Famous in History & Infamously Queer: 5 women who were trail-blazers in their profession and their sexuality
Five famous women who loved women - history has tried to erase their sexuality, but the LGBTQI movement has kept their stories alive.
As we celebrate Pride Month, we’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to the trailblazers in history - particularly, to women who were well known and visible for their professional careers. This list of women were not only great achievers in their respective fields, but they were also some of the most inspiring icons of LGBTQI expression in history. Although some of their stories were too advanced for their time, posterity has begun to recognise their bravery and honesty in standing up for their truth.
The list of LGBTQI women in history is long - we sorted through a list including Barbara Jordan, Gladys Bentley, Selma Lagerlof, Roberta Cowell, Alice Walker, Frida Kahlo, Ellen Degeneres and more. And here are our favourite stories of the women who broke the barriers of their time to be with the women they loved.
We’ve all heard of the benevolence of the most famous nurse in history - although coming from a rich family, Nightingale eschewed her inheritance in favour of a lifetime of nursing and caring for the sick. Throughout her life, Nightingale was dedicated to her work, rejecting proposals and rebuffing the advances of men. She never married and was quarantined in her home by the age of 38. Her memoirs, however, are filled with passionate accounts of her time with women. In one of her entries, she wrote, "I have lived and slept in the same beds with English Countesses and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have”. She also once wrote of a female cousin, Marianne Nicholson, “I have never loved but one person with passion in my life, and that was her."
She lived in a time of Victorian morals, of repression and suppression of any sexual expression. To have expressed her queer insight publicly at this time was not only incredibly brave - it was immensely necessary for paving the path towards LGBTQI liberation.
The wife of President Franklin D Roosevelt, Eleanor has surpassed her husband in the collective memory of posterity. She’s now most known for her bisexuality - stemming from her long and passionate relationship with Lorena Hickok, whom she affectionately called Hick. Their relationship began while Eleanor was married to the President, and spanned her time in the White House. Eleanor was the longest-serving First Lady in history and stood by Franklin through his four terms in office. Throughout this time, Eleanor and Hick maintained a relationship that was well documented in letters spanning the 1930s.
What’s most interesting is the fact that Lorena Hickok was a renowned journalist in her own name. She was a journalist with the Associated Press, and her time there started in 1928, but only spanned 5 years. She felt that she had a conflict of interest when reporting about the President and the First Lady, and so she resigned. She was, in 1940, named the executive secretary of the Democratic National Committee, which allowed her to move into the White House and live in close proximity with Eleanor.
This cultural anthropologist is extremely well known for her work documenting adolescent girls in Samoa. She is, however, equally well known for her well-documented relationship with Ruth Benedict. Mead was married thrice, but her most enduring love was for Benedict - a passionate affair that spanned from 1925 to the time of Benedict’s death in 1948. Benedict had been Mead’s professor at Bernard, and the two had worked together extensively. Mead’s three marriages - from 1923-28, 1928-35, and 1936-50 all featured one constant - Mead’s constant desire to be with Benedict. Seven years after the death of her star crossed lover, Mead moved in with Rhoda Metraux, whom she had a romantic and professional relationship with until Mead’s death in 1978.
Mead not only set a powerful example for the LGBTQI women who would read about her in the future, but her work was also instrumental in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. A collection of the letters Mead wrote to Benedict were published posthumously, and this collection continues to endure with daily relevance, steeped in the passion and love shared by two women who could not be together.
One of the most well-known jazz voices ever, Billie Holiday was also known at the time for being bisexual. A life wrought with hardship, Holiday had battled addiction, neglect, exploitation, and trauma. In this context, her sexuality was seen as another casualty of her circumstances - a deviance, a consequence; something to be cured but not spoken of. She was raised for a time in a brothel, where she solicited sex work herself. This period was seen as the start of her ‘sexual deviance’, and encounters throughout her life would be informed by her sexual experimentation.
This jazz singer with the sultry voice could never be tied down with just one narrative of her identity. What did endure throughout Billie Holiday’s story is the tale of her epic romance with Tallulah Bankhead. An actress who was also gaining fame, Holiday and Bankhead together created female performance art - through one’s acting and the others’ music. The romance was never confirmed, nor denied. It was, however, well noted; a passionate and torrid tale of two tragic figures who could not find the space in society to come together in love.
Female participation in STEM careers has always been disproportionately low, but queer participation and visibility have been even lower. Sally Ride was a laser physics student at Stanford when she came across a newspaper ad seeking female astronauts. She applied, and was one of six women selected. This was the start of her journey to being the first American woman in space. In 1983 and 1984, Ride flew on the space shuttle and was in charge of manoeuvring the robotic arm to place satellites in space. She was a pioneer in space research and a very visible role model for girls who wanted to pursue space science. To quote Gloria Steinem on the day of the launch of Sally’s first mission in space, “Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers, and scientists.”
At 61, Sally Ride passed away from pancreatic cancer. In 1982, Sally had married a fellow astronaut, Steven Hawley. The couple got divorced in 1987. Upon Sally Ride’s death, her obituary made ripples across the world - it announced, quite casually, that Dr. Ride was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy. Sally was a trailblazer for women in science - but equally importantly, she is now, posthumously, an icon of hope for the LGBTQI community.