The 1950s Context

Women's barracks

In the 1952 obscenity case against the National News distribution company, the following passage was bookmarked by Crown Attorney Raoul Mercier and entered as evidence that The Woman’s Barracks should be considered obscene literature in the 1952 obscenity case against the National News distribution company.

Ursula felt herself very small, tiny against Claude, and at last she felt warm. She placed her cheek on Claude's breast. Her heart beat violently, but she didn't feel afraid. She didn't understand what was happening to her. Claude was not a man; then what was she doing to her? What strange movements! What could they mean? Claude unbuttoned the jacket of her pajamas and enclosed one of Ursula’s little breasts in her hand, then gently, very gently, her hand began to caress all of Ursula's body, her throat, her shoulders, and her belly. Ursula remembered a novel that she had read that said of a woman who was making love, "Her body vibrated like a violin.” Ursula had been highly pleased by this phrase, and now her body recalled the expression and it too began to vibrate. She was stretched out with her eyes closed, motionless, not daring to make the slightest gesture, indeed not knowing what she should do. And Claude kissed her gently and caressed her. ... All at once, her insignificant and monotonous life had become full, rich and marvelous . . . . Ursula wanted only one thing, to keep this refuge forever, this warmth, this security (P. 45)

It is difficult in the 21st century to understand why the book Women’s Barracks would be contested, and how the passage noted above could have been found to be obscene. The passages related to heterosexual romance or seduction were not bookmarked. It was Mercier’s opinion that lesbianism was what made the book obscene.

In order to understand, we need to look at the times. Homosexuality was societally frowned upon and often seen as a mental illness. Gay and lesbian bars were often raided by police and their customers arrested for a variety of offenses including gross indecency and cross dressing. Throughout North America, gay men and lesbians were barred from employment in governmental and related occupations, and actively persecuted as security risks to their countries.

During this time, there was also a need for stability after the Great Depression and two world wars. The conventional belief at the time was that this stability could only be achieved through strong heterosexual families. Due to men serving overseas, many families had been without adult males at home for over a generation. In the eyes of traditionalists of the 1950s, men needed to return to their role as the primary breadwinners, while women stayed home with the children.

Add to this, the fact that sexuality was perceived as destabilizing and morally charged. Existing media outlets like radio, television and cinema adopted self-imposed morality codes, but the fierce competition in the paperback book market contradicted the accepted standards of sexual morality. With their wide distribution, the pulpy, over-the-top, cliché-ridden, paperbacks provided alternative views of sexuality and sexual expression that were contrary to the dominance of family-centred monogamous heterosexuality. This meant that the paperback and comic book industries came under intense scrutiny by political and religious authorities.

Not wanting to invoke the image of Soviet-style repression of information, the U.S. and Canadian governments were loath to ban the publication of books. There were, however, other subtler ways of controlling information. Existing obscenity laws, governmental committees and lobby groups all worked in concert to control access to paperbacks in general and lesbian pulp fiction in particular.


Sources

Adams, Mary Louise. The Trouble with Normal : Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality. University of Toronto Press, 1997.

The 1950s Context