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Change Agents: Meet American and Gender Studies Professor Lauren Guttermann

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Dr. Lauren Gutterman, assistant professor, Department of American Studies, holds a PhD in History from New York University where she concentrated on women, gender, and sexuality in the twentieth-century United States. She also holds a B.A. in Gender Studies and American Studies from Northwestern University.

She is currently working on her book manuscript, Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire within Marriage under advance contract with University of Pennsylvania Press, which analyzes the personal experiences and public representation of wives who desired women between 1945 and 1989.

We spoke with Dr. Gutterman to learn more about her interests and passions as an educator.

The mix of gender study and archival research… As an undergraduate American Studies major at Northwestern University I completed a senior thesis on the New England Watch and Ward Society’s campaign against burlesque in the 1930s. That project provided my first experience in archival research. I loved going into the archives, flipping through papers that no one had looked at in years, feeling like I had this connection with people in the past. I was hooked. But beyond archival research, what I love most about history is how exploring even the very recent past can challenge what we think of as “normal” and “natural” regarding gender and sexuality.

Working on her book… I’ve been reading a lot of marital advice literature and media coverage from the 1970s and early 1980s about what was imagined to be a “crisis” in the institution of marriage. As divorce rates increased, the media was obsessed with uncovering alternative models of marriage and family life from open marriage and communal living, to unmarried cohabitation. People really believed that the future of the family was up for grabs.

Looking at the history of sexuality more broadly… Gay history and the history of sexuality remain too narrowly focused on young or middle-aged people, and we need to broaden our scope to include older people. The history of sexuality shouldn’t just include people under age 40.

Diversity of students in “Sexuality, Reproduction, and American Social Movements” course… There were Business and Computer Science majors as well as American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies majors, returning students, students with kids, students of different races and ethnicities. It was a small seminar, but the students brought a wide range of experiences and perspectives to the classroom that really enriched the course.

New course, “Trash: Queer Studies in Low Culture”…. The inspiration for the course comes from my research in cheap lesbian pulp novels from the 1950s and early 1960s. We’ll discuss why and how representations of sexual and gender non-conformity have repeatedly emerged in cultural forms often considered “unsophisticated” or merely “trash.” We’ll examine postwar male physique magazines, drag performances, TV talk shows, and cult films, to consider how “low” cultural forms have transformed Americans’ sexual norms and values and brought queer communities together since the middle of the twentieth century.