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Six Fascinating Lesbians in History

Katharine is an advocate for LGBT rights as part of her Unitarian Universalist tradition.

Painting by  Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) /public domain image

Painting by Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) /public domain image

Were They or Weren't They?

History is full of examples of presumed homosexuals who played a major role in the events of their times. Anglo-American history is no exception. I say "presumed" because it is often difficult to say with certainty whether or not a historical figure was gay.

Obviously, in most times and places past, homosexuality has been frowned upon, to say the least, forcing these brave individuals to attempt to hide who they were. Therefore, uncovering the clues left behind can be difficult to determine their sexual orientation. But there are often hints to be considered, and sometimes these can paint a picture that leaves little doubt that the individual in question was indeed gay.

Here we will explore the lives of six such famous women from the history of the United States and Britain and attempt to answer the question: were they, or weren't they?

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale

Pioneer in Nursing

Known as the founder of modern nursing, British-born Florence Nightingale was a woman of great faith and devotion to God. She believed that God had called her to care for the sick and was among the first to view sanitary standards as vital in caring for the ill and injured. Since the microbe was at that time unknown, people did not fully understand the importance of keeping a wound clean, for example, and little attempt was made at sterilization or even to wash hands prior to Nightingale's influence.

Nightingale was a rebel in her time for sure, as she came from an aristocratic family where she was expected to make a good marriage and settle down to have children. Caring for the sick at that time was viewed as a lowly occupation, and her parents were horrified when she announced that God had called her to such service.

But was this brave and heroic woman a lesbian? Certainly, she never married, rebuffing at least four proposals of marriage, one from a man who reportedly pursued her for nine years! But the real evidence that suggests she was gay comes from her own words. At one time, Florence fell ill and was nursed back to health over several months by an aunt with whom she developed a strong attachment. So strong that in a letter, she described their relationship as "like two lovers."

Even more indicative, a quotation from Nightingale comes from another letter where she spoke of a female cousin, saying, "I have never loved but one person with passion in my life, and that was her." More evidence that she had more than friendships with women comes from a line in a memoir that states, "I have lived and slept in the same beds with English Countesses and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have."

While it is true that language used in Victorian times was often more flowery and passionate, both toward members of the same sex and those of the opposite sex, these quotations, combined with her lifelong avoidance of relationships with men, certainly point to the strong possibility that she was a lesbian. If she was, then it's possible that she never acted on her desires at all, given the disdain that Victorians had against almost any form of sexual expression, never mind homosexual activity. At any rate, she was successful in forging ahead with her dream, despite the rigid constraints of her time, which is an accomplishment to be greatly admired by all women, lesbian or straight.

Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929) (public domain photo)

Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929) (public domain photo)

Author of an American Anthem

Katherine Lee Bates was a prolific poet and songwriter, but she is best known for writing the lyrics to the patriotic anthem "America The Beautiful." She was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and lived in Massachusetts until her death. Most people don't realize that Bates wrote children's books and poetry, in addition to her other works, and she is even credited with popularizing the figure of Mrs. Santa Claus in her poem entitled "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride."

Bates was quite a scholar, not the norm for women of her day. She studied at Wellesley College and was an English professor there for many years. She never married but did have a 25-year relationship with Katharine Coman, another Wellesley professor, with whom she shared a home. While it is possible that this was nothing more than two spinsters making use of one another's company, the fact that Katherine Lee Bates wrote an entire book of poetry, some of it rather passionate in nature, to her "friend' after her death indicates that there was something more between them. She is quoted as having said of her friend, "So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I'm sometimes not quite sure whether I'm alive or not."

She explained how she was inspired to write "America the Beautiful" in these words: "One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse."

Whether lesbian or not, Bates is an American woman who gave a much beloved anthem to our country, and is someone deserving of high esteem.

Lizzie Borden (1860-1929)

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden

Accused Murderess

This woman is actually more infamous, rather than famous. On August 4, 1892, the father and step-mother of Lizzie Borden and her sister Emma were found brutally murdered in their own Massachusetts home, hacked to death with a hatchet. Lizzie was accused of the crime, and a year later was tried in what was then the "trial of the century". It was closely followed in the local papers, and the fact that a woman was accused of such a brutal crime made for good copy, nation-wide.

Lizzie was eventually acquitted of the crime, though it was widely believed that she did it, and the murders were never solved. She was 32 at the time of the murders and unmarried, a late age in that day to remain single, It has been said that her father, a stern and domineering man, chased suitors away, but that may not have been the only reason that Lizzie died a spinster. In fact, one theory goes that he had discovered his daughter in a lesbian affair, perhaps with the maid, Bridgett, and was hell bent on ending the relationship, and that is what prompted Lizzie to murder him in a rage. This, however, is mostly conjecture with little evidence to support it.

After the trial, Lizzie used some of her father's inheritance to buy a large house not far from the house of the murders, where she was known to have lavish parties. Present at many of these was the actress Nance O'Neil, who was popular at that time. Nance spent weekends and sometimes longer periods with Lizzie, and was said to be somewhat wild and "loose in moral character". Her sister Emma was scandalized by Lizzie's association with O'Neil, and begged her to break off the relationship, probably in response to whispered gossip about what the two women were up to. Whether or not all this indicates that Lizzie was actually having an affair with Nance O'Neil will never be known, but Lizzie never had a close male friend and remained single until her death.

*today you can visit the actual house where the murders took place, and even stay overnight, if you dare!

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

First Lady and Social Activist

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a woman of great energy and vision. She was a social and political activist at a time when politics was still considered to be the sole occupation of men. She could be considered an early feminist, was a staunch advocate for the poor, and even lent her support to the founding of the United Nations As first lady, Roosevelt used her position to promote her causes, and was the first First Lady to be so active in the issues of the day.

But what were the personal relationships of this dynamic woman like? Despite her love and devotion to her husband, Franklin Roosevelt, he was not faithful to his wife. Eleanor was crushed to learn of his affair with her own secretary, Alice Mercer, and though the marriage survived, she was forever changed by the betrayal. It seems to have strengthened her resolve to throw her energies into her work, as she perhaps realized that her fulfillment in life would come from other venues than her relationship with her unfaithful husband.

The likelihood that she was lesbian or bisexual comes from the long and passionate friendship that Eleanor Roosevelt had with Lorena Hickok, whom Eleanor fondly nick-named "Hick". They had become friends during her husband's presidential campaign, when Hick had been a reporter covering the election, and later, the early days of Roosevelt's presidency. Just when the relationship first went beyond friendship is unknown, but Eleanor wore a sapphire ring that Hick had given her on the day of her husband's inauguration.

The most compelling evidence that her relationship with Hick was indeed a sexual one, comes from the letters between the two, which were discovered after Eleanor's death. The Roosevelt family tried to suppress the letters, and indeed, they unfortunately destroyed some of them, but enough of their content was leaked to pretty much prove that Eleanor and Lorena Hickok were lovers. Such phrases of love and longing as ""I want to put my arms around you & kiss you at the corner of your mouth," ran throughout the letters, and it is clear by the tone and substance of the letters that they were devoted to one another.

As Eleanor also had a very close and probably romantic relationship with New York State Police sergeant, Earl Miller, it is most probable that this woman of foresight and dedication to the causes of those less fortunate was a bisexual woman.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

Acclaimed Jazz Singer

It was fairly well known at the time, though not widely spoken about, that jazz singer great Billie Holiday was a bisexual woman. Perhaps, because Billie had so many emotional and psychological issues such as addiction and a severe abuse and trauma history, those who knew of her sexual ambivalence simply chalked it up to her psychological difficulties and swept her behavior under the rug. Billie herself did not attempt to hide her relationships, but it was not a topic that was openly discussed in "proper" circles.

It would not be surprising, in fact, if Billie's history did contribute to her later sexual orientation. Billie's parents were very young and unmarried. Her father abandoned them when she was very young to pursue a career as a jazz musician. Her mother left her for long periods with a relative of her sister's. She was sent to a reform school at the age of nine for truancy, which had to be a trauma for such a young girl. But worse was to come.

When she was eleven years old, Billie's mother barely saved her from being raped by a neighbor. One might well suspect that there were other incidents before and/or after this one event. Before Billie turned fourteen, she and her mother were both working as prostitutes in a brothel. They were both jailed, which could only have added to Billie's history of trauma, abuse, neglect and exploitation. It was in prison that Billie reportedly began to have sexual encounters with women.

Billie's Great Romance: Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead/ public domain photo

Tallulah Bankhead/ public domain photo

Billie Holiday's jazz singing career blossomed in the 1920's and 30's as her smokey voice and bluesy style captured jazz enthusiasts. While she had many relationships with men during this time, they tended to be fraught with substance abuse and physical violence. Her real "love" was reportedly actress Tallulah Bankhead. Rumors flew about other actresses as well, but Tallulah, though off and on with Billie, seems to have been the one Billie was truly passionate about.

Perhaps she found a level of affection and intimacy with Tallulah that had been lacking throughout her tragic life. Perhaps these strong emotions influenced her art, and part of the impact of her unique style and raw vulnerability of her voice is due to this volatile but passionate relationship. We will never know for sure.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Poet and Non-conformist

The poet and playwright, Edna St. Vincent Millay, is another talented and famous American woman who was almost indisputably bisexual. Interestingly, her mother was apparently convinced that she was carrying a boy when pregnant with Edna, and throughout her life she was known to family and close friends as Vincent. She was a woman who marched to her own drummer, and was known to be rebellious and unconventional in her lifestyle. She attended Vassar, where she is said to have begun her exploration into relationships with women, some of which were very intense.

Later, she met and fell in love with British actress Edith Wynne Matthison, who had met Edna when acting in a play she had written, and the two met backstage. She invited Edna to visit her at her summer home, and a passionate affair ensued, as is evident in this excerpt from a letter that Edna wrote to Edith:

"You wrote me a beautiful letter,--I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was.--I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love. . . . When you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to You."

When she married in 1923, Edna and her husband had an agreement that their marriage would be sexually "open", certainly highly unusual in the 1920s, but typical of Millay's stubborn individuality and determination to do things her own way.

On a personal note, Edna St.Vincent Millay happens to be one of my favorite poets. I find her work both frankly honest and full of raw feeling, all composed into lyrical verse that catches the breath at times with its beauty. One of my very favorite poems of hers is the following:


And what are you that, wanting you,
I should be kept awake
As many nights as there are days
With weeping for your sake?

And what are you that, missing you,
As many days as crawl
I should be listening to the wind
And looking at the wall?

I know a man that's a braver man
And twenty men as kind,
And what are you, that you should be
The one man in my mind?

Yet women's ways are witless ways,
As any sage will tell--
And what am I, that I should love
So wisely and so well?

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Their Legacy

While some of these women, and many others throughout history, cannot be proven to have been homosexual, given the passage of time, they may still be honored as noble women of accomplishment and strength. As stated by Lillian Faderman in her excellent book To Believe In Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America - A History; ".... if enough material that reveals what people do and say is available, we can surely make apt observations about their behavior." The behavior of the women in this article certainly suggests, if not confirms, that they were indeed lesbian or bisexual.

These six women of British and American history are to be admired in their own right for their various accomplishments (with the exception, perhaps, of Lizzie Borden!), often in the face of societal norms that held many women back from achieving their dreams. But the fact that they also lived their homosexuality, for the most part in secret, and were successful people despite the strain this must have caused is truly remarkable indeed. They are to be looked up to for their perseverance and strength - as women, as lesbians, and as shining examples of the enduring courage of the human spirit.

Please leave a comment below!


My Own General Knowledge and...

Florence Nightingale:

Edward T. Babinski: History

Katherine Lee Bates

Lizzie Borden:

Eleanor Roosevelt:

About.Com/Lesbian Life

Billie Holiday:
University of Illinois Gender and Sexuality Student Services

Edna St. Vincent Millay:

© 2011 Katharine L Sparrow

Comments Welcome!

Katarzyna on August 16, 2020:

I am proud of the histories of the exceptional women who dared to love women

Fanion from Norfolk, Virginia on September 26, 2014:

History is truly a fascinating thing. It gives us a measure of hind sight that can expose long-term trends and gauge the development of any given society. I suspect that something that was once so shocking and taboo (such as one's sexual orientation) will eventually become so mundane as not even to warrant a footnote in the pages of the past, but in the meantime we gladly celebrate their bravery and contributions.

Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on September 26, 2014:

Thank you for your research on this matter. It is true that in those days they would not admit to being lesbians, and one often wonder about the "Old Maids" and how many of them were actually lesbians, living a loveless life.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on September 21, 2014:

i didn't know florence was a lesbian, gee people back then had this gay/lesbian relationship.

Keneisha from South Florida on September 20, 2014:

I had no idea one of our first ladies was a lesbian. After reading your article I called my best friend of which is gay. Thank you I enjoyed your article.

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on September 19, 2014:

Eleanor certainly was an amazing woman with strong convictions!

BigBlue54 from Hull, East Yorkshire on September 19, 2014:

I would say that Eleanor Roosevelt was bisexual as she is reported to have had an affair with her bodyguard.

One thing I do know after reading about her and her achievements is that she is probably the best President America never had.

Thanks for the Hub Sparrowlet. Very much enjoyed it.

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on September 18, 2014:

Thanks Leilani! I know, some of those are unexpected!

Leilani Allmon on September 18, 2014:

Whoa. That was unexpected. I had heard about the Eleanor Roosevelt rumors. But Lizzie Borden? Florence Nightingale? I don't remember any of that from history class! Thank you for sharing. Interesting stuff. I like that you included both villains and heroes in the same list.

R.Oz from Western Australia on July 25, 2014:

Thank you for your Hub, it was written well and of course on a topic I always enjoy learning about.

Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on January 27, 2014:

Excellent hub, very well-written, informative, and enlightening. The message about women's perseverance and strength, perhaps at a time of personal inner conflict, is well-received. Well done, voted up and interesting.

Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on January 25, 2014:

So many of your Hubs are dated "20 months ago" and "2 years ago" that it is nice to discover this one from only "5 months ago" (as of 1/25/14). doubly nice from a historical standpoint and my blood relationship to Edna St. Vincent Milay. You are from New England and commented on my Hub on Global Warming, so I wonder how you would comment on that today, given the tough winter you New Englanders are experiencing?

DeeDee on January 06, 2014:

You lesbians need to relax. Not everything is a victory.

vibesites from United States on November 07, 2013:

Some people dismiss homosexuality as "the trend" or just a temporary phase in other people's lives. These stories prove otherwise. I think being a gay or a lesbian is biological in nature; you're born like that. I don't think it's an acquired trait, in my humble opinion. It's just that circumstances and judgmental society make them to slowly come out or not come out at all, carrying out their own relationships clandestinely as much as they could muster.

I'm most interested Eleanor Roosevelt's story, it's quite a shock to me actually. Could it be that she's the first lesbian (or bisexual) first lady? Great hub, btw.

Cassandra Mantis from UK and Nerujenia on May 27, 2013:

What a brilliant hub and you named and showed some very prominent women who made a positive difference to our world! We don't have to be ashamed of being gay or bisexual any more. The world has moved on, and debating and picking over the bits of their lives and the parts where they may or may not have fancied or even had relationships with other women is less relevant now, since we are more accepting nowadays.

I say this respectfully, and not lessening what a great hub you created here! I would love to see more names added to more hubs that champion the great efforts and the greater personalities of women who made the world a better place.

Thanks for a wonderful Hub!

FullOfLoveSites from United States on May 21, 2013:

I didn't know that Florence Nightingale had another interesting side besides being a pioneer in modern-day nursing. It's kind of titillating, heheheh. And Eleanor Roosevelt's lovelife too.

I'm not a lesbian though I'm attracted to another woman -- probably it's just admiration and nothing more than that. :)

Thanks for posting a very interesting hub. :)

Marcy J. Miller from Arizona on April 14, 2013:

Interesting and well-written hub, Sparrowlet. These women truly gave meaning to the "it's complicated" description of relationships!

Jacqui from New Zealand on April 10, 2013:

Florence makes sense after reading this hub!.

And funnily enough, as a gay female nurse, I'm quite proud all of a sudden.

Weird. Thanks for this hub!

Goo Poo on September 26, 2012:

Poor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Saddled w/ that ugly cheating pig.

tamannag on July 21, 2012:

Wonderful hub and excellent writing supported by good research work !

BereniceTeh90 on June 18, 2012:

Oo, OO; very well-written! I know during the Victorian Era, homosexuality was a very misunderstood topic by most people, and that people had to keep their sexuality hidden for fear of prosecution and persecution. But you can kind of tell, because of the so-called "gaydar"..

xethonxq on November 22, 2011:

I have one to add....Gertrude Stein. Her works are a wonderful contribution to our history! :) Great hub Sparrowlet!!

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 24, 2011:

Sparrowlet, this hub is further proof that same-gender oriented women (with the exception of Lizzie Borden!) can be outstanding, productive citizens. But I had NO idea Eleanor R, one of my favorite American women, was a lesbian, and I'm usually up on "secrets" like that. Well, good for her!

Since I no longer have my book of Edna St. Vincent Millay poetry, this hub also made google my own favorite poem by her, "Well, I Have Lost You", which begins:

"Well, I have lost you; and I lost you fairly;

In my own way, and with my full consent.

Say what you will, kings in a tumbrel rarely

Went to their deaths more proud than this one went."

But it's the the last two lines which contain another clue to her orientation (and one I never questioned the dozens of times I read it!):

"Should I outlive this anguish—and men do—

I shall have only good to say of you."

**And MEN do**? Silly me, I always took that as a metaphor for the human species in general, not that she considered herself male. Live and learn!

I'll pass on spending a night in the Borden house, thank you, after seeing a TV program by some who did. But welcome to Hubpages! ;D

Rachelle Williams from Tempe, AZ on September 23, 2011:

Oh yes, Eleanor Roosevelt was passionately in love with Lorena Hickock...

Great Hub!

James Nelmondo from Genova, Italy on September 22, 2011:

What a wonderful hub Sparrowlet! Well written and intriguing. I look forward to reading more of your work!