Category: women’s history

OCTOBER 30: Louise Abbéma (1853-1927)


Born on this day in 1853, Louise Abbéma was a painter, sculptor, designer, and one of the most famous “New Women” of the Belle Époque era. She is most well-known for her relationship with her lover and muse Sarah Bernhardt, who was one of the most well-known French stage actresses of her day. 



photographed in 1914 (x).

Louise Abbéma was born on October 30, 1853 in Étampes, Essonne. The Abbémas were an incredibly wealthy liberal family who were very well-connected to the Parisian art world; when Louise began to show interest in art at a young age, her parents had her train under greats such as Charles Joshua Chaplin, Jean-Jacques Henner and Carolus-Duran.After leaving home to study in Paris, the heart of the French art scene, at just the young age of 15, Louise became an active member in the premier salons of the day. 

She first received widespread recognition for her paintings when she displayed her very first portrait of Sarah Bernhardt. Her trademarks were oil portraits and waters colors, as exemplified in the works of one of her biggest influence, Édouard Manet. Another big influence? The fellow lesbian artist Rosa Bonheur! Louise became known for her portraits, murals, as well as her contributions to Gazette des Beaux-Arts and L’Art. Some of her most prestigious awards throughout her career was the 1887 Palme Academiques and being dubbed the Chevalier of the Order of the Légion d’honneur in 1906

A portrait of Sarah Bernhardt painted by Louise


and dated 1875 (x).

Although many historians have tried to paint Louise and Sarah Bernhardt as simply incredibly close friends, it is undeniable in our contemporary understanding that the two were lovers. Having made her stage debut in 1862 in the play Iphigénie, Sarah was already a household name by the time she met Louise in 1871. Both women were known as Bohemian eccentrics in polite society, especially Louise who wore men’s suits and smoked a cigar wherever she went, so it was a surprise to no one when the two eventually became inseparable. It was Louise’s first portrait of the “Divine Sarah,” as she was called by her adoring fans, that propelled her into superstar status after it became a hit at the Paris Salon of 1876, and throughout their 50-year-long partnership, Louise created multiple portraits and busts of Sarah. 

As a successful, independent painter and a butch lesbian who frequently showed gender non-conforming women in her work, Louise broke the mold of what society expected of its women. She and Sarah stayed together until Sarah’s death in 1923 and ever since Louise’s own death on July 10, 1927, she has been remembered as one of the most groundbreaking of the early 20th century’s “New Women.”


OCTOBER 28: Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (1842-193…


The American orator and social activist, Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, was
born on this day in 1842. Today, she is most well-known as being the very first
woman to ever give a political address before the United State Congress.


Anna photographed by Mathew Brady sometime between 1855 and 1865 (x).

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson was born
on October 28, 1842 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a family of Quakers. The
members of her family were highly religious and staunchly abolitionist,
instilling in her values of equality from an early age. The Dickinson family
home was a stop on the Underground Railroad until her father died in 1844 and
the family was thrust into hard financial times. Anna’s mother, Mary, opened a
small school in their home and began taking in tenants in order to keep the
family afloat. Anna herself was educated at Friends Select School and Westtown

Anna’s first article was published
in William Lloyd Garrison’s famous abolitionist newspaper The Liberator when she was only 14-years-old. As a young adult, she
found work as a copyist and then as a teacher. She was also among the United
States Mint’s first woman employees. Her career as a lecturer came about from
her active position in the Methodist Church, which she had converted to as an adult. In the
1860s, she began touring the country to give speeches on everything from abolition,
to reconstruction, women’s rights, and temperance. She was often dubbed “The
Girl Orator” or “the Civil War’s Joan of Arc.” An avid writer as well, she also
wrote over 8 books and plays during her lifetime.  

After the Civil War, Anna’s career
as public speaker continued to flourish. She became even more entrenched in
politics and found friendships with the premier suffragists of the day such as
Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. She never married
and has been interpreted by several historians as having been a lesbian. Her particularly
close friendship with Susan B. Anthony has come under speculation for its
possibly romantic undertones; Anna’s nickname for Susan, as she addressed her
in all their letters, was “Chickie Dickie.” Although the true identity of the
other woman is unknown, Anna also had an undeniable romantic correspondence with
a woman name Ida for a portion of her life.

After being wrongfully committed
to an insane asylum by her sister, Anna filed and won a law suit against both
her sister and the newspapers who published the story in 1898. In her later years, Anna
lived with her lover Sallie Ackerly and Sallie’s husband George. She eventually
passed away due to cerebral apoplexy on October 22, 1932. Her grave lies near
Sallie Ackerly’s at Slate Hill Cemetery in Goshen, New York.


OCTOBER 16: Marie Antoinette (1755-1793)


On this day in 1793, the disgraced
queen of France, Marie Antoinette, climbed the stairs of the guillotine to her
death. Although she is iconic throughout the world for purportedly speaking the
line “let them eat cake,” she has also long been iconic in lesbian subcultures for her “romantic friendships” with other women.


Marie Antoinette at age 12 by Martin van Meytens, c. 1767-1768 (x).

During Marie Antoinette’s
lifetime, pamphlets – publications not so different from today’s gossip
magazines – were running rampant with stories of the Queen’s wild
orgies that were supposedly being held behind the gates of the Palace of Versailles, as
well as stories of her supposed lesbianism. Her co-stars in these pamphlets
were the Princesse de Lamballe and the Comtesse de Polignac, two women who were
Marie’s closest friends and confidantes at different points throughout her
life. The pamphlets grossly exaggerated Marie Antoinette’s characteristics and used
their yarns of her sexual promiscuity and hedonistic lifestyle as a way to
display their dissatisfaction with the state of the monarchy as a whole.


Pornographic propaganda against Marie Antoinette depicts her in sexual acts with another woman (x). 

Whether Marie Antoinette did have
a romantic or sexual relationship with the Princess de Lambelle or the Comtesse
de Polignanc is beside the point; it is the myth and the imagery of the
secretly sapphic Queen of France that has made such an impact on lesbian subculture
that is has reverberated throughout the centuries. One author writes, “By the
end of the century, not only were the rumors about Marie Antoinette’s
homosexuality still alive, she had become for certain of her female admirers a
kind of secret heroine—an underground symbol of passionate love between women.”
In 1901, Marie Antoinette’s legacy became even more intertwined with lesbian
culture when two women partners claimed to have seen her ghost in the gardens
of Versailles in the Moberly-Jourdain Incident


After her 20th century biographers focused on Marie’s relationships with other women in
attempts to “de-lesbianize” her legacy, they ultimately cemented her status as a
sapphic figure. This status can be seen
in more contemporary modern culture in Madonna’s famous performance at the 1990
MTV Awards, the 2006 novel Abundance by Sera Jeter Naslund, and the 2012 movie Farewell,
My Queen


OCTOBER 11: Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)


Today, the legendary First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt would have turned 133-years-old. Although she might be one of the most quoted and revered women in American history, what is often glossed over about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt is her lesbian identity. 

Eleanor Roosevelt photographed in 1930 (x).

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 to wealthy socialite parents in Manhattan, New York. As a child, she preferred to go by her middle name of Eleanor, but her mother nicknamed her “Granny” for her oddly mature and serious manner. Despite her privileged beginning, Eleanor’s childhood would prove to be traumatic and breed a chronic depression that would follow her for the rest of her life. After her mother and little brother Elliott died of diphtheria in in 1892 and 1893, Eleanor’s father would descend into alcoholism and die of a seizure in 1894; three deaths in three years. For the rest of her childhood, Eleanor would live with her maternal grandmother in Tivoli, New York when she was not attending finishing school at the prestigious Allenswood Academy in London. 

Eleanor’s life changed when she just so happened to run into her father’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on a train back to Tivoli in 1902. Despite the opposition of several of their family members, Eleanor and Franklin were married on March 17, 1905. The couple settled in New York City’s Hyde Park area and remained there for many years, having six children from 1906 to 1916. Everything changed for Eleanor once again when her husband became the President of the United States on March 4, 1933. A “reluctant first lady,” Eleanor was dismayed at the idea that she would be so publicly shunned to the private, “womanly” sphere of the home and spend all her days playing hostess; however, Eleanor would go on to reinvent the role of First Lady and carry her feminist passions into her life in the White House. 

Although she had six children throughout her lifetime, Eleanor would reveal in private to her daughter Anne that she disliked having sex with her husband and that it was “an ordeal to be borne.” It is widely regarded today that Eleanor was a lesbian. She had a longtime relationship with the out lesbian journalist Lorena Hickock, whose love story with Eleanor we have covered on the blog before! It was also rumored that she had a short affair with the famous pilot Amelia Earhart, who was a close friend of Eleanor during her lifetime and who once sneaked her out of the White House so the two could attend a party together. The letters between Amelia and Lorena coupled with the fact that she was close friends with several known lesbian couples, such as Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, and Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read, makes the fact of Eleanor’s lesbianism and her understanding of that culture and identity undeniable. 

Photos of Eleanor and her longtime lover Lorena Hickok side by side. The letters between the two were not studied as evidence of an explicit love affair until the publication of Eleanor and Hick by Susan Quin in 2016 (x).

Even after her time at the White House was up and her husband had famously lost his battle with polio, Eleanor maintained a career as a social activist. She became the very first United States Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and spearheaded the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. The laundry list of progressive and feminist organizations Eleanor was either a supporter of or was directly involved in is almost never-ending and her contributions to mainstream America’s understanding of women’s rights is immeasurable. She passed away from cardiac arrest on November 7, 1962 an American hero.  


JULY 20: The Seneca Falls Convention (1848)


169 years ago today, the Seneca Falls Convention concluded in Seneca Falls, New York. Organized by suffragists Lucretia Mott and
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Seneca Falls Convention was the very first women’s
rights convention to ever take place and offered America women
their first opportunity to come and “discuss the social, civil, and religious
condition and rights of woman.“

The “Declaration of Sentiments” that was decided on and signed by all of the women present at The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 (x). 

The first wave of the Women’s Rights Movement in America began in the 1840s; women were starting to be allowed to pray aloud in church
meetings, more and more women were becoming vocal in the abolitionist movement,
and Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave her first public speech in 1841. With the
social movement gaining momentum, Stanton and her fellow suffragist and
feminist speaker, Lucretia Mott, began to see that these women needed a meeting
place where they would be able to see each other and discuss their goals in
person. That meeting place came in the form of the Seneca Falls Convention from
July 19-20, 1848. Organized by Stanton, Mott, and the Quaker women local to
the area, the Convention included six different sessions of philosophical debates on women’s role in society, lecture on civil law, and a
particularly heated debate on whether women should be granted the right to

Lucretia Mott (left) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (right) were the primary organizers of the convention (x) (x).

Now you’re probably asking yourself, “Yes I read all about
this in my 10th grade history textbook, but what does it have to do with
lesbians?” Well, just like the women’s conventions of the 1970s and 80s that
were such a crucial part of the second wave feminist movement, the Seneca Falls
Convention was not only one big hookup retreat for lesbian activists of the
day, but it was also organized by wlw themselves. That’s right – Elizabeth Cady
Stanton and Lucretia Mott both had deep connections with those women in the
movement who enjoyed “romantic friendships” with each other, such as Mary Grew
and Margaret Burleigh, Carrie Catt and Mollie Hay, and the notorious womanizer Isabel
Howland. We briefly covered Stanton’s not-so-friendly relationship with Susan
B. Anthony here, and you can read more about the lesbian underbelly of the
American suffragist movement here! Lillian Faderman puts it best when she writes, “From its inception, women’s fight for the vote was largely led by women who loved other women.”


MAY 18: Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973)


Jeanette Rankin went from a small town Montana girl to a
staunch women’s rights activist and the very first woman to ever be elected to
U.S. Congress! It was on this day in 1973 when she passed away at the age of

One of Jeannette’s most quotable quotes was “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” (x).

Jeannette was born in Missoula, Montana on June 11, 1980. Her
mother was a schoolteacher and her father was a Scottish-Canadian immigrant who
worked as a carpenter. As the eldest of six children, Jeannette spent her
childhood helping to raise her younger siblings and laboring on the Rankin family’s
ranch. It was her experience of doing equal work as her brothers but receiving unequal
recognition and respect that would become the foundation of her feminist
identity. Originally graduating from the University of Montana with a degree in
Biology, she then enrolled in the New York School of Philanthropy to study
social work. It was in New York when Jeannette first became involved in the
American suffrage movement and when she became politically awakened.

In February of 1911, Jeannette became the first woman to
speak before the Montana legislature when she gave a speech advocating for
women’s suffrage. She and her fellow suffragists would work hard for two more
years before Montana finally granted women full voting rights in November of
1914. In 1916, Jeannette changed history by running and winning a seat in the
U.S. House of Representatives; she was the first woman to serve in Congress in
U.S. history! After running a grassroots campaign from Montana train stations
and street corners, she was officially elected on November 7, 1916. Throughout
her political career, Jeannette was a notable pacifist and champion of women’s
rights. She famously voted against America’s entry into both World War I and
World War II (she was the ONLY member of Congress to vote against entering World
War II).

Waving in front of a campaign car draped in a banner that reads, “NO MORE WAR,” Jeannette not only talked the pacifist talk but she also walked the walk (x).

Jeannette never married and is generally understood to have been
a lesbian. After her first college stint at the University of Montana, she took
a teaching job in the town of Whitehall, only to be booted from the position
after she was discovered to be in a romantic relationship with another woman. The
details of the incident are unknown; in the Rankin family’s letters, it is only
ever referred to as “Jeannette’s embarrassment.” She went on to have a brief
relationship with the journalist Katherine Anthony, but the two eventually
separated and simply remained lifelong friends. Despite the few short-lived
affairs, Jeannette dedicated her life to social justice work. One of her last
public appearances was a 1968 march in Washington D.C. where she led over 5,000
women in protest of the Vietnam War. When she passed away on May 18, 1973, she
left her entire estate to the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund in
hopes it would support “mature, unemployed women workers.”


JANUARY 29: Gia Carangi (1960-1986)



(Source: x)

Many consider Gia Carangi to be the first supermodel. Born today in 1960 in Philidelphia, Carangi was the third and youngest of two brothers. Her parents didn’t get along (to put it mildly) and her mother left the family when Carangi was eleven years old. Many people believe this was the root to Carangi’s drug problems later in life. 

Becoming friends with the “Bowie kids” in high school, Carangi found a sort of home in David Bowie’s fashion sense, androgny, and bisexuality. Some friends compared Carangi to Cay from the movie Desert Hearts in terms of her approach to her sexuality.

Carangi moved to New York City when she was seventeen and signed on with Wilhelmina Models. October 1978 published her first major shoot with Chris von Wangenheim, where she posed naked with makeup artist, Sandy Linter. Carangi was deeply infatuated with Linter and though there was a relationship between them, it was never something that lasted.

This first shoot led Carangi to stardom, Vogue calling her rise to such, “meteoric”. She appeared in many fashion magazines including Vogue UK, Vogue Paris, American Vogue, Vogue Italia, and Cosmopolitan and campaigns for Armani, Versace, and Christian Diora among others. Many notable fashion photographers including Francesco Scavullo, Richard Avedon, and Marco Glaviano loved to work with her and similar to Beyonce and Prince, Carangi became so famous, she was known just by her first name: Gia.    

After the death of her agent and mentor, Wilhelmina Cooper, Carangi, already an avid cocaine club user, led to her heroin addiction. This led to her inability to work well: she became violent, would leave to get more drugs, and sometimes even fell asleep while working. Carangi left Wilhelmina for Ford Models in November 1990 but was fired after a few weeks. As her offers stopped coming in, her friends and lovers, such as Sandy Linter, stopped talking to her because they feared her ruin would hurt their careers.

Carangi went back to her father and step-mother in Philadelphia in Febrauary 1981 and did a 21 detox program. But she was arrested in March of that same year and drove into a fence in a neighborhood.There was a police chase and after she was apprehended, they learned she was intoxicated and under the influence of cocaine. After being released, she signed on with Legends and worked in Europe for some time.

Later in the same year, Carangi attempted to make a comeback by signing with Elite Model Management. Many people weren’t interested in working with her, but she was put on the cover of Cosmopolitan photographed by Francesco Scavullo, her last time on an American magazine. She mainly worked with Albert Watson and appeared in some catalogs while she worked an outpatient meth program. Soon she began using heroin again. She was sent home from a shoot for using, and 1983 is the last time she’d leave New York ever again.

In December 1984, she went to an intense drug treatment program at Eagleville Hospital. After treatment, she worked at a clothing store, then as a check out clerk, then as a cafeteria worker in a nursing home before she started to use drugs again in late 1985.

Carangi was admitted to Warminster General Hospital for bilateral pneumonia in June 1986. She was diagnosed with AIDS-related complex. She was admitted again on October 18, to Hahnemann University Hopstial and at age twenty-six, died on November 18, 1986 of AIDS-related complex. Her funeral was on November 23, and many of the fashion world did not attend, though most of them didn’t know of her death until much later. Her friend, Francesco Scavullo, sent a Mass card a few weeks after the funeral when he heard the news.

There’s a straight to TV movie starring Angelina Jolie as Gia Carangi and Elizabeth Mitchell as Sandy Litner called Gia.

Sources (x, x)    

~lex lee.

JANUARY 28: Colette (1873-1954)


We’ve already talked about the kind of trouble Colette was able to create in 19th-century, straight-laced Paris (two words: THEATER RIOT), and we’re back today to provide you with a more in-depth look at this bisexual icon.


Well, hello there.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born in 1873 in Burgundy, France. She spent a happy childhood, doted on by her mother, free to roam and enjoy a place that felt Edenic in its abundance of natural beauty. Early on, she learned to read and though her family experienced substantial financial problems for a while, she still received an extensive education.

When she was 20, she married Henry Gauthier-Villars, nicknamed “Willy.” The guy has the – justified – reputation of a philanderer but he’s also quite popular in Parisian intellectual circles, into which he quickly introduces his young wife. He’s also a prolific writer – but that’s because he uses ghostwriters. When he picks up on Colette’s writing talents, he doesn’t hesitate to use her as well, encouraging her to write about her memories from school (and also encouraging her to amp up the lesbian factor in there, since it would prove to be titillating to so many readers, and to pursue her own lesbian dalliances). This is how her first series of novels – the Claudine series – came to be published, but they were signed with Willy’s name and not hers.

Over time, even though Colette stated that she’d never have become a writer if not for Willy, she freed herself from his tutelage, especialyl since she never forgave him for selling the rights to the Claudine series without telling her. She started signing with the pseudonym “Colette Willy;” she and Willy separated in 1906, and finalized their divorce in 1910. Since Colette was pretty much broke at the time – having no means of getting the copyright earnings from the Claudine books – she relied on a stage career across French music halls. This was not a particularly easy period for her; yet it also meant liberation. She pursued several relationships with other women, including with Mathilde de Morny and Nathalie Barney Clifford.

She married twice more, first to Henry de Jouvenel, with whom she had one daughter, born in 1913 and nicknamed Bel-Gazou, and then with Maurice Goudeket. In 1945, she was unanimously elected into the Goncourt Academy, of which she became president in 1949. She wrote all her life, and recognition of her talent rose over time. When she died in 1954, the Catholic Church refused to give her a religious burial because of her reputation, but she became the first woman to receive a state funeral from the French Republic. She is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery, next to her daughter. Want to read the obituary The New York Times wrote for her in 1954? It’s right here. And here are a few links if you wish to know more about her: in French, la Maison de Colettele Centre d’études Colette / a documentary about her from the INA archives. And in English, articles in The Spectator & The Guardian.

– AK

JANUARY 26: Ellen DeGeneres (1958-)


Hard to write for a blog full of lesbians and *not* talk about Ellen, whose TV talk show is in its 14th season, who’s had an extremely popular website named after her, and who also happens to be one of the best-known lesbians out there.

The face of CoverGirl

Born and mostly raised in Louisiana, Ellen had a number of jobs after high school, including doing clerical work for a law firm, and working in retail & at restaurants – much of this then became material for her stand-up routines.

She started her stand-up career in small clubs but by the early 1980s was touring nationally. She appeared in a few films – including a series for Epcot called “Ellen’s Energy Adventure” – and in short-lived TV shows before being cast in These Friends of Mine, which would eventually become Ellen on its second season. Ellen ran from 1994 to 1998, and laid the foundation for the comedian’s ever-growing popularity. The sitcom starred Ellen as a bookshop owner, and portrays her relationships with her family and friends.

In 1997, Ellen came out on Oprah’s show; this was followed by a coming-out episode on Ellen, which, if it didn’t end her career, far from it, certainly contributed to the show being stopped one year later. In 2001, however, Ellen came back to TV with a talk show that’s been getting increasingly high ratings and critical praise – The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

In August 2008, Ellen married Portia de Rossi. Ellen has also been a commencement speaker at Tulane University (twice), a judge for one season of American Idol, the host of multiple award ceremonies including the 79th Academy Awards (making her the first openly LGBT host of the ceremony), the face of CoverGirl, the creator of the world’s most retweeted selfie, a vegan & animal rights supporter, the voice actress for everyone’s favorite blue tang fish, Dory, and one of the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Happy Birthday Ellen!

– AK

JANUARY 25: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)



Today we
will explore the life and affections of a favourite writer of mine – Virginia Woolf.
This first post will be echoed by reviews of several of her books later this
year, which is why we won’t linger too much on praising her literary genius.

To put you in the right mood, you can listen here to the only recording of her voice, first broadcast by the BBC on 29 April 1937 as part of a series called Words Fail Me.

writer Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882 in a stepfamily,
to Julia Prinsep Jackson, who was Julia Margaret Cameron’s niece and a
Pre-Raphaelite model, and to Sir Leslie Stephen, who was previously William
Thackeray’s son-in-law, and a historian, critic and biographer. Such parents
came with friends from Victorian literary circles such as Henry James, Lewes and
Lowell who were regularly invited at their house in Kensington, London, and influenced the education of the Stephen children.


Stephen by George Charles Beresford, July 1902

Listing the
family tragedies that occurred while Virginia was still young is heartbreaking.
Her half-sister Laura was sent to an asylum when Virginia was 9. Then her
mother died when she was 13, shortly followed by her other half-sister Stella. To
top it all, Virginia and her sister Vanessa were sexually abused as children
and teenagers by their adult half-brothers. (Thankfully their crime was
acknowledged and denounced by both women later on!)

This left the remaining four
children, Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian to deal with a tyrannical,
capricious father too occupied with his life’s work – editing the Dictionary of
National Biographies. At that time, Virginia suffered (presumably as a result)
several nervous breakdowns, and subsequent recurring depressive periods, for which doctors prescribed “Rest Cures” (ever read The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman?). Actually
similar mood swings continued to torment her all her life, and partly led to
her suicide in the River Ouse on March 28, 1941.


Vanessa et Virginia playing cricket at their family’s summer home in Cornwall, 1893 – a
idyllic setting which inspired To the Lighthouse
(1927) a vibrant homage to their mother.

While the
boys were given a proper education and sent to Cambridge, that would have been
inappropriate for the girls. At least, Virginia could educate herself thanks to
her father’s huge private library – and, boy, did she read! Along with learning
Ancient Greek, Latin, and German, she developed a yearning to write, starting
with diaries, and a family newspaper, illustrated by Vanessa who took art
classes. Furthermore, their brothers brought home their friends from Cambridge,
which was the beginning of what we know as the Bloomsbury Group.

However it only
officially became the Bloomsbury Group when the Stephen siblings actually left
Kensington at their father’s death in 1902, and set up house in Bloomsbury,
where they started to live a bohemian life and regularly welcomed Lytton Strachey,
Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes and others in their midst. They
had so much fun (ever heard of the Dreadnought Hoax?) breaking the codes of
Victorian society, in art, literature, but also in their social life – they had
quite the progressive approach to sexuality. Though if homosexuality between
men was accepted and even celebrated, as much as heterosexuality, that didn’t seem
to include lesbianism – how progressive


Socialising in the sun. From left to right, Angelica/Vanessa/Clive
Bell, Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes. Photo from Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House photo album, before 1939.

But then, Thoby
died, and soon afterwards, her sister Vanessa, to whom Virginia was really close,
married art critic Clive Bell. After a fake marriage proposal by Lytton, the
latter urged his friend Leonard Woolf, who was abroad at the time, to marry
Virginia. They met and indeed married in 1912. Critics often disagree on their
relationship and Leonard’s role in Virginia’s life – the saviour, or the prison
ward. On the one hand, he refused her a child, giving her mental instability
as a pretext and influencing the doctors’ ultimate decision, and was often
painted as the poor husband of a frigid Virginia in the latter’s first
biographies – a portrait shaped by his perspective, which hides his own issues
regarding sex and women. But on the other hand, he nurtured Virginia’s talent,
tried to keep her stable by moving to the countryside, giving her a hobby (as
prescribed by doctors) by creating the Hogarth Press, which published her own
books, but also that of the members of the Bloomsbury Group, other contemporary
writers, and the first English translation of Sigmund Freud’s work. At least, most critics agree to say that, without Leonard, Virginia probably wouldn’t have lived as long – and written as much – as she did.


Woolf” (c.1912) portrait by Vanessa Bell. Vita
Sackville-West as “Lady in a Red Hat” (1918) by William Strang

Virginia’s affections were more often directed towards women – it started with
her first crush, her cousin Madge, then with Violet Dickinson, 17 years her
senior, who helped her through the death of her father. Later on, she intrigued and impressed the extravagant Ottoline Morrell, who developed a crush on
her and often invited her to her salons, though Virginia would often ridicule
her and mock her behind her back – aware of the power she yielded thanks to her words and wit, she always liked to hold court in society, where she gave
satirical portrayals of everybody (while drinking champagne). Composer
Ethel Smyth also fell for Virginia, and both women remained friends till the
latter’s death.

Her most famous relationship though was with Vita Sackville
West, whom she met in 1922. Their affair led Virginia to write to – and about – her
lover. She described Vita as “pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung” and
wrote to her “you only be a careful dolphin in your gambolling, or you’ll find
Virginia’s soft crevices lined with hooks!” Their romance led to the writing of Orlando, qualified by Vita’s son as “the
longest and most charming love letter in literature,” but also inspired other
writers, such as Edna O’Brien, Eileen Atkins, Christine Orban…

Virginia was
fascinated by bisexuality (as the fusion of both male and female identities in
one person, not the modern understanding of the term) and experimented with the
ideas of genders, and heterosexual and homosexual relationships in her writing.
If you are interested in  that reflection, I recommend the recent lesbian
reading of her works (both fiction and non-fiction).

Want to know more? Here are some anecdotes about her…

– Lise