7 Queer Women In History You Should Know

From actors to singers to poets.

by JR Thorpe

To be a woman in history was difficult enough (just ask Queen Theodora, the Byzantine empress painted to be a prostitute by a male historian); subsequently, to have been a woman and queer in the past was fraught with unimaginable difficulties. But certain notable figures still managed — and in spectacular style. Some of the most influential, artistic, and highly-distinguished women in history have experienced a decent dose of queerness in their lives. But today, the focus is not on those who often have the limelight during discussions of important queer historical figures, like the poet Sappho. Instead, this is a journey through some of the lesser-known queer women of history.

From the out-and-proud Yorkshire noblewoman who kept an encrypted diary of her liaisons with women to the Mexican singer who had an affair with Frida Kahlo and died a legend at 93, these are women whose primary significance in history wasn’t related to their choice of bedmate. However, as much as they might have not explicitly revealed that aspect of their identity, or viewed their orientation in vastly different ways to our own views of sexuality today, visibility is important. It's key to remember that queer women weren't an invention of modernity — they've been around forever.

Here are seven queer women in history whose scandals, innovations, and contributions need to be on your radar.

1. Alla Nazimova

If you've ever wondered about the origin of the coy term "sewing circle" as a euphemism for a gathering of queer women, it's alleged to have started with Alla Nazimova, a Russian actress and apparent seductress extraordinaire during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Her salons at her house in 1920s Los Angeles, known as the Garden of Allah, were famously Sapphic, and biographers have called her “the most notorious Hollywood lesbian actress of all.” She was also an incredibly talented actress and silent film star, though her career was put to a halt when it emerged in 1925 that her marriage to a gay actor, Charles Bryant, was a "lavender marriage" created to protect them both. She apparently had flings and relationships with virtually every other queer actress at the time, from Mercedes Acosta to Dorothy Azner.

2. Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Queer or not, you should know about Alice Dunbar-Nelson; the New Orleans native of mixed race became one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance — a literary movement in the early 20th century — and was, in the words of the Poetry Foundation, "one of the few female African American diarists of the early 20th century." But her poetry, prose, and memoirs also occasionally hinted at her bisexuality, alongside her activism for women's rights and racial equality. She was married three times to men, occasionally tumultuously, and reportedly had relationships with pioneering black journalist Fay Jackson Robinson and the prominent headmistress Edwina Kruse, at whose school she taught.

3. Greta Garbo

Speculation regarding the sexuality of Garbo, one of the most well-known actresses in Hollywood history, has continued for decades, but it seems that there was a heavy dose of queerness in the screen legend's makeup. In letters to actress Mimi Pollak, she declares, "I dream of seeing you and discovering whether you still care as much about your old bachelor. I love you, little Mimosa," and "We cannot help our nature, as God has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together." Her most famous liaison, however, was likely with the actress Mercedes Acosta (yes, the one who also had a fling with Alla Nazimova), though it's been alleged she also had a fling with Marlene Dietrich (who then subsequently pretended never to have met her afterward), one of Acosta's exes. In her letters, Garbo described her romantic relationships with women as "exciting secrets."

4. Jane Addams

Did you know that the second female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was likely a lesbian? Bet you didn't. Tragically, she died three days after the honor was awarded in 1931. Jane Addams was a towering figure in 20th-century philanthropy, first opening Hull House as a facility for community aid in Chicago in 1919, then gradually becoming one of the world's foremost peace activists, including engaging in a famous argument with President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. Meanwhile, she had long, committed romantic relationships with women over the entirety of her life, particularly with the co-founder of Hull House Mary Rozet Smith (their 30-year relationship was referred to by Addams as a "marriage"). We're not sure whether their relationship was sexual (when the two traveled they requested double beds), but it's clear that they were emotionally devoted, even if they didn't regard themselves as "lesbians" in the modern sense of the word.

5. Anne Lister

If there's anybody on this list who can claim a contribution to the history of LGBTQ+ identities and politics, it's Anne Lister, who has been referred to as the "first modern lesbian" on multiple occasions. A wealthy English noblewoman of the early 1800s, she was unashamed of her lesbianism and managed to live, essentially, as a man in the straight-laced (pun intended) world of rural British gentry, including "marrying" a woman. Lister burst onto the historical scene when her four million-word diaries were found and published in the late 1980s by a historian, including incredibly graphic sexual passages and her hilarious seduction attempts (she'd mention something in classical literature about homosexuality, then see what the reaction was). She tried to be coy; her euphemism for hitting the sheets was "going to Italy," and a portion of the diary was written in a code made of algebra and ancient Greek. A large part of Lister's freedom boiled down to her wealth, which allowed her to go off climbing mountains and seducing French maidens without the brutal consequences that women of her era with fewer financial resources may have faced.

6. Bessie Smith

You likely already know Smith if you're interested in the history of American blues. Her honey-smooth voice earned her the title "Empress of the Blues" and made her one of the highest-paid black artists of the 1920s. She's since been called "the greatest female blues singer who ever lived," even though her life was cut short by a car accident in 1937, when she was only 43 years old — an accident that was so controversial, Edward Albee wrote a play about it. It has been suggested that she may not have died from the accident if she had been white, because she would have been given medical attention sooner.

It's also been suggested that she may have had a romantic relationship with her mentor, blues singer Ma Rainey. In the 2015 biopic starring Queen Latifah, Bessie, tackled her bisexuality head-on, with the director explaining in an interview that Smith inhabited the experimental sexual culture of the 1920s with great charisma and charm. According to Smith's niece, who was on the road with her for a period, she had a chaotic romance with the chorus girl Lillian Simpson, but she also had a tumultuous marriage to musician Jack Gee, with whom she adopted a child.

7. Chavela Vargas

When Chavela Vargas passed away in 2012, NPR lamented that "a legend of Latin American song has died," and the New Yorker wrote a tribute to "Mexico's Majestic Lesbian Chanteuse." This Costa Rican was one of the biggest influences of Mexican music of the 20th century, specializing in the particular art form of rancheras, the traditional folk Mexican music genre. She also publicly came out as a lesbian in her 2002 memoir, published when she was 81, in which she stated, "Homosexuality doesn't hurt. What hurts is when you're treated like you have the plague because of it." She is reported to have had a long-lasting relationship with Frida Kahlo (though it's never been confirmed), and one of her most famous songs, “Macorina," is about a liaison with a woman with breasts like "fruit." And if that's not something for the history books, what is?

Images: Library of Congress, Twentieth Century Negro Literature, Alexander Binder, Library of Congress, Joshua Horner, Library of Congress, Y si quieres saber de mi pasado/Wikimedia Commons