Lesbian love letters and secret stories reveal a new chapter in Canadian history

Book Launch, January 20, 2011:

Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-65

On Jan. 20, the UBC Press celebrated the launch of the newest book in its sexuality series, a compilation of archives and interviews about lesbian love in Canada before the word “lesbian” even existed.

Nearly 60 women and a half dozen men attended the Herstory Café event held at the VPL’s Central Library, to hear author and historian Cameron Duder read from his new book.

Duder titled the book Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada 19001965, after he noticed the word “devoted” kept reappearing in women’s early 20th century love letters to each other, in reference to their romantic feelings.

Women who were attracted to other women used the word “devoted” as a way of “testing the waters,” Duder said, “because on the surface of it, that phrase indicated nothing at all. But if it’s to somebody in the know…” the researcher tipped his head and smiled.

The book depicts the covert relationships, discrete encounters and emotional struggles many of the women thought they experienced alone.

“It’s a story of resilience,” Duder said, “… and it’s full of humour and full of social commentary at that period as well.”

Duder interviewed 28 women for his work, which focuses exclusively on middle-class English-Canadians from British Columbia and Ontario.

He began his exploration into Canada’s same-sex past when he arrived from New Zealand in 1992. As a doctoral student, Duder began interviewing and gathering oral histories for his book during his work toward a PhD in history at the University of Victoria.

“At that time I was Karen, not Cameron,” Duder told the group.

The women he interviewed had related to him as a fellow lesbian.

But Duder said privately that years later, after he’d transitioned into man, he feared returning to the women to ask for permission to publish the book in his “new self.”

“But that (worry) was unfair to them,” he said of his interview subjects, “because every single one of them has been great.”

Awfully Devoted Women has been selected for the American Library Association’s 2011 Over the Rainbow Book List.

Duder had not originally intended to pursue doctoral studies in Canadian lesbian history. But he took on the project when he became exposed to the diary entries of a bisexual woman from B.C. and recognized that the country was lacking a historical account of lesbians’ voices.

“It’s really, really exciting to listen to stories,” Duder said, “and then to, hopefully, to weave a text that gets those stories out into the political domain.”

With the exception of two projects: the film Forbidden Love, and UBC sociologist Becki Ross’s book The House that Jill Built, few lesbian oral histories have been published, said Elise Chenier, an associate professor of history at SFU.

Duder’s book is the next groundbreaking piece of Canadian history, she said.

Chenier founded The Archive of Lesbian Oral Testimony last year,  an international digital collection of women’s testimonies, “with the sole purpose of saving those stories for us and for future generations,” she said.

“Hundreds of tapes with stories of struggle, resistance and survival are scattered in basements and attics across the nation,” she said. They need to be shared.

Lisa Snider, a UBC master’s student in archival studies who attended the reading, said present-day lesbians’ stories are not being gathered sufficiently.

“Women aren’t being told ‘your history’s important’,” Snider said. She gestured to attendees who were mingling in the room and lining up to buy the book.

Women in rural areas and the Maritimes are particularly “invisible”, Snider said, because they “aren’t out” as gay.

“So when they die their material gets thrown out. … It’s criminal, it’s absolutely criminal,” she said.

Of the women interviewed for Awfully Devoted Women, “at least seven have died,” Duder said.

“I feel very glad to have heard their stories and to record their stories … they wanted their narrative out there, for people that are interested to listen to them.”

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