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Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives

Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives

Composing Pasts and Futures

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Jean Bessette


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
10 illustrations

Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms


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About the Book

Winner, 2018 Winifred Bryan Horner Outstanding Book Award

Grassroots historiography has been essential in shaping American sexual identities in the twentieth century. Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives examines how lesbian collectives have employed “retroactivist” rhetorics to propel change in present identification and politics. By appropriating and composing versions of the past, these collectives question, challenge, deconstruct, and reinvent historical discourse itself to negotiate and contest lesbian identity.
Bessette considers a diverse array of primary sources, including grassroots newsletters, place-based archives, experimental documentary films, and digital video collections, to investigate how retroactivists have revised and replaced dominant accounts of lesbian deviance. Her analysis reveals inventive rhetorical strategies leveraged by these rhetors to belie the alienating, dispersing effects of discourses that painted women with same-sex desire as diseased and criminal. Focusing on the Daughters of Bilitis, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and the June L. Mazer Archives, and on historiographic filmmakers such as Barbara Hammer and Cheryl Dunye, Bessette argues that these retroactivists composed versions of a queer past that challenged then-present oppressions, joined together provisional communities, and disrupted static definitions and associations of lesbian identity.
Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives issues a challenge to feminist and queer scholars to acknowledge how historiographic rhetoric functions in defining and contesting identities and the historical forces that shape them.


Jean Bessette is an assistant professor at the University of Vermont whose essays have been published in Rhetoric Review, College Composition and Communication, Computers and Composition, and Rhetoric Society Quarterly.


“Stringing together a quirky and compelling range of primary source materials, Jean Bessette offers a fresh and incisive account of lesbian rhetoric in the second half of the twentieth century. As the first book-length study of its kind, Bessette’s work queers rhetorical historiography and presents a persuasive case study of the rhetorical uses of history and archives.”—K J Rawson, director of the Digital Transgender Archive and assistant professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross

“In this innovative book, Jean Bessette draws on a fascinating range of archives of lesbian experience in the United States to expand our understanding of what counts as an archive and how archives put rhetoric to use. Through meticulous analysis of archival objects ranging from films to love letters to buttons to posters, she shows how archives can be used for “retroactivism,” to shape collective identity, write new histories of lesbian experiences, and thereby multiply the range of identities and histories archives may represent.”—Jordynn Jack, author of Autism and Gender: From Refrigerator Mothers to Computer Geeks

"This study examines rhetorical uses of history and archives, specifically American lesbian archives, and how they have been used by feminist and queer scholars for contemporary purposes of lesbian identification and activism. The book investigates scholars' uses of archival items such as photos, love letters, posters, newsletters, and buttons, focusing on three archives."--ProtoView