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Karren LaLonde Alenier

The Genderqueerness of Bruce Jenner & Gertrude Stein

“It is funny that men who are supposed to be scientific cannot get themselves to realise the basic principle of physics, that action and reaction are equal and opposite, that when you persecute people you always rouse them to be strong and stronger.” - Gertrude Stein


“But the problem is that when I go around and speak on campuses, I still don't get young men standing up and saying, 'How can I combine career and family?'” - Gertrude Stein



In the wake of April 2015 super athlete/reality show dad Bruce Jenner’s bruce-jenner-crinterview with Diane Sawyer concerning his gender reassignment from man to woman, the Steiny Road Poet has again been pondering the gender identity of Gertrude Stein. She came to her gender identity much later than Jenner and her approach to it was much more conservative than his, but nonetheless every bit as confusing.




Stein grew up attached to her brother Leo. SteinGirls-crShe was the youngest of five and Leo was the next youngest offspring of Daniel and Amelia (Milly) Stein. Poignant among the instances of the life the sister and brother shared was the occasion of their mother’s death when they loaded up a wagon with books and together went into the Oakland (California) hills and stayed out all night. Milly, age 46, who had been ill with cancer (possibly ovarian) died in 1888 when Gertrude was 14. Daniel, age 59, died suddenly in 1891.


Gertrude’s oldest brother Michael was 26 at the time of his father’s death. In 1886, he had graduated from Johns Hopkins University. He took over his father’s business affairs and moved the family from Oakland into San Francisco. However, by 1892, Michael felt overwhelmed by his responsibilities and sent Gertrude and sister Bertha to Milly’s sister Fanny Bachrach and her husband in Baltimore. Their 24-year-old brother Simon, who did not have the intellectual prowess of his brothers, remained in San Francisco, working for their father’s cable car line as a cable car gripman.  Leo who had taken courses in 1889-1890 at the University of California, Berkeley, followed his sisters east and enrolled at Harvard. By 1893, Gertrude followed her brother Leo to Harvard by enrolling in the Harvard Annex, which was the precursor to Radcliffe. They shared living quarters and spent a substantial amount of their time together in intellectual pursuits and social occasions sharing many of the same friends.




In 1894, Michael married Sarah Samuels in San Francisco. Bertha, wanting to meet her brother’s bride queried them for an invitation to visit. According to Linda Wagner-Martin in her book Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and Her Family, Sarah, who had carefully cultivated relationships with Gertrude and Leo, wanted no part of Bertha. Wagner-Martin said that Sarah was reflecting a general family attitude against Bertha who had managed the family household after Daniel had died and had been deemed too bossy.


Here Steiny pauses to reflect on Bertha who was only four years older than Gertrude and whom Wagner-Martin said was no harder to get along with than any of the other Stein siblings. Snubbed by Sarah, Bertha, in 1895, asked Michael for her share of the inheritance since she was engaged to be married. Bertha’s marriage to Jacob Raffel, an Orthodox Jew, produced several children and one was a daughter named Gertrude Stein Raffel. Surely Bertha had a fondness for her sister and Wagner-Martin said their Aunt Rachel Keyser had written to Gertrude urging that she write to her sister who needed support given all the health problems she had with her children. However, it seems Stein never wrote to her sister.




Possibilities about why Gertrude had no love for her sister were Bertha was too traditional (she was all about housekeeping and marriage) and she lacked intellectual heft. Moreover, Bertha embraced Orthodox Judaism, while Gertrude had decided via a college essay that a person’s Judaism should be a private matter if one were to accomplish anything of significance. Wagner-Martin noted early in her book about the Stein family that Bertha was so fond of her mother that she would choose spending time with Milly versus with her friends. At Milly’s death, Bertha was given Milly’s journals.


The relationship Gertrude had with Sarah was remarkable because, while Sarah expected a certain independent leeway from her husband Michael, she was also fixed on the importance of a traditional marriage with children (however, she and Michael only had one child) and she was very involved in religion (Christian Science). In 1898 and 1899, Gertrude spent the summer with Michael Stein and his family. By 1896, Michael and Sarah’s son Allan had been born. Maybe the important difference between Gertrude’s attitude toward these two familial women was that Gertrude in growing up shared a room with Bertha and Bertha had to put up with Gertrude’s messiness. Eventually Gertrude was not so friendly with Sarah because she had to protect her relationship with Alice Toklas, which if revealed would not meet Sarah’s standards.




Gertrude did not have a close relationship with her mother or father. Instead she identified with her brothers—Michael and Leo. SteinG&-crLShe was so close to Leo that people in their college days at Harvard said Gertrude treated Leo like her beloved and later when they summered in Tuscany people began gossiping that they were having an incestuous relationship. When Leo graduated from Harvard in 1895, Gertrude had a hard adjustment but her professor William James paired her with Leon Solomons, a graduate student from California, who seemed to fill the gap caused by Leo Stein’s departure from Cambridge. In fact, Wagner-Martin extrapolates from statements Gertrude wrote in journal that the relationship she had with Solomons was both intellectual and sexual and that she had considered him as a possible mate. However, Solomons had health issues and he left for California to recuperate in Gertrude’s senior year. While teaching at the University of Wisconsin, he died February 2, 1900, a day before her 26 birthday.




Gertrude’s first lesbian encounter was with May Bookstaver around 1899-1900. Stein’s novel Q.E.D. (written in 1903) documents her awakening in terms of her gender identity, which by all accounts is difficult to understand. Partly, what makes her hard to understand is that she claims maleness only as an intellectual posture. She dresses as a woman and declares she is a woman who just happens to be smarter than most men. She makes this point in a 1912 letter to Henri-Pierre Roché (French author of Jules et Jim and involved with the avant-garde and Dada movement), who Wagner-Martin said criticized Gertrude’s portrait style.




In her private relationship with Alice, Gertrude declared herself to be the husband, using male pronouns. And for the record, Miss Stein, as she preferred to be called, did not consider herself a feminist although she clearly had a disdain for male-dominated culture.




Like Bruce Jenner, who repeated multiple times to Diane Sawyer that he just wanted to be himself and that self is a woman, Gertrude Stein wanted to be regarded in the world of men as an equal. However, to be equal, she had to be seen as manly. As Steiny has said before, Gertrude Stein presents as genderqueer, one whose gender identity fluctuates. Bruce Jenner lives in that realm too because of his children whom he has told that he is still their father no matter that he chooses to transition to a life as a woman. And oh, by the way, Bruce Jenner doesn’t care what pronoun—he, she, they—is used to refer to him, he just wants respect for how he feels and manifests.



Read more on the issue of gender by
the Steiny Road Poet in Scene4


June 2015

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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