To say Rita Mae Brown went against the grain would be a gross understatement. For a while, Brown stood relatively alone in proudly proclaiming her lesbian identity, at a time when even the most “liberal” of social justice movements shied away from the title as if it were contagious. A juggernaut in LGBTQ+ activism, literature, and culture, Brown made a name for herself as she elbowed her way through the civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s, consistently trying to carve out a space for other lesbians, especially in the Women’s Movement.
This badass cat lady looked at the norms established by the strict heteronormative society in which she grew up and, to be frank, gave them a huge metaphorical middle finger. Even in the self-proclaimed liberal spaces, who claimed they fought for equality for all women, Brown found herself diverging from groups like the National Organization for Women over their stance on queer women in the movement. When leader of NOW, Betty Friedan, and others in the movement for women’s rights openly aired their disdain for their lesbian members, Brown set off to carve out her own liberation movement with other excluded gay women.
Together, they formed the Lavender Menace, a lesbian women’s rights group protesting their exclusion from the mainstream movement. They would wolf-in-sheeps-clothing their way into women’s liberation meetings, take off their disguises and reveal their purple shirts proclaiming their allegiance to the Menace. Brown and other members refused to be overlooked, and made their resistance clear in their confrontation.
When she wasn’t putting the likes of Friedan in a tight spot in her own meetings, Brown documented the dynamic lives of queer women through her fictional (some say autobiographical) novels. Brown defied the stereotypes assigned to gay women, portraying her characters discovering their sexuality and shifting between partners, rather than adhering to the butch-femme dynamic that so resembles the heterosexual male-female partnership. Her fictional situations often reflected real-life interactions with fetishization, the male gaze, and sexism, and even danger that queer women of that time (who are we kidding, of our time) faced.
Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, stands as one of the best introductory novels for queer fiction, despite being published in 1973. Following the life of a young lesbian, this autobiographical whirlwind traps you into caring about the rebellious main character Molly Bolt. Brown puts her character, to put it lightly, through the ringer, reflecting her own tumultuous upbringing as a young queer, female author.
Reading this novel will never grant you a moment of peace, as Molly bounces from place to place, relationship to relationship, in search of her own independence so rarely granted to women of the decade. While you might know that such a quest will only lead to heartbreak, disappointment, and the gravest of frustration, you can’t help but hope for Molly anyway on a basic human level. Brown refuses to adhere to any set story arc for too long, the same way Molly ups and leaves as soon as her sense of self feels threatened. If you struggle to find yourself in a novel, or just want to feel the seductive uneasiness that comes with queer youth, Rubyfruit Jungle pairs perfectly with the desperate wish to live.
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