Category: lesbian writers

MAY 22: Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926)

365daysoflesbians:

The Irish poet, suffragist, and social activist Eva
Gore-Booth was born on this day in 1870!

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A young Eva is pictured in a painting done by her older sister Constance (x).

Eva was born in County Sligo, Ireland on May 22, 1870. Her
parents were Sir Henry and Lady Georgina Gore-Booth of Lissadell. She lived a
very privileged life as the third out of five children to be born to the Baron
and Baroness of Lissdale House, an estate which had been in her family for
generations. As a child she was somewhat of a globetrotter and accompanied her
father on trips to places such as Jamaica, Cuba, San Francisco, and Montreal.
While in Venice, Eva was struck with a sudden respiratory
illness and was sent to the countryside villa of a family friend to recuperate.
It was there, in Bordighera, Italy, where she met her life partner Esther
Roper. After their health was restored, Eva and Esther settled down in Manchester, England and began to rise to political prominence.
Despite coming from a very wealthy and notable family, Eva became active in
leftist political circles of northern England and many credit her and Esther’s
work with getting working class English women politically conscious and linking
them up with the suffragist scene. Eva was a member of the executive council of
the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and joined the Labour Party
later on in life.

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Photos of Eva Gore-Booth and her partner Esther Roper are placed side by side. After Eva’s death in 1926, Esther followed suit not long after in 1939. (x)

In the midst of all her activism, Eva was also a gifted poet
and dramatist. She was most well-known for her evocative poetry that directly questioned
sexual and gender mores of the time; along with her fellow poet friends, Eva started
a journal called Urania. Many interpret the title to be a reference to the word
“Uranian,” which was a nineteenth century term psychologists and scientists
used to refer to gay people. Urania published poems and essays about women
loving women, about suffragists who had experienced the front lines of protests
and had come in contact with police brutality, and about how gender was a social
construct. Eva, in spite of being a demure and shy woman, was ahead of her
time. She passed away on June 30, 1926 in London. She is buried next to her
life long love and partner, Esther, and her tombstone reads “"Life that is
Love is God" – a quote from the poet Sappho.

-LC

MAY 19: Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)

365daysoflesbians:

Lorraine Hansberry embodied the phrase “young, gifted, and
black.” She was the very first black woman to pen a Broadway play and the very
first black person to ever win a New York’s Drama Critic’s Circle Award and today
would have been her 87th birthday.

Lorraine Hansberry at her typewriter in her Greenwich Village apartment. Photo by David Attie (x). 

Born on May 19, 1930, Lorraine was the youngest of her
parents’ four children. Her mother was a driving school teacher and her father
was a notable real estate salesman in the South Side of Chicago. In 1938, her
father bought a house in the historically white area of Washington Park Subdivision.
After the white residents of the subdivision tried to keep the Hansberrys from purchasing the home, Lorraine and her family were engulfed in the now
famous case of Hansberry v. Lee. The publicity the case received not only
resulted in the Hansberry family becoming close friends with several iconic
black activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, but it also led to the
creation of A Raisin in the Sun, the semi-autobiographical play that would put Lorraine’s name on the map.

After spending her college days deep in political
activism, Lorraine decided to move to New York City in 1950 to try and make it as a writer. She
eventually moved to Harlem and began working for Freedom newspaper, a progressive, black publication. In 1953,
Lorraine married a prominent Jewish songwriter and political activist, Robert
Nemiroff. The marriage was short lived and the two separated amicably in 1956,
most likely because it is around this time that Lorraine came to terms with her
lesbianism. After separating from Robert, she became involved in the
LGBT activist scene in New York, joined the Daughters of Bilitis, and began
contributing to the lesbian magazine The Ladder under her initials “LHN.” Lorraine’s
personal journals and letters reveal a deep and distinct understanding of her
own sexuality, which you can read more about here!

Cigarette in hand, Lorraine dances with James Baldwin – one of her closest friends who was also a gay black literary icon (x).

In 1957, Lorraine completed her magnum opus, A Raisin in the Sun. The play opened on Broadway
on March 11, 1959 and at the age of 29, Lorraine became the first black woman
in history to have written a play performed on a Broadway stage. A Raisin in the Sun went on to win the New
York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, once again making Lorraine both the
first black person and the youngest person in history to ever win a Circle Award.
After her breakout success, she wrote two more plays, tried her hand at stage
directing, and stayed firmly planted in the heart of social activism.
Tragically, Lorraine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1963. She died on
January 12, 1965 at the young age of 34. Her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window coincidentally celebrated its
closing night on Broadway the night of her death.  

-LC

MAY 7: Landing by Emma Donoghue is published (…

365daysoflesbians:

On this day in 2007, the novel Landing by Emma Donoghue first hit shelves. You might recognize
Donoghue’s name from her novel turned Oscar-winning film, Room, but before she hit the big leagues, Donoghue was known for
her sweet, lesbian romance novels like The
Sealed Letter
, Hood, and of
course, Landing.

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The original cover art for Landing shows two hands clasped together in the shape of a heart (x). 

Landing tells the
story of something all too familiar to many of us in the lesbian community –
the long distance relationship.  Spread
out between Dublin, Ireland and a small town in Ontario, Canada, the novels
follows Síle and Jude from their meet-cute at Heathrow Airport to the trials
and tribulations of loving each other from across the world. Landing was Donoghue’s fifth novel and
in 2008 it was honored by the Golden Crown Literary Society in the category of Lesbian
Dramatic General Fiction.

A lesbian herself, Emma Donoghue has been writing since
1994. Her first novel was Stir Fry, a
coming-of-age story about a young Irish girl who comes to learn that she is a
lesbian. Throughout her career, Emma Donoghue has been awarded such honors as a
Stonewall Book Award, the Ferro-Grumley Award, the Man Booker Prize, and various
Lambda Literary Awards. She was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, but
currently lives in Canada with her wife Christine Roulston and their two kids,
Finn and Una. If you’re looking for a cute, lesbian book with a happy ending, I
definitely recommend Landing, or
really any book from Donoghue’s career!

-LC

DECEMBER 29: Elsa Gidlow (1898-1986)

One of the most
famous lesbian poets of all time, Elsa Gidlow, was born on this day in 1898.
Her 1923 collection titled A Grey Thread was the first instance of openly
lesbian love poetry to be published in North America.

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Elsa Gidlow photographed in 1925 at age 27 (x).

Elsa Gidlow
was born on December 29, 1898 in Hull, Yorkshire, England. When she was only
6-years-old, the Gidlow family emigrated to Canada and settled down in Tétreaultville,
Quebec. When she was 15, they would move once again to Montreal. Elsa’s very
first contact with the literary world occurred when a friend of her father’s
hired her to work as an assistant editor to his magazine Factory Facts.

In 1917, she began seeking out fellow gay and lesbian writers to collaborate with. Along
with the journalist Roswell George Mills, she eventually published Les Mouches
Fantastiques
, which was the first magazine to be published in North America that
openly discussed LGBT issues. Elsa being relatively unknown at the time, the
magazine only came into the mainstream when the famous author H.P. Lovecraft
publicly attacked its contents. Despite the backlash, Elsa would eventually publish 13 books of lesbian love poetry throughout her career. 

An original copy of Elsa’s 1923 collection of poetry, On a Grey Thread, is preserved in the collection of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society (x).

Elsa’s partner
was a woman named Isabel Grenfell Quallo. The two originally lived in San
Francisco together before moving to Mount Tamalpais, California and starting a ranch
they called Druid Heights. The ranch became a meeting grounds for many famous
artists and activists throughout the years and Elsa is known to have
entertained the likes of Neil Young, Margo St. James, Alan Ginsberg, Maya
Angelou, and many more. In 1977, she was featured in the PBS documentary Word Is Out: Stores
of Some of Our Lives
, which chronicled the stories of LGBT people living in America. In
1986, Elsa made history once again when her autobiography, Elsa, I Come with My
Songs
, was published and became the very first lesbian autobiography to not be
written under pseudonym.

In the last
years of her life, Elsa suffered a series of strokes. She refused to seek
medical care and died at home in Druid Heights on June 8, 1986. According to her
will, her ashes were mixed with rice and buried underneath an apple tree. The
Gidlow Estate posthumously donated Elsa’s personal papers to the San Francisco
GLBT Historical Society in 1991.

-LC

DECEMBER 23: Christa Winsloe (1888-1944)

The
German novelist and artist, Christa Winsloe, was born on this day in
1888. She is most well-known for having penned the play Gestern und heute,
which was eventually adapted into the iconic lesbian film Mädchen in Uniform.

An undated photograph of a young Christa Winsloe (x).

Christa Winsloe
was born on December 23, 1888 in Darmstadt, Germany. Her mother died when she
was just an infant and she was put in the care of distant family. However,
there was little love there and Christa was sent off to a notoriously strict
boarding school – Kairserin-Augusta-Stift in Potsdam – as soon as she was of
age. She was married off to a rich Hungarian writer named Ludwig Hatvany as soon
as she left the school.

During the
first years of her marriage, Christa wrote her very first novel. Das Mädchen Manuela (“The Child
Manuela”) was based on her years spent at Kaiserin-Augusta-Stift and her
desire to see the piece published caused strain on her young marriage; Ludwig,
a popular writer in his own right, wished for Christa to simply be his wife, not the independent artist she saw herself as. The marriage eventually ended in divorce
and in 1933 Das Mädchen Manuela would finally be published. Christa’s magnum
opus would be the play Gestern und heute
(“Yesterday and Today”). It first premiered on the stage in Leipzig
in 1930 and would be renamed to Children in Uniform when it was performed in
London in 1932. The play’s success resulted in an iconic film adaptation that
we have covered multiple times on the blog.

Christa’s first
lover was an American newspaper journalist named Dorothy Thompson. The two met in the years leading up to World War II when Dorothy was
reporting from Berlin, the same city where Christa had found a home in the Weimar era
lesbian subculture. Their relationship eventually fell apart when the Nazis
rose to power and Christa was forced to flee to France. There, she joined the
French Resistance and found a new lover in fellow freedom fighter Simone
Genet. The two women would die together on June 10, 1944 when they were gunned
down by four Frenchmen in the country town of Cluny after the men falsely
believed them to be Nazi spies.

-LC

DECEMBER 15: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

The American poet and political
activist, Muriel Rukeyser, was born on this day in 1913. She is most
well-remembered for injecting workers’ rights and Jewish-American identity into
the poetic zeitgeist of the early 20th century.

Muriel is highly regarded as one of the foremothers of modern women’s literature. Anne Sexton has called her “Muriel, mother of us all,” and Adrienne Rich has dubbed her “our twentieth-century Coleridge, our Neruda, and more” (x).

Muriel Rukeyser was born on
December 15, 1913 in New York City. She came from an upper-middle class Jewish
family. Her wealthy parents, Lawrence and Myra Rukeyser, allowing her to attend
the prestigious private school, Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx. As an adult, she later attended Vassar College and Columbia University. Despite growing up
privileged, Muriel developed an intense passion for workers’ rights and the
progressive movement from a young age.

Her literary career did not take
off until 1935 with the publication of her first poetry collection, Theory of Flight, but Muriel had been
writing ever since she was a young girl. In her 20s, she worked as a journalist
and became involved in the world of progressive politics that dominated the
headlines of the early 20th century. She famously worked for the
International Labor Defense when she was only 21 and wrote for progressive publications
such as The Daily Worker, Decision, and Life and Letters Today. After being awarded the Yale Younger Poets
Award in 1935, she had officially made the shift over from journalist to poet. By
the end of her career, Muriel had released over 20 collections of poetry and
fiction.  

Muriel was briefly married to a
man in 1945 and had a son with another man in 1947, however, in her later years
she began to align herself with lesbian identity and lesbian poets such as
Adrienne Rich. Much of her poetry refers to love between women and is not shy
about calling out the homophobia of the society in which she lived. One of
her most quoted lines is from the poem “Käthe Kollwitz:” “What would happen
if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”

In the last years of her life,
Muriel was heralded as one of the greatest poets of her generation. She was
awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shelley Memorial Award, and a Copernicus
Prize all before passing away on February 12, 1980.

-LC

DECEMBER 10: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

The renowned American poet Emily
Dickinson was born on this day in 1830. Famous partly for her reclusive tendencies
and intensely private life, many scholars have begun to speculate on the
possibility that Emily may have been a lesbian.

The only authenticated photograph of Emily Dickinson was taken in 1847 when she was 16-years-old (x).

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born
on December 10, 1850 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father, Edward Dickinson,
was a prominent lawyer in the town and the Dickinson family was very well-known
and respected family in their community, although they were not very wealthy. Emily
had a tempestuous relationship with her mother, but always maintained a warm relationship
with her father. Edward prided himself on his children’s education and kept his
daughters in school longer than most girls would have been afforded in the
Victorian era.

Between the time Emily was 18 and
20, the town of Amherst experienced the deaths of two prominent figures in the community
–  Benjamin Franklin Newton, a young
attorney who had become a close friend of the Dickinson family, and Leonard
Humphrey, the principal of The Amherst Academy principal. It is often believed
that the grief from those two deaths is what kick started Emily’s lifelong
battle with depression and agoraphobia. It was in the safety of her parents’
home where Emily wrote herself in the history books; the year 1860 would prove
to be Emily’s most productive writing period, with several of her poems being
published in The Springfield Republican
newspaper.  

Emily’s closest and most
affectionate relationship throughout her life was with her sister in-law Susan
Gilbert. She wrote over 300 letters to Susan, which is more than she sent to
any other of her correspondents. Susan played a crucial role in Emily’s
editorial process and was known as her “most beloved friend, influence, muse,
and adviser.” In recent years, many historians have asserted that Emily’s relationship
with Susan was undeniably romantic. In a June 1852 letter, Emily writes:

I have
but one thought, Susie, this afternoon of June, and that of you, and I have one
prayer, only; dear Susie, that is for you. That you and I in hand as we e’en do
in heart, might ramble away as children, among the woods and fields, and forget
these many years, and these sorrowing cares, and each become a child again — I
would it were so, Susie, and when I look around me and find myself alone, I
sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home. I
need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer
and fewer, every day that you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes
wandering round, and calls for Susie.

The 1880s brought even more death
to the Dickinson family, with Emily’s father, mother, and her youngest nephew all
passing away. The grief was too much for the aging poet to bear and it set her
on a physical and emotional downward spiral that would eventual result in her death.
In 1884, Emily wrote, “The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could
raise my Heart from one, another has come.” She would pass away on May 15, 1886
at the age of 55. The official cause of death by her physician was Bright’s
disease.’

-LC

DECEMBER 7: Willa Cather (1873-1942)

The Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Willa Cather, was born on this day in 1873. Although there has been much push back by historians who claim that labeling Willa as a lesbian is anachronistic, it is undeniable that she often chose to present herself in masculine clothing and enjoyed romantic relationships with only women throughout her life. 

Willa Cather photographed circa 1912 (x).

Wilella Sibert Cather was born on December 7, 1873 in Back Creek Valley near Winchester, Virginia. Her mother was a local school teacher while her father worked the land of the valley which had been in his family for six generations. When tuberculosis came to Winchester, the Cathers packed up and moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska in order to save themselves and 9-year-old Willa from the illness. It was in Nebraska where Willa became enchanted by the western landscape and discovered her passion for writing. Some of her earliest writings were published in the local newspaper, Red Cloud Chief, and eventually became a regular contributor to the Nebraska State Journal during her college days at the University of Nebraska. 

It was at the University of Nebraska in the 1890s when Willa’s lesbian identity began to take shape. She often went by the more masculine nickname of William and wore traditionally masculine clothing. The caption of a photo of Willa in the University’s archives describes her as having “her hair shingled, at a time when females wore their hair fashionably long.” After college, Willa city-hopped – first to Pittsburgh and then to New York City – and found work as a writer for various magazines and as a high school English teacher. She would pave the way for her own literary canonization during the 1910s and 1920s with works such as My Ántonia, O Pioneers!, and The Song of the Lark. Her very first big success was Alexander’s Bridge, a novel that was serialized in the magazine McClure’s in 1913. By 1922, Willa had been granted the Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours

Willa Cather (right) with her partner Edith Lewis in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, 1926. Out of all the letters the two must have written to each other throughout their 40 year relationship, only one survives; read it here

Throughout her life, Willa had multiple relationships with women. Beginning with her college friend Louise Pound, her other romantic entanglements included the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, the opera singer Olive Fremstad, and the pianist Yaltah Menuhin. It was the literary editor Edith Lewis, however, who she spent the last 40 years of her life with. The two lived together in New York City and spent their summers at a shared cottage on the island of Grand Manan in New Brunswick, Canada. When Willa passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947, it was Edith who burned the unfinished manuscript of her final novel, which Willa had deemed unworthy and had instructed to be destroyed at the time of her death. When Edith herself passed away in 1972, she was buried next to Willa in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

-LC

NOVEMBER 29: Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

The acclaimed author and poet most
well-known for her novel Little Women,
Louisa May Alcott, was born on this day in 1832. Although Louisa never
explicitly stated her sexuality, there has long been scholarship speculating on
her being a lesbian.

A 1865 head shot of author Louisa May Alcott (x).

Louisa May Alcott was born on
November 29, 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania and was the second of 4
daughters. Her mother, Abby May, worked as a social worker and her father Amos
Alcott, was an educator and a staunch transcendentalist. The family moved to
Boston in 1834 so that Amos could join the Transcendentalist Club and be among
the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Financial
difficulties would force the family to move once more to Concord, Massachusetts
in 1840. It was there where Louisa left school and began working as a
seamstress and a governess in order to help support the family, as well as
where the Alcotts opened up their home as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

At the outbreak of the American
Civil War, Louisa served as a nurse in a Union Hospital in Georgetown. This
resulted in her first taste of literary success with Hospital Sketches, a collection of the letters she wrote home
during her time as a nurse that was eventually published in Commonwealth, an abolitionist newspaper
based in Boston. For many years after, she became a popular pulp novelist under
the pen name A.M. Barnard. Her legacy was made in 1868 when the first part of
the Little Women series was published. Good Wives, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys would eventually follow, cementing
the “March Family Saga.”

An original cover spread of Little Women as it was published in 1868 (x).

The lesbian-coding of the
character Jo from Little Women
and its subsequent series has often been a piece
of evidence scholars point to in arguing Louisa’s own lesbianism. Beyond that,
though, she also never married and was once quoted as
saying, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak
of nature into a woman’s body…because I have fallen in love with so many
pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” She also proudly proclaimed
herself as living a life of “spinsterhood.” In her later years, Louisa took in
her sister’s daughter – also named Louisa, but nicknamed Lulu

and raised her
to adulthood after her sister passed away from childbed fever in 1879.

Louisa herself passed away on March 6,
1888 at the age 55. She had long been suffering from health problems such as
vertigo and lupus, but her final cause of death was a stroke. She is buried in
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts in an area known as “author’s
hill.” Throughout her life, she published over 30 writings and is now known as
one of the leading feminist American writers of the 19th century.

-LC

NOVEMBER 28: Rita Mae Brown (1944-)

Happy birthday to Rita Mae Brown! The iconic lesbian writer, feminist activist, and leader of the Lavender Menace was born on this day in 1944.

Rita Mae Brown photographed sitting at her typewriter (x).

Rita Mae Brown was born on November 28, 1944 in Hanover, Pennsylvania. She faced stigma right from the start, being the daughter of two unwed teenagers. Her mother originally left her at a local orphanage, but her mother’s cousin and her husband, Julia and Ralph Brown, eventually retrieved the infant Rita and raised her as their own. The fafmily originally lived in the town of York, Pennsylvania, but then later moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. After graduating high school, Rita started out attending the University of Florida at Gainesville but was expelled by the segregated university for her participation in the Civil Rights Movement. She then moved on to Broward Community College, but only stayed briefly. Her life changed radically when she decided to hitchhike all the way from Florida to New York in 1964. 

Once making it to New York, Rita began attending NYU but was often homeless and struggled to make a living. Although she was previously involved in the anti-war movement and the Civil Rights Movement, it was in the city of New York where her legacy as an LGBT activist was made. She started out by joining Columbia University’s Student Homophile League, but eventually left because of the group’s exclusion of lesbian voices. She would go on to revolutionize both the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the National Organization of Women (NOW) by demanding that the organizations include lesbian specific issues and perspectives. She was a crucial leader of the formation of the Lavender Menace, the Radicalesbians, and the Furies Collective.

Rita stands defiant in her Lavender Menace shirt amongst a group of NOW members during the “zap” of the 1970 Second Congress to Unite Women (x). You can read more about the Lavender Menace’s protests here!

Rita eventually moved to California and found success as a writer. To date, she has written over 50 works of poetry, prose, nonfiction, and screenplays but her most resounding success is undeniably the novel Rubyfruit Jungle. The semi-autobiographical novel was published in 1973 and tells the story of a young lesbian who grows up in an unloving family in Florida only to leave for New York City to study film making and to achieve what she believes to be her full potential – to find the “rubyfruit jungle.” It is now considered a classic piece of lesbian literature and Rita has since been awarded the Lee Lynch Classic Book Award from the Golden Crown Literary Society for the novel. Rita has also made news for dating fellow lesbian celebrities such as Fannie Flagg and Martina Navratilova. Today, she lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.

-LC