by Annis H. Hopkins, Ph.D.

Copyright 1998. Annis H. Hopkins. All Rights Reserved.


Every spring since 1987, I have been teaching an upper-division Women's Studies course called Lesbian Culture: Images and Realities. About 45 students of every description come together to explore what is for most an area of intense personal importance. Rarely does a student sign up for Lesbian Culture without an agenda, ranging from political activism--for or against--to issues of personal survival--for self or a loved one. Each semester's curriculum is different, but one text remains a standby--Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness.

The Well of Loneliness can be taught in a variety of ways, at a variety of levels, from high school through graduate school: "as literature," as a period piece, as an example of banned literature, as the classic "lesbian novel," or as a socio-psychological treatise. For some students in my particular class, The Well of Loneliness is exciting, a revelation. For others, it is simply a "good read" or, sadly, a "bore." Still others find it almost hopelessly confusing. But to many, especially some younger lesbian students for whom the coming out process has been relatively painless, The Well is an affront, an out-dated, unbelievable, ugly insult to their self-image and to their self-esteem.

As a result, I have sometimes wondered if perhaps it might be better to leave Hall's text to the literature classes or to graduate seminars. But I have decided to keep it, for one fundamental reason: it helps students to understand the concept of "the social construction of lesbianism." That is, it stands as an articulate witness to the shifting conceptualizations of "lesbianism" which underlie the difficulties we all face in coming to terms with lesbianism as a sexual orientation or political position in modern culture. Without the historical perspective offered by The Well or some other such testimony, none of us can truly understand who we are or why it matters.

By combining the Collaborative Learning technique of Academic Controversy with historical information from Lillian Faderman's landmark Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, students can begin to see how important it is to understand who has defined the term lesbian for us, and how definition affects all our lives. Even more importantly, they can begin to see past the differences that have separated us in the past, toward a unity of being and purpose that will alter all our experiences of life in this culture.

"Academic Controversy" is a collaborative learning technique which requires participants to examine all sides of a contentious issue with an eye to finding the most satisfactory and mutually agreeable explanations or solutions to the problems posed. Harold S. Gennen, former CEO of ITT, argues that "the best way ever devised for seeking the truth in any given situation is advocacy: presenting the pros and cons from different, informed points of view and digging down deep into the facts." In this essay, I will describe how examining The Well of Loneliness within the Academic Controversy framework can prepare students' to more meaningfully examine the changing cultural constructions of lesbianism over the past century.

The "Problem" of The Well of Loneliness

One of the great satisfactions of my teaching about lesbian culture is that I am able to see profound changes in attitude over the past ten years. Even in this very conservative state, it is rare in 1995 to find a student willing to openly attack the study of lesbianism in the hateful ways that were so common half a generation ago. Instead, I am now faced with young lesbian and heterosexual students who are, in the main, so relatively comfortable with discussion of sexual orientation that they cannot fathom Stephen Gordon's struggles. They cannot fathom a father who "knows" and does not speak. They cannot believe that Stephen did not easily self-identify as lesbian. They cannot believe Stephen's mother would so totally reject her. They cannot believe that Stephen would give up Mary. Many simply find the book intolerable and consider reading it worse than a waste of their time.

How does one teach a novel, even one with so long and remarkable a history, in the face of such resistance? And what value can it have, if students enter class already willing to accept and even embrace the subject matter as a whole? Paradoxically, it is exactly these difficulties which render The Well of Loneliness such a powerful teaching tool.

The Well of Loneliness is often studied for its place as "the" lesbian novel--"the one lesbian novel someone might have read"--until it was eclipsed in 1973 by Rubyfruit Jungle (Stimpson 375). The Well retains its central place in the experience of those of us in or past mid-life. One of the rewards of introducing The Well to young undergraduates whose contact with "literary" lesbianism is largely Rita Mae Brown and the spate of "lesbian movies" of the '80s and '90s is that they may see for the first time what we--their older sisters--grew up with. They can identify with Molly Bolt, but often cannot see why many of us in the "older generation" do not. The shocks for them of The Well include its unrelenting negativity, its portrayal of turn-of-the-century medico-legal opinion about "inversion," and the fact that many of us only a generation older than they were taught these same attitudes at home, in church, and in the only "lesbian novel" we could find.

From 1928 through the 1960s, The Well was the one novel most frequently sought out by the lesbian wanting "to know more." . . . Even lesbians who have not read The Well are familiar with Stephen's role as the prototypical mannish lesbian. (Inness 304)

In the pages of The Well, young lesbians may glimpse briefly the chasm over which we tight-rope-walked on threads of meaning to get to the solid ground where they so often simply stand, smiling, upright and hopeful. Hope was not the primary color of our youth; more often, we felt heroic simply in surviving despair. Stephen's survival was a lighted candle for us, not the darkened room so many of my younger students find of her life.

The Issue of Definition

The issue causing the resistance to the novel is definition. Classes usually start with an assumption that we all know what a lesbian is. Regardless of their personal identifications in terms of sexual orientation, students generally have signed up for the class assuming that we would be discussing apples and not oranges, but not knowing that the branches of the apple tree have been grafted so much over time that the trunk seems some other fruit. Suddenly, in The Well, all are faced with the awareness that "back then," reality was very different. In Stephen's day, the modern sense of ourselves as "lesbian" did not exist yet. The concept of sexual orientation--so familiar today--wasn't there for Stephen to apply to her experience.

Engaging in an academic controversy about whether or not Stephen is lesbian forces lesbian students to confront the problematic nature of their self-definition as lesbian and allows non-lesbian students some entre into the realm of the confusion that makes the lives of many lesbian women so steeped in upheaval, even now, when most "educated" people take a rather tolerant view to lesbians.

Faderman's Odd Girls

I use Lillian Faderman's Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers as a companion text for The Well of Loneliness; however, in other settings, like a literature, such a companion text would not be required. My students read Faderman's first three chapters--on "romantic friends," sexology, and "lesbian chic" of the '20s--alongside The Well. Faderman drops students into what was for them a historic vacuum and inundates them with information about attitudes toward lesbianism. She introduces them to names and ideas they will encounter in the novel, such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, inversion, and masculine-looking women. Faderman gives so much information that students are often left reeling. For some, especially the younger, more liberated lesbian women, this can be very disorienting. Heretofore, they had felt comfortable with their lesbian identity, and perhaps had even experienced a little almost snobbish contempt for the confusion other, less enlightened lesbians report. Now they are faced with a historical account that calls into question their relatively casual self-identification, and they begin to see how complicated the issues are. Non-lesbian students, as well, are struck by the unfamiliarity of the attitudes Faderman presents.

Academic Controversy: Is She or Isn't She?

After some class discussions of Faderman's material, and as soon as everyone has finished reading the novel, we are ready to wrestle with the matter of "social constructions" of lesbianism. Academic Controversy based on the novel and the text can prepare students for the difficult task of recognizing and tracing this phenomenon, and for coming to their own more informed conclusions about definition.

The academic controversy exercise, which takes about an hour and a half to complete, is carried out as follows. Students are randomly assigned one of two positions to support: 1. Stephen Gordon is a lesbian; or 2. Stephen Gordon is not a lesbian. Students may be told in advance which position they will argue, or may find out at the beginning of the exercise. However, I prefer not to tell students in advance that we will be doing the exercise.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. The value in assigning positions in advance is that it allows students time to brainstorm independently over a longer period of time; on the other hand, the added time also gives students the opportunity to discuss their positions with others outside the class, and the interaction with class members is somewhat diluted. Under these circumstances the dynamics of what happens in class are quite different than if the exercise occurs without warning.

The value in assigning positions at the time of the exercise is two-fold. First, it prevents students from collecting outside opinions, making them more likely to rely on their own learning; and second, it ensures that students will be equally well prepared for both sides, rather than for only one or the other. One further advantage to the surprise approach is that the resistance students feel to taking a position randomly assigned actually helps make the exercise more effective; if they have advance warning, the edge of that resistance will have been blunted considerably, if only by the students' healthy desires to cooperate and earn a good grade.

Students may be divided randomly into teams of four. However, if the class is already set up with a collaborative learning team structure, it is appropriate to use the existing teams because of the added spice of predictability being challenged. Next, teams number off to four, with all the ones and threes assigned one position, and the twos and fours taking the other. Each of these dyads will be partners in presenting their assigned position within the team.

For the first stage of deliberations, when "pro" and "con" partners meet separately, no more than three sets of partners meet together in groups to formulate their strategies. Depending on the size of the class, further division may be necessary at this point to assure that everyone has time to speak and that the groups are small enough (four or six people) to come to consensus about what the best arguments will be.

In each of these deliberative groups, one person should be a note-taker, another a time-keeper, another should be sure that everyone has a chance to speak, and a fourth should be appointed to remind the group of what their goal is. The goal of each deliberative group is to agree on what each set of partners will present as their case when they rejoin the other two members of their team. While it may appear that the "debate" itself is the culmination of this exercise, that is not actually the case. The most important learning will likely occur at this stage, during these deliberations.

For one thing, it is likely that some members of each group will be highly resistant to taking the position they have been assigned. It is the goal-keeper's job to gently remind the group, as often as necessary, that one's personal opinion is irrelevant for this exercise, and that the task is to present the most convincing arguments possible for the assigned position. This does not mean that arguments for the other position should be ignored; as any debater knows, one of the best offensive strategies is to "cover" in one's presentation any objections or counter-arguments the other side might put forth. Thus, in each deliberative group, part of the task is to figure out what the other side is likely to argue, and to find the best way of defusing their case.

The facilitator of the exercise must walk a fine line in order to avoid giving away the key learning experiences in this exercise, while giving clear enough instructions to lead to a real exchange of focused arguments. As you may have noticed, the instructions described here are not at all specific to the question at hand. Staying in this general mode is the best way to leave the "fun parts" to the students. The less specific direction is given, the more likely students are to come up with a wide variety of answers.

Once the deliberations begin, a variety of things may happen. It might seem to the observer that the obvious first step, for both sides, would be to agree on a definition of the term lesbian. Surprisingly, this doesn't always happen. In one class, for example, only one group out of four even addressed the question of definition initially, and one group formulated their entire approach without ever addressing the definition. In another class, every single group became so embroiled in reaching consensus on a definition that the facilitator had to interrupt and request that they move on into their arguments.

Such discussion over definitions is, of course, the heart of this exercise. By this time in the course, students have begun to understand that the casual "understood" definitions they brought into the class are much more problematic than they had ever noticed. They have read in Odd Girls that at the time Radclyffe Hall was writing, the term lesbian had several meanings, none of which may make a lot of sense to the 20 year old of the nineties. For example, a "lesbian" might be a woman who wanted to be a man, a man who was trapped in a woman's body, a woman who wanted to be treated like a man, a woman who had a school-girl crush on another woman, a woman who wrote sexually passionate love-letters to her best friend, or a woman who engaged in a life-long "Boston Marriage" with another woman.

Another important learning experience has to do with how the "Stephen is not a lesbian" groups deal with the apparent dichotomy they have been handed. Some decide that in order for Stephen Gordon "not" to be a lesbian, they must demonstrate that she is something else instead (usually they call her a transsexual, and often make a good case for the modern definition of this term). Others attempt to show that she merely fails to meet the qualifications of the definition of lesbian that they have chosen to work from.

Once each expert group has reached reasonable consensus about the arguments to be used (or as close to that as time permits), the initial teams reform, and the four jobs are reassigned. Then throughout the room, the pairs arguing that Stephen is a lesbian present their case. During this segment of Academic Controversy, no objections may be offered. The role of the "active listener" half of each team is to understand the arguments being articulated. When the two protagonists finish, the others may restate or ask questions for clarification, but may not attempt to dissuade anyone from what has been presented. Next, the contrary pairs present their case, and the other half respond in the same non-confrontational way.

Once both positions have been presented, and everyone understands what the arguments are, the discussion format changes. Participants now begin to attempt to reach a consensus on the issue. Is there actually a "right" answer to whether or not Stephen is a lesbian? If so, how can we decide what the "right" answer would be? Students may be tempted to allow the strongest voice to take over, or to allow the bravest arguer to have her/his way. It is the "keeping-on-task" person's job to make sure this doesn't happen, but rather, that the issue of how to arrive at consensus is addressed.

The issue, once again, is definition. At this stage, teams must begin to arrive at a consensus definition of the term lesbian. It may be necessary for the facilitator to bring up the centrality of definition in some teams, so that they can continue the exercise, but for most students, it's obvious by this time. Once a team reaches a consensus definition, the "right" answer has been determined. Not all teams will reach the same definition, however, and so not all will come up with the same right answer. In fact, it would be harder to move to the next step if they do, but I have never seen it happen.

At this point the group is ready to move into a whole-class discussion of the importance of definition, the changeability of definition, and the more abstract issue of the social construction of lesbianism. Whatever direction the instructor chooses from here, students will be ready and eager to continue the discussion.


The underlying purpose of teaching any concept, any theoretical construct, any content, in any class, is always the same. That purpose is to offer students tools with which they may approach their own lives and the world they live in with more love and acceptance of themselves, more love and acceptance of each other, and more celebration of the differences that make each of us a unique individual. I have found that this academic controversy exercise invites students to see Stephen Gordon not simply as "the classic lesbian" the cover of the novel promises them, not simply as a historical phenomenon, not even as "other," whatever other that may be. It prompts them instead to examine her and her life experiences as a real person, with feelings, motivations, confusions, failures, and triumphs. It leads them finally to declare, "Who cares whether or not Stephen is a lesbian, whatever that means? I like her, and I want her to be happy." To me, this is the value of teaching The Well of Loneliness, and of debating Stephen Gordon's identity. Stephen becomes one of us, whoever we are in that room together, and we care about her. And isn't that what we want from our teaching?

Works Cited

"Cooperative Learning in Higher Education Conference." Maricopa County Community College District and Arizona State University, February 3 & 4, 1994.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Inness, Sherrie A. "Who's Afraid of Stephen Gordon? The Lesbian in the United States Popular Imagination." NWSA Journal 4.3 (Fall 1992)303-320.

Kitzinger, Celia. The Social Construction of Lesbianism. Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1987.

Smith, Barbara Leigh and Jean T. MacGregor. "What is Collaborative Learning?" A Newsletter from the University Program for Faculty Development. Arizona State University, September, 1993.

Stimpson, Catharine R. "Zero Degree Deviancy: The Lesbian Novel in English." Critical Inquiry 8.2 (Winter 1981)363-379.

Copyright 1998. Annis H. Hopkins. All Rights Reserved.

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