Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Open Access


Degree Name

MA in Women's History

First Advisor

Priscilla Murolo

Second Advisor

Margot Note


This thesis explores the early-twentieth-century emergence of lesbianism as an identity label, an understanding of relationships between women-loving women, and a set of subcultures in the United States. Penal and medical professionals’ influence on the development of language surrounding and contributing to social and scientific meanings of lesbianism is analyzed as a response to the hypervisibility of women-loving women confined in women’s penal institutions. In this context, relationships between incarcerated white women and Black women received the most attention and condemnation from observers, such as reformatory administrators and research psychologists. A focus on interracial relationships between incarcerated women, especially on the voices of Black women in these relationships, facilitates a reimagination the evolution of U.S. lesbianism. In this endeavor, the thesis relies heavily on secretly written correspondence between incarcerated women-loving women and on the lyrics of blues songs written, performed, and recorded by Black women who gave birth to blues culture. Moving beyond historical narratives of lesbianism which focus on white middle-class women, the thesis explores the emergence of lesbianism through connections between incarcerated, working-class, and Black women’s spaces wherein women-loving women cultivated diverse identities and subcultures.

Submission Agreement