Describing Queer Mathematicians

Just in time for Pride month, I spent most of June processing the collections of two (probably) lesbian mathematicians.  I really enjoy my job at the Archives of American Mathematics, which collects the papers of mathematicians and mathematics organizations, and over the past year, I have developed a real affection for the world of mathematics.  I was very excited to work with materials that combine my newly discovered love of mathematicians with my interest in LGBTQ history.  One of the things I love best about working in archives is the ability to get to know people through their collections, and I was eager to learn more about these two women and their relationship through processing their records.

These two women, Dorothy Bernstein and Geraldine “Jerry” Coon, were professional mathematicians in the mid-20th century.  I suspected they were more than just colleagues when I found out that they had lived together while teaching at a women’s college in the 1970s and continued to make a home together after retiring.  My suspicions grew stronger when I found out that Jerry had served as the executor of Dorothy’s will after her death in 1988.  Although Dorothy’s obituary does not mention Jerry, when Jerry passed away in 2008, her obituary refers to Dorothy as her “life companion.”  Based on that evidence, I feel confident that the two women had a relationship that was much more than simply professional, and that probably had a romantic and sexual dimension.  I do not, however, have any definite proof of that.  Nor do I know how their relationship evolved over the 50 years they knew each other or what others knew or thought about it.  As nearly as I have been able to piece together their stories, they met in graduate school at Brown University in the 1930s.  Both pursued their separate careers, Dorothy as an academic and Jerry as an applied mathematician, and Dorothy served as Jerry’s dissertation advisor in the 1950s.  By the mid-1960s, both women taught at Goucher, a women’s college in Maryland, where they worked closely together and co-authored several papers.  Both women retired in 1979 and moved together to New England, where they lived until Dorothy’s death.  Their collections contain no personal correspondence between the two, no photos of them together, really nothing of a personal nature at all.  While that is not entirely unusual for collections we get at the math archives, it was somewhat disappointing for me to not learn more about that part of their lives.

The lack of information about their relationship caused me to think hard about how to describe their collections.  In writing the finding aids for these two collections, I struggled with how to talk about the two women’s relationship.  As I mentioned, there is no indication in either woman’s collection about how they referred to each other, either privately or publicly.  I was very committed to respecting these two women’s identities, and did not want to assign them an identity as “lesbians” if that was not something they themselves claimed.  At the same time, I definitely did not want to be complicit in obscuring their relationship.   Historical studies of LGBTQ people, especially projects relating to lesbians and queer women, have struggled with archival practices that silence and hide relevant collections for too long, and I definitely did not want to be a part of that problem.  How, then, to describe these women and their collections, in a way that both respects the creators and makes the collections discoverable as belonging to queer mathematicians?  Where is the line between describing the creators of these collections and interpreting the evidence in them?

Ultimately, I referred to the women as each other’s “long-time companion, mathematical collaborator, and colleague.”  The term “companion” came from Jerry’s obituary.  I also took guidance from the Harry Ransom Center’s collections guide for LGBTQ Studies (which I found through the help of my friend Sam Bruner).  The guide recommends “companion” as one possible search term for finding individuals in queer relationships.  Although clearly originally used as a euphemism, “companion” fits my needs well, since it implies a close connection between two people without naming it specifically (while still conjuring some sense of queerness, given its frequent use in that context).  The term’s matter-of-fact nature seems to fit with the few documents that referred to their relationship using direct yet unrevealing terms, stating simply that the two lived and retired together.  Whatever else may have been the case about their relationship over the years, it is undeniable that these two women were companions in many meanings of the word.

The descriptive language I chose does not explicitly mark them as lesbian and queer, and I did not use any terms that would show up in most searches for LGBTQ materials.  However, since the collections themselves contain almost no materials specifically useful to a historian of queer sexuality, that seems acceptable to me.  I tried to describe the collections in a way that the queerness of these women’s relationship comes through, making it possible for archives users to be aware of that part of their lives.  Most of all, I hope I was able both to respect Dorothy and Jerry and to provide the information that will make these collections discoverable and useful.

What do you think?  Any ideas for the best ways to describe collections like these?

Click here for the finding aids for the Dorothy L. Bernstein Papers and Geraldine A. Coon Papers.

All the usual caveats apply that the opinions in this post are my own and do not reflect the views of the Archives of American Mathematics.

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