Famous lesbians: extraordinary women from world history


famous lesbians lesbian history

Lesbian history often receives scant attention. But not today! Check out these famous lesbians – some of the most extraordinary women who ever lived.

LGBTQIA+ people in general suffer historical erasure. As women, lesbians are doubly erased.

It’s not called HIStory for nothing!

Throughout the ages, lesbians often remained hidden or closeted because of oppression and persecution. But even those who came out frequently suffered the tweaking of their life stories by authorities, relatives or followers eager to claim their accomplishments but not their sexuality or identity. Historically, lesbians are less visible even than gay men. Because lesbianism was not usually criminalised, there is less judicial documentation than for gay men.

Reformers

Jane Addams

Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams devoted her life to fighting poverty, racism and war with the support of her female ‘romantic partners’. Opinionated, passionate and persuasive, she became a household name, America’s ‘best-known female public figure’.

Read more about Jane Addams.

jane addams nobel peace prize famous lesbians lesbian history
Jane Addams

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale virtually invented modern-day nursing and so the Lady of the Lamp became a secular saint of the British Empire.

Argument rages still about her sexuality. But it’s difficult to argue with something she once wrote in a letter.

“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.”

Read more about the Lady of the Lamp.

florence nightingale december 29 lady of the lamp

Dr Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford

A couple from their teenage years, Dr Lilian Cooper and Miss Josephine Bedford arrived in Brisbane in 1891. Dr Cooper was Queensland’s first ‘lady doctor’ and made an immense contribution to medicine in the state. Josephine worked alongside her and volunteered for organisations dedicated to civic improvement.

“The story of Lilian Violet Cooper… cannot be told without constant reference to Mary Josephine Bedford, as their lives were so intertwined. Together they contributed to the quality of life and the development of Brisbane. Their industry and dedication eased the way for many Queensland women to follow.”

The pair share a single grave in Brisbane’s Toowong Cemetery.

Read more about Lilian Cooper and Jo Bedford.

Dr Lilian Cooper and Jo Bedford
Jo Bedford (left) and Dr Lilian Cooper.

Activists

Soni Wolf

Soni Wolf, co-founder of Dykes on Bikes, fought all the way to the US Supreme Court for the organisation’s right to trademark their name and logo.

“If I must be labelled other than as a ‘person’, ‘human being’, or ‘woman’, I choose ‘Dyke’. ‘Dyke’ is a strong word and I say it with pride. ‘Dyke’ expresses my pride in myself, my existence, and in what I have accomplished. I am gay — I am a lesbian — I AM A DYKE!”

Read more about Soni Wolf.

Dykes on Bikes soni wolf april 25 By Charlie Nguyen from Berkeley, CA, United States of America - IMG_4439, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107273077 april 25 soni wolf
Soni Wolf. Image: Charlie Nguyen

Sandra Willson

As a mentally ill 20-year-old in 1959, Sandra Willson shot and killed a 23-year-old taxi driver in Sydney. She became Australia’s longest-serving female prisoner. After her release, she campaigned for prison reform.

Read more about Sandra Willson.

famous lesbians lesbian history
Sandra Willson

Extraordinary Women

Mary East, the female husband

At the age of 16, Mary East and her 17-year-old girlfriend decided their only hope of happiness was with each other. They agreed one should dress as a man and they should pose as a married couple. A toss of a coin saw Mary settle into the role of James How. Mr and Mrs How lived together happily for over 30 years, ran a series of pubs, and became relatively wealthy. But then someone recognised Mary from her younger years and set out to extort her.

Read more about Mary East here.

mary east female husband february 13 famous lesbians lesbain history

Rose Cleveland

Remembered by history as US First Lady to her unmarried brother President Grover Cleveland, Rose Cleveland invited ‘the notorious dress reformer’ Dr Mary Walker to a White House reception. Dr Walker attended in “full masculine attire, wearing a Prince Albert coat, blue satin scarf and white gloves.”

But when newspapers complained of her dressing as a man, Dr Walker fired back, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”

Rose later enjoyed a long affair with Evangeline Simpson, which only came to light generations later when a family member donated a box of their correspondence to a historical society.

Read more about Rose Cleveland.

Rose Cleveland Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple
Rose Cleveland

Margot Heuman

As a teenager, Margot Heuman fell in love with a Viennese girl named Dita Neumann. They met when their families were imprisoned in a ‘transit ghetto’ town for Jews en route to the Nazi death camps. Both girls survived Auschwitz but lost their families. Separated after the liberation of the camp, both married after the war. But they later reunited and remained close friends until Dita’s death.

Read more about Margot Heuman. 

holocaust survivor margot heuman nazi concentration camp lesbian queer
Margot Heuman. Image: USC Shoah Foundation Institute

Phyllis Papps and Francesca Curtis

Phyllis Papps and Francesca Curtis came out on the Australian current affairs program This Day Tonight in October 1970. Half a century later, the life partners said the interview had a devastating effect on their work lives and relationships with their families.

Read more about Phyllis and Francesca.

lesbian couple phyllis and francesca this day tonight abc interview
Phyllis and Francesca. Photos: ABC/Vicki Jones Photography

Writers

Sappho

There can be no more famous lesbians than Sappho. After all, she gifted her name to sapphic love and that of her island home to lesbians, much to the distress of some modern-day Lesbians.

The lyric poet from the Greek island of Lesbos lived around 630 — 570 BCE. She achieved fame in her lifetime and down through the ages for her poetry.

Unfortunately, she suffered a particularly egregious erasure nearly 2,000 years after her death. Translators heterosexualised her lines, changing the objects of her desire to male. Happily, few now deny that she wrote about other women. Sappho is now both poet, and proud lesbian muse.

simeon solomon sappho famous lesbians
Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon

Michael Field

Critics predicted literary greatness for Michael Field. But then word leaked that the gentleman author was actually a lady. Suddenly, his words seemed less brilliant. But worse, it turned out he was two ladies! If there were two things Victorian literary critics didn’t like, it was female writers and collaborators. Michael Field was both! Luckily, that’s as much as they learned about Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. Of course, as you’ve guessed, they were lesbians. But that was perhaps the least troubling taboo they ignored.

Read more about Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper.  

michael field Edith Cooper katherine bradley
Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley

Nobuko Yoshiya

One of Japan’s most successful modern writers, Nobuko Yoshiya lived openly with her female lover for over 50 years. She pioneered lesbian storytelling in Japanese literature. She achieved fame in the early 19th century for a series of stories about romantic relationships between girls called Flower Tales. Illustrated with images of girls with large doll-like eyes now characteristic of manga, Flower Tales focused on intense relationships between adolescent girls and allowed young women to imagine a life independent of men.

Read more about Nobuko Yoshiya.

Nobuko Yoshiya february 8 Shōjo manga
Nobuko Yoshiya

Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall quite openly promoted her 1928 book The Well of Loneliness as about lesbians. For many years, she and Una, Lady Troubridge were the most famous lesbian couple in the world. The unashamedly butch author wore male clothes and frequently affected a monocle. She never apologised for being herself and recommended the same to others.

You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad. You’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet — you’ve not got your niche in creation. But someday that will come, and meanwhile, don’t shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely.”

Read more about Radclyffe Hall.

Radclyffe Hall the well of loneliness
Radclyffe Hall

Renée Vivien

The strikingly melancholic poet wrote sonnets of Sapphic love. She also translated the poems of Sappho, the ancient Greek poet who gifted her name and that of her island home to same-sex female attraction. But there was always a sadness to Renée Vivien’s work. The American writer Natalie Clifford Barney described the first poem she heard Renée recite as ‘haunted by the desire for death’.

Read more about Renée Vivien.

Renée Vivien June 11
Renée Vivien

I. A. R. Wylie

As I. A. R. Wylie, the novelist, short story writer and screenwriter achieved worldwide renown, though in most readers’ minds, as a male author. Known as Uncle by most of her female friends, the Australian-born writer and her longtime partner Sara Josephine Baker shared a farm with their close friend Dr Louise Pearce. Sara, known usually as Dr Joe,  was famous for her pioneering advocacy of child hygiene and preventative medicine. Dr Pearce helped save innumerable lives through her work on a treatment for African sleeping sickness which previously decimated African populations.

Read more about I. A. R. Wylie.

I. A. R. Wylie march 16
I. A. R. Wylie

Mary Renault

Lesbian author Mary Renault focused on writing historical fiction about male gay lovers. By setting her books in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, she could ignore the anti-gay prejudice of her era and focus on the power dynamics of gay male relationships.

Read more about Mary Renault.

Mary Renault famous lesbians lesbian history
Mary Renault

Mercedes de Acosta

Although a poet and playwright, Mercedes de Acosta is mainly remembered for her relationships with other women. She bedded some of the most famous lesbians and bisexual women in the world. In the words of her friend and probable lover Alice B. Toklas: “Say what you will about Mercedes, she’s had the most important women of the twentieth century.”

Read more about Mercedes de Acosta.

mercedes de Acosta
Mercedes de Acosta

Audre Lorde

Lifelong activist Audre Lorde fought tirelessly against racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. She described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”

The poet comprehended the intersectionality of her multi-layered identity, decades before ‘intersectionality’ became a thing.

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

Read more about Audre Lorde

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Audre Lorde. Image: K. Kendall

Marie Bjelke Petersen

Marie Bjelke Petersen was the aunt of loathsome Queensland premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. But hey, we’ve all got rellies we’d rather forget. Marie was okay. She emigrated to Tassie from Denmark in 1894, aged seventeen. Four years later, she met the love of her life, Sylvia Mills and they lived together until Sylvia’s death thirty years later. Like her nephew, Marie was a person of faith. But unlike Joh, she wasn’t a corrupt, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, sanctimonious prick. She once described Sylvia as a living, breathing — and extremely affectionate — angel.

“God’s Angels often come in human form not as strangers whose lips never touch ours… but as friends, close dear friends, whom we may fondle & caress & feel they really belong to us.”

Marie sold over 250,000 books, an amazing achievement for an Aussie author in the early 20th century. Her novel Jewelled Nights told of a young woman who ditches a bloke she doesn’t love at the altar and heads into the Tasmanian wilderness disguised as a young man.

Movie star, Louise Lovely and her husband, gay film producer Wilton Welch, recently returned from Hollywood, adapted Jewelled Nights for the screen. The movie proved immensely popular. Marie wrote a further five books after Jewelled Nights and in 1935 won the King’s Jubilee Medal for services to literature.

Female authors comprise much of the known Australian lesbian history of the early 20th century.

Read more about Jewelled Nights.

jewelled nights louise lovely marie bjelke petersen

Thespians

Mademoiselle de Raucourt

The love affairs of the great French tragedienne Mademoiselle de Raucourt scandalised Europe. She enjoyed liaisons with both men and women, but preferred the women. Gossips spoke in hushed whispers of her garden of sapphic delights.

Read more about Mademoiselle de Raucourt.

famous lesbians history Mademoiselle de Raucourt
Mademoiselle de Raucourt

Maud Allan

A 1918 newspaper article headlined The Cult of the Clitoris destroyed the career of the most famous dancer on Earth. It implied that Maud Allan was both a lesbian and a dangerous femme fatale, undermining the British war effort by encouraging sexual deviance. Total tomfuckery. The suggestion Maud Allan influenced World War I was ludicrous. But she was indeed a lesbian.

Read more about Maud Allen here.

maud allen the cult of the clitoris oscar wilde trial of the century

Pat McDonald

Already a popular and accomplished Australian actress, Pat McDonald earned the second-ever Gold Logie awarded to a female television personality for her portrayal of Dorrie Evans on the iconic Number 96.

She and fellow actress, the openly lesbian Bunny Brooke lived together for a number of years.

Read more about Pat McDonald.

Pat McDonald december 26
Pat McDonald

Comics

Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley

Reputedly America’s first stand-up comic, Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley stayed at the top of her game for a half-century. She came out at the age of 79 and then performed at lesbian clubs billed as Mr Moms almost until her death at age 81.

Read more about Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley.

Jackie 'Moms' Mabley march 19
Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley

 Lily Tomlin

Actor and comedian Lily Tomlin began performing stand-up in the 1960s. She’s been a star of stage, screen and television since. Lily Tomlin met Jane Wagner in 1971 and the pair married in 2013 after 42 years together.

Read more about Lily Tomlin.

lily tomlin
Lily Tomlin and wife Jane Wagner. Image: Lily Tomlin Instagram

Artists

Rosa Bonheur

The openly lesbian Rosa Bonheur became the first woman to receive France’s highest award, the Legion of Honour. She lived with fellow artist Nathalie Micas from around the age of twenty until Nathalie’s death 45 years later. Rosa later formed a relationship with the American artist Anna Klumpke who had idolised her since childhood.

Read more about Rosa Bonheur.

The Rosa Bonheur Case Carole Cassier Anna Polonyi
Image: The Rosa Bonheur Case. YouTube

Romaine Brooks

The independently wealthy Romaine Brooks could pursue an artistic career totally without care for public taste. But the public learned to appreciate her female models in masculine attire. Her paintings often featured androgyny and gender ambiguity. Probably, the general public saw as fashion what those in the know recognised as a coded celebration of sapphism.

Read more about Romaine Brooks.

romaine brooks december 7 famous lesbians
Romaine Brooks

Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge

The life partner of author Radclyffe-Hall, she worked as a sculptor and translator. In 1975, Dame Rebecca West recalled seeing the two famous lesbians promenading in London 50 years before.

“One would often see them striding down Wigmore Street to the Times Book Club. Two ladies stepping out in designed conspicuousness. Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall was elegant in a flowing cape and a Spanish broad-brimmed hat which covered a beautifully cropped head of ash-blonde hair.

“Beside her tripped Una, Lady Troubridge, occasionally wrinkling her delicious nose and brows to keep in place her monocle but always, however, she was dressed, looking like the nicest boy in one of the best public schools.”

Read more about Una, Lady Troubridge.

Una Vincenzo Lady Troubridge march 8
Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge painted by Romaine Brooks

Singers

Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley was one of the most memorable live acts ever to tread a stage, and one of the few famous lesbians of her era. She sang, danced, cracked jokes, and flirted with the audience – well, the women, anyway. Gladys wrote her own innuendo-laden lyrics to the popular tunes of the day and designed the choruses for audiences to sing along.

She described her appearance as a unique point of difference.

“I wore immaculate full white dress shirts with stiff collars, small bow ties and shirts, oxfords, short Eton jackets and hair cut straight back.”

Big, Black, undoubtedly Beautiful, and Butch AF, a ‘bulldagger’ in the lingo of the day. But she made no attempt to pass as a man. She wore heavy stage makeup, and her tailor-made tuxedo highlighted her bust. She was proudly and loudly a lesbian, one of the great icons of lesbian history.

Read more about Gladys Bentley.

Gladys Bentley brown bomber risk-gay famous lesbian
Gladys Bentley

Claire Waldoff

Famed for her performances in gay Berlin cabaret clubs during the 1910s and 1920s, Claire Waldoff also entertained the crowned heads of Europe. She pissed off the Nazis by living openly with her female partner Olly von Roeder. She also sang pointedly feminist and suggestively lesbian lyrics. And she patronised Jewish composers and lyricists. Nevertheless, she and Olly survived WWII and remained together until death.

We both hit the jackpot with each other… Olly is a truly rare, honourable character, a wonderful person.”

Read more about Claire Waldoff.

Claire Waldoff january 22
Claire Waldoff

 Lesley Gore

The singer/songwriter’s career began as a teenager with ‘It’s My Party (so I’ll cry if I want to)’ and ‘You Don’t Own Me’.

Lesley lived with jewellery designer Lois Sasson for 33 years until Lesley’s 2015 death. She never attempted to conceal her sexuality or relationship with Lois.

“I just kind of lived my life naturally and did what I wanted to do. I didn’t avoid anything, I didn’t put it in anybody’s face.”

Read more about Lesley Gore.

Lesley Gore you don't own me february 16
Lesley Gore

Sportspersons

Helen Stephens

Berlin Olympics Gold Medal winner Helen Stephens never lost a race in her entire sporting career. She enjoyed a nearly 40-year relationship with Mabel O Robbe and came out as a lesbian in the early 1970s.

Read more about Helen Stephens.

gender testing ioc real women
Berlin Olympics: Kathe Krauss, Helen Stephens & Stella Walsh. Image: Los Angeles Times

Martina Navratilova

Czechoslovakian-born Martina Navratilova applied for asylum in the US in 1975. Among the greatest tennis players of all time, she won 18 major singles titles, 31 major women’s doubles titles, and 10 major mixed doubles titles during her career. One of the most famous lesbians of the 20th century, and an important figure in lesbian history, her visibility added greatly to public acceptance of lesbianism.

Read more about Martina Navratilova.

Martina Navratilova avon
Martina Navratilova

Dawn Fraser

One of Australia’s best-ever swimmers and greatest Olympians, Dawn Fraser states she had two lesbian relationships in her life but that she is not gay. It seems one of Australia’s most famous supposed lesbians is in fact not a lesbian.

“It wasn’t for me.”

But she earned her place in Australian lesbian history anyway, by virtue of the decades of speculation about her sexuality.

Read more about Dawn Fraser.

dawn fraser
Image: Dawn Fraser Facebook

Politicians

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir

The world’s first-ever out lesbian head of government as the Prime Minister of Iceland from February 1,  2009,  Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was also the world’s first openly LGBTIQ+ head of government.

Read more about Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir iceland february 1
Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir

For the latest LGBTIQA+ Sister Girl and Brother Boy news, entertainment, community stories in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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