Feature: Five famous women history outed as lesbian or bisexual
History is littered with speculation over certain famous figures and their sexuality. In order to be gay, even 30 years ago, involved an incredibly brave and life altering declaration. It still does, as we all know, but nowadays we’re all required to be dignified and polite to each other by law.
Here are a few of my favourite strong women of history who have inspired speculation surrounding their sexuality. Some are widely recognised as gay or bisexual, while others are only rumoured.
Let’s start with one we know for sure…
1. Eleanor Roosevelt
The infamous American first lady, although married, was known to have been permitted a clandestine “Boston Marriage” by her straying husband – essentially a permitted affair – and chose reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickock
After her death, the speculation surrounding the decades-long relationship between these two unearthed a series of letters between them. Although most were destroyed by the Roosevelt family, the ones that were uncovered revealed a tender and indisputably romantic relationship between the two women. There are whole books available of the published collections. It’s undeniable.
One reads “I want to put my arms around you & kiss you at the corner of your mouth” and another “I can’t kiss you, so I kiss your picture goodnight and good morning” and it is said that only Hick’s sister, Ruby, knew the true content of their first years correspondence.
Eleanor Roosevelt, a strong feminist, was the first First Lady to actively engage in political issues and was known to have a close group of openly lesbian friends. On Inauguration Day, Roosevelt wore a sapphire ring, given to her by Hick.
In a 1933 letter, Eleanor writes “I want to put my arms around you. I ache to hold you close… Your ring is a great comfort to me. I look at it and think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it.”. Which sort of puts to bed any speculation that end, doesn’t it?
Click on to learn about a famous royal and one of the world’s best known sex icons.
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2. Marie Antoinette
Arguably the most famous French female Royal, “Madame Deficit” endured a life of infamy.
People loved to hate her, blaming her from everything from the French Revolution to ruling through the King. She is famously misquoted “Let them eat cake!” when, actually, she said nothing of the sort.
In those days, lesbianism was known as “The German Vice”, and the Austrian princess, as she became increasingly unpopular, was slandered by the opposition. They accused her aggressively of bisexuality and promiscuity, naming her close friends The Princess of Lamballe and The Duchess of Polignac as her lovers.
Throughout France, the population was convinced of the rumour by the publication of pamphlets picturing her in compromising positions with other women. Back then they didn’t have celebrity magazines, so Royal Gossip was circulated in leaflets, usually with a political agenda, and Marie Antoinette was a regular feature.
And it’s understandable how much of France believed the rumours. The Queen had fervently remained a virgin for the first seven years of her marriage and never addressed publicly the accusations. As is the case now, if you didn’t deny it, people generally assume it’s true.
Now although we’ll never know the answer, it’s a sad thought. As Queen of a country, you’d be watched at every turn, and even in modern times, a member of the Royal Family probably simply wouldn’t be allowed to be gay. I can’t imagine how it must feel to not be able to be your true self, just because of who you were born.
3. Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf met fellow writer Vita Sackville-West in the early 1922, and the women began a romantic affair that lasted for a number of years. Now I realise you can prove pretty much anything with the internet nowadays, and also disprove it, but Virginia Woolf’s bisexuality is almost impossible to argue with.
Vita and her husband were both bisexual, and had an open marriage, and once Virginia’s own husband gave his blessing to the affair, the two woman began a relationship. This remained secret, but not because they were ashamed. Virginia’s publisher, Bloomsbury, held a strong opinion against lesbianism, and so their secrecy can be attributed to Virginia’s passion for her career and her writing. But although they kept their tryst on a strictly “need to know” basis, history has proven the affair without doubt.
In a letter from Virginia to Vita (Current day celebrity couple name…Virgita?) she described coming out to her sister Nessa –
“I told Nessa the story of our passion in a chemists shop the other day. ‘But do you really like going to bed with women’ she said – taking her change. ‘And how’d you do it?’ and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot.”
4. Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale grew up at Embley Park, a manor house in Romsey, Hampshire which was later converted in to a school.
Now, let me be very clear – Florence Nightingale was deeply religious and took a vow of celibacy which lasted her whole life. I am not suggesting that this woman engaged in lesbian activity (my favourite kind of activity)… only that there is evidence that, had she not committed herself to God, she may have preferred the company of women. And who can blame her? Plus, remember, you don’t have to have sex to be gay… but it probably helps.
As the story goes, Florence was very close to her aunt, with Florence describing their relationship as “Like two lovers”. OK, so let’s ignore the obvious incest vibe, for arguments sake. We all know that back then, it was common to marry a cousin and so I guess they looked at things a little differently. Although her aunt married, she returned to Embley Park when Florence became an invalid later in life to nurse her, leaving her own husband and children behind.
Earlier in life, Florence also wrote of her cousin –
“I have never loved but one person with with passion in my life, and that was her…”
And then there’s her own memoir, in which she wrote –
“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”.
Which sort of paints her as the alpha-lesbian of her time.
The truth, however, can never be certain. In her Victorian era, it would have been unheard of for her to live her life as a gay woman, and so I suppose it is believed this is why she chose a life of celibacy, refusing four marriage proposals. I think it’s tragic almost, that one of the most remarkable and progressive women of history was denied the happiness and freedom of living openly.
5. Marilyn Monroe
OK, please don’t shout at me/sue me. As possibly the most famous sex icon in history, it’s inevitable that someone would suggest that Ms Monroe experienced both sides of the proverbial coin. With whole pockets of the internet dedicated to this debate, and handfuls of people set on proving it, Marilyn makes my list on a strictly speculative basis.
Marilyn Monroe has been rumoured to have had sexual encounters with many of history’s more famous actresses, including Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwick, Marlene Dietrich and many more. Betty Grable reported that Monroe would pursue her, and is quoted as finding her attention “sometimes scary”. The same story is told by Judy Garland, who apparently claimed Marilyn had propositioned her on many occasions.
For those of you that haven’t had the time to obsessively stalk Marilyn Monroe on the internet, she was well known for her crippling insecurities and the most convincing piece of information I have seen to prove her bisexuality would be a book written by actress Jane Lawrence – “My Little Secret” – which alleges her sexual relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Of course, it can be argued that these are all lies to sell books, but they’re pretty descriptive and enjoyable lies. Here’s my favourite excerpt…
Lawrence claims that one evening, Ms Monroe suddenly kissed her on her thigh, with a ‘mischievous twinkle in her eye’.
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“…The next few minutes became hazy, surreal and dreamlike. My pulse leaped as Marilyn kissed my thigh again… she then leaned in and kissed me full on the lips, very softly and very slowly. I was nearly hyperventilating.”
“We moved through the living room into the bedroom,” the story continues.
“Marilyn used her tongue, lavishly flicking and licking, an entirely new sensation for me. With the girls I had enjoyed sex with, there was often a shyness and hesitancy, not the hunger and confidence Marilyn displayed.”