The Lesbian and Bisexual Women in English Canada audio history collection consists of audio histories conducted for the 2001 University of Victoria Department of History doctoral dissertation The Spreading Depths: Lesbian and Bisexual Women in English Canada, 1910-1965. The Spreading Depths is the basis for Cameron Duder’s subsequent monograph Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-65, published in 2010 by UBC Press.
The collection consists of 12 interviews (21 recordings in total as some were in multiple parts) conducted by Duder from 1996 to 1998. 27 women were interviewed for the dissertation research, and Duder also drew on interviews recorded in the 1980s for the Lesbians Making History Project. 12 of the women interviewed by Duder consented to their interviews being housed in the University of Victoria Archives. 10 of the 12 women requested to be identified by pseudonym.
Duder's dissertation, The Spreading Depths, examines lesbian and bisexual women’s formation of subjectivity in pre-1965 English Canada, a time when the terms and identities “lesbian” and “bisexual” were not widely discussed in society. Duder considers the existing historical information about the lives of women in same-sex relationships, in English Canada, before the social, political and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s. The interviews conducted by Duder provide information on what had been a neglected group in previous research on lesbian and bisexual women: the interview subjects are lesbians and bisexual women from lower-middle class and working class families. Duder argues that discourses on 19th and 20th century history of sexuality have reflected the documentation of the politically active and socially privileged, namely activist persons or organizations and women from upper middle class families whose histories were documented in public archives. Duder argues for a class-specific lesbian subjectivity in the decades before 1965, a subjectivity which does not always adhere to the forms of the “romantic friendship” and the “butch-femme relationship” which have dominated the discourse.
Duder adds a Canadian perspective to the large literature on the transition in women’s relationships from the romantic friendship to the modern lesbian. The Spreading Depths reveals that before the Second World War, women in same-sex relationships were influenced by the language of sexology. Their relationships were also much more explicitly sexual than were those of earlier generations of lesbians. Duder suggests, however, that we should not assume great expansion in the discussion of sexuality, because well into the 1950s and 1960s Canadians lacked information about sexual desire and sexual practice. The interview testimonies complicate the picture we have of women in the mid-twentieth century being much more sexually aware than women of previous generations.
The interviews reveal that lesbians and bisexual women shared heterosexual women’s longing for intimate relationships, their joy at finding a partner, and their pleasure in coming to an awareness of sexuality, but they also reveal that same-sex relationships held the same risks of infidelity, domestic violence, and alcohol abuse as existed for heterosexual women. Relationships with family were also mixed. Duder posits that because of the lack of public discussion around women’s sexual subjectivity, and therefore a lack of terminology that could be used to define and reject women living outside the heterosexual norm, women in same-sex relationships during the period under study may have had somewhat better relationships with their families than lesbians after 1965. Finally, The Spreading Depths discusses the Canadian lesbian community of the 1950s and the 1960s and contrasts the social world of lower-middle-class lesbians with the public bar culture of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The interview testimonies reveal the views held by these women towards the bar scene and the women who regularly socialized in the bars. The interviewees describe alternative ways they found to socialize with one another so as to avoid exposure.
Initially, the project intended to include heterosexual women as a part of its analysis of women in English Canada. Duder sought interviewees through advertisements in regular media and lesbian and feminist media, and consequently the text of these advertisements differed: for regular media, women 55 and older, who lived in British Columbia or Ontario for a minimum of 5 years between 1910 and 1955, were sought to speak about personal relationships and social life, all types of friendships, romantic relationships, courting and marriage; advertisements in lesbian and feminist media sought lesbian/gay and bisexual women 55 and older, who lived in British Columbia or Ontario for a minimum of 5 years between 1910 and 1955, willing to speak about personal relationships and social life, and the lives of lesbian and bisexual women. The dissertation was later narrowed to consider lesbian and bisexual women only.
Interviewees were offered use of pseudonyms, given the option of an audio recording of the interview or written notation only, and for those selecting the audio recording, the choices of destruction, preservation of the recording in an archives, or preservation of a transcript. Regarding access restrictions, participants choosing preservation of the recordings could select: no restriction, access with written consent, access after death of the participant, closure until a specified date, or other specifically stated restrictions.
The interviews were preceded by an informal meeting where Duder and the interviewee discussed the research and interview proposal. The guiding interview questions were organized into the following categories and general subjects (summarized from Appendix B of The Spreading Depths). Not all questions were asked of all interviewees:
Biographical background – of the interviewee and immediate family members, including birthplaces, nationalities, places lived, education and occupations;
Childhood – enjoyed or not enjoyed; feelings towards parents and siblings; family strictures; church attendance; playmates and racial characteristics of neighbourhood; school experiences; adolescence; reading habits; clothing worn; drinking and smoking habits; and special friendships;
Socializing and sexual knowledge – extent and location of socializing; types of socializing; friends and acquaintances; frequenting of clubs or bars; any secretiveness concerning activities and location; extent and source of knowledge of human anatomy, sex, pregnancy, masturbation, and same sex relations; awareness of and interaction with homosexual women or men;
Personal sexuality – sexual preference; words used to describe preference; early physical and emotional attractions; feelings associated with attraction; extent of intimate relationships; perceptions of mixed race relationships.
Additional questions were available to guide further discussion of relationships and sexuality. The following is a sample from these questions (excerpted Appendix B of The Spreading Depths). Questions may not have been required depending on the course of interview:
- How would you describe the way you felt about sex in those relationships?
- Were there any occasions where one of you wanted to do something different and the other refused? How did you feel about that?
- Did you know from the beginning what you would like and dislike or was that something you learned about yourself over time?
- Is there anything else that you would like to tell me about your sexual relationships?