Sex Variant Woman: Jeannette Howard Foster

For aficionados of lesbian literature, Jeannette Howard Foster is beloved. Foster is the author of the 1956 book, Sex Variant Women in Literature. In this wonderful and historically significant book, Foster both cited and analyzed 2,500 years of lesbian love in literature ranging from Sappho to Radclyffe Hall, including along the way writers as diverse as Ovid, Swinburne, and Verlaine. In fact, according to the new biography of Jeannette Howard Foster by Joanne Passet, Howard evaluated “an amazing 324 titles” including examples from, “English, American, French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese literature, with the emphasis on works in English, French, and German, the languages she read fluently.” Howard dedicated over two decades of her life to the completion of Sex Variant Women in Literature. She published the book at the age of sixty with her own money and using her own name through the vanity publisher, Vantage Press. Now Jeannette Howard Foster’s life has the benefit of a complete biography.

Sex Variant Woman is well-researched, thorough, and engaging. Foster was born to a middle class family in Oak Park, IL in 1895. Her “sexual variance” was evident to her and her family from a young age. As an undergraduate at Rockford College, a woman’s college ninety miles northwest of Chicago, Foster was able to find environment in which she could thrive. Women’s colleges continued to provide an important space for foster–personally and intellectually in her early life. Foster was among the first women to earn a PhD in library science from the University of Chicago and served as a librarian to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Advisory Committed on Education. Throughout her life, she read and researched lesbianism and sexual variance in science and literature. Foster’s evolutions from a woman with passionate friendships at her women’s college to the lead librarian for Alfred Kinsey at his sex research institute and finally to a beloved lesbian literary icon are traced by Passet with clarity.
One of the most striking things about this biography is the thoughtful contextualization of lesbianism that Passet provides throughout her accounts Foster’s life. Passet is informed by the groundbreaking work of Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Lillian Faderman in thinking about sexual orientation in historical contexts. She overlays this history on Foster’s life with great effect, demonstrating how evolving constructions of sexuality impacted Foster. In addition, Passet provides informed and thoughtful readings of the prevailing medical and social literature on homosexuality throughout Foster’s life. For instance, Passet’s review of the impact of Havelock Ellis on Foster’s family and home environment is compelling. At times, however, the dearth of historical frameworks for thinking about lesbian lives leads to odd speculations as when Passet writes about Foster’s time in Paris, “Perhaps Jeannette and Lenore visited the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore, operated by Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, and delighted at the sense of freedom they felt while walking the streets of a city where lesbians could be more open about their sexuality” (p. 90.) The lack of serious scholarly treatments of lesbian lives in history limits the tools available to Passet for this biography. While the biography itself addresses this dearth, at times the biography relies too much on fitting Foster’s life into existing frameworks about sexuality and not enough in pressing and expanding those frameworks through the lens of Foster’s life.
Jeannette Howard Foster was a key informant as a lesbian for Alfred Kinsey. In the chapter devoted to Foster’s work with Kinsey, Passet provides an overview of Foster’s relationship with Kinsey and some of the challenges in their work together, but the analysis of Foster’s impact on Kinsey’s thinking about lesbians and a critique of his male-centered work is thin. Nevertheless, this book begins to redress some of the holes in the existing literature about Kinsey and women.
The other thing missing from Sex Variant Woman is a more thorough engagement in Foster’s intimate relationships. How did she view her intimate relationships? How do we understand her emotional and erotic life within the frameworks of sexuality that exist? These questions are not answered fully. This may be an appropriate response to Foster’s life and intentions. Her sexuality and identity were constructed under vastly different conditions than Passet wrote this biography and than we understand lesbian or even “sexual variance” today. Notions of propriety and understatement, important for Foster, resonate less for contemporary readers. Passet could have interrogated Foster’s emotional and erotic life further and in doing so provided a valuable contribution to understanding her life as a lesbian and to understanding lesbianism at different historical moments more generally.

These are small quibbles, of course, in what is overall an important book. Sex Variant Woman is a significant contribution to GLBT studies and lesbian literary studies – and a delightful and engaging read for existing Foster fans and the new ones who will certainly be minted by this book.

Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster
Joanne Passet
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2008
Hardcover, 353 pages, $27.50