Queer 1950s pp 150-166 | Cite as

‘Who Is She?’ Identities, Intertextuality and Authority in Non-Fiction Lesbian Pulp of the 1950s

  • Kaye Mitchell
Part of the Genders and Sexualities in History book series (GSX)


For a brief period in the 1950s and early 1960s, the subgenre of lesbian pulp fiction enjoyed enormous success in the US and, to a lesser degree, the UK, with works by the likes of Ann Bannon, Vin Packer and March Hastings selling millions of copies and spawning numerous series and imitations.1 This chapter turns its attention to a related, but less famous, textual archive: the non-fiction lesbian pulp of this period — what we might term ‘pulp sexology’ — which exists on a continuum with mass market pulp fiction and ‘proper’ postwar sexology and which seems as significant for the history of lesbianism as the better-known (and arguably more easily recuperable) pulp fictions. In the 1950s, non-fiction pulps allowed current and contentious discourses about sexuality (particularly ‘taboo’ sexualities such as lesbianism) to be disseminated in a highly marketable, highly accessible format. Reading these texts now offers insights into an era that was less conservative and censorious -or at least more conflicted — than it is usually represented as being, as evidenced by its appetite for the new, the scandalous and the shocking (an appetite that pulp avidly stimulated and supplied). As Michelle Ann Abate argues, the existence of pulps suggests ‘that the 1950s was also a decade of dissident desires and alternative value systems’.2 Reading non-fiction pulps also reveals the significance of sexuality as a major focus of epistemological enquiry, alarmist fantasy and political paranoia in this period, and the significance of the 1950s as a crucial decade in the development of sexual knowledge and forms of sexual regulation.


Moral Condemnation Sexual Knowledge Secret Society Homosexual Woman Sexual Regulation 
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  1. 1.
    Since 2000, Cleis Press (an independent queer publishing company, based in San Francisco) and the Feminist Press (of City University, New York) have produced new editions of works, including the five novels that comprise Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker Chronicles, as well as the two earliest lesbian pulp novels, Tereska Torres, Women’s Barracks (New York: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1950), republished by Feminist Press (New York: Feminist Press, 2005).Google Scholar
  2. and Vin Packer, Spring Fire (New York: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1952), republished by Cleis Press (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2004). Lesbian pulp fiction has begun to receive critical attention from a growing number of scholars and critics, for example: Michelle Ann Abate, Michele Aina Barale, Susanna Benns, Stephanie Foote, Gabriele Griffin, Diane Hamer, Annamarie Jagose, Yvonne Keller, Lee Lynch, Judith Mayne, Christopher Nealon, Lee Server, Melissa Sky, Susan Stryker, Carol Ann Uszkurat, Amy Villarejo, Suzanna Danuta Walters and Jaye Zimet. This is despite lesbian pulp previously being dismissed as a homophobic and titillating genre by influential cultural historians such as Lillian Faderman.Google Scholar
  3. See Faderman’s comments in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (New York: Columbia, 1991), 147. Note also her exclusion of pulp titles from her anthology, Chloe plus Olivia (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994).Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    Michelle Ann Abate, ‘From Cold War Lesbian Pulp to Contemporary Young Adult Novels: Vin Packer’s Spring Fire, M.E. Kerr’s Deliver Us from Evie, and Marijane Meaker’s Fight against Fifties Homophobia’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 32.3 (2007), 231–251 (p. 232).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 3.
    Jennifer Terry, An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999), 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 5.
    W.D. Sprague, The Lesbian in Our Society (New York: Tower Publications, 1962)Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Martin Meeker, ‘A Queer and Contested Medium: The Emergence of Representational Politics in the “Golden Age” of Lesbian Paperbacks, 1955–1963’, Journal of Women’s History, 17.1 (2005), 165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Stephanie Foote, ‘Afterword: Ann Aldrich and Lesbian Writing in the Fifties’, in Ann Aldrich, We Walk Alone [1955] (New York: Feminist Press, 2006), 160;Google Scholar
  9. Stephanie Foote, ‘Afterword: Productive Contradictions’, in Ann Aldrich, We, Too, Must Love [1958] (New York: Feminist Press, 2006), 159–185.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Meaker also produced an (auto)biographical work about her relationship with Patricia Highsmith, Highsmith: A Romance of the 50s (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2003), wrote numerous pulps as ‘Vin Packer’ (only one of these, Spring Tire, is a lesbian pulp, the others are thrillers), and had a successful career as a writer of novels for young adults, using the pseudonym M.E. Kerr.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Frank Caprio, Female Homosexuality: A Psychodynamic Study of Lesbianism (New York: Citadel Press, 1954), ix.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Maurice Chideckel, Female Sex Perversion (New York: Eugenics Publishing Company, 1935), 322.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    As Annamarie Jagose has commented, in pulp sexology the case history ‘closely resembles the novelistic and avowedly unscientific pulp fiction from which it barely distinguishes itself. Annamarie Jagose, Inconsequence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 125. For examples of this, see Sprague, The Lesbian in Our Society and Frank Caprio’s Female Homosexuality. Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    Aldrich is not the only lesbian in the postwar period to contribute to the debates around female homosexuality, whilst acknowledging her own homosexuality, nor is she the first to do so. See, for example, Jane MacKinnon, ‘The Homosexual Woman’, The American Journal of Psychiatry, 103.5 (1947), 661–664. MacKinnon announces her own homosexuality in the first paragraph of her article and, despite the generally maudlin tone of the piece (‘You are always lonely’), closes with a plea for lesbians to be ‘recognized as human beings instead of as material for a chapter in a book on abnormal psychology’, 661, 664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 26.
    Donald Webster Cory, The Homosexual Outlook [UK edition of The Homosexual in America] (London: Peter Nevill, 1953), xiii.Google Scholar
  16. 34.
    Anonymous, ‘Aldrich “Walks Alone”’, The Ladder, 1.9 (1957), 16–17. All Ladder quotations taken from reprint (New York: Arno Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  17. 35.
    B.C. [Barbara Grier], ‘Ann Aldrich Does a Re-take’, The Ladder, 2.4 (1958), 12Google Scholar
  18. 36.
    Del Martin, ‘Open Letter to Ann Aldrich’, The Ladder, 2.7 (1958), 4. Aldrich responded by including a scathing chapter on The Ladder in her Carol in A Thousand Cities (New York: Fawcett, 1960), and more recently has spoken of her dislike for The Ladder in an interview with Marcia M. Gallo. Google Scholar
  19. See Gallo , Different Daughters (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006), 66–70.Google Scholar
  20. 36.
    Carlson Wade, Sexual Deviations of the American Female (Chicago: Novel Books Inc, 1965), 68.Google Scholar

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© Heike Bauer and Matt Cook 2012

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  • Kaye Mitchell

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