Category: sapphic history

APRIL 13: Armen Ohanian (1887-1976)


April 13 seems to be another slow day in wlw history, so we’d
like to introduce you to a highly fascinating and enigmatic figure: Armenian
dancer and writer Armen Ohanian.

Her birth name was Sophia Pirboudaghian; she was born in
Shamakha in 1887 – this is now located in Azerbaijan but at the time it was part
of the Russian empire. After an earthquake in 1902, her family moved to Baku. She
graduated from school there in 1905; that same year, her father died in the
anti-Armenian pogroms. She started out as an actress, going by the name of
Sophia Ter-Ohanian in an Armenian theater group in Baku in 1906, and then, two
years later, moved to Moscow where she performed as a dancer and studied
plastic arts. She appeared for the first time as Armen Ohanian at the Tbilisi
Opera in 1909.

Early 20th-century portrait of Armen Ohanian,
Charents Literature and Arts Museum

After this, she traveled back to Iran, where she performed as
a dancer, acted on stage, co-founded the Persian National Theater in Tehran,
and generally contributed to expanding the place of women in the public arts. In
April 1910, with the help of the Persian Women Benevolent Association, she
organized a gala featuring music, literary events, theater, and cinema. It was
during that period that she honed her skills in what are categorized as “Oriental
dances.” She toured Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, and eventually ended up in
London, where she was hired to perform in 1911. An Orientalist craze for exotic
forms of dancing was sweeping through the West at the time so basically Ohanian
decided to capitalize on the West’s fetishization of the Orient while at the
same time finding a way of self-expression in dance that combined American elements
(such as methods of “free dance” developed by Isadora Duncan) and Armenian and
Iranian music and elements. From there on, she toured extensively all
throughout Europe, the United States, and Mexico City, and was usually met with
high praise. When her own career as a dancer started declining, she nonetheless
continued being active in this milieu: she notably founded a school of dance in
Mexico City in 1936, and even made a comeback in the dance scene and on the
stage throughout the 40s and 50s.

Her talent for dance should not eclipse her literary talents:
she started writing poetry and autobiographical material when she moved to
Paris in 1912. She published several memoirs and accounts of her travels, which
were widely translated. Well-versed in many languages, she translated books from
Russian to Spanish in collaboration with her second husband. She was also
politically involved, as an active member of the Mexican Communist Party (which
has us wondering if she ever met Frida Kahlo).

She led an eventful love life: when she was young, she’d
been married off to an Armenian Iranian doctor (Haik Ter-Ohanian, whose last
name she kept) but that didn’t last even one year. As she toured the world and
became increasingly known as a dancer and writer, she entertained relationships
with various artists, writers, and intellectuals. Most of them appeared to be
men, but there are records of Ohanian having an affair with Natalie Barney –
which seems plausible enough, given the effervescent artistic context of the
time, and which would indicate she was most likely bi. Her second marriage was
to a Mexican diplomat in 1922; the couple lived in many different world cities
until 1934, when they settled down in Mexico.

Her life was explored in a performance project called Dear Armen created by lee williams
and Kamee Abrahamian. This is the summary:

Garo has been researching Armen Ohanian, an enigmatic
Armenian performer and survivor of the early 20th century anti-Armenian pogroms
in Baku. Grappling with the discrepancies between Ohanian’s biography and
memoirs, they are forced to confront memories from the past, unraveling
experiences around gender, sexuality, ethnicity, family, and the role of the
artist. An immersive theatre experience featuring a blend of monologue,
traditional Armenian dance, erotic performance and live music, Dear Armen
weaves together the voices and struggles of three generations of women and
gender nonconforming Armenians.

You can find the trailer below and read more about this installation here in this interview and in this review:


APRIL 11: Marion Dickerman (1890-1983)


A close friend (and by this we mean most likely a gal pal) of Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Dickerman was a suffragist and educator in the US.

Born in Westfield, New York, Dickerman studied at Wellesley College and then Syracuse University, where she earned both her BA and a grad degree in education. One of her classmates at Syracuse was Nancy Cook, with whom Marion spent most of her adult life, but they didn’t actually start their relationship until they met “again” while teaching in Fulton, NY.

Marion Dickerman. From the Patterson library, Westfield, NY

Dickerman was also involved with other women throughout her life, most notably, it seems, none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Dickerman and Cook had met while traveling to Hyde Park, NY. You get three wlw together who are all interested in progressive politics and education, and, well, you get the kind of ménage à trois that purchases schools and shares properties.

Trouble had to be brewing in paradise, though: Lorena Hickok (Eleanor’s bae, we’ve already mentioned her on the blog) didn’t like Marion, and boy did she make no mystery of this. Eventually this drove a wedge in the ménage à trois friendship of the three women.

In their later years, Dickerman and Cook moved to Connecticut, where Dickerman
served as the Director of Education

for the Marine Historical Association, from 1946 until 1962.


FEBRUARY 28: 1st Lesbians Who Tech summit (201…


Three years ago, on February 28th, the first Lesbians Who Tech summit was launched
in San Francisco, and its success has kept growing since then. The fourth
iteration of the summit just came to a close, and spanned four days, with super
interesting panels like Technology & The Resistance, Cybersecurity, Machine
Learning, or Healing & Community. The popularity of such an event, which
now has offshoots in different parts of the world from Mexico to Sweden,
attests to the presence of a strong wlw community in the tech industry. Given that
the image of the tech world most of us have is of one filled with straight
white dudes, Lesbian Who Tech is a refreshing reminder of the reality of

Plus, their tagline is: Queer. Inclusive. Badass. (Why did I
decide to become an English major and not go into tech in college? Why??)

Founder Leanne Pittsford welcomes everyone at the 4th Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco.

Lesbians Who Tech is described by founder Leanne Pittsford as “a global
community of over 11,000 queer women and allies in tech to create community,
increase visibility and improve representation among women and lesbians in
technology.” Before she started Lesbians Who Tech, Leanne Pittsford founded Start Somewhere, “a design
and technology agency focused on helping social good organizations,” and from
2006 to 2010, she was the senior director at Equality California.

They’ve even established a scholarship to help you
learn to code

Follow Lesbians Who Tech on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. See here if your city has a
chapter of Lesbians Who Tech and who you should contact in order to get


FEBRUARY 27: Sherry Harris’s birthday (1965-)


Some women are just born to be trailblazers, and that’s the
case of Sherry Harris, who became the first out black lesbian council member of
both Seattle and the US in 1991.


Sherry Harris, via

Harris originally hails from Newark, NJ. Her mother was a
single parent and Harris looked up to her as a woman who was actively involved
in her community. She received her B.Sc. in Human Factors Engineering in 1978,
and then moved to Seattle, where she worked as an engineer for several
companies, while maintaining a strong activist engagement in local
organizations, like the Northwest Women’s Law Center or the Association of
Lesbian Professionals of Seattle. As a result, she got appointed to five city
boards and commissions during the 1980s.

In 1991, she took the next logical step and ran for
political office. She was the first candidate endorsed by the Gay & Lesbian
Victory Fund, a newly-founded national organization that supported LGBTQ people
in politics. By a 70% majority, Harris defeated the 24-year incumbent, Sam
Smith, who had been the first Black Seattle councilmember. During her time as
council member from 1992 to 1995, Harris chaired the Council’s Housing, Health,
Human Services and Education Committee and served on the Transportation and
Utilities Committees. She sponsored or co-sponsored several LGBTQ-positive
initiatives, helped to raise over $1 million to fight anti-gay discrimination
in the state, and co-founded and chaired the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Caucus
National League of Cities.

Though she was not reelected in 1995, Harris has remained in Seattle,
founding her own company there (Spirit Mind Body Educational Resources) and
championing a holistic vision of politics and society. You can read a
short essay she wrote
about her experience as council member here.


FEBRUARY 27: Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958)


Black wlw have always existed, and they’ve always been
pretty rad, and Angelina
Weld Grimké
is no exception. A writer, journalist, and teacher, she made
significant contributions to the Harlem Renaissance movement, and was among the
first woc writers to have a play publicly performed.

Her last name, Grimké, is often associated to the Grimké
sisters, Angelina and Sarah, who were the only known white Southern women to be
a part of the abolition movement. Angelina and Sarah were the aunts of
Archibald Grimké, a lawyer, the second Black graduate of Harvard Law School,
and the mixed-race son of a white planter and a mixed-race slave, Nancy Weston.
Archibald married Sarah Stanley, a white woman, and Angelina Weld Grimké was
born in Boston in 1880. However, shortly after her birth, her mother left to
head back to her family in the Midwest, taking Angelina with her. When Angelina
was 7, she was sent back to Massachusetts and from then on had almost no
contact with her mother, until Sarah committed suicide a few years later.


Angelina Weld Grimké

As a teenager, Angelina lived with her aunt and uncle in DC,
while her father served as US consul in the Dominican Republic. She attended the
Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, and moved back to DC after graduating. She started
teaching English in 1902, in the segregated school system of DC. In 1916, she moved
to Dunbar High School, an institution known for its academic excellence. She often
also took summer classes at Harvard. Around 1913, Grimké survived from a train
crash, though her health never fully recovered. After her father’s death in
1930, she moved to Brooklyn and there lived as a semi-recluse until her death
in 1958.

In parallel to her teaching career, she wrote extensively,
with many of her essays, stories, and poems appearing in the NAACP newspaper, The Crisis (edited at the time by W.E.B.
Du Bois), or collected in anthologies of the Harlem Renaissance. One
of her most well-known plays is Rachel
originally entitled Blessed Are the
; it is recognized as one of the first plays to protest lynching and
racial violence, and was written as a response to a call the NAACP put out,
seeking new literary works to denounce KKK extremism and racism.

Analysis of her work and letters has convinced modern
critics that Grimké was lesbian or bisexual. I mean:

I know you are too young now to become my wife, but I hope,
darling, that in a few years you will come to me and be my love, my wife! How
my brain whirls how my pulse leaps with joy and madness when I think of these
two words, “my wife”

She wrote this to a friend, Mary P. Burrill, at the age of
. Her diaries and unpublished works point more explicitly at her love of
women, though this is often expressed as thwarted and repressed. Though it is
unfortunate she did not get the opportunity to lead a more fulfilling life in
that regard, we hope you’ll keep on
reading and learning more about her work
to preserve her legacy!


FEBRUARY 26: Jane Wagner (1935-)


Another wonderful woman who was born on February 26 and who happens to be a part of the great wlw tribe is Jane Wagner, a screenwriter, director, producer, and Lily Tomlin’s partner in life and work (yay for lesbian power couples).

Hailing from Tennessee, Wagner left for NYC at the age of 17, where she studied acting, visual arts, and piano. Although she first toured with the Barter Theatre and worked as a designer, her career was really launched when she made her writing debut with J.T. on CBS in 1969. She won the Peabody Award for her work on J.T. and that caught Tomlin’s eye. At the time, Tomlin was looking for someone who would help her develop the character of Edith Ann on Laugh-In. That’s how they met and we all think it’s an aaww-worthy story. They finally got married on the eve of 2014.

Her collaboration with Tomlin has yielded much recognition for her work, with numerous awards (notably three Emmys), and nominations for Grammy Awards. She’s also been a contributor to the website since it first launched in 2008.

via Huffington Post

Jane Wagner wrote the screenplay and was the executive producer of “The Incredible Shrinking Woman.” She also wrote a Broadway play, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the
Universe,” which starred Tomlin, and for which Wagner won the NY Drama Critics’ Circle and the NY Drama Desk awards.


FEBRUARY 26: Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962)


Mabel Dodge Luhan was once described by a friend as “an
aeroplane laden with explosives.” Ansel Adams said she had “talons for talent”
and a NYT journalist called her “serenely tyrannical.” That’s the woman who created
the Taos arts colony, which attracted such luminaries as Willa Cather, D.H.
Lawrence, and Georgia O’Keefe.


Photo of Mabel Dodge Luhan seated on porch.
Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Mabel was born into a wealthy family from Buffalo, NY, and
was early on introduced into the social elite circles of the city. She married
at the age of 21, but became a window two years later. Three other marriages
followed in her life, but this absolutely did not prevent her from pursuing
other affairs with both men and women, the latter of which she recounts in her
autobiography Intimate Memories (you’re
welcome for the reading list).

Between 1905 and 1912, she lived with her second husband in
a Medici palazzo near Florence, where she ran the local circles of artists,
writers, and expats, along with Getrude Stein and other Parisian visitors. She definitely
got the hang of the whole arts patronage thing and continued doing it when she
returned to New York in 1912. There, her Greenwich Village salon kept bringing
people together; she was also involved in the development of the 1913 Armory
Show. From 1913, Mabel traveled between the US and Europe, and could always be
found in budding and vibrant cultural circles, from Paris to Provincetown to
Santa Barbara, until 1919, when she and her third husband, Maurice Sterne,
traveled to Laos and settled down there.

Taos is where Mabel founded her famed (or infamous, depends
who you’re asking) arts colony. Following the advice of Tony Luhan, a local
Native American man, she bought a 12-acre property and had what became known as
Los Gallos, named for the decorative ceramic roosters, built there. (Mabel went
on to marry Luhan.) Los Gallos quickly developed a reputation for its
quasi-supernatural aura, the number of intrigues that took place there as
guests of all stripes came and went (and we all know how artists are, when it
comes to intrigue).

Dodge died in Taos in 1962. Dennis Hopper bought it in 1970
and tried to continue the communal hippie spirit of it, calling it the Mud
Palace and basically converting it into a haven of drug and free love. It didn’t
last though. The Mabel Dodge Luhan House
was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991, and now operates as an
historic inn and conference center. You can read more about the history of the
house in this NYT
article from 1997
, and you can also watch the documentary Awakening
in Taos
, directed by Mark Gordon. Mabel Dodge Luhan’s papers – letters,
manuscripts, photos, and other personal papers – are kept at Yale’s
Beinecke Library

– AK

FEBRUARY 25: Julie d’Aubigny (1670/1673–1707)


(Note: This is the original post, and it has been edited to avoid bi erasure in the portrayal of Julie d’Aubigny! Several reblogs going around are in fact the unedited version.)

Did your girlfriend ever pretend to be a nun and set an entire convent on
fire just to be with you? No? Cause Julie d’Aubigny sure as hell would.

February 25 was a slow day since we couldn’t find anything on wlw history
for that date. So we decided to talk to you about the highly mysterious,
alluring, and swoon-worthy Julie d’Aubigny, also known as Mademoiselle de
Maupin, or la Maupin. For some reason (actually, you’ll see why in just
a minute), d’Aubigny has known a steady increase
the past
: is it her habit to dress in drag and provoke young aristocrats in
duel? Is it her tendency to seduce women and men left and right? Is it her
amazing talent as an opera singer? Is it her pyromanic ways? Who knows! (Hint:
it’s all of the above.)


A fictional version of la Maupin, from Six
Drawings Illustrating Theophile Gautier’s Romance Mademoiselle de Maupin by
Aubrey Beardsley, 1898

D’Aubigny was born into aristocracy, and since her father was the guy who
trained the court pages for King Louis XIV (which was a big deal), she took
early on to dressing as a boy and learned all kinds of cool stuff: reading,
drawing, fencing, and playing with weapons! Throughout the whirlwind of her
life, she was known for getting into fights and just basically always getting
her way. She took male and female lovers left and right, ran away, supported herself by singing at taverns and dueling other aristocrats. She’d do the latter dressed as a man, which obviously made people super confused.

The central story, of course, is of her seducing a young blonde beauty while
in the South of France (she was a brunette herself and apparently thought a
blonde babe on her arm would make for a nice aesthetic contrast). The girl’s
parents didn’t approve (shocker) and sent her to a convent, so Julie did the
only reasonable thing and became a novitiate in said convent. When a few months
later one of the nuns died, Julie dug up the body, placed it in her lover’s
room, set fire to the whole damn thing, and ran away with her lover.

Wlw back then were just a whole another level of badass.

She did have an opera career, and her talent as a singer was highly praised,
but that was punctuated by all sorts of scandals like that time around 1695
when she kissed a young woman at a ball and three. different. noblemen
challenged her to duels. Which is kind of the most ridiculous thing to do
because you’re never winning if you’re dueling a bi woman who actually knows how to use a weapon. Of course she won all three duels, but
had to flee to Brussels to lay low for a while. There, she got into trouble
again because she apparently beat up her landlord.

She more or less died from a broken heart: when her mistress Madame la Marquise
de Florensac died, la Maupin retired from the opera and entered a convent where
she died herself two years later. She was in her early thirties then.

Which goes to beg the question: what will *we* have done by the time we’re
in our early thirties, if that’s not already the case? Uh? Better get started
on those fencing lessons.*

– AK

*This is most decidedly not an incitation to arson, since
lesbian nuns do exist and we wouldn’t want to run afoul of them, now, would

FEBRUARY 24: Judith Butler (1956-)


It’d be kind of difficult to write about queer women without
mentioning once Judith Butler, the American philosopher and theorist whose work
has profoundly influenced modern thought, especially in the fields of feminist
and queer theory.

Her academic achievements are impressive; and so is her list
of publications, among which we can find some of the groundbreaking texts on
gender, identity, sexuality, bodies, ethics, queerness, and Jewishness of the
20th-century: Gender Trouble
is usually the most well-known of her books, as it helped develop the idea of gender
performativity in feminist and queer theories, and has had impacts in film
studies and literary theory as well.


Judith Butler at a lecture at the University of Hamburg, April 2007, photo from Wiki Commons taken by

Butler was born in Cleveland, OH; her family is of Jewish
descent, hailing from Hungary and Russia. Out of her early education probably arose
her deep interest in ethics and political philosophy, as she attended Hebrew
school and special tutorial classes on Jewish ethics when she was a teenager.
She was a philosophy student in college and grad school, and she obtained her
PhD from Yale in 1984. She’s taught at numerous prestigious universities since
then, and she’s now the Maxine Elliot
in the CompLit department of Berkeley, where she’s taught since
1993, and where she founded the Critical Theory Program. She also currently
works at the European Graduate School, where she’s the Hannah Arendt Chair. She
lives in California with her partner, Wendy Brown, who’s also a professor at
Berkeley, working in political science and critical theory (birds of a feather
really do flock together), and their son.

Obviously, you can’t have that kind of public visibility
without some form of criticism. She’s been under fire for anything from her
views on gender to her prose style, which her detractors often consider to be pointlessly
obtuse. As always, there’s definitely valid criticism in all this, but one can’t
help but notice how often Butler’s been vilified by mainstream media and
conservative thinkers whenever she challenges deeply ingrained concepts (she
was basically demonized as the antichrist when marriage equality became a hotly
debated issue in France a few years ago).

has a pretty exhaustive bibliography for her. For more reading, there’s this
piece on the NYT
where she breaks down why “All Lives Matter” is wrong, and
a Youtube
brings up plenty of her lectures, which may be in a more
comprehensible format than her more academic texts. Finally, in this interview with The TransAdvocate, she explains her views on transgender identities and TERFs (spoiler alert: she fully supports any trans person’s right to self-definition, and completely opposes the latter).

And if you’re into that kind of thing, here’s a panel discussion
between Butler, Cixous, and Ronnell from back in 2012.

– AK

FEBRUARY 23: Lady Frances Brudenell dies


Today, we bring you not a birthday but a death. We tend to focus generally on birthdays because lesbians are always dying in mainstream media but Lady Frances Brudenell’s exact birth date is unknown (Wikipedia says before 1677), and even the exact year of her death is unknown: 1735 or 1736. Either way, it happened on February 23rd.

Frances, Baroness Bellew of Duleek, by Godfrey Kneller, 1695

She was a countess and a baroness resulting from her two marriages, from which she had several children. But aside from that, because everyone knows aristocracy can get boring after a while, she was basically running this Irish circle of lesbians and bisexual women (“tribades” they were called).

And this wasn’t hidden at all, apparently. This guy who accused her of owing him money, wrote a satire against her in revenge, where he depicted her as Myra, “a promiscuous bisexual witch and lesbian.” No higher compliment, if you ask me. And what is it with guys calling lesbians and bi women witches? Not that I’m complaining. Apparently, this is one of the first uses of “lesbian” in the modern sense.

(The satire was also called “The Toast” – you can’t make this up.)

She’s buried in
St. Audoen’s Church

in Dublin, if you want to go and pay your respects to the mother of lesbian & bi witches everywhere.

– AK