Jeannette Howard Foster (1895–1981)
Jeannette Howard Foster was a scholar and librarian who self-published Sex Variant Women in Literature in 1956. A study of representations of lesbians and lesbian behavior in Western literature from Sappho and the Bible to the twentieth century, Sex Variant Women opened the way for future studies of lesbian history and literature, including the work of Lillian Faderman (Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present) and Terry Castle, whose anthology The Literature of Lesbianism is dedicated to Foster. Foster lived in Pocahontas (Randolph County) from 1974 until her death in 1981.
Jeannette Howard Foster was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on November 3, 1895. Her family traced its descent from New England, where in the seventeenth century at least three female ancestors were condemned as witches, and where her father’s cousin Ada Howard became the first president of Wellesley College in 1875. Foster’s mother, Anna Mabel Burr, had hoped to pursue a career in music and resented her duties as a wife and mother; consequently, she insisted that her daughters concentrate upon education, which would give them the option of self-sufficiency. Foster’s father, Winslow Howard Foster, was extremely driven but suffered from bouts of nervous collapse. As their economic fortunes fluctuated, the family moved around the suburbs of Chicago, and Foster would keep up the habit of moving as an adult; she lived in seventeen states over the course of her life.
Sent to a Congregational Sunday school at age four, Foster became infatuated with a teacher who, she later recalled, “looked at me with the first look of love I had ever seen on a woman’s face.” Coming of age in the last years of what historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg called “the female world of love and ritual,” when intense devotion between girls or women was regarded as ordinary or even praise-worthy, Foster in 1908 and 1909 encountered a serialized story in St. Nicholas Magazine titled, “The Lass of the Silver Sword.” The story depicted a girl at boarding school with a crush on an older girl, and reading it marked Foster’s first recognition of female same-sex yearning in print; thereafter Foster would read with “a sharp lookout, largely fruitless, for the subject.”
Foster entered Calumet High School in 1907 at age eleven. Her intense fondness for a biology and chemistry teacher named Nell Jackson led her to study chemistry first at the University of Chicago, which she entered in 1912, and then at Rockford College, a women’s college where she transferred after a breakdown in 1915. There, she discovered the works of Havelock Ellis and became aware that the phenomenon of “sexual inversion” in women was a subject of formal study in psychology.
After college, Foster taught chemistry at the Science Hill School in Kentucky and Janesville High School in Wisconsin before returning in 1920 to the University of Chicago for graduate work in English, earning an MA in 1922. She taught at Hamline College in Minnesota, Shorter College in Georgia, and Hollins College in Virginia, before entering the Emory University Library School in 1931. She earned a BLS and began work as a science librarian at Antioch College in the fall of 1932. She entered the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago in 1933 and received a PhD in 1935.
Foster had been collecting literature dealing with lesbian experience since the 1920s, and in 1936, a summer substitute position at the New York Public Library allowed her to begin the research that would culminate in Sex Variant Women. According to her biographer, Foster was “determined to ferret out even the most elusive printed references to lesbians, bisexuals, and crossdressers,” and many of the works she wished to consult were held in non-circulating collections. Foster had to use great care to frame her requests for works with such titles as Female Sex Perversion. A summer position in Washington DC in 1937 as librarian for President Roosevelt’s Advisory Committee on Education gave Foster the opportunity to pursue her own research at the Library of Congress.
In the fall of 1937, Foster became an associate professor of library science at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia; she remained there for eleven years, quietly pursuing her own research. On January 9, 1948, she became the first professional librarian at Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sexual Research (ISR) in Bloomington, Indiana. The library at the institute contained about 3,000 volumes, and as Kinsey noted, about two-thirds of them “cannot legally be circulated, and there would be public disapproval if they knew of the material we have accumulated.” This was the point at which Foster’s professional career and her research in the literature of lesbian experience finally converged.
In 1950, Foster became involved with fellow Institute for Sexual Research employee Hazel Toliver, a Greek and Latin translator who was born in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1909. Toliver was to become Foster’s long-time partner, though their domestic life also involved Toliver’s mother, Myrtle, and later another person who held at least some romantic interest for Toliver. Toliver and Foster grew discontented at the ISR and left in 1951 for jobs at the University of Kansas City (what is now the University of Missouri–Kansas City).
During her years in Kansas City, Foster finished and published Sex Variant Women in Literature. As her biographer notes, in the 1950s in America, “homosexuals were condemned by the psychiatric and medical professions as pathological, by religious groups as immoral and sinful, and by the law as criminal.” But Foster was so certain of the value of her work that she did not believe that anyone would condemn it. Foster paid Vantage Press $4,500 for the book’s publication. Its first two print runs in 1956 and 1958 did not result in commercial success; only a few thousand copies were printed, but many of those survive in libraries.
Sex Variant Women in Literature surveys 324 works of literature and history for their treatment of love between women. Foster also consulted some 300 “scientific and psychiatric” works to lend extra respectability to her project.
Foster retired from the University of Kansas City in 1960 and joined Hazel Toliver and Toliver’s new companion, Dorothy “Dot” Ross, in St. Charles, Missouri. Foster’s health declined over the next thirteen years, as did that of Toliver’s mother, Myrtle. Because the Tolivers had family in Arkansas near Pocahontas, the women decided to relocate to Randolph County. They bought land on Baltz Lake and began building a house. Foster, suffering disability following a lower lumbar surgery, was transported from St. Charles to Pocahontas by ambulance on August 1, 1974.
Fearing that her care would be too much for Toliver and Ross to manage, Foster entered the Randolph County Nursing Home on April 1, 1975, and lived there until her death in 1981. Her final years were enlivened somewhat by correspondence with her friends all over the country, and by a renewed interest in her work thanks to the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
On July 9, 1974, Foster received the third annual Gay Book Award from the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Library Association. In 1976, three independent women’s presses brought out volumes of Foster’s work: a reprint of Sex Variant Women in Literature as well as two other volumes containing Foster’s poetry and stories.
Foster also received visits from lesbian activist friends from out of state. A group of four (Tee Corinne, Honey Lee Cottrell, Barbara Grier, and Donna McBride) converged in Pocahontas in June 1977 and took Foster out to dinner, where, according to Corinne, the word “lesbian” was spoken “loudly enough and frequently enough that we caused quite a stir.”
Foster died on July 26, 1981. She is buried in the Chesser Cemetery in Randolph County.
For additional information:
Foster, Jeannette H. Sex Variant Women in Literature (reprint). Tallahassee, FL: The Naiad Press, Inc., 1985.
Greenberg, Brooke. “The Hidden Highbrow of Pocahontas.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 26, 2023. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/26/the-hidden-highbrow-of-pocahontas/ (accessed June 9, 2023).
Passett, Joanne. Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2008.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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