Being a Lesbian in 1950s America

Odd Girl Out (1957)

By Ann Bannon (First Novel in her Beebo Brinker Chronicles)

While it may not always feel like it, the fact is that we live in a more tolerant and understanding, though very outspoken, America. This is certainly true when you compare today with the 1950s, which, if you want label it, you would be spot on with “Decade of Conformity.” (For more on life in 1950s America, see this earlier post: The Fifties without the Rose Tint.)

If Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out does nothing more, it spotlights the prevalent truth of the 1950s: conformity. There existed molds—husband-wife, confirmed bachelor-spinster, male breadwinner-female homemaker, etc.—into which everybody had to fit. If you didn’t, you found yourself ostracized, ironically, conformist Emily’s fate, and what Beth and muddled (at least early on) Laura fear.

Briefly, Laura starts her first year at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. She’s quiet, reserved, and harboring a secret about her parent’s marriage (divorce, a serious no-no). Beth, the ultimate popular girl, befriends her and invites her to join her sorority (Greek life, a big deal then), Alpha Beta. As the semester progresses, they develop an affection for each other, stronger for Laura, who comes to discover real love. Beth seems as committed, until Charlie appears. Beth has had plenty of relationships with boys but none have been remotely satisfying. Then Charlie sweeps her off her feet and makes love to her in a way she finds completely fulfilling. And you can see the problem Beth and Laura have to face.

As for Emily, mentioned above, she’s a fun-loving girl crazy about a musician. This is the girlfriends-warning-girlfriends part of the story. Emily commits an indiscretion that, honestly, would not raise an eyebrow today. You’ll find it as innocent as you’ll find what befalls her jaw dropping, but perfectly illustrative of the price of non-conformity.

In addition to wonderful insight into 50s thinking, you’ll also see why the book was such a hit, a bestseller in its day. People, particularly the young, believe that what they feel and experience is unique to them. (Can you imagine how amplified this was for LGBT youth?) Books, and fiction especially, provide the comfort of knowing you are not alone.

Bannon writes competently; she does a good job of presenting the story and taking us into the minds of Beth, Laura, and Charlie. The prose, however, is rather bland. You might expect pulp fiction to be more heated. Keep in mind, though, Bannon wrote a mass-market paperback, something you would find on racks in drugstores across America (next to the magazine shelves). The racier stuff came mailed in brown paper envelopes then. Nonetheless, Odd Girl Out is both entertaining and illustrative of a time thankfully gone by. It’s worth your time. Also features an introduction by Bannon concerning the writing of the book.

Incidentally, Ann Bannon went on to a career as a college professor, administrator, and traveling lecturer. She’s now retired at the age of 82. c/w

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