April 20, 2014

In Remembrance: Julia Penelope, Lesbian Theorist

Posted on 01. Feb, 2013 by in Remembrances

It had been many years since I had heard the name Julia Penelope. Yet there was a time when her name was as common for me as those of Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin–lesbian theorists whose essays on lesbian-feminist theory helped mold my young lesbian mind into revolutionary lesbian thought and ideas. Thus when I learned that she had died on Jan. 19 at the age of 71, I was saddened–as much by her death as by the fact I hadn’t thought of her in years. I went down to my library to pull some of her books from the shelf and found that each of them was heavily underlined, with notes in the margins.

Because reading Julia Penelope demanded dialogue and was, in a way, an incitement to riot over the second-class status of women and the erasure of lesbians from history.

Julia Penelope was from another era, an era that is truly bygone. Unlike those other theorists, her work was so controversial, so revolutionary, so for lesbians only that what she said often created outrage, even among other lesbians and feminists. Julia Penelope was never an assimilationist, she never approved of assimilation and she built her whole world–a world into which she tried to draw as many other women as possible–around lesbocentrism. She was a lesbian separatist–something anathema in our mainstreaming, assimilationist LGBT world where straight acceptance is often more important than queer freedom.

Once a major voice in lesbian literature and political theory, a co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives and a deeply involved lesbian-feminist activist, Julia Penelope had retreated from the L part of the LGBT landscape in the late 90s. After publishing 12 books in rapid succession, editing a significant issue of “Sinister Wisdom”on lesbians and violence, giving papers on language and its origins (she often referred to herself jocularly as a “cunning linguist”) and being a vocal figure at NWSA and MLA conferences, she became increasingly frustrated by the direction lesbian-feminist was taking and chose a new direction for herself–editing books for mainstream publishers, walking away from lesbian writing and lesbian politics. Her last book was published in 1998.

Nevertheless, her literary legacy is impressive; her work was important and valuable and necessary. Looking through her books I am reminded of how groundbreaking it was and invite those who never heard her name before to delve into that work–as much to read a significant period of our lesbian-feminist history as to read what her ideas were.

Julia Penelope was born in Miami in 1941. A self-described “white, working-class, fat butch dyke who never passed,” she started what she called “rabble rousing” early: she was expelled from Florida State University in 1959 and the University of Miami in 1960 for being a lesbian, eventually earning her B.A. in English and linguistics from the City University of New York and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. She taught at several colleges over the years, but her open and outspoken lesbianism was a source of contention at many of those schools.

The book which created the most controversy for her was the ground-breaking For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology which she co-edited with Sarah Hoagland. Among her other books were The Original Coming Out Stories, Finding the Lesbians, International Feminist Fiction, Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Father’s Tongue, Sexual Practice/Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism, Call Me Lesbians: Lesbian Lives, Lesbian Theory, Lesbian Culture: An Anthology, Out of the Class Closet: Lesbians Speak, and the seemingly innocuous (but not) Crossword Puzzles for Women. Her last published book, in 1998, was a collection of her poems, Flinging Wide the Eyed Universe.

According to her executor, lesbian theorist and author Sarah Valentine, Julia Penelope was “the unique combination of theorist and activist. She felt that creating community and community access to academic conferences such as NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) and MLA (Modern Languages Association) was essential for moving ideas into actions/change in the world.” For example, in 1977, Julia Penelope organized a groundbreaking event at the MLA–a panel on Lesbian Languages and Literature with a stunning array of panelists: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judith McDaniel and Mary Daly. There were over 700 women in attendance.

According to Sarah Hoagland,  Julia Penelope’s books were written specifically to “put lesbian voices out there, enabling us to question what we’d internalized from heteropatriarchy and to develop lesbian meaning.”

Hoagland refers to Julia Penelope as “brilliant” and notes that “her papers in linguistics exposed the misogynistic parasitism of patriarchal framings of women and the consequent erasure of lesbians.”

That “erasure” of women and lesbians from the language began early, as Julia Penelope wrote in various books. Those of us over 35 remember being taught in English grammar that when the proper pronoun is unknown, we were to use “masculine by preference,” a legislated grammatical rule establish in the 19th century. She also noted, in English as it evolved, any word for women could be used as “a pejorative, insult or sexual slur.”

Julia Penelope also explained how grammatical shifts created a “blaming the victim passive voice”–thus “John beat Mary” became “Mary is a battered woman,” taking the perpetrator entirely out of the equation by deleting the active voice.

As she explains it, women (and minorities–she’s as unflinching about the racism of the English language as she is about its sexism) have been taught from birth to accept and even embrace their own lack of place in society through linguistic constructs. This goes double for queers. (Gay men are in that “minority” categorization she discusses–which is why when men are spoken of pejoratively it is with words reserved for women, like “he’s such a pussy.”) We see this echoed repeatedly in advertising, TV, films–even politics. The straight white male version of history is the one we are taught is the only one that is credible.

And this is why the work she did was so important: Julia Penelope reminded women–lesbians in particular–of our personhood, our individuality, our gender, our very own pronouns, our ability to re-write the scenario presented to us and to speak our own language, create our own power with our own words.

Julia Penelope was also self-critical, however, and unafraid to criticize other lesbians or aspects of lesbian culture. She was adamantly opposed to lesbian sadomasochism and considered it an embellishment of patriarchal abuse of women. She also thought the desire to assimilate was dead wrong and was particularly harmful to women in their second-class status in society.

As hard as she worked at creating a literature of lesbian culture and linguistic theory, however, she worked equally hard at fun. She was known among her friends as a trickster and a practical joker, she had a loud and raucous laugh that echoed through rooms, she was an avid gardener, a weight-lifter and was known to swoon over rocks and collected them all her life.

Ultimately, however, Julia Penelope’s legacy was in how she held up a mirror to heterosexist culture and found the women hidden by history. In Call Me Lesbian: Lesbian Lives, Lesbian Theory she wrote,

But some survive. Many of us have lived to tell our stories, to create Lesbian texts, to read Lesbian texts, even to write commentaries and criticisms of Lesbian texts. All of these activities must be pluralized, multiplied, complicated, and pluralized again, because there is no single, narrow, one-sentence definition of “The Lesbian.” The sexologists may have been the ones to name us, but we can, and do, create ourselves. Out of a mishmash of disinformation, misinformation and outright lies, each Lesbian constructs some story about who she is and who she might someday be.

It is to be hoped Julia Penelope will be remembered for excavating and archiving lesbians with a capital L. It is to be hoped that her work–keeping lesbian culture alive and vibrant and uniquely separate–will not go the way of 21st century assimilation. She understood the power in lesbian feminism. That was her legacy, that was her gift.

(Photo:  Julia Penelope)

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, as well as the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer and The Nation, among others. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and an contributing editor for Curve Magazine. Her most recent book is From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, winner of the Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction 2012. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. She is editor-in-chief of Tiny Satchel Press. Her novel, After It Happened will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX

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9 Responses to “In Remembrance: Julia Penelope, Lesbian Theorist”

  1. Lee Lynch 2 February 2013 at 5:30 PM #

    Bravo, Victoria. You do this pioneer justice.

    • Victoria Brownworth 2 February 2013 at 6:20 PM #

      Thanks, Lee. We have lost quite a few of our pioneers recently–it makes it all the more necessary to signal their passing by memorializing their important work and what it did for us.

  2. jude angelo 4 February 2013 at 10:01 PM #

    thank you SO MUCH for this – beyond doing one woman justice, you do history and herstory both a great service…

  3. Monica Nolan 8 February 2013 at 7:38 PM #

    I hadn’t heard of Julia Penelope–thanks for enriching my reading list.

  4. Kay Leigh Hagan 9 February 2013 at 7:50 PM #

    RIP, Julia. Thank you for the keys to unlocking our power from the restraints of heteropatriarchal language. You changed my life from the moment I read your work and had the privilege of knowing you. You have affected how I understand and move in the world every day since. Blessed be.

  5. Sylvia Sholar 12 February 2013 at 3:43 PM #

    As a lowly graduate student in the late 70′s or early 80′s I took a grammar course with Julia. I’ve never forgotten how she empowered the women in her classes. I’d never felt so strong before. You couldn’t help but lover her.


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