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16 excellent bisexual and lesbian women throughout history

Bea Mitchell September 1, 2017

A 1864 depiction of Sappho (Creative Commons)

History is full of lesbians and bisexual women who helped pave the way for us current lady-lovers.

From 17th century queens and sword-slingers to 20th century movie stars and activists, here are some of our favourite famous trailblazers who enjoyed the company of women.

1. Sappho (630 BC – 580 BC)

Greek poet, lesbian Sappho

Well, we might as well start from the very beginning…

Greek poet Sappho wrote lyric poetry and is best known for her poems about love and women.

She’s the reason we’re called sapphists, or lesbians, being that she’s from the island of Lesbos.

2. Queen Christina of Sweden (1626 – 1689)

Queen Christina lesbian

Queen Christina was crowned in 1644, although she renounced the throne ten years later.

She was widely considered to be a lesbian, and was aptly played by Greta Garbo – who also allegedly liked the ladies – in 1933 movie Queen Christina.

3. Julie d’Aubigny (1670 – 1707)

Julie d'Aubigny

Where to start with Julie? Better known as Mademoiselle Maupin or La Maupin, this 17th century sword-slinger and opera singer became involved with a young woman, whose parents later put her in a convent.

In order to get her lover back, she entered the convent, stole the body of a dead nun, placed it in her lover’s bed and set the room on fire so that they could escape together.

What a woman.

4. The Ladies of Llangollen (1739 – 1829, 1755 – 1831)

Ladies of Llangollen The Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, were two upper-class Irish women who lived together in Llangollen, Wales, and whose relationship scandalised and fascinated their contemporaries.

Some consider Butler and Ponsonby’s relationship to be a Boston marriage, or a romantic relationship between two women who chose to live together and have “marriage-like relationships”.

5. Anne Lister (1791 – 1840)

Anne Lister

Anne Lister was a landowner, diarist, mountaineer and traveller who kept diaries which chronicled her life, including her lesbian relationships.

However, the gay stuff was written in code, derived from a combination of algebra and Ancient Greek.

She had an affair with a wealthy heiress called Ann Walker, who she later married (without legal recognition), provoking uproar in polite society.

6. Jane Addams (1860 – 1935)

Jane Addams

Jane Addams was a pioneering figure in the American suffrage movement. Also an activist, social worker, public philosopher and author, she was involved with several women throughout her lifetime.

Most significantly, Addams was in a relationship with Mary Rozet Smith, and according to historian Lilian Faderman, she addressed Mary as “My Ever Dear”, “Darling” and “Dearest One” in letters.

The couple were together for 40 years and wrote to each other constantly when apart. “I miss you dreadfully and am yours ‘til death,” read one letter from Addams to Smith.

7. Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941)

Virginia Woolf

Writer Virginia Woolf’s bisexuality is pretty hard to argue with. She had a relationship with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West (we’ll get to her later) in the early ‘20s.

In a letter to Vita, Virginia described telling her sister Nessa about their affair, where she wrote: “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.”

8. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962)

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was known to have been allowed to have an affair by her straying husband – and she chose reporter Lorena ‘Hick’ Hickock.

Following Eleanor’s death, a series of letters were unearthed. Although most were destroyed by the Roosevelt family, one letter read: “I want to put my arms around you & kiss you at the corner of your mouth.”

In another 1933 letter, Eleanor wrote: “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.”

9. Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962)

Vita Sackville-West

As mentioned above, Vita Sackville-West – an English poet, novelist and garden designer – is known partially for her affair with Virginia Woolf.

She is also remembered as the inspiration for the androgynous protagonist of Woolf’s Orlando.

However, Sackville-West was more deeply involved with a woman called Violet Trefusis, and the pair exchanged many passionate letters.

10. Mercedes de Acosta (1893 – 1968)

Mercedes de Acosta

An American poet, playwright and novelist, Mercedes de Acosta wasn’t famed for her writing, rather for her many lesbian affairs with Hollywood stars.

She’s possibly best-known for her long-term romance with Greta Garbo, and was also involved with Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina.

11. Alla Nazimova (1879 – 1945)

Alla Nazimova

Alla Nazimova, an actress, was credited with coming up with the phrase ‘sewing circle’ as a code name for her and her fellow lesbian or bisexual Hollywood actresses.

She openly had relationships with women, and her Sunset Boulevard mansion was believed to be the home of some pretty exciting parties.

12. Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992)

Audre Lorde

African-American writer Audre Lorde was also a civil rights activist who famously said: “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill.

“It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

“They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

13. Ruth Ellis (1899 – 2000)

Ruth Ellis

Ruth Ellis was an African-American woman and LGBT rights activist who came out when she was just 16.

In the 1920s, she met her partner of 30 years, Ceciline ‘Babe’ Franklin, and their Detroit home became a refuge for African-American LGBT people.

14. Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs (1900 – 1993)

Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs

A wealthy British power boat racer, Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs often dressed as a man, had tattoos and loved adventure and speed.

She was openly gay and had many affairs with women, including Dolly Wilde (Oscar Wilde’s niece), Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich.

15. Gladys Bentley (1907 – 1960)

Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley was an American blues singer, pianist and entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance, and is a significant figure for the LGBT community and African-Americans.

She dressed in men’s clothes when she performed, backed up by a chorus line of drag queens, played piano and sang in a deep, growling voice while flirting with women in the audience.

16. Tallulah Bankhead (1902 – 1968)

Tallulah Bankhead

Another actress, Tallulah Bankhead was bisexual and was known for her husky voice, wild personality and wit.

She was linked to Greta Garbo, Billie Holiday and Marlene Dietrich, and actress Patsy Kelly confirmed that she had a sexual relationship with Bankhead.

All images credited Creative Commons.

More: Alla Nazimova, Anne Lister, audre lorde, bisexual, bisexual women, Eleanor Butler, eleanor roosevelt, Gladys Bentley, Jane Addams, Julie d’Aubigny, lesbian, Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs, Mercedes de Acosta, Queen Christina of Sweden, Ruth Ellis, Sappho, Sarah Ponsonby, Tallulah Bankhead, The Ladies of Llangollen, virginia woolf, Vita Sackville-West

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