Lesbian Pulp Fiction -- the 1950s Phenomenon

Dan Bryan, January 10 2013


Pulp fiction had been present in its basic form since the 1890s. By 1952 the genre had expanded to include the lesbian pulp novel. For the rest of that decade a series of books became one of the few media to represent lesbian lives in any way whatsoever, to the gratitude of thousands of gay women in America.

As censorship standards relaxed late in the decade, the content of these books in turn became more rich and textured, foreshadowing the gay rights movement that would emerge a decade later.

What is "pulp fiction"?

At a basic level the "pulp" in pulp fiction refers to the cheap, acidic paper with untrimmed edges which is used as print material. Once this "pulp" paper became available at low cost, various publishers used it to produce cheap magazines and novels. For decades these products were the primary source of reading for the working classes and brought in a number of new genres including science fiction, westerns, superhero stories, crime/noir thrillers, and finally in the 1950s -- lesbian fiction.

Pulp paper

The cheapness of these novels derived from the paper they were printed on. Before a paper mill can turn wood into paper, it must first break the wood down into a substance called pulp, with all of the properties which that name implies. The more expensive paper is very thoroughly pressed in rollers and heated to dry in a rather intricate process.

Raw pulp from a paper mill in Florida, 1947.Raw pulp from a paper mill in Florida, 1947

By cutting corners a cheaper substance can be produced -- the "pulp" of the pulp fiction genre.

When this paper was produced, the acid used to turn the wood into pulp was not completely neutralized on the factory line (to speed the process up and save materials), and the rolls of paper were not trimmed on the sides. Thus, the finished magazines (and before long, dime-store novels) had a more yellowish appearance, rough edges, and degraded quickly over time.

Starting in the 1890s, this inexpensive "pulp" paper became the basis for a revolution in American publishing. A new wave of genres emerged that appealed more specifically to the working classes and to younger readers, few of whom could afford or cared to read the more expensive works that had previously been available. While there were numerous specific genres, they collectively came to be known as "pulp fiction".

The origins: Frank Munsey and The Argosy

The Argosy was most likely the pioneer pulp fiction magazine, releasing its first issue of that format in 1896. Its publisher, Frank Munsey, was making a fortune at the time by selling ten cent magazines and he gambled (successfully) that he would sell just as many with the cheaper kind of paper.

Cover of The Argosy from June 1906.Cover of The Argosy from June 1906

The Argosy established pulp fiction as a venue for the hard-edged, lurid type of story that was previously less prominent in fiction magazines. Munsey stated:

"We want stories. That is what we mean -- stories, not dialect sketches, not washed out studies of effete human nature, not 'pretty writing'... Good writing is as common as clam shells, while good stories are as rare as statesmanship."

Serial novels and short stories filled The Argosy with tales of masculine adventure and heroism. As is the American way, it did not take long for a bevy of imitators and innovators to expand upon this idea until the number of publications became too many to count. Most have been lost over time.

The lesbian pulp fiction novel

It would be over fifty years before the pulp fiction industry began to treat the subject of lesbian relationships. Curiously it happened almost at the end of the pulp fiction era.

By the 1950s the genre of pulp fiction was in decline. A lot of the superhero tales had been superseded by the rise of comic books, magazines and novels from mainstream publishers were more affordable, and the rise of television distracted ever more of the public attention.

The surprising success of a book called Women's Barracks, featuring some scenes with lesbian content, led to one of the final new genres in the annals of pulp fiction history -- the lesbian novel.

Women's Barracks and Spring Fire

The first books to really fit into this genre were Women's Barracks by Tereska Torres and especially Spring Fire by Marijane Meaker (pen name of Vin Packer), which came out in 1952.

Women's Barracks was published in 1950 and mixed in some lesbian content within the overall narrative of a Free French group in London during World War II. To the surprise of its own author and publisher, Gold Medal Books, the book moved over 3 million copies. Seeing this, Gold Medal Books moved forward with a more explicitly lesbian book called Spring Fire, which sold over a million copies.

In the fashion of its times the two gay characters in Spring Fire were met with an unhappy end, but this ending bore little relation to the rest of the book (Meaker later confirmed that she changed the ending due to censorship). In the beginning three-fourths of Spring Fire, a lesbian relationship took hold that captured the imagination of many women -- ones who had little else to relate to in the America of 1952.

Badly seeking pulp novels that would sell in the climate of the 1950s, Gold Medal Books and other publishers jumped into the lesbian pulp genre with alacrity. Soon they were being churned out as if from a factory line and shipped to corner stores and bus stations around the nation.

The authentic vs. the pornographic

Most of the lesbian pulp books were pornographic in nature, directed towards the male reader, with little to no character development and excessively lurid sexuality. Lesbian women were never the primary market. In fact, most of the books which took off in this genre were written by men who had nothing to do with gay women and had probably never met one knowingly. Some surviving examples are Candy and Of Shame and Joy by Sheldon Lord, and Sally by Alan Marshall.

Some lesbians objected to the tawdry story lines they found in most of these works, and they went on to somewhat dismiss the genre in their later years.

For obvious reasons, gay women have had a greater stake in preserving their part of this phenomenon in the ensuing decades. At the time, though, lesbian pulp novels written by women with a female audience in mind were in the definite minority.

Influence on gay women

The lesbian community, what existed of it, was deeply underground in the early 1950s. What few references existed to gay women in mainstream culture were of a derogatory nature. By operating in the "lowbrow" genre of pulp fiction, and with a perceived appeal to the single male over the actual lesbian, the pulp fiction novel was able to circumvent at least some of the stigma and repression in place during that time. Many gay women found a spark of recognition in these works and began to realize that a larger culture might exist outside of their previous experience.

As totems of identity

If Women's Barracks had served as an eye-opener to the potential of this genre, Spring Fire and its successors embodied it in full. Many thousands of heretofore isolated and closeted women across the United States saw these books, furtively purchased them, hid them well, and (almost always in solitude) read them. More than one gay woman has pointed to the success of this genre as a crucial time in their own development.

Because of the taboos surrounding the subject, quite a few women had actually labored under the impression that their feelings were a singular illness. When Ann Bannon began writing, first with Odd Girl Out, she received numerous letters to this effect. As she later said:

"The female readers wrote from little towns all over the country. Such was their isolation that many of them were grateful to me for reassuring them that they were not totally alone in the world."

Cover to Odd Girl Out by Ann BannonCover to Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon

Merely purchasing these books was an act of daring in itself. A woman's life could be thrown into disarray if the wrong person saw them with a lesbian pulp novel. Joan Nestle has related that:

"The act of taking one of these books off the drugstore rack and paying for it at the counter was a frightening and difficult move for most women... Although tame by today's standards... these volumes were so threatening then that women hid them, burnt them, and threw them out."

Lesbian pulp after Roth v. United States and One, Inc. v. Olesen

A turning point in the nature of these works occurred in the late 1950s. In a pair of decisions the U.S. Supreme Court significantly relaxed the definition of "obscenity", with the result being that books and magazines about homosexuality could be written and sold more openly. In Roth v. United States, handed down in 1957, the Court significantly tightened the criteria under which a work could be considered "obscene" in the legal sense. A year later in One, Inc. v. Olesen the Court ruled that homosexual material per se could not be censored in the mail -- it had to have a degrading moral impact.

The obligatory, wink-wink cautionary ending was no longer a requirement in pulp fiction novels. Some of the stories which emerged in the late 1950s benefited from these rulings and provided less didactic endings. Odd Girl Out became perhaps the first lesbian novel to feature an uplifting conclusion for the lesbian protagonist. Though betrayed, she ends the book thankful for knowing "who she really is", and the book spawned a series of sequels into the early 1960s.

The Girls in 3B by Valerie Taylor also contained a fairly nuanced plot and did not end with the fiery death or bitter renunciation of its lesbian characters. Three girls live in a Chicago apartment, and while two of them pursue the straight life, the third finds a different path -- with clear sympathy from the author.

The decline of pulp fiction

In the 1960s the lesbian pulp genre went into decline, mostly because the economic rationale for pulp fiction novels continued to disappear in general. For lesbians specifically, the increased freedom to communicate led to other forms of expression including periodicals, alternative papers, and organized clubs. For instance, while the Daughters of Bilitis (America's first national lesbian organization) was founded in 1955, many new chapters formed in the early 1960s and the group became more open and active at that time.

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in 1954. They founded the Daughters of Bilitis.Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in 1954. They founded the Daughters of Bilitis.

Even within the realm of lesbian pulp this increased openness can be seen by comparing the moral message of the early and later books and the fates of their lesbian protagonists. As mentioned, the specter of death or insanity as the wages of lesbianism noticeably receded from the later novels.

The initial decision to publish these stories may have been an act of desperation by all involved. The pulp publishers, trapped as they were in a dying industry, were looking for anything that would move copies in the 1950s. The lesbian authors of these works risked FBI persecution and seemed to have little hope of changing the prevailing social norms. But in spite of this the effects were galvanizing for the nascent lesbian community.


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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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