Reading Resolution: “Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-65” by Cameron Duder

  1. A book written in North/Central America: Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-65 by Cameron Duder

Awfully Devoted

List Progress: 3/25

I do not tend to read a lot of non-fiction, as I usually find it pretty dry, but I’ve found myself getting more interested in queer history recently, and borrowing this book from my partner was able to foster that interest. Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-65, written by Cameron Duder, is exactly what its subtitle says: a study of lesbian and queer women living in Canada before the rise of second-wave feminism. The little queer history I have read before was largely male-focused, so it was a great opportunity to read something so focused and detailed about everyday queer women’s lives. And for a piece of historical study, it is surprisingly readable and accessible, even if the editor in me wants to streamline some of the chapters.

The book is divided into two major sections, the first studying collections of letters from women in the 1900’s to 1930’s and analyzing their lives and relationships through their correspondence with their friends and partners. This part was the most fascinating to me, tracing the progression from the idea of a “romantic friendship” that was assumed to be nonsexual, to a pathologized view of lesbian women as sexology became a field of study. The sample size is small, as there are only so many letter collections that are going to survive the decades, but the analysis is pretty great. The second half is taken from interviews that Duder did with over twenty women who were at least somewhat active in the Canadian lesbian communities before 1965. Duder illustrates the divide between middle class lesbians the supposedly “respectable” house parties and private relationships, and how they considered themselves distinct and different from the disreputable lower class bar scene.

The chapters are divided into general subjects like Family Relationships or Professional Lives, with snippets from all of the interviews collected by subject. With this small of a sample size, I would have appreciated longer stretches of interview, as you get broken up snapshots of each woman’s life. One of the interviewees, Cheryl, was the victim of domestic abuse in her first relationship, was threatened by her partner with outing to her family, entered the air force after leaving her abuser, and spent years feeling comfortable in her queer identity again, but you lose all sense of narrative when this fascinating life is interspersed amongst a dozen other fascinating lives. I understand the impulse to give the biggest picture perspectives possible with this small of a group, but the group is small enough that you naturally end up identifying with individual narrators and craving more context. I am not sure what would be the ideal way to structure a study of this size, but I wish it had been tweaked a bit to find a comfortable middle ground.

I also would have appreciated a firmer-handed editor, as the last chapter ends up very repetitive, but these are largely nitpicks in what was overall a really pleasant reading experience. I learned a lot of things about the early Canadian queer scene that I would never have come across otherwise and I am glad for this flash of overlooked history. And it has made me very curious about what legacy the queer women of today will leave behind to those reading what we leave behind.

Would I Recommend It: Yes. It may not convert anyone without previous interest in the topic, but it is a great exploration of a niche historical interest.

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