I’m delighted to welcome Trish MacEnulty to the blog with a guest post about her books.
Lesbians in the Early 20th Century — Branded as Deviants and Sometimes Jailed!
In my series, the Delafield & Malloy Investigations, one of my main characters — Ellen Malloy, an Irish immigrant — is a lesbian. As soon as she appeared on the page, she let me know in no uncertain terms that the expectation of marriage was the main reason she had left Ireland to become a servant for a wealthy family in Manhattan. Well, that didn’t work out either, but eventually she found her way and fell in love with a suffragist.
What would life be like for a lesbian in New York in 1913? I had no idea. The lives of gay men and the indignities they suffered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been widely documented — Oscar Wilde made sure of that! All the while, lesbians unobtrusively managed to find love and companionship in spite of the fact that their existence was rarely acknowledged.
In her fascinating academic tome, A Novel Approach to Lesbian History, Linda Garber writes “The historical records, if they exist at all, frustrate as often as they inform. Spotty, written by men, open to multiple interpretations—traces of a recognizably lesbian past run aground on the rocky shoals of the history of sexuality itself.” (3)
Fortunately, in the early 20th Century, the Bohemians of Greenwich Village had the freedom to live ‘unconventional’ lifestyles somewhat openly. In the Village, tea rooms provided space for women to meet each other away from the disapproving eye of society. On a recent tour of Greenwich Village with the Bowery Boys, I was shown one of the basement entrances for a former tea room. In those days, according to legend, it bore a sign that read, “Men are admitted but not welcome.”
Of course, the police knew about these places. In her autobiography, Mary Sullivan, one of the first police matrons to do actual police work, wrote, “A few tearooms run by women with a fondness for college girl patronage really were a menace…”
She added, “One of the most difficult types of degenerate with whom we have to deal is the woman with homosexual tendencies.” The police department received a complaint about “indecent literature” on sale in one of the tea rooms and a proprietess who “tried to entice girl students from a nearby college.” So Sullivan and one of her female colleagues set out to entrap the proprietess.
They visited the tea room, and the other police woman accepted a date from the proprietess, a woman named Billie. After trying to kiss the woman while on their date, Billie was arrested and then convicted of “disorderly conduct and distributing obscene literature.” She was sentenced to six months in the workhouse. Her tea room was closed. (Interestingly, this is the same scenario which happened later to activist Eve Adams; it may be the stories are conflated.)
Sullivan didn’t think jailing women with “homosexual tendencies” was the solution, however. “There is no doubt in my mind that they should be treated primarily as medical and psychiatric cases, though we still have to learn about the method of treatment.” Well, we all know where that eventually led: the horrors of conversion therapy!
Not all lesbians kept quiet or hid their preferences. Polish-born Eve Adams arrived in New York in 1912 when she was twenty years old. In 1925, she wrote and published a book called Lesbian Love “for private circulation only.” Two years later she was arrested for obscenity and disorderly conduct and deported.
There’s an excellent book about Adams, titled The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams by Jonathan Ned Katz. In 1912, according to Katz, the term lesbian did not always signify a sexual relationship between women. It could simply refer to a community of women. For example, a women’s college newspaper in Maryland was called the Lesbian Herald. From everything I’ve read, the common term, at the time, for gays and lesbians was “invert.”
With this and other research in hand, I felt I could do justice to Ellen’s story in her quest for love and fulfillment. This scene is the moment Ellen first sees the women with whom she later falls in love in The Whispering Women as she is looking through the window of a teahouse in Greenwich Village:
“The tables were occupied by women of various ages and classes who seemed engrossed in conversations. One woman in particular caught her eye. She looked to be in her late twenties, big boned with a narrow face, an affable smile, and big brown eyes under thick eyebrows. Ellen could tell by her tailored gray jacket she had money, but she wasn’t showy. A strand of pearls hung carelessly around her neck. A feeling swept over Ellen like a dull ache — the kind of ache you don’t want to stop. The woman laughed at something her companion said. Ellen swiveled her head to look at the companion. Small, blond, and delicately holding her tea cup. When the woman with the pearls got up to get some more tea, Ellen saw the blond woman glance out the window and wave a handkerchief. Curiously, Ellen looked around. Two men stood across the street, smoking cigarettes with their eyes fixed on the window of the tea shop. Police, Ellen knew immediately.”
Thank you for sharing such a fascinating post. Good luck with your series.
“Richly drawn characters, the vibrant historical setting, and a suspenseful mystery create a strong current that pulls readers into this delightful novel. But it’s the women’s issues—as relevant today as they were in the early 1900s—that will linger long after the last page.”
— Donna S. Meredith, The Southern Literary Review
Can two women get the lowdown on high society?
“Two powerless young women must navigate a soul-crushing class system and find the levers of power they wield when they combine their strengths. These women may have been taught to whisper, but when their time comes, they will roar.”
– 5 Star Amazon Review
Louisa Delafield and Ellen Malloy didn’t ask to be thrown together to bring the truth to light. But after Ellen witnesses the death of a fellow servant during an illegal abortion, Louisa, a society columnist, vows to help her find the truth and turn her journalistic talent to a greater purpose.
Together, these unlikely allies battle to get the truth out, and to avenge the wrongful death of a friend.
What will our heroes do when their closest allies and those they trust turn out to be the very forces working to keep their story in the dark? They’ll face an abortionist, a sex trafficking ring, and a corrupt system determined to keep the truth at bay.
“If you like historical fiction and if you like mysteries, this one is for you!”
– 5 Star Amazon Review
Was change possible in 1913?
To find out, read THE WHISPERING WOMEN today!
The books in this series are available to read on Kindle Unlimited.
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Meet the author
Trish MacEnulty is a bestselling novelist. In addition to her historical fiction, she has published novels, a short story collection, and a memoir. A former Professor of English, she currently lives in Florida with her husband, two dogs, and one cat. She writes book reviews and feature articles for the Historical Novel Review. She loves reading, writing, walking with her dogs, streaming historical series, cooking, and dancing.
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