‘Without Apology’ chronicles lives of ‘ordinary yet remarkable’ lesbians
by Kit van Cleave
The Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project’s second collection, Without Apology, is out—and it’s a fine read. Moreover, Arden Eversmeyer’s valuable continuing work in collecting oral history falls into a worthy tradition of preserving the life stories of those whose experiences would otherwise pass unnoticed.
The oral tradition is thousands of years old, and is especially important for societies in which the general population is not literate and unable to write their own histories.
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, “Primitive societies have long relied on oral tradition to preserve a record of the past in the absence of written histories. In Western society, the use of oral material goes back to the early Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides, both of whom made extensive use of oral reports from witnesses.”
As opposed to oral tradition, “oral history” is a relatively modern concept. It has often been a way to revitalize the culture of people who had been oppressed during colonization, as when William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Maud Gonne began to collect stories and songs in Ireland at the end of the 1800s. (From the time of Cromwell, the British conquerors did not allow the Irish to speak their own language, wear their native dress, or practice their native religion and rituals. Eventually, one of Europe’s most literary cultures was almost lost to time.)
In the 1920s, U.S. folklorists like Zora Neale Hurston and John and Alan Lomax began collecting stories and songs from African-Americans—first in the South, then throughout America. Since black slaves were not allowed to be educated, American blacks had long passed their histories through story and song, creating a rich oral tapestry of their lives.
Today, oral historians still concentrate on “subgroups,” or people who for one reason or another are not easily found. They might include Holocaust survivors, undocumented workers, gang members, or military and law enforcement officers. In such cases, the individuals interviewed are more often educated and literate, but may still pass material orally to avoid detection.
In 1997, Houstonian Arden Eversmeyer began collecting the stories of lesbians born before 1930 who were nearing the end of their lives. She felt their experience of living through the conformist era of restricted gender roles in the mid-20th century provided the background for the choices many of these women made. In this era, women were expected to get married and have children. They were severely proscribed in such matters as work, university graduate programs, credit lines, home ownership, and independence. Eversmeyer thought that these issues could form a unifying theme for a useful collection.
So the Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project was started, and a first collection of women’s stories, A Gift of Age: Old Lesbian Life Stories, was published in 2009. (See OutSmart cover story Rebels and Survivors March 2001 and A Gift of Age book review, OutSmart June 2010.) Without Apology, as the second volume, continues the project’s work by telling the stories of 24 “ordinary yet remarkable women.”
In between publication of the first and second books, the collected material was sent for permanent archiving in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Eversmeyer and her colleague Margaret Purcell have produced a worthy work, with the women’s stories highlighted by photos. Their ongoing project, and its publications, is yet another step in collecting the history of the LGBT community.
To volunteer, donate funds, or purchase the first and/or second Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project books, visit olohp.org or write OLOHP, P.O. Box 980422, Houston, TX 77098.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.