Saturday, October 10, 2009

Vida Dutton Scudder

Speaking of National Coming Out Day...

I read the little bio of Vida Dutton Scudder this morning from the Episcopal Women's History Project which includes this eyebrow-raiser:
Throughout her life Scudder’s primary relationships and support network were women; her closest companion was Florence Converse, who shared in her religious faith and political ideals.

Oh, really?

Wikipedia up and says, "She was one of the most prominent lesbian authors of her time." Thank you for not being coy. Though I'm also annoyed at the descriptor. Does she have to be a prominent lesbian author? Can she not be a prominent author?

Why is Florence Converse even mentioned at all? A spouse, partner, or any sort of relationship status is not mentioned for Wilfred Grenfell who lived during almost the exact same period, though since he had two sons and a daughter, you might think there was someone else in his life.

I suppose they are trying to bring out the understanding that Vida D S was one of Those People we're so concerned about having in the church; that gays and lesbians have been here all along. But this message was given so ham-handedly, so half-heartedly, by implication rather than straightforward expression. Why not just say, either in Wikipedia or from the Episcopal Women's History Project, that VDS had a lifelong partnership with Florence Converse, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, and leave it at that. Look, see? Nothing implied, no dancing around, no unnatural attention, no hemming and hawing. Just the facts.

I guess we're trying, but I hope we can do better than this.


Anonymous said...

Just to make things a little more complicated, take a look at Lillian Faderman's Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in the Twentieth Century. The Wikipedia author footnotes Faderman as the source for the information about Scudder and Converse's lesbian relationship, but other historians of sexuality have often criticized Faderman's work for counting women as lesbians who would not have counted themselves as such. In the case of Scudder, for example, Faderman first identifies her as a lesbian but then almost immediately has to admit that Scudder herself preferred terms like "romantic friendship." While Scudder admitted to romances with women in this sense, she also insisted that these relationships were either non-sexual or asexual. She referred to Converse as her "devoted companion."

The Five College Archives and Manuscript Collection, which hold Converse's papers, provide another alternative in the last sentence of the biography that I just copied here from their website:

Biographical Note

Vida Scudder was born in India on December 15, 1861, the only child of Harriet Louisa (Dutton) and David Coit Scudder. She and her mother returned to Boston following the death of her father, although she spent much of her childhood traveling in Europe. She attended Boston private secondary schools, and graduated from Smith College in 1884. While doing postgraduate work at Oxford University, where she attended lectures by John Ruskin, Scudder developed the beginnings of social awareness that were to guide her through the rest of her life. She taught in the English Department of Wellesley College from 1887 to 1927, where she was often in conflict with the administration over her socialist activities. In 1887, Scudder along with colleagues from Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Vassar, began plans for the College Settlements Association and in 1889 the first settlement house opened on Rivington St. in New York City. Beginning in 1893 and for the next twenty years she was a primary administrator of Denison House in Boston. In 1889, Scudder became a charter member of the Brotherhood of the Carpenter, a worker's organization, and also began working in the Christian Social Union, the purpose of which was to implement Christian principles in bringing "relief to the social and economic disorder of society." Beginning in 1889, she was a member of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a religious organization that gave her long-term strength and support. In 1911, she co-founded the Episcopal Church Socialist League and joined the Socialist Party, and in 1919, she organized the Church League for Industrial Democracy. Although Scudder supported Woodrow Wilson's decision to enter World War I, in the postwar years she moved towards pacifism. She joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1923 and the same year gave a series of lectures at a meeting of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in Prague. She was a delegate to the Boston Central Labor Union and was active in organizing the Women's Trade Union League. After her retirement from Wellesley in 1928, Scudder went on to become a leading scholar of Franciscan history. In 1930, she became the first dean of the Summer School of Christian Ethics at Wellesley, and in 1931, she lectured weekly at the New School for Social Research in New York. Scudder authored sixteen books, including her autobiography On Journey, as well as many scholarly articles on political, literary, and religious topics. In 1919, Florence Converse joined her household and remained until Scudder's death on October 9, 1954.

What I take away from this is that Scudder's life provides an excellent example of Christian witness for peace and social justice, but may or may not offer a good example of lesbian life for those who are seeking such today.

LKT said...

Thank you. That is very helpful. I don't know why both the Episcopal Women's History Project and the Wikipedia examples seemed wrong. One was toooo cold; the other toooo hot. VDS's own term "devoted companion" seems just right to me.