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American History

‘Fear or Fetish? The Fetishisation of Lesbians in Cold War America

Cover_of_Lesbian_Love_by_Marlene_Longman_-_Illustrator_McCauley_-_Nightstand_NB_1523_1960

In the 1950s, American society saw a huge rise in anxieties regarding gender norms and sexuality. Homosexuals were demonized through the Lavender Scare – a moral panic focused on gay and lesbian US government employees – and ideas of the nuclear family were promoted in the fight against Communism. Yet, throughout this period, there was also an influx of highly erotic lesbian fiction and magazines aimed at heterosexual men with overtly sexualised lesbian themes. This sexualisation remains prevalent today and continues to have detrimental impacts upon the lives of lesbian woman,[1] and yet its origins have received little attention in historical debate.

When constructions of homosexuality have been looked at during this period, historians have tended to focus on the political sphere. David Johnson, for example, focuses much of his attention on how anxieties regarding sexuality permeated political culture and the lives of elites.[2] Therefore, little attention is given to popular culture and perceptions of the ‘ordinary’ American citizen. Focusing primarily on political culture also means that Johnson’s narrative mainly looks at how the Lavender Scare impacted wider cultural perceptions of homosexual men.

Consequently, the sexualisation of lesbians by heterosexual men and how this came to the fore with such force during this period has not received necessary attention.

At the end of the war and throughout the 1950s, American society took a conservative turn, with ideas of gender and ‘family’ becoming all the more important as a way to distinguish America from the Communist East. Women were particularly impacted by this growing interest in conformity. As Elaine Tyler May points out, the full-time housewife became synonymous with ideas of American freedom.[3] Anything that deviated from this ideal was therefore seen as a threat.

At the same time, ideas of homosexuality were changing and ‘the lesbian’ was fashioned as an immediate danger. Lesbianism began to be framed as a sickness, but crucially it was a sickness that could be cured – if only a man could show them a “good time”.

Simultaneously, we see the crisis of masculinity. At numerous occasions during this period, historian and social critic Arthur Schlesinger wrote on the issue, arguing that World War II had ushered in an uneasy sense of vulnerability and a loss of a clear sense of self for many men that continued throughout the 1950s. This sense of a decline in manhood’s mastery over others, combined with ideas that lesbians could be ‘regained’ by patriarchal concepts of heterosexuality, meant that ‘the lesbian’ was constructed as an opportunity for men to prove themselves. The post-war into the Cold War period therefore set up the perfect conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could flourish.

This resulted in an influx of pulp fiction and men’s magazines, through which these themes were reflected. Stories of lesbian orgies, threesomes and lesbian nymphomaniacs were extremely popular amongst heterosexual men during this period. Within these novels, lesbians are presented as deviants, yet deviants who are often regained by heterosexual, familial norms after experiencing life changing heterosexual sex.

Cover of The Third Sex by Artemis Smith (1963 Edition).

The message is therefore clear. If men show lesbians a good time by reasserting their masculinity, these women will once against fit within the Cold War ideals of conformity – everyone’s a winner.

Men’s magazines took a similar approach. Stories and images of two women looking for a man were extremely popular. What we can learn from 1950s and 1960s America is that sex sells, but lesbian sex sells better.

This had very real life consequences for lesbians, as men encroached on their space in the search of sexual encounters. Analysis of interviews and testimonies show that this repressive context led to a thriving underground lesbian movement and a vast number of lesbian bars being established. Heterosexual men often took advantage of these lesbian spaces, going there in search of lesbian women to have sex with –further demonstrating how they were constructed as an opportunity in the eyes of men.

Ultimately, the period between 1947 up until the stonewall riots of 1969 provided the ideal conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could and indeed did flourish. Sexualisation of lesbians is still widespread within our society today and lesbians continue to face challenges of not only being seen as a sexual fantasy but also having their sexuality presented as merely performative and something that can be “regained” by heterosexual masculinity

In numerous recent insight reports, PornHub revealed that ‘Lesbian’ was the most searched for and most viewed category across numerous American states, with 75 percent of the American audience being male. These statistics demonstrate that lesbianism continues to be framed within the male gaze. Sexualisation is not the same as acceptance and therefore it is important that we continue to address its roots in order to hold both society and ourselves accountable today.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People  project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie


Cover image: Cover of Lesbian Love by Marlene Longman (1960).

[1] See Ofcom’s ‘Representation and Portrayal on BBC TV 2018’ report regarding the representation of lesbian women on television. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/information-for-industry/bbc-operating-framework/representation-portrayal-bbc-tv/research-hub/lesbian-women

[2] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in Federal Government (Chicago, 2004).

[3] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988).

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Donald Trump and Masculinity as Motivator

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In October 2016, Donald Trump created an unprecedentedly hostile-feeling presidential debate by following his opponent, Hilary Clinton, around the stage, looming over her and scowling as she spoke.  For many women watching the debate, the image of a large, unqualified candidate hovering behind an accomplished stateswoman as she attempted to speak knowledgeably to her audience was a familiar intimidation tactic. Using his height, imposing posture, scowling visage, and bravado, Trump projected aggressive power, playing on assumptions and biases about gender. Earlier, Trump had also attacked the masculinity of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s competitor in the race for the Democratic nomination. Trump claimed that Bernie was weak for allowing protestors to interrupt his speaking engagements, specifically when he let two women speak in front of him at his own rally.

As a historian of Jewish masculinity, watching the candidates announce in 2015 I did not think I would have any particular professional insight into the 2016 election or the following four years of Trump’s presidency. I was not expecting the combination of absurd obstreperousness and flagrant antisemitism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which made me feel I was living in a stress dream trapped inside my own historical manuscript. Trump demonstrates, in the image he projects to the public, the most heavy-handed displays of white masculinity imaginable. In addition, his attacks on his opponents are pointedly gendered, implying weakness and femininity in contrast to his own projected virility and bravado. And this approach appeals to his support base, consisting of both men and women, who cringe at new and more expansive views of gender and its role in American society.

Throughout Trump’s political rise, I was researching a book on Jewish masculinity in America in the twentieth century.  One of my core arguments is that Jews have attempted to acculturate in American society by changing the perceived image of Jewish men to better embody the American masculine ideals cultivated over the previous centuries. Despite these efforts, differences in perception of levels of manliness lingered. The most notable change in these perceptions has been growing since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as Jewish Americans embrace (and at times, revel in) the reflected manliness of Jewish military victories in the Middle East. This is particularly the case of American Jews coming of age during or born after the Six Day War in 1967.  Bernie Sanders, however, embodies the more classic, continuing perceived difference in masculinity which has been maintained between Jewish and white American men throughout the twentieth century. A New York Jew, Sanders participated with many other young Jews in the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, and considers his Judaism a link to a past of oppression, far more than a path to Zionism and Israeli strength. Sanders, as a child of the Holocaust survivor generation (though his father left Poland before Hitler invaded) identifies with a Jewish past that feels connected to a long history of oppression and recognizes the need to support other oppressed peoples. 

By contrast, younger generations of American Jews, like Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, identify more with the international image of Israeli strength and self-protection than with the history of oppression which defined earlier generations. As a staunch defender of Israel, Trump himself courts Evangelical Christians, helping to cement Israeli-American relations while damaging Arab-American relations in the process, as well as, according to the Evangelicals, assisting to usher in the End of Days.[1]  He praises Israel for its toughness, its defense, and its aggression.  Trump himself is not anyone’s definition of the American masculine ideal.  He is out of shape, non-athletic, avoided military service, and lacks dignity, humility, and generosity—necessary components of most iterations of ideal American manhood.  And yet he is praised by supporters, largely white working-class men, which is the demographic segment of society perhaps most outspoken about what a man should be.  According to a feature from the American Psychiatric Association, white, middle-class masculine ideology is “built on a set of gender norms that endorses features such as toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.”  Admittedly, Trump indeed exhibits some of these behaviors, but he does so to their unmanly extreme.  His dominance becomes bullying, his self-reliance becomes isolationist, and his overt heterosexuality makes him an aggressive sexual predator. Why his support base of white men, confident and proud in their definition of masculinity, do not find his heavy-handed donning of their ideals (like a sort of white-heterosexual-drag) insulting is one of the most mysterious aspects of his support.

Playing to his base, who do, in fact, revel in his manifested hyper-masculinity, Trump attacks his adversaries one by one, giving them childish nicknames like a schoolyard bully.  He has dubbed opponents “Wild” Bill Clinton, “Cheatin’ Obama,” “Sleepy Joe” Biden, Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, “little” Adam Schiff, “mini” Michael Bloomberg, “cryin’” Chuck Shumer, and “little” Jeff Zucker.  The last four, all diminutive/emasculating titles, are used to refer to Jews.  These nicknames jump out at me, as part of a continuing tradition of emasculating Jewish men.  It is only when Trump is speaking directly to groups of Jews that he abandons the attack on their manhood, though he certainly isn’t flattering.  In fact, when he is speaking about Israel, or to American Jews who support Israel, he assumes the hypermasculinity associated with the Jewish state. Trump told a room full of American Zionists in Hollywood, for example, that he knew Jews in business, and that they were “brutal killers, not nice people at all.”

Trump’s insults aside, it is worth recognizing that his rhetoric is not merely sexist or chauvinist, that his disrespect for women is not the core of his sexist language. Rather, he is on a constant mission to prove his masculinity, his vitality, his rigor, his strength, and even his physical manhood. If we take it for granted that one of Trump’s largest motivations for his unprepared statements and insults is his desperate need to prove his masculinity, his actions make fractionally more sense, even if they are still shocking and inscrutable. His rhetoric also serves as a reminder to those of us who follow such things, that in spite of his support for Israel and praise of Israeli hyper-masculine identity and politics, the kneejerk return to emasculating language when insulting or rebuffing a Jewish male opponent is ever-present.

Miriam Eve Mora is a historian of American Immigration and Ethnicity, Jewish America, Gender, the Holocaust, and Genocide. You can find her on Twitter @MiriamEveMora

Cover image: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore (29 October 2016)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_(30354612000).jpg


[1] For more on the Evangelical connection, see Till Kingdom Come, a new documentary by Maya Zinshtein. https://www.docnyc.net/film/til-kingdom-come/?fbclid=IwAR0L-Q5d5qsZX04m-WZHBabzagkBrw_P4rRjcQu3Dt4SAGMheYwsIToAyR4

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What’s in a Special Relationship?

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The recent decision by US President Donald Trump to remove some American troops from Germany has brought much consternation to the international community. One interesting twist that has found its way into the conversation occurred when Anthony Blinker, policy advisor to presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden commented that the move weakened NATO and harmed Germany, ‘our [America’s] most important ally in Europe.’ Many on both sides of the Atlantic gasped at this comment, but none more so than those in the United Kingdom. The truth of the matter is – and this may come as a shock to some – that the United States has never seen the Anglo-American relationship as special. Yes, there are cultural and linguistic commonalities, but when it comes to foreign policy, the United States’ view on Britain and Europe does not match that of an Anglo-American ‘special relationship’.

It would be fair to say that Winston Churchill’s consistent message of a Special Relationship between Great Britain and the United States has ingrained the phrase in the minds of most citizens of both countries. Nevertheless, from a governmental and policy position, it has traditionally been a one-sided relationship. American leaders have rarely used the phrase and even more rarely acted on it to the point that former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is reported to have said the ‘British clam to have a special relationship with the US, but if you mention this in Washington, no one knows what you are talking about.’ This idea was reinforced during the Brexit debates when US President Barack Obama stated that the UK would find itself at the back of the queue in US trade negotiations. The last fifty years provides a clearer understanding of how the US views the ‘Special Relationship.’

It would also be fair to say that since the end of the Second World War, US Foreign Policy has focused on a strong Europe. The ‘Special Relationship,’ as a purely Anglo-American relationship, is very much a British view. This does not mean that the US has not or does not value Britain. What is often forgotten, intentionally or not, is the importance of Europe to US foreign and trade policy since 1945. During the Second World War, the US and Britain, along with the Soviet Union, stood side-by-side to defeat the Axis. Once the war was over, and the Cold War began, the relationship between the US and Britain changed. What began as a strategic and military partnership during the Second World War quickly morphed into a relationship between two unequal partners. Despite Britain’s continually diminishing status, US presidents from Truman to Clinton understood the value of working with the British to meet US foreign policy goals.[1]

Nevertheless, US presidents have also focused on a strong Europe. Successive US presidents supported British involvement in different European projects. Dwight D. Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander Europe and later as President was firm in his belief that any plan to defend Europe required a British commitment to the continent. As such, he continually pushed Churchill, and later Eden and Macmillan, to take a more active role in NATO and the European Economic Community, which they eventually did.

The collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 left US leaders believing they did not need multilateral alliances. The US was and is, after all, the lone superpower. Since this time, presidents from both parties have chosen to ‘go it alone.’ In the meantime, Britain failed to stop its slide away from world power status. True, London remains one of the great financial centers in history but as a nation, they no longer have the military power to be more than a limited partner on the world stage. A no more shocking example of how far Britain’s defense capabilities have fallen can be found in the fact that the Royal Navy is now smaller than Pakistan’s navy and only slightly larger than Qatar’s, and the Royal Air Force is about the size of the Brazilian air force.[2]

Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it appeared that the US was moving closer to Germany as its leading partner in European issues. This was not a new position, per se, and it was not a result of Germany’s military prowess (it is also struggling to maintain a large and functioning force) but due to its economic power. The US position since 1945 has been to forge a durable transatlantic link between the US and Europe.[3] At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Germany had the fourth-largest economy in the world with a GDP that was more than $1 trillion larger than that of Britain. What is often overlooked in all of the discussion about America pulling closer to Germany and further away from Britain, or about the withdrawal of US troops from Germany is Europe’s importance to the US.

A look at the Bank of England’s Quarterly Bulletin provides an idea of how important Europe is to the US relative to the UK. America’s most trusted trade partners are still the United Kingdom and Europe. As the year 2020 rolls towards the last quarter, Germany is feeling angst about its special relationship with the US. While the US president drives that anxiety, a reversal of roles may be in the offing. With US politics becoming less reliable in recent years, Europe might decide to no longer rely on the US and ‘go it alone,’ just as the US did in the 1990s. However, with reports that Johnson’s government is secretly ‘desperate’ for a Biden victory in hopes of a revived comprehensive trade plan the chances of a Europe without the US seem small.  In light of Brexit, the UK might think about how the US has historically viewed the special relationship. For the US, the relationship that is and has always been special has been with Europe – a Europe that includes Britain.

Justin Quinn Olmstead is currently Associate Professor of History and Director of History Education at the University of Central Oklahoma with a Concurrent Appointment in the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University, Wales as Affiliate Faculty with responsibility for doctoral research supervision. He has edited two books, Reconsidering Peace and Patriotism during the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and Britain in the Islamic World: Imperial and Post-Imperial Connections (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Dr. Olmstead has also published, The United States’ Entry into the First World War: The Role of British and German Diplomacy (Boydell & Brewer, 2018). He has contributed a chapter on the impact of military drones on foreign affairs in The Political Economy of Robots, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Currently, he is the Assistant Editor for The Middle Ground Journal, Treasurer and Director of Membership for Britain and the World, and president elect of the Western Conference on British Studies. Just undertook his PhD at the University of Sheffield — you can find him on Twitter @OlmsteadJustin

Cover image: NATO 3-cent 1952 U.S. stamp, issued at the White House on April 4, 1952, honored the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NATO_3c_1952_issue_U.S._stamp.jpg [Accessed 11 August 2020].

[1] Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 61.

[2] https://britainandtheworld.org/news/2020/6/4/batw-announces-a-virtual-roundtable

[3] Timothy Andrews Sayle, Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), p. 3.

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“Light at the End of the Tunnel”? The Vietnam War, the Credibility Gap, and the COVID-19 Crisis

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Wartime analogies abound in the fight against COVID-19. In the United States, the Surgeon General warned that the nation faced a “Pearl Harbor moment” and Donald Trump, who declared himself a “wartime president”, has invoked the Defense Production Act, a piece of Korean War era legislation which grants the federal government greater control of the economy. Plenty of analysts have commented on these analogies; they work better for some than for others.

But one of the most striking and perhaps overlooked evocations of wartime thus far were Trump’s statements and tweets in April claiming to see “LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL!” Trump was not alone in his use of this phrase. Bill Gates, Boris Johnson,[1] Dominic Raab, and Keir Starmer, to name a few, have recently made similar statements. But absent from much of the commentary on Trump’s use of the phrase, and almost certainly absent from his understanding of it, is that it is most closely associated with American hubris and defeat in the Vietnam War.

During the early years of the American war in Vietnam, U.S. government officials frequently employed the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” both publicly and privately to suggest that the United States was making slow, steady progress toward a successful resolution of the conflict or, for the less sanguine among them, that the government and the military at least needed to convince the American public that this was the case.

Yet by 1967, the U.S. had deployed over 400,000 troops and there was little indication of a resolution in sight. Although anti-war protests grew throughout the United States, public opinion polls indicated that many Americans continued to support the war effort, but they were not convinced that the United States was making progress and were not happy with President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the conflict. In the summer and autumn of 1967, Johnson’s team therefore launched a public relations offensive to sell the war and requested that top American civilian and military officials in Vietnam “search urgently for occasions to present sound evidence of progress” to the American people. Walt Rostow, Johnson’s National Security Advisor, suggested that the administration could employ “ways of guiding the press to show light at the end of the tunnel”.

Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation and once again used the phrase to convey progress, although when pressed on the matter, he refused to say how much of the tunnel remained to be traversed. The U.S. military commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, also returned to the U.S. to make several public appearances. On 21 November, he told an audience at the National Press Club that the war had reached a point “where the end begins to come into view”. A few days later, Westmoreland sent a cable to his deputy saying that he thought it was an appropriate time to “portray to the American people ‘some light at the end of the tunnel’”.[2]  Although there was skepticism among the American press corps in Vietnam about these pronouncements, the PR campaign did temporarily boost public support for the American war effort.

Then, in late January and early February 1968, came the Tet Offensive, the massive, coordinated North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front attacks on South Vietnam’s towns and cities, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in the heart of Saigon. The light at the end of the tunnel, some joked, had been an oncoming train. The prominent CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite speculated that the United States was now “mired in stalemate” and the fragile consensus within the Johnson administration fell apart. The offensive also shattered the progress narrative that Johnson’s team had tried to promote and the so-called “credibility gap”, between how the government presented the war and how the American media and public witnessed it, widened even further.

In late March, amidst plummeting public support, Johnson announced a partial bombing halt of North Vietnam, indicated his willingness to engage in negotiations, and announced that he would not stand for re-election. The light at the end of tunnel, if it had existed at all, rapidly receded and the war would grind on for another seven years.

It should perhaps come as little surprise that American political leaders are so quick to employ wartime analogies. As the late Marilyn Young argued, war is “the substance of American history”. Although the United States has not formally declared war on another nation since the 1940s, it has engaged in near permanent military conflict for the past 75 years.[3] War has also served as the dominant metaphor in major policy campaigns against poverty, drugs, cancer, and terrorism.

Of course, American political leaders usually consciously invoke such metaphors. What is remarkable about the recent usage of this phrase is the apparent ignorance of its historical baggage. While “light at the end of the tunnel” is an idiom with an etymology and application that extends beyond the Vietnam War, the expression is now freighted with irony due to its close association with that conflict.

More than a month has passed since Trump first promised “light at the end of the tunnel” but a conclusion to the crisis does not appear in sight. As the U.S. and U.K. governments prepare to lift some restrictions amid confused messaging and unclear evidence of progress, they are at risk of widening the “credibility gap” even further.

Simon Toner is a Lecturer in Modern American History at the University of Sheffield.

Cover image: Situation Room: Walt Rostow shows President Lyndon B. Johnson a model of the Khe Sanh area

[1] In a confusing twist on the metaphor at a 30 April press conference, Boris Johnson claimed the UK had “come through the peak. Or rather we’ve come under what could have been a vast peak, as though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel. And we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us.”

[2] Westmoreland is often thought to have used the phrase publicly, but I don’t think this was ever the case. However, his association with the phrase was fixed in the popular memory during a 1984 trial in which he sued CBS for libel. CBS had produced a documentary which claimed Westmoreland had misled the Johnson administration about the true strength of enemy forces in Vietnam in order to indicate progress in the war. During the trial, Westmoreland claimed never to have used the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel”. When a lawyer representing CBS showed him the above cable, he said that he had been optimistic, but he had not forecast the end of the war. The case was eventually settled out of court.

[3] Most American military engagements since 1945 have occurred under Congressional and/or UN resolutions authorizing the use of force following a presidential request, rather than formal declarations of war.

 

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“Confederate Heritage Month” and the Memory of the American Civil War

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The history of the American Civil War is very much about memory and, in recent years, the construction and contestation of this memory has played out on social media platforms like Twitter. While this presents an opportunity for those who wish to promote dangerous or inaccurate historical myths, Twitter also provides a platform for historians to challenge historical inaccuracies. For the past few years, I’ve used Twitter to challenge one iteration of such mythmaking: Confederate Heritage Month.

The end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the rise of the southern revisionist history of the war––the Lost Cause––created the conditions that permit Americans to wave both the U.S. flag and the Confederate States of America’s battle flag. The celebration of the latter—a physical representation of slavery and treason—allows some to treat former Confederates as heroes and not members of a failed slavers’ insurrection. One example of such celebrations is “Confederate Heritage Month”, typically marked every April by several former secessionist states.

Slavery, despite secessionist states claiming it as the cause for their rebellion, has largely been removed from the narrative of the rebellion in these celebrations. Instead of discussing slavery and treason, many champion “states’ rights” and the alleged battlefield prowess of Confederate generals. Indeed, the Lost Cause began a purposeful skewing of history by defeated Confederates to recast the Confederacy as having fought a noble fight for states’ rights. It is important to remember that secessionist states left the Union for the right to own slaves. The Lost Cause also makes Southerners into victims of Northern aggression––which is of course a lie. This skewed narrative ultimately downplays the fact that the U.S. military won key battles and eventually brought the rebellion to its metaphorical knees.

Memory of the Civil War affords opportunities to defeat the Lost Cause. As some communities remove Confederate statues––most emplaced during America’s Jim Crow period––as a military historian, it is important for me to take on the myth of Confederate military prowess. Statues to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, to name a few, present them as heroes, when in fact leaders such as these lost the pivotal battles to the U.S. Army and committed treason. Lee in particular is problematic as the aura of his supposed military genius is used to obscure his past as a brutal slave owner, who broke his oath to the United States to fight in the rebellion.

Confederate Heritage Month is a celebration of the American Civil War from deep within the Lost Cause. Since 1994, in former secessionist states––particularly Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and previously in Virginia––Confederate Heritage Month has celebrated those who fought for the Confederate States of America. State legislatures and leaders purposefully misconstrue the failed slavers’ rebellion as some glorious cause for freedom and states’ rights. In 2016, Mississippi celebrated that vile cause in April.

In 2016 after a conversation on Twitter, fellow historian B.J. Armstrong urged me to push back against Confederate Heritage Month by tweeting a Confederate defeat for each of April’s thirty days. As he accurately mentioned, there were plenty of defeats from which to choose. I accepted his challenge and what began as a simple, one-month only reminder that the Confederacy lost numerous battles, and ultimately the war, has now became a yearly ritual.

At this point I should note that I am an academically-trained historian of the Vietnam War. Yet, as a military historian, I take some joy is using battles to expose the myths surrounding the Confederacy. By spotlighting battles, I am able to demonstrate that the so-called Confederacy did not have better leadership, soldiers, or any lasting victory. Since 2016, I have dedicated myself to a yearly counter-celebration every April. I pair each day with a Confederate battlefield defeat. The first year I focused on Mississippi. I covered Georgia in 2017. In 2018, I changed things up by addressing how U.S. military installations are named after Confederates while listing a defeat. 2019 proved my most popular celebration as I paired Southerners who remained loyal to the United States with a Confederate military defeat.

The majority of the responses to my celebration are positive. Some fellow historians also now join in my challenging of the Lost Cause in April. Most of the negative responses, which are few, come from Neo-Confederates. Since Neo-Confederates are largely averse to academic responses to their feelings-as-arguments approach to understanding the Civil War, interactions with them are brief. In the end, although rife with sarcasm, I am producing educational content.

Tweets are a great way to deliver concise, accessible statement. And if, as Mississippi’s Republican Governor Tate Reeves recently proclaimed, Confederate Heritage Month is about learning lessons, then those lessons should include that the Confederacy led a traitorous rebellion against the United States, did so in the name of slavery, and was thoroughly defeated on the battlefield. The efforts of historians to correct the myths of the Confederacy remain far from over. Historians presented arguments against the existence of Confederate monuments in public spaces, resulting in the removal of some. Yet, Lost Cause symbols and rhetoric remain in the continued influence of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization and the continuance of Confederate Heritage Month in Mississippi.

Rob Thompson is a historian at the Army University Press. His book on pacification in the Vietnam War is forthcoming with Oklahoma University Press. He tweets at @DrRobThompson and his 2020 Confederate Heritage Month counter-celebration thread can be found here and you can find last year’s thread here.

Cover image: Lee Surrendered, Albany Journal, 10 Apr 1865.

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Reading Between the Lines: What Can Testimonies of Former Slaves Tell Us about their Relationships with their Former Mistresses?

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The testimonies of formerly enslaved women reveal a great deal about their experiences and relationships formed with their former white mistresses (a term used for female slaveholders in antebellum America). My SURE project, supervised by Rosie Knight, sought to compare the testimonies of formerly enslaved women in Virginia and South Carolina recorded in the WPA Slave Narratives Collection. Comparing these states reveal the varying factors that influenced slave-mistress relations, and the weight they held in doing so. These two regions contrasted greatly in a number of ways, including economic circumstances, slaveholding sizes and geographical disposition, which in turn influenced the relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses.

The WPA interviews have been a hotly debated source of testimony, providing valuable insight into the experiences of formerly enslaved people from their own perspectives, but also heavily influenced by the context of the 1930s. Many participants were suffering in poverty during the Great Depression, which may have influenced more nostalgic recollections of their childhood characterised by greater economic security.

Moreover, the ruling of Jim Crow may have meant participants were intimidated by their white interviewers, and indeed expressed reluctance to say too much or ‘the worse’, as one interviewee put it. In cases such as these, their silences may be the most revealing aspect of their testimonies. From analysing these interviews, three key themes come to the fore: violence, material well-being and religion. However, the nature and extent of the influence of such factors were subject to regional variations.

The violence experienced by enslaved women was heavily dictated by regional circumstances, and greatly influenced both the relationships formed and perceptions constructed of the mistress. Slaveholdings were generally smaller in Virginia than those in South Carolina, meaning mistresses themselves would often beat and whip slaves themselves, whereas in larger slaveholdings in South Carolina, overseers usually inflicted violence upon slaves.

The personal dimension of such violence played a key role in shaping how mistresses were remembered by slaves later in life. For example, Henrietta King (VA) recalled the brutal violence she experienced at the hands of her mistress for stealing a peppermint candy when she was a child, explaining: “See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, aint it? … Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way.” She went on to describe her former mistress as “a common dog.”[1]

In contrast, recollections of former slaves in South Carolina tend to recall their former mistresses as justified in their violence toward them, and appear less resentful, perhaps influenced by the relatively good material conditions and religious teachings they were provided. Victoria Adams, for example, recalled: “De massa and missus was good to me but sometime I was so bad they had to whip me.”[2]

The booming slave economy of South Carolina meant enslaved people often experienced better material conditions, and the larger size of slaveholdings meant enslaved people had greater opportunities to form stable family units and networks of kinship than in Virginia, where familial separation was common due to interstate slave-trading and the tendency for smaller slaveholdings. The better conditions in South Carolina may have led to less direct resistance, and thus less violence from their mistresses. Economic decline in Virginia meant slaves often lived in abhorrent living conditions and were provided little, if anything, to eat, which led to attempts to escape or steal food.

Such conditions shaped perceptions of former mistresses, as expressed by Henrietta King:  “In de house ole Missus was so stingymean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller.”[3] Such a testimony illustrates the ways in which the material conditions of slaves influenced their perceptions of their mistresses, both during their enslavement and retrospectively. Moreover, located further north, Virginia slaves were more likely to reach the free states, and so may have more readily engaged in direct resistance and efforts to escape.

In South Carolina, where conditions were better, interviewees tended to remember their former mistresses as domestic and motherly women. For example, Granny Cain described her mistress as “the best white woman I know of — just like a mother to me, wish I was with her now.”[4]

Viewing nostalgic recollections of slaves within the context of the Great Depression allows us to understand how interviewees may have recalled their experiences in slavery in survival terms, as a time in which they may have had greater economic security. Fear of bad-mouthing former slaveholders, again, may have also played a role in such recollections. Moreover, many interviewees were children during slavery, and so may have had greater experiences and less responsibilities than their mothers or older siblings would have experienced.

Religion also proved to be a significant survival strategy in the experiences of enslaved women, both providing comfort and, in some cases, strengthening connections with their slaveholders. In Virginia, enslaved people appear to have received religious instruction mainly via the church and with little input from their mistress, while in South Carolina, religion and its instruction played a key role in slave-mistress relations. This led to enslaved people associating their mistress with what she taught — as pious, good and even a saviour in some cases. Josephine Stewart, for example, described one of her former mistresses as “a perfect angel, if dere ever was one on dis red earth.”[5]

The relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses can therefore be seen as greatly influenced by regional and economic variations across slaveholdings. The most important influences included: the violence enslaved people were subjected to, especially if this was at the hands of the mistress; the material well-being of slaves; and religious instruction. The variation of testimonies across the South points to the value of a comparative framework, signifying how experiences of enslaved women were not the same across the region and cannot be generalised. Understanding the influence regional variations had upon the experiences of enslaved people and the relationships they formed with their mistresses not only enables us to place these testimonies and their experiences in historical context, but also helps us avoid making generalisations about a topic so sensitive and complex.

Lydia Thomas is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationships formed between enslaved women and their white female slaveholders. She focused on antebellum Virginia and South Carolina to explore how variations in regional circumstances, such as economy and slaveholding size, influenced the relationships formed and testimonies of formerly enslaved women.

Cover image: A close up of an old map of the USA, featuring Virginia and South Carolina. https://unsplash.com/photos/HA0Rgl-ISko [Accessed 24 March 2020].

[1] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Bardon and Robert K. Phillips (eds), Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), p. 190

[2] Victoria Adams, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, pp. 10-11

[3] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, et al., Weevils in the Wheat, p. 190

[4] Granny Cain, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, p. 166

[5] Josephine Stewart, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.4, p. 152. It is important to reiterate the influence of the context on such testimonies — positive recollection may have been utilised as a means of avoiding conflict with interviewers; Mistresses also often utilised religious instruction as a form of manipulation and control, especially within the large slave-holdings of the low country, presenting themselves in a position of authority and as an agent in the salvation of the slaves

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