Category: lesbian writers

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

NOVEMBER 26: Mathilde Blind (1841-1896)

Renowned writer and leader
of the New Women, Mathilde Blind, passed away on this day in 1896. She is most
well-known for her pioneering feminist literature such as the poem The Ascent of Man, written as a woman’s response to
Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Mathilde Blind photographed circa 1870 (x).

Mathilde Blind was born on March 21,
1841 in Mannheim, Germany. Her father was a banker named Jacob Abraham Cohen and
she was his oldest child of three. After her father died in 1848 and her mother
remarried the famous political writer Karl Blind, Mathilde and her brothers
changed their surname to Blind. The family moved to London around this
same time and Mathilde began attending St. John’s Wood Ladies’ Institute.
Throughout her adolescence, her mother adn stepfather kept the company of leftist
revolutionaries such as Karl Marx and Louis Blanc, and therefore, Mathilde herself
began to develop a radical political perspective from an early age.

At the beginning of her literary
career, Mathilde used a male pseudonym, but she abandoned it for her real name
in the 1870s. It was this act that launched her to feminist icon status and made
her one of the premier figures of London’s bohemian literary scene. She wrote
over 15 texts throughout her lifetime; her only fiction novel was a romance titled Tarantula that saw little success, while her masterwork is largely considered to be the 1889
poem The Ascent of Man. The majority of Mathilde’s work dealt
with the Victorian gender system and took on a feminist slant. 

She never
married during her lifetime and often publicly criticized the institution of
marriage. It is common belief that Mathilde was a lesbian due to her
prioritization of women in her life and her association with many lesbian figures
of her day such as Olive Schreiner and Violet Paget. She lived with the famous painter Ford Madox
Brown for over 20 years until his wife Emma’s death and it is often believed
that Mathilde and Emma were romantically involved. Mathilde Blind would eventually away on
November 26, 1896 from uterine cancer. Her property was given to Newnham
College, Cambridge per her request and she left the English literary world with
a lifetime of progressive writings and political work.

-LC

NOVEMBER 24: Margaret C. Anderson (1886-1973)

Writer, publisher, and overall icon
of the literary world, Margaret C. Anderson, was born on this day in 1886. She is
most well-known for founding the literary and arts magazine The Little Review.

Margaret C. Anderson photographed by Man Ray (x).

Margaret Caroline Anderson was
born on November 24, 1886 in Indianapolis, Indiana. She was the oldest of three
daughters born to Arthur and Jessie Anderson and raised in a middle-class
family. After graduating from high school in 1903, Margaret went to Western College
for Women in Oxford, Ohio; however, she dropped out at the end of her freshman
year and moved back home to pursue a career as a pianist. Finding little luck
in the music world of Indianapolis, she then moved to Chicago in 1908 and found
her niche in writing.

She arrived in Chicago right in
time for the city’s impending literary renaissance that would take off in the
1910s. In March of 1914, Margaret founded The Little Review. The very first issue
featured articles on Nietzsche, psychoanalysis, the concept of feminism, and
described itself as “an organ of two interests: art and good talk about
art.” The Little Review eventually became a part of the foundation of Chicago’s
art world. When Margaret met her partner Jane Heap in 1914, Jane became the new
co-president of The Little Review and the magazine’s content became even more
radicalized.

A copy of The Little Review featuring Ulysses by James Joyce. The title of the magazine reads “The Little Review: A Magazine of the Arts – Making No Compromise with the Public Taste (x).

Throughout the 1920s, The Little
Review
 published such literary juggernauts as William Butler Yeats, Ernest
Hemingway, Emma Goldman, and Gertrude Stein. Its most published writer was Baroness
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
. Beginning in 1918, The Little Review became one of the very first American publishers
to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses via serialization, resulting in a scandalous
obscenity trial against the magazine which resulted in both Margaret and Jane having to pay a heavy fine. Partly in response to the obscenity trial,
Margaret and Jane would spend the second half of the 1920s living in Paris. It
was in Paris – at Hotel St. Germain-Des-Pres, 36 rue Bonaparte – where the very
last issue of The Little Review was edited.

In 1942, Margaret’s relationship
with Jane was broken off. The two would remain friends until their deaths and
Margaret eventually found a new lover in Dorothy Caruso, who was the widow of
the famous singer Enrico Caruso. They lived together in the U.S. until Dorothy’s
death in 1955, after which Margaret would move back to Le Cannet in
southeastern France. Margaret herself would pass away of emphysema on October 19, 1973.

-LC

NOVEMBER 23: 96 Hours by Georgia Beers is publ…

On this day in 2011, the book 96 Hours by the iconic lesbian romance
novelist Georgia Beers first hit shelves.

Georgia Beers photographed in her office by Yasmin Jung in 2017 (x).

96 Hours tells the kind of pulpy,
drama-filled romance story that lesbians are not usually afforded in fiction;
set against the tragic backdrop of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City,
the novel follows two women named Erin and Abby. Erin is meant to be flying
back to her home in London after coming to America for a business trip, while
Abby has a plane ticket for New York City where she will be able to visit her
ailing mother. However, once the tragic plane hijackings start occurring, both
women’s flights get deterred to Gander, Canada for safety. For 96 hours, Erin
and Abby share an experience and a connection like no other.

96 Hours is simply one novel in a
long string of lesbian romance novels churned out by Georgia Beers over the
years; if the straights have Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts, then lesbians
have Georgia Beers. She was born in Rochester, New York and began writing at a young age. She has written over 15 books to date and has repeatedly been
awarded the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. She is also currently a member of the programming board for the ImageOut LGBTQ Film Festival. You can find more
of her work here!  

-LC