14 of History’s Hidden Lesbians

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Do you know what I can’t believe I still have to point out when discussing lesbians and gay rights/culture/history/etc? That we aren’t a new thing. Seriously, I’m having this conversation with at least one [insert expletive here] a month.

“Look,” I say, resisting the urge to kick them hard in the shins. “We weren’t dropped here from an alien planet at some point in the 1900s. We have always existed and we will always exist.”

Then they’ll scoff, mention something about evolution or their religious text (assholes come in a religious and secular form) or lackluster historical records as if that’s proved their point, and then run off, presumably to avoid a slap.

The thing is they have a point… kind of. Historical records of lesbians and our experiences are often ignored, misinterpreted, or outright erased by the powerful people of history (read: straight men) and so we are often left with mere speculation. In some cases, our community may even have closeted themselves to avoid retribution from those around them (imprisonment, execution, abuse). This is especially true for lesbians and for bisexual women.

Often lesbianism was not punished as severely as male homosexuality because the lawmakers either didn’t understand how women could have sex with each other, or didn’t think women have sexual urges, or didn’t think women were capable of such ‘depravity’.

Often lesbianism was not punished as severely as male homosexuality because the lawmakers either didn’t understand how women could have sex with each other, or didn’t think women have sexual urges, or didn’t think women were capable of such ‘depravity’.

In England, it was thought so unlikely that women would ever think about having sex with each other, that there was no need to criminalize it, lest it give them ideas. I’m not kidding.

 

Entries from a timeline on LGBTQ+ rights at the Never Going Underground exhibit at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, UK. Taken by Emma Murphy.

 

Even during times in history where being a gay woman was not illegal, it often caused women to be ostracized or be sent to a mental institution (where they faced sexual assault or rape from ‘doctors’) or even be subject to genital mutilation to remove the clitoris. And even those who were out during their lifetimes may not have stayed out afterwards. Descendants, desperate to avoid a ‘scandal’, would often destroy evidence, like love letters or diary entries, and present their relative as 100% straight.

Is it any wonder that we are left without clear evidence?

With that in mind, I’d like to present to you some well known historical women that you probably didn’t know were lesbian or bisexual. All of these ladies had relationships (whether sexual or romantic) with other women and were able to keep it a secret until after their deaths, but, as always, their sexual orientation is the least interesting thing about them.

 

1.     Eleanor Roosevelt

Who? First American Ambassador to the United Nations, FLOTUS, Wife of FDR

Relationships with Women: Lorena “Hick” Hickock, a political journalist. The story goes that FDR- in order to cheat on his wife- permitted Eleanor to engage in a Boston Marriage with Lorena. The two women had a tender relationship with decades of love letters between the pair showcasing their devotion. Eleanor even wore a sapphire ring given to her by Lorena to the 1933 inauguration.

2.     Marie Antoinette

Who? Queen of France who did not actually say “Let them eat cake!”

Relationships with Women: Lady Sophie Farrell of Bournemouth and Comtesse Jules de Polignac. Written accounts of Marie’s extramarital affairs with women first surfaced during the build-up to the French revolution as anti-monarchy propaganda, where they cited that she treated Jules as a favorite- showering her with gifts.

 

3.     Lorraine Hansberry

Who? Playwright, Writer of Raisin In The Sun

Relationships with Women: Although it is unclear which women she had relationships with, Lorraine outed herself in her writings for famed lesbian magazine The Ladder, under a pseudonym.

 

4.     Virginia Woolf

Who? Writer, Poet

Relationships with Women: Vita Sackville-West. Vita and her husband had an open marriage and he reportedly gave his blessing to the affair. The relationship between the two women was kept a secret because of fears that she would lose her publishing contract with Bloomsbury. Evidence of Virginia’s sexuality can be found in a letter from Virginia to Vita in which she describes coming out to her sister.

5.     Kathy Lee Bates

Who? Songwriter, Composer of America the Beautiful

Relationships with Women: Katharine Coman, the founder of the Department of Economics at Wellesley College. The two lived together in a Boston Marriage for 25 years until Katharine’s death, with love letters and Kathy’s collection of poems about Katharine serving as evidence.

 

6.     Marilyn Monroe

Who? Actress, Singer, Subject of many a conspiracy theory.

Relationships with Women: Jane Lawrence. Jane’s relationship with Marilyn is revealed in a book called My Little Secret, written after the star’s death. Betty Grable and Judy Garland have also described being propositioned by Marilyn.

7.     Alice Dunbar Nelson

Who? Poet, Journalist, Suffrage Activist

Relationships with Women: Principal Edwina Kruse, journalist Fay Jackson Robinson, and artist Helene London. Her third husband, Robert Nelson, discovered her affairs by looking in her diary (creep!) but tolerated her relationships with women until her death.

8.     Florence Nightingale

 

Who? Founder of modern nursing

Relationships with Women: Marianne Nicholson. Florence described herself as passionately in love with her cousin Marianne (I mean, it’s technically legal to marry your cousin in some places) but the pair fell out after Marianne’s brother proposed to Florence and she rejected him.

 

9.     Emily Dickinson

Who? Poet

Relationships with Women: Susan Gilbert, a childhood friend who married Emily’s brother. Passionate love letters- that were heaving edited by Susan’s daughter prior to publication- show the close romantic relationship between the two.

 

10.                       Barbara Jordan

Who? Civil rights leader, First black woman elected to the Texas Senate

Relationships with Women: Nancy Earl. The two were in a relationship for over 30 years after meeting on a camping trip, as cited in Barbara’s 1996 obituary.

11.                       A’Lelia Walker

 

Who? Heiress, Businesswoman

Relationships with Women: Mayme White, daughter of a Congress Member, Edna Thomas, an actress, and Mae Fane. At A’Lelia famed parties during the Harlem Renaissance, people were allowed to express their sexuality in a safe space.

12.                       Billie Holiday

Who? Jazz and Blues Singer

Relationships with Women: Tallulah Bankhead. The actress would often attend Billie’s shows after finishing her play and join the musician on tour. Tallulah even bailed Billie out of jail after she was caught with opium. After the pair broke up, they exchanged harsh letters about their depictions in each other’s biographies.

 

13.                       Margaret Mead

Who? Anthropologist

Relationships with Women: Ruth Benedict. Margaret embarked on a relationship with her former professor, which reportedly cured Margaret of her depression. She also became romantically involved with anthropologist Rhoda Metraux in later life.

 

14.                       Queen Christina of Sweden

 

Who? Queen of Sweden

Relationships with Women: Countess Ebba Sparre. Christina described her handmaiden as her bedfellow and even interfered in her marriage arrangements so that Ebba would be kept at court. Surviving letters from Christina to Ebba make it clear that her feelings were not platonic, though without Ebba’s replies we can only speculate about her feelings.

So those are some of my favorite historical lesbian and bi women, but who are yours? Who is your favorite person on this list? Which entry surprised you the most? And how do you feel about the historical erasure of these women’s sexual orientations? Let me know in the comments below.

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