers in the history of sexuality. Inspired by Jamie Wagman’s document project, we also asked them to think about materials that could help broaden the geographic reach of the field beyond urban areas. They obliged by producing wonderful short essays that detail a wide array of fascinating material, from letters that lesbians in search of community sent to ONE Magazine during the 1950s and 1960s; to evidence of women’s AIDS activism in Atlanta, Georgia; to materials on feminist sex research, lesbian comics, and women's publishing in the 1970s and 1980s.


Our current edition also includes two additions to previously published document projects. In February 1913, Emilie Doetsch, a recent Goucher College graduate, embedded herself in the New York-to-Washington, D.C., suffrage hike and filed daily stories that were published in the Baltimore News. These accounts provide a valuable perspective on suffrage activism connected to the March 1913 suffrage parade on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. They now appear as part of the document project “How Did Elisabeth Freeman’s Publicity Skills Promote Woman Suffrage, Antilynching, and the Peace Movement, 1909-1919? Part 1.” An addition to the previously published document project by Xiaolan Bao, “How did Chinese Women Garment Workers in New York City Forge a Successful Class-Based Coalition during the 1982 Contract Dispute?” also appears in this issue. The three newly published documents further illuminate the Asian American women’s contributions to campaigns for workers’ rights in New York and San Francisco and their collaborations with members of other racial and ethnic groups.


In addition, this issue includes 23 new primary documents for the Writings of Black Women Suffragists primary source set. We are also pleased to note that, since our last issue, the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States (OBD) has grown to include 2,640 biographical sketches of grassroots suffrage activists. In addition, we are publishing another 58 issues of Equal Rights, the official journal of the National Woman’s Party, dating mainly from the period 1935-1954. These issues complete the run of the journal provided to us by the Historic National Woman’s Party. Although there are still a number of missing issues, we believe that the collection on WASM is the most complete online version of the journal. We thank the Historic National Woman’s Party for supplying us with this resource and granting permission for its online publication.


Finally, this edition features new book reviews, for which we again thank the contributors and book review editors Donna Schuele and Katherine Marino.


We hope everyone is managing as well as can be expected in these difficult and tumultuous times. We also hope that, now more than ever, readers will find inspiration in the accounts in this journal of individuals and the social movements they have forged to fight for equal rights and justice.



WASM Editorial Team