Anne Lister Deserves to be Memorialized as the First Modern Lesbian

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Lesbian life is inherently gender non-conforming. But not all gender non-conforming lives are necessarily lesbian. The discrimination Anne Lister faced, and the challenges that came with being open about her sexuality, were a specifically lesbian experience.

Anne Lister was an exceptional woman. Born in Yorkshire in the year 1791, she spent a lifetime defying society’s expectations of what a woman should be. A landowner, mountaineer, and prolific writer, she kept a diary of an extraordinary life. Her diaries reach over four million words in total – thousands and thousands of which were written in a secret code she devised from Ancient Greek. This code was used to protect the details of her relationships with women.

Anne Lister was also a lesbian – the first modern lesbian – and deserves to be remembered as such. She wrote in great detail about lesbian life, love, and sexuality.

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“On Easter Sunday 1834, Anne Walker wrote in her diary – ‘Three xxx’s better to her than to me.’ X does not stand for kiss in the Anne Lister diaries – it records her separate and shared orgasms. As a matter of delicacy, and for her own protection, she only wrote about what she called her ‘amorosos’ in code.” – Jeanette Winterson

Lister’s first relationship blossomed during her days at Manor House School, where she boarded. At the age of thirteen she met her first love, Eliza Raine, the daughter of a wealthy surgeon. The pair shared a bedroom. After two years of their shenanigans, Lister was asked to leave the school and allowed to return as a pupil only after Eliza had left.

Eliza’s absence didn’t stop Anne Lister from living her best lesbian life. She had two romances with day pupils at the school, Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Belcombe. Even after Mariana married, they remained lovers for several years.

Eliza had expected to live with Lister after their schooling finished. This was not to be. Anne Lister was a real Lothario. She enjoyed a great deal of success with women, both single and married, in England and during her adventures through Europe. Inherited wealth and the cushion of class privilege enabled her to live with a degree of freedom unlikely to be granted to women living in poverty.

By becoming a woman of industry, Anne Lister built on her wealth, funding travels and improvements to Shibden Hall. She opened a coal mine, acquired shares in stone quarries and railways.

Lister’s male rivals sneered at her. They called Lister “Gentleman Jack” to shame her for claiming a role in public life that had traditionally belonged to men, but their cruelty could not ultimately stop her success.

Romantically, Lister didn’t settle down until her forties, when she met the love of her life: Ann Walker, heiress.

The women swore their love on a bible. Later, Lister presented Walker with a wedding ring and their union was blessed in a church. The ceremony took place almost two hundred years before same-sex marriage became legally recognized in Britain. They shared Shibden Hall, the ancestral home Lister inherited, and lived as a married couple for the rest of Lister’s life.

Earlier this year York Civic Trust unveiled a commemorative plaque at Holy Trinity Church, where Anne Lister and Ann Walker married. It made no mention of Lister being a lesbian, describing her as a “gender non-conforming entrepreneur.”

This phrasing has been roundly criticised for lesbian erasure.

As a petition to amend the plaque points out, a “gender non-conforming woman can be many things because it only means that you do not conform to societal expectations. It has nothing to do with sexuality.”

Arguably, every lesbian is gender non-conforming because she lives in defiance of the feminine gender role. Instead of having sex, making a home, and building a family with men – the path patriarchy sets out for women – a lesbian centers women in her life.

Lesbian life is inherently gender non-conforming. But not all gender non-conforming lives are necessarily lesbian.

The discrimination Lister faced, and the challenges that came with being open about her sexuality, were a specifically lesbian experience.

Women of Lister’s time were not encouraged to live independently. Society was structured to keep women financially dependent on men, restricted to the domestic sphere – secondary citizens. Property rights, though they don’t make the heart flutter, are just as significant to this lesbian story as romance. Walker’s wealth went into the upkeep of Shibden, and she herself refurbished the bedroom she shared with Lister. And Lister recognized her wife in her will, leaving Walker a life interest in her estate.

Well over a century later, British lesbians fought to have same-sex relationships legally recognized. As well as the emotional benefits that come with social acknowledgment, this was partly to keep property from defaulting to men or the patrilineal family. A line can be traced from Lister’s struggles and the matrix of social and legal challenges lesbians have faced in recent history.

It’s important to acknowledge the specifics of lesbian reality, especially since countless lesbian lives have been hidden from record.

When Lister’s diaries were uncovered by a descendant in the 1930s, friends encouraged him to burn the lot and purge Anne Lister’s voice from history. It’s incredibly fortunate that he didn’t. Anne’s words are now registered and documented as part of the UN’s Memory of the World programme. As well as giving an in-depth description of the era she lived in, Anne Lister’s diaries are a vital piece of lesbian herstory. The Memory of the World cites Lister as giving a “comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life and reflections on her nature.”

And so it’s ironic that York Civic Trust want “to recognize the impact Anne Lister has had” without feeling able to acknowledge her lesbianism.

It’s difficult to celebrate how Lister blazed a trail for future lesbians when the word lesbian is, apparently, unspeakable.

According to York Civic Trust, “the plaque consultation group are listening to the positives and negatives expressed about this plaque’s wording.” Over two thousand people have signed a petition for the plaque to recognise that Anne Lister was a lesbian.

You can add your name here.