Foster Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Jeannette Foster’s monumental bibliography, Sex Variant Women in Literature, the “foundation bible of lesbian literature,” covers approximately twenty-six hundred years of lesbian writings from the beginning of publishing history to 1954.

Summary of Event

Jeannette Howard Foster published in 1956 what her friend Barbara Grier called the foundational work on the subject of lesbian literature. This is no false claim. Foster’s exhaustive scholarship, published at a time when literature of this type was heavily coded or practically inaccessible, is still an invaluable resource with which to begin a historical study of lesbian literature. [kw]Foster Publishes Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956) [kw]Publishes Sex Variant Women in Literature, Foster (1956) [kw]Sex Variant Women in Literature, Foster Publishes (1956) Literature;lesbian Sex Variant Women in Literature (Foster) Publishing;and lesbian books[lesbian books] [c]Publications;1956: Foster Publishes Sex Variant Women in Literature[0510] [c]Literature;1956: Foster Publishes Sex Variant Women in Literature[0510] Foster, Jeannette Howard Grier, Barbara

From 1948 to 1952, Foster was the librarian at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction which provided her unique access to materials of a sexually explicit nature. She knew at first hand the difficulties of identifying, locating, and obtaining writings pertaining to lesbian sexuality. Lesbian sexuality;culture and Foster writes in her introduction to Sex Variant Women in Literature, “No class of printed matter except outright pornography has suffered more critical neglect, exclusion from libraries, or omission from collected works than variant belles-lettres.” Noting the problem of the term “lesbian,” she purposely selected the more flexible term “sex variant” "Sex variant"[Sex variant] to include instances of same-gender relationships and desire in literary works by primarily heterosexual characters. In an interview with lesbian scholar Karla Jay, Foster humorously describes her search for a title.

As my research went on, I began to see the pattern for a book, and I worked awfully hard to find a title for it which would begin with the word “sex.” As I had learned from searching bibliographies, a title beginning with the word “sex” couldn’t be ignored!

Foster’s bibliography is more than a collection of titles featuring lesbian themes and images; it also includes Foster’s narrative critical analyses of the texts and biographical information on the authors. The scope of the work begins with biblical and ancient Greek literature and continues to 1954, the last copyright date Foster covers. The works included are primarily from works in English, French, and German, the three languages Foster could read fluently. Foster spent thirty years collecting and researching her material, finally including a total of 324 titles.

Getting Sex Variant Women in Literature published proved to be an even greater challenge for Foster than the massive research involved. The first editor died before the book went to press, and the editor’s successor failed to uphold the contract because of the book’s controversial subject matter. As there was virtually no commercial interest in such a work, Foster ultimately published her opus through a vanity press and was forced to pay $2,000 of her own money—the equivalent of one year’s salary—which she never recouped. Fortunately, her work was republished in 1974 by Diana Press, and again in 1985 by Naiad Press. Foster’s important contribution to the study of lesbian literature did not go unnoticed by her librarian colleagues, and in 1974 the American Library Association’s Gay and Lesbian Task Force American Library Association’s Gay and Lesbian Task Force honored Sex Variant Women in Literature with its third annual Gay Book Award.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Foster received a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and engineering in 1918 during an era when few women pursued a science-based curriculum. She changed her path of study in graduate school and earned a master’s degree in English and American literature in 1922, as well as both a bachelor of science and a doctorate in library science. She also served as a librarian to the President’s Advisory Committee on Education. Foster’s long academic career included teaching appointments in literature and library science departments in various universities. During the 1960’s she contributed many articles, reviews, and poems to the groundbreaking lesbian periodical The Ladder. She died in a nursing home in Pocahontas, Arkansas, at the age of eighty-five.

Although Foster did not publish another research work in the field, she continued to offer assistance to those attempting to locate lesbian material by teaching them how to decipher the coded language often used in book reviews. Foster’s other significant contribution to lesbian literature was a translation of a prose work by Renée Vivien, an early twentieth century Anglo-American lesbian poet who wrote exclusively in French. Foster’s translation was “a present” to Naiad Press’s founder, Barbara Grier, who wanted very much to read the piece but did not know French. Naiad Press published the work in 1974 as A Woman Appeared to Me, introducing English-speaking readers to Vivien’s work for the first time.


Though the publishing of works on lesbian literature has increased exponentially since the 1950’s, Sex Variant Women in Literature remains the cornerstone title in the field. As Barbara Grier pointed out, “When Sex Variant Women in Literature was first published, there was not one title in the general field of nonfiction that dealt accurately with lesbians. Now it is impossible to count the number of titles published that outline the lives of famous lesbians of the past.” Literature;lesbian Sex Variant Women in Literature (Foster) Publishing;and lesbian books[lesbian books]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullough, Vern L., ed. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, Jeannette H. Sex Variant Women in Literature: A Historical and Quantitative Study. Tallahassee, Fla.: Naiad Press, 1985.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grier, Barbara. “In Fond Remembrance.” Lambda Book Report 12 (December, 2003): 38.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jay, Karla. “The X-Rated Bibliographer: A Spy in the House of Sex.” In Lavender Culture, edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young. 1979. Reprint. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

1903: Stein Writes Q.E.D.

1928: Hall Publishes The Well of Loneliness

June, 1971: The Gay Book Award Debuts

1973: Brown Publishes Rubyfruit Jungle

1973: Naiad Press Is Founded

1975: Rule Publishes Lesbian Images

1981: Faderman Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men

1981: This Bridge Called My Back Is Published

October, 1981: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press Is Founded

1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published

1985: Lesbian Film Desert Hearts Is Released

1986: Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop

1987: Anzaldúa Publishes Borderlands/La Frontera

1987: Compañeras: Latina Lesbians Is Published

May, 1987: Lambda Rising Book Report Begins Publication

June 2, 1989: Lambda Literary Award Is Created

Categories: History