All Blog Posts / CELEBRATING ICONIC LESBIANS THROUGHOUT HISTORY
CELEBRATING ICONIC LESBIANS THROUGHOUT HISTORY
Published On: October 8, 2019
Written By: Bianca Sutton
Today, Tuesday 8th October marks International Lesbian Day. There are different accounts on when and how the day originated but what we do know is, it’s a day that should be celebrated. You wouldn’t be the only person saying to yourself, ‘I had no idea there was such a thing as International Lesbian Day,’ and that would be because the day is mainly recognized by our friends over in Australia and New Zealand. But let’s do the international part of the name justice and celebrate it globally.
Women have had it pretty rough throughout history – you know what with all the toxic masculinity running riot. Although I could go on about the years of discrimination towards women as a whole, we’re here to focus on one facet on that community today. As we all know, the LGBTQ have suffered years of oppression, so one can only imagine the difficulties lesbians might have suffered during a less liberal time as today. There are countless iconic lesbians who stood up against such repressive opinions, who unashamedly and unapologetically celebrated who they were and who fought for a better future. To celebrate International Lesbian Day we want to take you back through history to celebrate someone of these iconic women.
1. Sappho (615 BC – 580 BC)
Now I am not saying Sappho is the OG lesbian but she is a symbol of female homosexuality today. In fact, the term lesbian originates from the name of the island of Lesbos, which is where our girl Sappho was born. Sappho’s sexuality has been debated by many historians with some claiming her poetry was “nothing but friendly affection,” and others stating her poetry, “clearly celebrate eros between women.” However, an ancient biography written on papyrus (I add that detail so you know how far back we’re talking) stated that Sapphos was “accused by some of being irregular in her ways and a woman-lover.” I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
2. Anne Lister (1791 – 1840)
“Could not sleep last night. Dozing, hot & disturbed … a violent longing for a female companion came over me. Never remember feeling it so painfully before … It was absolute pain to me.”
Anne Lister is referred to by many as the first modern lesbian. Her life and relationships were portrayed in the HBO show Gentleman’s Jack, the title being a nickname given to Lister by residents of her town to scorn how she dressed and behaved.
Lister refused to conform to gender stereotypes, instead preferring to wear masculine clothing, travelling alone and forming relationships with women – all of which were behaviours frowned upon for women. As you can tell, Lister was not someone who could be told how to behave and was unapologetically open about her sexuality. After numerous relationships with women, all of which Lister wrote about in her diaries, she settled with Ann Walker. The pair are known to have had the first lesbian marriage in Britain. Although the priest did not bless them, the couple secretly shared vows, exchanged rings and took communion. However, many believe Lister’s desire to be with Ann was based around money due to Ann being very wealthy – sadly not the love story we would have hoped for.
3. Jane Addams (1860 – 1935)
“Old-fashioned ways which no longer apply to changed conditions are a snare in which the feet of women have always become readily entangled.”
Jane Addams was known for her work in the first half of the twentieth century as a social reformer and settlement activist. Alongside her partner at the time, Ellen Starr, she opened Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago. All the initial costs of repairs, maintenance and decorating came straight out of Addams pocket. The house was occupied by 20 residents and was visited by over 2000 people every week. Both Addams and Starr regularly talked about the needs of the neighbourhood, convincing richer families to help. They spent a lot of time raising money, taking care of children and nursing the sick.
Addams was a strong feminist and an advocate for world peace. In 1931, she was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her ongoing commitment to peace activism.
4. Mathilde de Morny (1863 – 1944)
If the gossip magazines that exist today were around in the 19th century, you would be sure to see Mathilde de Morny taking up vast column inches. Her extravagant manner garnered a great deal of attention and the title of a celebrity during the Belle Époque era in France. Although at the time in Paris, being a lesbian was “fashionable”, Morny still received a great deal of harassment, most commonly for her masculine attire and demeanour. Morny often wore a three-piece suit and smoked a cigar – very uncouth for a woman of that time.
As someone who was very open about her sexuality, Morny had relationships with many women in Paris at the time. Her most notable relationship was with aspiring dancer and actor, Collette. The pair put on a pantomime entitled Rêve d’Égypte (‘Dream of Egypt’) at the Moulin Rouge in which they shared a kiss on stage. The kiss was such a scandal that a riot nearly started and the police forced the show to end early.
5. Cha-U-Kao (1890s – exact birth dates unknown)
Made famous by the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (played by John Leguizamo in Moulin Rouge) Cha-U-Kao became a favourite subject of the artist due to her confidence and openness of her sexuality. Cha-U-Kao chose the profession of clowning, one that was usually reserved for men, and regularly performed at The Moulin Rouge during the 1890s. Although during this time, queerness was celebrated in “gay Paris,” it was still a bold move for Cha-U-Kao to pick such a profession.
6. Ruth Ellis (1899 – 2000)
“Who would want to read a book on my life? I’m nobody! I’m just Ruth!”
Not only was Ruth Ellis known for being the oldest surviving lesbian and gay activist, seeing 100 years of change in gay rights, she is also celebrated as a pioneer for the LGBTQ community and their youth.
In a time when many would not dare reveal they were gay, Ellis was very open about her sexuality. While living at home, Ellis met Babe who she would go on to have a 30 year relationship with. The couple, encouraged by Ellis’ brother, moved to Michigan and opened a printing business. Although to most people, Ellis looked like a successful store owner, a lot more was going on behind the scenes. From the 1940s through to the 1960s the couples home became what was known in Detroit as a “gay spot” for gay and lesbian African Americans. In addition to giving people a safe place to meet, Ellis took on the responsibility of looking after the younger gay and lesbian adults, offering shelter and food to many of them.
7. Gladys Bentley (1907 – 1960)
“The world has tramped to the doors of the places where I have performed to applaud my piano playing and song styling. Even though they knew me as a male impersonator, they still could appreciate my artistry as a performer.”
Gladys Bentley, who was also known by the stage name Bobbie Minton was a black, lesbian, gender-bending blues singer and entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Donning a top hat and a tuxedo, Bentley would take to the stage each night to sing original songs packed with double entendres and lewd lyrics as well as lascivious renditions of popular songs at the time, making her famous for both her voice and her notoriety. Many of her songs contained lyrics about the entitlement of men and sexual abuse. By the time the 1930’s came round, Bentley was the most famous lesbian in Harlem and was one of the best known black entertainers in the country. Bentley stated that during the peak of her career she was living on Park Avenue in a home with servants and a hefty monthly rental fee and driving around in a fancy car.
As the 1930’s continued and the country found itself plummeted into a Great Depression, acceptance of such acts as Bentley’s decreased in vigor and became less acceptable. In 1934, during a show at the King’s Terrace, the police put pressure on the venue and the show was cut short. She went on to move to California where she faced a great deal of harassment for wearing men’s clothing and struggled to garner the same success she had received back in Harlem. Sadly, although openly a lesbian during her career, Bentley later claimed to have married two men and started to wear women’s clothing again after stating she’d undergone hormone treatment to aid her into identifying as heterosexual.
8. Del Martin (1921 – 2008) and Phyllis Lyon (1924 – )
Anyone who knows their lesbian history will know about these two iconic women. The couple, who were together for over 50 years, founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) in San Francisco in 1955 along with six other women. This was the first political organization that had been formed in the US for lesbians and although originaly started as a social club it quickly became a support system for lesbians. After five years of establishment, chapters of DOB were formed across the country and their magazine, The Ladder started to grow in readership.
Martin and Lyon also worked together to form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) in northern California with the goal to persuade ministers to not only allow members of the LGBT community into churches but to use their power to decriminalize homosexuality.
The couple married in February 12, 2004 but it was later voided by the California Supreme Court. They married again on June 16, 2008, two months before Martin sadly passed away.
9. Louise Fitzhugh (1928 – 1974)
“Ole Golly: You know what? You’re an individual, and that makes people nervous. And it’s gonna keep making people nervous for the rest of your life.”
If you haven’t heard of Harriet the Spy, then you better head to your local library and join us once you’ve read it. Her novel went on to sell 4 million copies and was listed on New York Times Outstanding Book Award list in 1964. But what makes Fitzhugh great is not just the fact she was a lesbian who wrote a kick-ass book about a child who wants to be a spy but instead how she defied the heteronormative expectations of a girl with her character Harriet. Although Harriet’s sexuality is not discussed in the book, and it really doesn’t need to be, it focuses on how different Harriet is from the other children, how she hates wearing dresses, doesn’t want to partake in activities such as dancing and who, apart from her two best friends, isn’t understood by others. While many other books at the time didn’t stray too far from gender norms, Fitzhugh’s character Harriet gave many young queer girls who feel outcasted or misunderstood a little hope that they weren’t alone.
10. Barbara Gittings (1932 – 2007)
“As a teenager, I had to struggle alone to learn about myself and what it meant to be gay. Now for 48 years I’ve had the satisfaction of working with other gay people all across the country to get the bigots off our backs, to oil the closet door hinges, to change prejudiced hearts and minds, and to show that gay love is good for us and for the rest of the world too. It’s hard work — but it’s vital, and it’s gratifying, and it’s often fun!”
Known to many as ‘the mother of the LGBT civil rights movement,’ Barbara Gittings was pioneer for the rights of the LGBTQ community throughout her life. In 1958, she established the New York chapter of the daughter of Bilitis (DOB) and from 1963 – 1966 went on to become the editor of their publication, The Ladder, the first national lesbian magazine in the US.
Gittings relentlessly campaigned for equality and in 1965, alongside fellow organizer Frank Kamery, enlisted activists from neighbouring states to take part in the first public demonstration for gay and lesbian equality. The protests, known as Annual Reminders, took place in front of the Independence Hall every fourth of July until 1969 when it was suspended the following year to focus on the 1970 march commemorating Stonewall. Gittings continued working alongside Kamery and other activists to have homosexuality removed as a mental illness. In 1973 it was finally declassified as a mental illness. Prior to its removal, treatment for homosexuality included electric shock therapy, institutionalization and lobotomy.
As an avid reader, Gittings joined the American Library Association’s (ALA) Task Force on Gay Liberation in 1970. The groups mission was to not only provide support for gay librarians but to increase gay representation in libraries and eliminate discrimination.
11. Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992)
“Your silence will not protect you.”
Audre Lorde was a writer, poet and activist who described herself as, “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Her life and her work centered around fighting the injustices of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia. These injustices are also communicated through her poetry which often discussed the topics of feminism, sexuality and her exploration of black female identity. It was as a child, when Lorde found it difficult to communicate that she discovered poetry as a form to express herself. Lorde found this a powerful tool of expression and would go on to use it as means to educate and create change. Lorde told interviewer Charles H. Rowell in Callaloo: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds. Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity … or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.”