Cookie Woolner

Cookie Woolner is a Ph.D. candidate in History and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She is currently a Martin Duberman Visiting Scholar at the New York Public Library. Her dissertation is entitled, The Famous Lady Lovers: Race, Sexuality and the Entertainment Industry in the World of the Classic Blues Women, 1890-1940.



"'Ethel Must Not Marry': Black Swan Records and the Queer Classic Blues Women"

In 1922, the Chicago Defender newspaper reported that Black Swan recording artist Alberta Hunter threw a dinner party in her Chicago home in honor of her label-mate Ethel Waters, who was on tour with the Black Swan Troubadours. Carrie Mae Ward, Hunter’s live-in girlfriend, prepared the dinner and Waters was accompanied by her girlfriend as well, the popular dancer Ethel Williams. Just months prior to this event, Black Swan made Ethel Waters sign a contract stipulating that she would not get married within a year, which she signed eagerly. These two moments encapsulate the rise of the race records industry and the celebrity of the classic blues women, as well as the open secret of same-sex relationships that many of these women ¬took part in during the 1920s. While African-American-owned-Black Swan records sought to further the project of racial uplift through the ideology of respectability, they nonetheless unintentionally supported and even sanctioned the queer relationships of African American women singers.

I argue that the blues women’s artistic talents and earning ability allowed male record executives to turn the other cheek to their clients’ off-stage activities, as long as their behaviors did not damage their financial bottom line. My paper examines the role of Black Swan records in the emergence of the first generation of African American women to bring same-sex relationships into the public view through song, live performances and gossip about their off-stage lives.

My Speakers Sessions

Saturday, March 24

2:15pm EDT