By Sharon Gittleman
Lillian Faderman has lived an extraordinary life. From her birth in the 1940’s to an unmarried Jewish immigrant working in New York’s garment industry, Faderman traveled a strange road, that took her from jobs as a pinup model and stripper to her career as a honored professor and scholar of lesbian history.
Faderman recounts her gripping life story in her memoir, “Naked in the Promised Land,” (Houghton Mifflin Company).
“It’s a memoir rather than an autobiography,” she said. “It reads novelistically, but it’s the absolute truth.”
Her memoir tells the story of three “different” Lillian Fadermans – “Lily,” the lonely impoverished child of a single mother; “Lil”, a pinup model at age 16 and “Lillian,” the professor, 32-year life partner and mother.
“I wanted to see whether there was a connection between those three,” she said.
Faderman’s mother and aunt left Latvia in the 1920’s before the Holocaust ravaged their family, making survivor’s guilt a constant factor in the small family’s lives. Her mother’s grief was compounded by sweatshop labor and a lover who abandoned her after Lillian was conceived.
“My mother told me she and my father had an eight-year relationship before I was born,” said Faderman. “She had had two abortions and when she became pregnant with me he wanted her to have another abortion.”
Hollywood seemed to offer a way out of their poverty, leading Faderman to start posing as a pinup model when she was not quite 16. Those dreams quickly faded. When she started hanging out at girl’s gay bars in the 1950’s, her life soon “reached bottom.”
Then salvation arrived in an unexpected form – a social worker who worked with juvenile delinquents.
“He understood how to salvage me and direct me to go back to school,” she said. “He gave me things to dream about, like becoming a professor and scholar. He turned my life around.”
Since that encounter, Faderman became an academic – the first woman to teach in her department at California State University in Fresno. She began the Women’s Studies Program there in 1971, with the help of her life partner and earned numerous honors and awards for her work. One of the many books she’s written is, “Surpassing the Love of Men,” (Quill/William Morrow) which reviews 500 years of lesbian history.
There was an era spanning the 18th and 19th Centuries when intense relationships between women were not only socially acceptable – they were encouraged, said Faderman.
“Those relationships were considered, ‘passionate friendships.’ It wasn’t until the later decades of the 19th Century that they were made morbid by sexologists,” she said. “In earlier eras, women could engage in those behaviors we would call lesbian that society didn’t see as wrong.”
Before modern-day feminism helped women earn their financial independence, their continued survival depended on marriage.
“The American writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his book, ‘Kavanagh,’ called these intense friendships, ‘a rehearsal in girlhood for the great drama of married life.’ Society assumed they were chaste,” she said. “On top of that, in an interesting way, it was generally believed if women were kissing and hugging each other, they wouldn’t lose their virginity.”
This acceptance of women’s “intense friendships,” took a turn for the worse in the 20th Century, said Faderman.
“In the early 60’s, I had relationships and told my friends but I wouldn’t have told my professors. It would have been very dangerous,” she said. “The fact is at UCLA, where I began as an undergraduate, there was a Dean of Students who actually wrote an article in a journal for academic administrators called, ‘The School and Society,’ in which he told Deans they had to identify the homosexuals on campus and make them change through psychiatric care or expel them because homosexuality is contagious.”
That shift was reflected in popular writing of the era, including lesbian pulp fiction.
“In all of those early novels of the 1950’s and 60’s, the woman always had to end badly – she has to drown in a river of misery,” said Faderman.
Today, Faderman teaches creative non-fiction – writing memoirs, essays and literary journals, at California State University in Fresno.
Coming from a non-traditional family outside the average American framework helped make her the woman she is today, said Faderman.
“I lived my life the way I wanted to,” she said.