By Sydney Bolan and Rachel Crabtree (2020)
In 1950, the growing Fawcett Publications, Inc. published a novel that swiftly ignited a firestorm of controversy and conflict. The novel, Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torres, depicted a lesbian war time story. In this report we will tell the story of how Women’s Barracks became a topic of discussion because of the book’s wild popularity, resulting in the United States’ federal government’s forming of the Select Committee on Current Pornographic Material, which – ironically- shortly after resulted in the publishing of the second edition of Women’s Barracks. [RC]
Women’s Barracks was part of a genre called pulp fiction, even though it was not considered a work of fiction by the publisher (U.S.). The publishing house, Fawcett Publications Inc., produced Women’s Barracks as part of a successful series called Gold Medal Books. Gold Medal Books was a series which contained many popular paperbacks that presented homosexual story lines. The series was popular among readers because they were all small paperbacks or pocket-sized books. As the term lends, each book had a gold medal in the left hand corner of the cover, which also helped make it easily identifiable. Fawcett Publications, Inc. was credited for establishing the trend of soft original paperbacks and during the 1950s it was one of the largest publishers and distributors of magazines and books in the world (U.S.). [RC]
Women’s Barracks was not the first novel produced in the Gold Medal Books, but it was the first one that gained success at the national level. Women’s Barracks sold over a million copies from its initial release in 1950 (U.S.). Only two years after the release of Women’s Barracks on December 1, 1952, the hearings for the Select Committee on Current Pornographic material began. December 1st through the 5th, there were hearings in the House of Representatives, in front of the Select Committee, to investigate literature with alleged unjustifiable and obscene material (U.S.). These hearings mainly featured Women’s Barracks and the obscenity of the content written inside of it. Members of Fawcett Publications, Inc. and the novel, Women’s Barracks, were examined by this committee. The committee believed that some of the worst offenders of moral code were found in low-cost paperback books, with Torres’ book serving as the focal point (U.S.). Through the trials the members of the publishing house made it clear that they supported the publication of the material in Women’s Barracks and in the other Gold Medal Books (U.S.). [RC]
This publishing house believed it was not their duty to censor the subjects inside the novels instead, they believed that duty was placed on the readers. The publisher wanted to produce material that they believed was “good” (U.S.). They did not have a bias or place restrictions on what authors sent in to be published (U.S.). Because of this absence of censorship, these novels were able to reach a wide audience. Fawcett Publications, Inc. did this by using intentional marketing strategies related to cover art, pricing, and selling location to market Women’s Barracks, which helped this lesbian pulp fiction rise in popularity. [RC]
The Rise of Popularity
The publishing of Women’s Barracks created a ripple effect through the industry, leading the way for more authors to contribute to the Gold Medal Book Series. The novel’s cover art gained instant attention from American readers because it featured four women partially dressed on the cover, all in one room standing and sitting close to each other. The women on the cover featured two brunettes, one blonde, and one woman with red hair. One woman was in just a small white towel, while two of the other women were in the process of getting dressed, shown in just their bras and spandex, and the fourth woman was featured in the corner of the cover wearing her military uniform. Since there are no men featured on the cover, and the women are exchanging romantic glances between each other, the cover art was a sign that this book contained lesbian characters and possibly a homosexual romantic story line. This book was originally written to tell a story about women in the French Army, however, it soon became influential because of its descriptive sexual relationships between the women. The cover also has a “frank autobiography” written on the very top, as well as the Gold Medal Books icon featured on the left. The “frank autobiography” piece lends to the fact that Torres was writing from her experiences during her time in the French Army (Torres). [SEB]
The First Edition Cover 1950
Gold Medal Books during this time used a new marketing strategy to draw in readers with the cover art. Similar to today, the cover art of a novel is crucial as a selling technique. Authors and publishers both want to find a meaningful cover to help sell their novel to the desired target market. The text font, the colors, the pictures, the size, the organization of the paperback’s cover, and more are all carefully decided on to help market the book in the best way possible. This marketing strategy became increasingly popular for pulp fiction, specifically the art on the cover that was featured. They published scantily clad women on the Women’s Barracks’ cover intentionally to market it to a primarily male audience. Male readers were drawn to the cover because of the depiction of the woman and how they seemed to be gazing at each other. [SEB]
Although it was never intended to be sold to women, the novel quickly became the center of discussion and was soaring with popularity among everyone. Women readers became a new market for lesbian pulp fiction, and shortly after the rise of popularity of Women’s Barracks, other lesbian pulp novels began to be published by Gold Medal Books. These lesbian pulp fictions began to impact readers such as, Katherine V. Forrest, a lesbian author who was born in 1939 and was 18 when another popular lesbian pulp fiction novel was published, Odd Girl Out (Frost). She described what it meant to buy a lesbian pulp book by saying, “I did not need to look at the title for clues: the cover leaped out at me from the drugstore rack: a young woman with sensuous intent on her face seated on a bed, leaning over a prone woman, her hands on the other woman’s shoulders,” she writes. “Overwhelming need led me to walk a gauntlet of fear up to the cash register. Fear so intense that I remember nothing more, only that I stumbled out of the store in possession of what I knew I must have, a book as necessary to me as air” (Frost). Although Forrest is not directly talking about Women’s Barracks, she is talking about a different Gold Medal lesbian pulp that was published during the same time as Women’s Barracks. This statement from Forrest is meaningful because it verifies the bold cover art strategies that Gold Medal Books used on their lesbian pulp fiction stories. She clearly states that she didn’t even need to see the title to know what the book was going to be about. Additionally, this quote is impactful because it brings light to how much this subgenre, which grew significantly by the publishing of Women’s Barracks, impacted lesbian women during the time. Since this time period in society generally looked down on gay and lesbian relationships, this subgenre gave hope to the readers that someone else shared the same feelings they did. Forrest portrays the vulnerability she felt during this time and how this genre was able to satisfy her younger self. [SEB]
The small pocket sized books Fawcett Publications, Inc. produced were cheap. The publishing house was able to make Gold Medal Books available for twenty-five to thirty-five cents (U.S.). To put this into perspective at the time Women’s Barracks was published, the cost of eggs was around fifty cents (“Fresh eggs”). The Gold Medal books were made this small size to be affordable and to reach a broad audience. Since they were small, the books were also able to take up minimal space and they could easily be placed for display on small shelves in drugstores and newspaper stands (U.S.). Ralph Daigh, the vice president and director of editorial for Fawcett Publications, Inc., referred to the displays as taking up minimum space, but making a maximum display (U.S.). This marketing strategy of appealing to an underrepresented group of people and allowing access to an oppressed genre of literature for an affordable price allowed the series of Gold Medal Books to sell over forty-three million for copies (U.S.). [RC]
As part of the Select Committee Hearings, the members became interested in the quantity and where Women’s Barracks was sold. Daigh confirmed that he believed a majority of retail stores sold Women’s Barracks (U.S.). Additionally, it is established that Women’s Barracks was sold in 48 states and sent to retail stores such as; department stores, drug stores, book stores, specialty stores, and other locations (U.S.). In a New York Times article in 1952 regarding the Committee of Current Pornographic Material, Daigh discussed that many of the previous queer books and literature with censored material at the time were locked away at libraries. Fawcett Publications, Inc. recognized this censorship and made the material available to an audience that was unable to reach the material they desired. Daigh is quoted in the article saying, “Such books should be published and made freely available, with the readers acting as their own censors” (Waltz, 32). A generation of lesbians, bisexuals and queer individuals were finally able to read books containing characters that they could identify with. Even though, Daigh does have a bias in regards to the fact that the selling of these books supports the company he works for, this still demonstrates that the company sees value in appealing to a homosexual market that had not been tapped into previously by book publishers. Daigh, however, seems to be contradictory in his feelings toward the books that helped the company grow and flourish. On one hand he claims, “sex is a subject that sells” (Waltz, 32). On the other hand, Daigh admitted that male and female relationships are better sellers. Despite Daigh’s contradictory nature, sex both heterosexual and homosexual, sold and homosexual sex, specifically, rose in popularity. These little Gold Metal Books would be accessible to queer people nationwide. [RC]
Women’s Barracks and more broadly the series Gold Medal Books, were frequently available to people in all types of retail locations. Also, the Gold Medal Books were even available in the mail (U.S.). This created many avenues for readers to access the material. Women’s Barracks and the strategies used to sell the book made it freely open to anyone to buy, the material was no longer restricted by libraries. According to Daigh, Women’s Barracks was responsible for selling close to one and a half million copies, at the time of the committee’s hearings (“Publisher sees,” 32). During the hearings, a member of the committee saw the contents as so inappropriate that they could not speak of them. However, it is hard to deny the popularity and desire to read books about similar subjects because of the large number of copies sold. Fawcett Publications, Inc. was able to get Women’s Barracks a successful start with its genius marketing strategies, but Torres’ writing and unique topic made the novel popular for many years to come. The popularity of Women’s Barracks brought attention to the contents of the paperback, and its cover art alone implied the obscenity of the material. Torres’ book was a large topic of discussion during the House Committees Obscenity Trials. [RC]
The cover art of these novels successfully marketed the books because of how much attention each cover brought. Since, Women’s Barracks, specifically, is known as the first of its kind in this genre, it received major backlash because of society’s disapproving views. The feelings of negativity surrounding the storyline featured in the book led to the novel being categorized as obscene. Conservative Americans spoke out about their feelings of extreme disapproval, drawing even more attention to the unique paperback. When controversial opinions rose, the Committee was formed to review all of the backlash being said about Women’s Barracks. In the United States it is a law that it is illegal to create or distribute materials classified as “obscene.” However, because there was no specific definition of what “obscene” meant or what was classified something as being “obscene,” it created a big dilemma during this 1950s investigation. In an analysis, since overall societal views were against homosexuality during the 1950s, the rising popularity of homosexual literature, such as, Women’s Barracks, led to large disputes on whether Women’s Barracks was considered obscene literature. [SEB]
Torres’ book became the topic of debate during the Select Committee’s discussions with members of Fawcett Publications, Inc.. During the hearings, Daigh defended Women’s Barracks against the allegations presented. He was given this role because of his position in the company and his understanding of the romance industry. In the hearing, Mr. Burton, who is part of the general counsel, claimed that Women’s Barracks contains pornographic materials and that is why it should be taken off of the market. However, Daigh countered that by saying that Fawcett Publications, Inc. has never published pornographic materials before so there is absolutely no trend of this accusation. Additionally, he responded by pointing out that the sex scenes in Women’s Barracks are comparable to the man and women sex scenes in many popular novels, such as Gone With the Wind (U.S.). Daigh also was reported saying that the sex scenes were “no franker than that in the Iliad” (Waltz). He even expanded further to say that classic Shakespearean works such as Hamlet and Macbeth contained themes of adultery, murder and incest, yet they faced no major backlash (Waltz). Daigh was easily able to counter the allegations against the inappropriate content in Torres’ novel, however the Select Committee failed to budge in their conservative views. This resulted in Women’s Barracks being banned in some states and denounced as obscene literature (Waltz). [SEB]
Throughout the trial Daigh defends the material in the Gold Medal Books fiercely making many profound points. In regard to the Gold Medal Books Daigh says, “Satisfying a great hunger for reading, and in doing so are adding materially to the education, literacy and literary appreciation of all walks of life in this country” (U.S., 33). It is made clear in this quote that the Gold Medal Books were initially intended to appeal to a variety of readers who were all curious about the topic. This included LGBTQ+ readers and heterosexual book lovers. Due to the popularity of the Gold Medal Books, it was discovered that the desire, even though readers knew it was looked down upon by others. People’s negative associations related to Gold Medal Books sold no chance as the books, and Women’s Barracks still sold millions. The Gold Medal Books continued to be praised by readers regardless of opposing opinions. Avid readers were not outspoken about their support of the material, during the 1950 through 1952 newspaper articles contain no mention of the pulp fiction genre. The sole mention of this topic was in relation to the Select Committee hearings. Additionally, Daigh is quoted saying, “Women’s Barracks is a real contribution to human experience”(U.S., 10). Women’s Barracks was more than a lurid or sex book as described by newspaper headers. It explored lesbianism and stories of women serving in the French Army. Even though the novel did not have a happily ever after, lesbians at the time were finally able to envision themselves as characters in a work of literature. They could enjoy a story that featured women similar to themselves. Consumers did not just have to settle for the heterosexual love stories any longer. While defending the publication of Gold Medal Books, Daigh says, “These books and any literary property which depends on purchases by the public, must reflect the world, must reflect what is happening today” (U.S., 32). Again, Daigh reiterates that the public wanted these books or else they would not continue to publish this subgenre of fiction. More importantly Daigh makes the point to the Select Committee that times are changing and that queer content cannot continue to be censored. Even though Daigh does not say it explicitly he is making a stand for lesbians that desired the book. He is saying that they have the right to read content that is about them. At the same time Daigh is saying that these novels will continue to be published, basically undermining the fact that the Select Committee believes they are doing the right thing by trying to prevent obscene literature from being sold. [RC]
Additionally, Daigh believed that Women’s Barracks and the rest of the Gold Medal Books were all well written short literary pieces. Daigh admits in the hearing that he was not able to read or was a part of the approval and editing process of many books published under the Gold Medal Books (U.S.). However, he says that, “I have a competent staff and I trust them implicitly” (U.S., 27). Daigh was not the only one approving books of similar content to Women’s Barrack. He placed trust and responsibility in other editors within the company. Those editors saw value in the controversial continent they were publishing. Through this statement from Daigh it is clear that more people of all sexualities felt that this type of material was important enough to publish. Fawcett Publication, Inc. had the intention of publishing quality books that inform the public of a variety of interesting subjects. This publishing house did not feel it was their responsibility to censor information to consumers, nor did the government have the right to place these restrictions. Instead, Fawcett Publications, Inc. wanted to provide readers with access to information that if they desired they had the opportunity to purchase. If the reader viewed the material in the Gold Medal Books as obscene they simply did not have to buy it. Daigh believed that it was the readers’ responsibility to choose what they wanted to read and if people bought the material Fawcett Publication, Inc. would continue producing similar books. It is clear throughout the hearings that Daigh and Fawcett Publication, Inc. supported their publication. Members of the hearing felt that Women’s Barrack And the Gold Medal Books were not moral and so felt that it was so obscene that they could not quote the book. [RC]
The Second Edition of Women’s Barracks was published in 1951 just one short year after the first book. Attempting to respond to previous hate and backlash, the new cover art was supposed to be more modest. The cover art of the second edition featured just three women this time. One woman was fully clothed in her uniform while the other two women were getting dressed. However, this cover was only a little bit more modest at best, simply because there was one less woman depicted. Additionally on this cover, the women do not appear to be romantically gazing at one another (Torres). Unlike the first cover, there seems to be more open space since there is one less woman featured. This makes the women seem not as close to each other. This extra space combined with the woman not exchanging glances at each other makes the book seem slightly less erotic. Despite this attempt at responding to the conservative views of the novel, this second edition cover art still successfully markets the book exactly how Fawcett Publications Inc. intended. There was still no mistaking what content was featured inside the paperback and that was exactly what was still intended. [SEB]
Second Edition Cover 1951
Queer Content in literature used to be seen as a phenomenon and was not generally accepted. A great case study for this is the novel, Women’s Barracks. This novel was a shocking read for most Americans at the time because it was a published work that featured lesbian relationships in the book’s storyline. However, this shocking trait made it wildly popular selling over 200,000 copies immediately when it first came out (U.S.). Fawcett Publications Inc. marketed this book in a unique fashion. It’s bold cover art took front stage and drew the utmost attention to the paperback. Shortly after its release, hundreds of thousands of readers indulged in the lesbian pulp fiction novel. The allegations that it contained obscene and pornographic material that rose to attention were similar to the concerns that were commonly drawn from other pulp fiction literature. This did not, however, slow down the rapid sales of the book, and in fact just made more people want to read it for themselves. Author, Tereska Torres, reflected back on how she felt when her book became famous in an interview when she was in her later years of life. She was still in Paris when the book was published and she was easily overwhelmed by how many copies were selling immediately. The amount of copies that were selling was the shocking part to her, she however, did not understand the allegations being made about it containing pornographic material. She said in the interview, “I couldn’t believe it. And I went to see this man at Fawcett. Nobody said “lesbian” to me, nobody mentioned it. All I knew is that they all said it was terribly shocking, and I didn’t know why they said that. I thought I had written a very innocent book. I thought, these Americans, they are easily shocked” (Smallwood). This quote from Torres shows how although some made the novel out to be seeming pornographic, others including herself, found the book to be the complete opposite. The author herself could not understand the criticism that she was drawing from the more conservative areas of the United States. Torres, naturally did not see a homosexual relationship as odd or erotic because she had been drawing from her own experiences serving in the French Army (Smallwood). [SEB]
While some readers would swear Women’s Barracks was pornographic and should be banned, others couldn’t live without it. Readers like Forrest, that was mentioned earlier, felt as though lesbian pulp fiction saved them because they finally felt like they fit in. This novel gave them an opportunity to explore their vulnerabilities and come to terms with the things that they had been keeping to themselves (Frost). The rise of popularity of this subgenre through the publishing of Women’s Barracks was influential in this time period and inspired other books in this subgenre to continue to be created and published. Even though Women’s Barracks received backlash and had to face obscenity trials in both the United States and Canada, it was still extremely popular. The novel made an impact because the story helped draw new attention to the subgenre, resulting in the United States’ federal government to form the Select Committee on Current Pornographic Material.
In a final analysis, Women’s Barracks’ successful marketing strategies helped it rise to a shocking level of popularity around the world. The cover art, as well as, the price point and selling locations all contributed to the high demand for the book when it was published and many years following after. While Women’s Barracks fell victim to the obscenity trials in both the United States and Canada, it did not take away from Torres’ success. Torres today is known as one of the most important historical lesbian writers because of her contribution to the romance industry, specifically the LGBTQ+ representation in the genre (Smallwood). Although the trials tried to spin the book in a negative light and did result in new editions of the book being published as an attempt to respond to the negative attention, passionate readers did not change their views on the book and therefore it still continues today to have a lasting impact on the LGBTQ+ subgenre. [SEB]
“Fresh eggs reign supreme.” Evening Star, May 10, 1950.
Frost, Natasha. “The Lesbian Pulp Fiction That Saved Lives.” Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura, May 24, 2018. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/lesbian-pulp-fiction-ann-bannon.
“Publisher sees no harm in sex books.“ The Daily Record, April 1, 1952.
Smallwood, Christine. “Sapphic Soldiers.” Salon.com, August 9, 2005. https://www.salon.com/2005/08/09/torres_3/.
Torres, Tereska. Women’s Barracks. First ed. Fawcett Publications Inc., 1950.
Torres, Tereska. Women’s Barracks. Second ed. Fawcett Publications Inc., 1951.
United States. Congress. House. Committee on Current Pornographic Materials. Investigation of Literature Allegedly Containing Objectionable Material. Washington: U.S.
Waltz, Jay. “PUBLISHER DEFENDS LURID PAPER BOOKS: They Are ‘Milder’ Than Many.” New York Times, December 2, 1952.