Looking past the scandalous covers of lesbian pulp novels

By Emma Cieslik
A book cover in which a blonde woman sits among a flurry of pink feathers, gazing down

Imagine: the year is 1960. You're wearing your pearls and pumps, or your pressed suit and cufflinks, pushing your Pop Tarts and Kellogg’s Cornflakes to the cashier. Passing the drugstore’s magazine rack, you spy a paperback titled Unnatural, by Sloan Britton. On the cover, a blonde woman in a low-cut dress gazes suggestively at the disrobing woman behind her. Are you wondering what’s behind the cover, or doing a double take in confusion or horror?

For people who were lesbian, bisexual, or queer, this pulp novel and others like it may have been their first view of people like themselves, offering a sense of community. At the same time, these books and their cover art bought into widespread but untrue cultural beliefs surrounding LGBTQ+ individuals. Today, lesbian pulp fiction novels from this era hold a complicated position in queer American history. One of only a few in existence, the museum’s archival collection of these novels highlights tensions surrounding these 50-cent books.

The paperback industry boomed in the 1940s as thousands of World War II GIs tucked Armed Force Editions into their uniform pockets. One of the industry’s best sellers was popular fiction, covering everything from westerns to sci-fi. Both factored into the new subgenre of soft pornographic books. These books drew on the increased visibility—and fear—of lesbianism in large cities, described in Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s 1953 text Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Kinsey suggested that the rise in sapphic (women attracted to women) relationships resulted from a growing countercultural wave.

A nude seated woman, only her legs covered by a navy sheet, faces away from another woman wrapped in the sheet and clasping her breast, lying on their shared bed. Text above reads Strange Breed, A Touching Story Of That Breed of Women Who Receive From Each Other What They Cannot Receive From Men.
Isaac Paul Rader’s cover of Strange Breed (1960), written by Aldo Lucchesi and published by Tower Publications. Unlike many of the men who created these covers, Rader consistently signed his cover art; his signature is on the lower left corner of this novel. This novel and others in this post can be found in the Archives Center’s Lesbian Pulp Fiction Collection. One of the unique features of the museum’s collection is how many of its titles were illustrated by Rader. (NMAH.AC.1513)

The paperbacks were sometimes written by queer women themselves. According to historian Katherine Forrest’s research, Gold Medal novels published by Fawcett and distributed by Signet were mostly written by queer women speaking about their first-hand experiences or by psychologists who worked closely with queer women. Fawcett was able to publish dozens of paperback originals or PBOs, allowing first-time authors to contribute, including women writing about their own experiences. However, this was not the case for all publishers. Other publishing houses mostly employed men writing under traditional feminine or gender-neutral names.

Regardless of who wrote the books, the cover art was produced by male artists. The subject matter was deemed too sensitive for women. Women artists designed countless other pulp fiction covers, as long as they weren’t lesbian pulp covers. Much like clickbait titles of today, cover art for these novels was meant to catch attention. Sometimes it was the novels’ titles—I Am a Lesbian, Strange Breed, and The Unnatural—but often it was the novels’ striking cover art.

Facing away beside red lockers, a nude, brunette woman undresses as a clothed blonde woman with noticeable cleavage gazes back at her holding a lit cigarette. Text above them reads Two women sharing a love that was Unnatural, by Sloan Britton, an original novel. Below reads: a vivid and searching novel of forbidden love in the twilight world of the third sex. Rader’s signature is in red against the white shadow behind the watching woman.
Isaac Rader’s cover of Unnatural (1960), written by Sloan Britton and published by Tower Publications.
A blonde woman, her shirt burst open, reclines on a red loveseat, as a brunette, clothed woman sits in front of her, gazing at her companion’s exposed breasts. Text above them reads Of Shame and Joy, Women in Love—But Not With Men, by Sheldon Lord, an original novel. Below reads A Compelling Novel of Strange and Twisted Desires.
The cover of Of Shame and Joy, written by Sheldon Lord and published by Midwood (Tower) Publications.  

Cover artists rarely read the books they illustrated, and authors were not able to provide input; often the images that adorned these novels—a contemplative woman alone, two lurid women gazing at each other, or a love triangle—were not related to the stories within. Instead, these covers generally reinforced popular stereotypes, casting women in “butch” and “femme” tropes.

Most often, a butch-presenting woman with short, dark hair and pants was shown standing over another woman or gazing at her longingly. She was countered by a femme-presenting woman with longer hair and makeup, often wearing a long dress, blouse, or lingerie and presented as a sex object. As Jaye Zimet noted in the introduction to Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction 1949–1969, this femme “may be called a lesbian but she probably is just waiting for the right man to come along to set her straight.”

These tropes made visual the inaccurate but widespread cultural beliefs surrounding lesbian, bi, and queer women. Covers and texts also conflated lesbian women with topics viewed as illicit, such as sexual sadism, BDSM, voyeurism, and even witchcraft. Some novels cast lesbians as sexual predators, often with the butch-presenting woman pursuing a much younger femme, being sexually or emotionally abusive, engaging in incest, or disrupting a heterosexual relationship. These books and their covers solidified damaging stereotypes about lesbians that persist to this day.

As the work of Paula Rabinowitz shows, publishers of lesbian pulp novels often got around the U.S. Post Office’s guidelines against the sale and transport of pornography by ending the books with the deaths or onset of mental illness of one or both women involved—thus turning the books into cautionary tales. Despite the publishers’ best efforts, the novels still faced intense criticism for their explicit discussions of women’s sexuality. The novel Women’s Barracks, for example, was brought before the Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952.

A blonde woman sits on a pink duvet, legs folded and revealing her thighs. Hands on her hips and gazing blatantly at us, she puffs her chest out, her cleavage largely revealed by the deep neckline of her orange blouse. Rader’s black signature is between the folds of her blue skirt.
Isaac Rader’s cover of Strange Delights (1962), written by Loren Beauchamp and published by Tower Publications. Note the subtitle on the cover: “The Tragedy Of A Sex Doomed To Take Their Delights In Strange and Unnatural Ways,” setting up for the reader that this was a tragedy rather than a love story and one that will end in disaster. 

Although the covers created by male artists often featured harmful caricatures, the covers were the only representation for isolated lesbian, bisexual, and queer women during this period. As lesbian pulp fiction author Ann Bannon shared in the foreword to Zimet’s Strange Sisters, this cover art reflected the identities of many women who didn’t even know others like them existed. As she writes: 

We were speaking to an audience of women . . . who were starved for connections with others, who thought they were uniquely alone with emotions they couldn’t explain and couldn’t find mirrored in their own worlds. In our way, we held up that mirror—not always a perfect reflection, alas, but often a comforting one. We were in the vanguard of what later became a proud and brave social movement, and an honest one, too. 

The inscriptions and signatures left behind in the novels in the museum’s collection support Bannon’s observation. One example is an inscription inside The Loving and the Daring (The Illusionist), reading: “Joan and Jackie Garren / 1642 N. Clark St, Chicago / Superior 7 8222 To Lee”—possibly a queer couple living just south of Boystown.

A woman with shoulder-length hair stands on a concrete stairway. In the foreground, a woman with short, dark hair looks over her shoulder, one eyebrow raised. Text on the cover includes the blurb, “A compelling novel of secret love.”
The cover of The Loving and the Daring (The Illusionist) (1952), by Françoise Mallet-Joris
On the inside of a teal cover is the hand-written text: Joan and Jackie Garren. 1642 N Clark St., Chicago. Michigan 1587 is crossed out, above the text Superior 7 8222, To Lee.
The inside cover of The Loving and the Daring (The Illusionist) (1952), by Françoise Mallet-Joris.
A book cover in which a blonde woman sits among a flurry of pink feathers, gazing down at a brunette woman resting her head on the first woman’s knee. Both wear spaghetti-strap white and black shirts. Above them text reads: Warped Desires of Women Who Need Mo Men, The Unashamed, by March Hastings, an original novel. Amid the feathers is the description: A Gripping Story of Love in the Shadows and Outcast Lovers Proud of Their Forbidden Passions.
The cover of Unashamed (1960), written by March Hastings and published by Midwood (Tower) Publications. 
On the first page of a book, the name Helen Ashburn inscribed above a short introduction titled “She Loved Her So Much.”
The first page of the museum’s copy of Unashamed is inscribed with what is likely a former owner’s name, “Helen Ashburn.” Ashburn’s name is also inscribed in the museum’s copy of Randy Salem’s The Unfortunate Flesh

Inscriptions like these are just one of the reasons that this museum collection is a critical part of American LGBTQ+ history—a history that is just beginning to be preserved. The museum’s group of novels is one of only a handful nationwide, held by institutions like Yale University and Smith College. As museum archivist Franklin A. Robinson Jr. wrote in the acquisition proposal for the collection, these novels “are tangible remnants of a part of Lesbian culture that has to a great extent disappeared with the increased acceptance of the community by broader society.”

For LGBTQ+ American women across the country in the 1950s and 1960s, these books were vital pieces of personal and collective histories, stories of survival and strength that helped queer women know themselves and their shared histories. Their legacy is greater LGBTQ+ representation in books, television, and film that shows a more authentic and three-dimensional view of queer relationships.

Emma Cieslik (she/her) is an emerging museum professional in Washington, D.C. Previously, she interned in the museum’s Office of Curatorial Affairs, working with the new Center for the Understanding of Religion in American History.