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Carol and the Boundaries of Lesbian History

Lauren Gutterman

Lauren Gutterman is an Assistant Professor in the American Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book manuscript, Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire within Marriage (under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press), examines the personal experiences and public representation of wives who desired women since 1945.

There is a powerful moment in director Todd Haynes’ lush and moving film Carol that does not appear in the 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt, on which is it is based. The film’s protagonist, Therese Belivet, a twenty-something shop girl and aspiring photographer, is beginning to realize that she has fallen in love with another woman—the wealthy and beautiful housewife Carol Aird—when she sees a butch-femme couple while shopping in a record store one afternoon. As Therese stares at the women, we can see her simultaneous attraction to and disidentification with this pair. Though Therese remains silent, we can almost hear her thoughts: “Am I like these women? Is this what it means to be a lesbian?” Feeling Therese’s eyes upon them, the women unrepentantly meet her gaze and Therese, embarrassed, looks away.

This is the only moment in Carol when viewers encounter the butch-femme culture that has figured so large in histories of postwar lesbian life. As studies including Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis’s ground-breaking book, Boots of Leather Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (1993) have powerfully shown, working-class butch-femme couples helped to make lesbian identity and community visible in postwar America; for many women the bars were the lesbian world. At the same time, however, limiting our understanding of lesbian culture and community in the 1950s and early 1960s to only these women and these spaces elides women’s ability to develop lesbian lives and relationships independently of the bars. For many women, the lesbian world was not bounded or geographically distinct, but rather part of the same spaces and places in which their daily lives unfolded, making every space, in a sense, potentially a lesbian one.

Carol makes the lesbian potentiality of ordinary spaces palpable. Therese and Carol first meet shortly before Christmas in the toy section of the department store where Therese works and where Carol is shopping for her daughter. They go to lunch together, to Carol’s home, and eventually on a road trip, stopping at motels, hotels, diners, and coffee shops, where no one (save a private detective Carol’s husband has sent to follow them) sees anything unusual or “wrong” about their relationship. Carol and Therese are not exactly hiding, but the particular illegibility of sex and romance between two conventional-looking, well-heeled white women—“normative lesbians” as historian Julian Carter might call them—enables the pair to travel through space with ease and to find surprising intimacy in public. The other diners at the restaurant and the concierge at the hotel do not notice anything suspicious about Carol and Therese’s relationship, but we can feel the sexual tension between the women, their excitement, and their apprehension. When Therese and Carol’s eyes first meet in December at the department store, and then again months later in a crowded restaurant at the film’s end, we watch on as their surroundings blur and fade away. When the women first make love, Carol calls Therese “my angel, flung out of space.” The line appears verbatim in the novel, but its meaning is much clearer in the film.


Viewers might wonder if an affair like Therese and Carol’s was possible in the early 1950s when the federal government was in the midst of an attack on homosexuals, and gays and lesbians risked losing jobs, friends, and family. But my research into the lives of wives who desired women suggests that stories like Carol’s were more common than we might expect. Though few wives had the courage, inclination, or time to venture into working-class urban lesbian bars, oral history interviews and letters that married women wrote to the Daughters of Bilitis, the nation’s first lesbian rights group, provide evidence that even suburban housewives like Carol found ways of engaging in lesbian affairs. Typically, they did so with other wives and mothers, friends and neighbors who had children near the same ages and who were a part of their family lives. While it is less likely that an affluent wife like Carol would have engaged in a cross-class relationship with a department store clerk whose life and social world were so far removed from her own, married women could and did find each other outside the bars.

The cover of the 1952 romance novel The Price of Salt. The film Carol was adapted from this book.

The cover of the 1952 romance novel The Price of Salt.

Carol’s lesbian affair itself is not improbable, but her decision to leave her marriage, give up custody of her daughter, and embark on a new life was uncommon. Most wives depended too completely on their husband’s financial support and feared too much for their children’s welfare to consider doing so. Instead, such women were more likely to balance their lesbian relationships with marriage quietly for as long as they could while making plans to leave their marriages one day when their children were grown. Some of the women whose stories I have uncovered did have bitter battles with their husbands: the husband of one Midwestern woman hired a private detective to follow her, just as Carol’s husband does; another woman attempted suicide when her husband threatened her with divorce. More surprising, though, is the number of husbands I’ve found who chose not to press their wives about their suspiciously close female friendships at all. Surely some men never considered the possibility that their wives’ relationships might be sexual, but others, it seems, didn’t really care, believing—as many wives themselves did—that whatever happened physically or emotionally between two women did not “count” as infidelity and could never threaten the primacy of marriage. What the historical record suggests, then, which Carol does not, is the extent to which postwar marriage could accommodate love and sex between women.

In the broadest sense, Carol demonstrates that there was more than just one way to be a lesbian in the postwar period, and it invites historians to think more creatively about the places that made up lesbian life at midcentury and beyond. Assuming that lesbian space in the 1950s was limited to a few queer bars in a handful of urban neighborhoods diminishes our historical understanding of not only the lesbian world, but the seemingly straight one as well.