June is LGBT Pride month, and what better way to celebrate it than by spotlighting notable queer woman in history? To list all of the LGBT woman who left their mark on the world would be too much. Though unable to openly express themselves until recent years, queer woman have accomplished great things and brought good to the world. They are artists and politicians, astronauts and athletes, sailors and espionage spies. Without notable queer woman in history, our world would be a less vibrant one.
These are 15 women who you may not have studied in social studies. Or, if you did, you probably didn't learn about their sexual orientation. Pushing the boundaries of convention is a difficult thing to do in history, but these women risked it all to make a safe place for LGBTQ people today.
15 Barbara Jordan
Barbara Jordan was the first African-American attorney to be elected to the US House of Representatives from Texas and the first post-Reconstructionist African-American state senator. She made even more history when she was the first woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in the 1970s. In 1979, she removed herself from politics and pursued a career as a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Bill Clinton gave her the Medal of Freedom in 1994 for her outstanding achievements during her life.
In 1996, she died at age 59 from pneumonia; her obituary listed her as partner of twenty years with educational psychologist Nancy Earl, who she had met on a camping trip. Though she never publicly identified as lesbian, historians list her as the first queer woman to have been elected in United States Congress.
14 Alla Nazimova
No Silver Screen starlet of the Roaring Twenties was quite so swooning as Alla Nazimovma, who biographers refer to as "the most notorious Hollywood lesbian of them all." This Russian stage actress, singer, and silent movie film star was known for her wild, free spirit. She openly conducted relationships with other female actresses despite homosexuality being a punishable crime in the United States. She referred to her female love interests, mostly closeted lesbian and bisexual Hollywood actresses, as her "sewing circle" (a coy term which gained traction in many twentieth-century queer communities).
In 1929, she settled down with fellow actress Glesca Marshall, who hosted lavish parties with her at her Sunset Boulevard villa. Nazimovma and Marshall were passionate and enduring lovers, and the two lived together for the rest of their lives as (only barely) closeted partners.
13 Chavela Vargas
Costa Rican singer Chavela Vargas, who passed away in 2012, was known to NPR as a "legend of Latin American song" and to the New Yorker as "Mexico's majestic lesbian chanteuse." Vargas revolutionized the art form of rancheras, the traditional Mexican folk genre, and adapted it to the twentieth-century. Her songs were soft and sensual, and they often alluded to romances with women. One of her most well-known songs, "Macorina," refers to a woman with breasts like "fruit."
At age 81, she came out as lesbian in her memoir, where she said of her sexual orientation, "Homosexuality doesn't hurt. What hurts is when you're treated like you have the plague because of it." She also wrote of her long-term romance with surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, who she is pictured with above.
12 Sally Ride
Physicist and astronaut Sally Ride was the first American woman in space (as well as the youngest astronaut overall, having flown in space at age 32). After pursuing a degree in physics at Stanford University, Ride answered a newspaper ad looking for female astronauts and became one of six women picked. After rigorous training, she joined the space shuttle team in 1983, where she controlled a robotic arm that placed satellites into space.
After working with NASA as an astronaut for four years, Ride left in 1987. She then worked as a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego, until her death of pancreatic cancer in 2012. Her obituary revealed that she had been in a relationship with a woman named Tam O'Shaughnessy (a professor emerita of educational psychology at UC San Diego), for 27 years. The two were childhood friends who met when both were aspiring tennis athletes, and their relationship continued throughout their adult years.
11 Marion "Joe" Carstairs
Joe Carstairs was the daughter of an American heiress, though she spent much of her childhood in England. When she came of age, she pursued professional powerboat racing and was known for her great speed. In the early twentieth-century, she was known for her eccentric lifestyle: she wore men's clothing with a short hairstyle, tattooed her arms, and loved everything to do with machines. During World War I, she served as an ambulance driver in France and Ireland, where she picked up bits of French, German, and Italian.
She was also an open lesbian and had relationships with multiple women throughout her life. Her most well-known relationship was with Dolly Wilde, nice of the renowned playwright Oscar Wilde. She also allegedly dated Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, among other closeted celebrities.
10 Babe Didrikson
Marion "Babe" Didrikson was a renowned athlete in basketball, track, softball, and tennis. During the 1932 Olympics, she broke overall records in the javelin and the high jump, earning her two gold medals. From here, she focused on her career as a professional golfer and toured across the United States, becoming the first woman to compete in national tournaments. She was especially close to fellow pro golfer Betty Dodd, who often accompanied her on tours and moved into Didrikson's home after her marriage had become stormy. Considered "victims of homophobia" by many sports historians, Dodd and Didrickson were intimate and loving partners despite never coming out as queer to the general public. Their relationship continued until Didrikson's death of colon cancer in 1956, at age forty-five.
9 Hannah Snell
Hannah Snell was born in England during the eighteenth-century, where locals remember her as often dressing up as a soldier and playing with the young boys. She married in 1744 to a man named James Summes, who abandoned her during her pregnancy with his child. When her child died a year later, she went in search of her former husband. She borrowed a suit from her brother-in-law James Gray, assumed his name, and boarded a boat as a sea captain, where she found out that her husband had been executed for murder.
With nothing left for her at home, she joined the British Navy as a man from 1745 to 1750. While stopped at a port in Carlisle, she was asked to find a prostitute for her commanding officer, but became intimate with the prostitute herself instead. She continued sleeping with women from port to port, none of whom allegedly suspected that Snell was a woman. In 1750, she revealed her gender to her shipmates and was discharged with a pension, which she used to fund and run a bar called The Warrior Woman.
8 Toto Koopman
Born to Dutch and Indonesian parents in 1908, Toto Koopman ignored racist mindsets at the time and embraced her dual heritage. Koopman was the earliest known Vogue model and in-house model for Coco Chanel. During World War II, she carried out espionage missions for the Italian Resistance (after falling in love with a prominent Resistance leader) and helped secure the Allies' victory. After the war, she pursued life as an archaeologist and went out on many digs.
Openly bisexual, Koopman met German art dealer Erica Brausen after the war and fell in love with her. The two spend the rest of their lives together at a London art gallery, where they showcased the works of Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp, Lucian Freud, and Henry Moore.
7 Tallulah Bankhead
Tallulah Bankhead was a bisexual American actor who supposedly pursued relationships with Greta Garbo, Billie Holiday, and Marlene Dietrich. Despite this, she often denied reports that she was a lesbian or even bisexual. The term she preferred was "ambisextrous." She was known for her deep, husky voice, her hard-hitting wit, and her dramatic personality.
Her relationships with other women were often tempestuous and incredibly emotional, partially due to her alcoholism and uninhibited sex life. In the late 1930s, she contracted an STI which had a low rate of recovery and nearly died on the operating table. When she left the hospital, she was only 70 lbs. Despite her close brush with death, she made a point to tell the doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson."
6 The Ladies of Llangollen
The Ladies of Llangollen were aristocratic Irish lovers who made each other's acquaintance while in boarding school. The two fell in love quickly and never left each other's side unless they had to, to the unease and suspicion of their relatives. Their families threatened to put them both in nunneries (due to their insistence that neither would marry), so they ran away as teenagers to a Welsh mansion in the countryside. There they devoted themselves to academic studies, gardening, and strengthening their relationship together.
Because of their sheared short hair and masculine dress, locals talked of the seemingly-eccentric Ladies of Llangollen, and their relationship was known for its great passion and infamy (due to prejudices against same-sex relationships in the nineteenth-century). The two were visited by famous romantic writers like Lord Byron and Shelley, as well as women pursuing relationships with other women.
5 Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale is best known for working in deplorable conditions while treating sick soldiers during the Crimean War. She and her team of over forty nurses vastly improved the sanitary procedures of the military infirmary. With money given to her by Queen Victoria for her heroism and great achievement, Nightingale founded the St. Thomas' Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses.
Though Nightingale was arguably the most famous nurse in history, few biographers talk about her sexual orientation. Nightingale is thought to have been a closeted lesbian, though she remained unmarried all her life. In the nineteenth-century, same-sex relationships were considered shameful, and she likely never acted on her feelings. Throughout her life, she was completely devoted to multiple women. Of her cousin Marianne Nicholson, she wrote, "I have never loved but one person with passion in my life, and it was her."
4 Gladys Bentley
Gladys Bentley was a Blues singer and openly lesbian drag king during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's. While backed by a chorus of drag queens, she would make up her own (usually colorful) lyrics to popular songs and swoon women in the audience. She was known for having a seductive, gravelly voice and wearing her signature tuxedo and top hat. Bentley enjoyed a short marriage to a woman in New York City, who separated with her for unknown reasons. She was revelled in her time as different from the traditional drag king: she revelled in both her masculinity and femininity and never tried to "pass" as male. Instead, she was confident in being a masculine woman and used it to get her audience question the line between men and women.
3 Roberta Cowell
Roberta Cowell was a World War II fighter pilot and Grand Prix racing driver who transitioned from male to female in the mid twentieth-century. She gained initial experience in Grand Prix racing by dressing in mechanic's overalls and offering assistance to drivers as they needed. Through servicing the cars, she learned a lot about them and eventually competed in the Antwerp Grand Prix of 1939.
After World War II, she began to suffer from depression and enlisted the help of a Scottish psychiatrist, who discovered with her that she felt like a female born in a male's body. In 1950, she began taking estrogen and transitioning to female, becoming the first transgender woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery in 1951. Though she was no longer allowed to race in Grand Prix competitions after transitioning, she continued motor racing and even won the 1957 Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb. In a time where most transgender woman were assumed to be straight and traditionally feminine, she pursued relationships with women and continued a successful career in a so-called "men's sport."
2 Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf was one of the most prominent feminists of the early twentieth-century, and her writing helped make a space for contemporary women's rights activists. One of her most well-known novel, Orlando, was inspired by her relationship with another woman. Orlando was the story of a long-living writer who changed their gender over the centuries and had relationships with both men and women. Woolf (speculated to have been bisexual) had a passionate affair with Vita Sackville-West, an English poet and prolific journalist. The two fell in love for the greater part of a decade, during which they exchanged tempestuous love letters. Sackville-West supported Woolf through periods of depression and praised her for her wit, intelligence, and achievements. The two remained close friends and companions until Woolf's death in 1941
1 Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King is a former World No. 1 professional tennis player who became one of the first openly LGBT professional athletes. She has been an advocate for gender equality all her life and securing rights for female athletes. At age 29, she won the Battle of the Sexes match against former champion Bobby Riggs and later founded the Women's Tennis Association.
In 1971, Billie Jean King began a relationship with her secretary Marilyn Barnett. She kept their relationship quiet until 1983, where a lawsuit filed by Barnett forced her to reveal it. This made her one of the first professional athletes to come out as queer, albeit by force. King hadn't realized or come to terms with her sexual orientation until later in life, when she divorced her husband and lived as openly lesbian.
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