Making Girls into Women

American Women's Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity

Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: 3 illus. Published: January 2003

Author: Kathryn R. Kent

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, LGBTQ Studies

Making Girls into Women offers an account of the historical emergence of "the lesbian" by looking at late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women's writing. Kathryn R. Kent proposes that modern lesbian identity in the United States has its roots not just, or even primarily, in sexology and medical literature, but in white, middle-class women’s culture. Kent demonstrates how, as white women's culture shifted more and more from the home to the school, workplace, and boarding house, the boundaries between the public and private spheres began to dissolve. She shows how, within such spaces, women's culture, in attempting to mold girls into proper female citizens, ended up inciting in them other, less normative, desires and identifications, including ones Kent calls "protolesbian" or queer.

Kent not only analyzes how texts represent queer erotics, but also theorizes how texts might produce them in readers. She describes the ways postbellum sentimental literature such as that written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and Emma D. Kelley eroticizes, reacts against, and even, in its own efforts to shape girls’ selves, contributes to the production of queer female identifications and identities. Tracing how these identifications are engaged and critiqued in the early twentieth century, she considers works by Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop, as well as in the queer subject-forming effects of another modern invention, the Girl Scouts. Making Girls into Women ultimately reveals that modern lesbian identity marks an extension of, rather than a break from, nineteenth-century women’s culture.


"[A] stunning reminder of the abundant rewards of an interdisciplinary approach to the past. . . . Thought-provoking, revisionist, and interdisciplinary, [Making Girls into Women fills] a gaping void in our understanding of post-Civil War family life, and adolescence, opening fascinating possibilities for further exploration." — Regina Morantz-Sanchez, American Studies

"[Kent] thoughtfully articulates her subjects' positions in hierarchies of race, ethnicity, class, and imperialism, and her historical interpretation of the period is sound, based on both classic and recent social history and women's history scholarship." — Susan K. Freeman , CLGH Newsletter

"[S]timulating. . . . Making Girls into Women offers a rich place to begin any investigation into the continuing life of sentimentality, sexuality, gender, and writing." — Richard S. Lowry , American Literature

"[T]he book's most intriguing moments take the form of digressive additions to, rather than strict progressions of, that argument, such as Kent's exploration of the anal poetics of Stein's Tender Buttons. Such points enrich and expand the already considerable contribution that Making Girls into Women makes to the places where we can sight the lesbian (and her proto-predecessors) in the history of women's writing."
— Dana Luciano , GLQ

"Kent's attempt to articulate the queerness of subject formation for (especially white, bourgeois) turn-of-the-century girls is successful; in one of the best discussions in the book, she incisively juxtaposes theories of 'possessive individualism' with 'disciplinary intimacy/erotics' in order to draw out the historical and cultural contexts for negotiating gender roles. Her attempt to find a (proto)lesbian trajectory for queerness is more problematic. The models of identification open to young women in the United States included a degree of possessive individualism hitherto unimaginable, as Kent brilliantly argues." — Ellen McWhorter , Journal of the History of Sexuality

"The questions Kent raises are rich, and there is much to admire in Making Girls into Women. . . . Kent's careful, detailed analysis of how we can unfold the language of the texts within her argument about lesbianism and identification is a salient addition to already energetic conversations about the distinctive and complex work of sentimental fiction in the nineteenth-century literary marketplace and about the development of lesbian sexual subcultures and styles in the early twentieth century." — Stephanie Foote , American Quarterly

”In the pages of American women's literature, lesbians are made, not born. Kathryn R. Kent expertly surveys the many creative acts of instruction, imitation, and invention among women that ultimately make modern lesbian identity more than just a product of medical discourse. At the heart of all these narratives of self-fashioning lies a central paradox: girls can only freely invent themselves by imitating someone else. Kent brilliantly profiles both sides of these mimetic couples (mothers and daughters, teachers and students, lovers and friends), demonstrating in the end that imitation is inevitably a two-way street.” — Diana Fuss, author of Identification Papers


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kathryn R. Kent is Assistant Professor of English at Williams College.

Table of Contents Back to Top


1. "Single White Female”: The Sexual Politics of Spinsterhood in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Oldtown Folks

2. "Trying All Kinds”: Louisa May Alcott’s Pedagogic Erotics

3. "Scouting for Girls”: Reading and Recruitment in the Early Twentieth Century

4. "Excreate a No Sense”: The Erotic Currency of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons

5. The M Multiplying: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Pleasures of Influence, Part I

6. Influence and Invitation: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Pleasures of Influence, Part II




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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3016-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3030-1
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