Six Fascinating Lesbians in History
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, it can be difficult to uncover the clues left behind 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 (1820-1910)
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.
Florence 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 a period of 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 which 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)
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.
"America The Beautiful"
Lizzie Borden (1860-1929)
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)
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)
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
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)
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 seen Edna acting in a play she had written, and went backstage to meet her. 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
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.
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My Own General Knowledge and...
Edward T. Babinski: History
Katherine Lee Bates:
University of Illinois Gender and Sexuality Student Services
Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Katharine L Sparrow