Lesbian Erasure: A Footnote to Women’s History Month

Astronaut Sally Ride

Women’s History Month often seems like Erasure of Lesbians Month. Many critically important women in American history past and present were lesbians: Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Dr. Alice Hamilton, Dr. Emily Blackwell, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker, Rachel Carson, Dr. Sally Ride, Barbara Jordan, Pauli Murray, Dr. Ruth Gates, Patrisse Cullors and so many others.

Yet the lesbian or bisexual part is often erased from their notable biographies, no matter how invested they were in their relationships with other women. Lesbian theologian and philosopher Dr. Mary Daly referred regularly to this “dis-covering”  — that is, uncovering what is buried — the achievements and history of women, especially lesbians. Daly wrote about “the deep background of language and myth” and how it negatively transforms women and the stories about women’s lives.

Daly explored the deadly ‘foreground’ myths that shackle women’s minds and recounted the psychological and physical destruction of women through various oppressions. Arguably one of those oppressions is erasing the lesbian identities of women who have done such brave and groundbreaking work in their chosen fields, like those crucial historical figures listed above.

Many of these women often documented their own lesbian and bisexual lives only to have that documentation viewed through the heterosexist prism of the straight male gaze which rendered them not queer. The letters from Susan B. Anthony to her lovers were remarkably steamy. The poems Emily Dickinson wrote to Sue Gilbert were passion on a page. A’Lelia Walker, daughter of Black millionaire business tycoon Madam C. J. Walker, hosted Harlem Renaissance parties to which notable lesbians from the U.S. and Europe were feted and about which they wrote in detail.

The blues Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sang gave voice to their love of other women who they called “bulldykers.” Actress Tallulah Bankhead was one of Billie Holiday’s long-term lovers, touring with her and even bailing her out of jail when she was arrested for opium possession. Holiday famously said, “Sure, I’ve been to bed with women… but I was always the man.”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was more circumspect in her decades of relationships with women, even as she married men to cover those relationships. Dunbar-Nelson’s accomplishments were legendary: she was a syndicated newspaper columnist, reviewer and essayist; an advocate for women’s suffrage and racial equality who worked on anti-lynching campaigns with organizations such as the American Friends Inter-racial Peace Committee and NAACP.

In 1895, Dunbar-Nelson’s first work of fiction, “Violets and Other Tales,” was the first short story collection ever published by a Black woman in the U.S. Dunbar-Nelson had relationships with activist Fay Jackson Robinson and artist Helene Ricks London, which were documented in her diaries.

The closet is to blame for much of this portrayal of the lesbian and bisexual love affairs and partnerships of historical figures as either heterosexual adjacent or as sexless. Straight erasure of lesbian sexuality is a veritable industry. There are reams of postmodernist theoretical papers wiping out the sexual desire of lesbians prior to the mid-twentieth century.

The tactic of erasure is always the same: pose the question as an accusation, with lesbianism as a problem, not a solution, and heterosexuality as default. How do we know Jane Addams was a lesbian just because she shared her bed with other women throughout her entire adult life and never married a man, they query? How do we know Dickinson wasn’t in love with a secret never-named male lover and not the woman she spent all her time with? How do we know Rachel Carson was a lesbian and not just a spinster scientist with a florid letter-writing style? How do we know that the first women doctors in America weren’t just all good friends instead of lovers?

Yet we discovered after the more recent deaths of Barbara Jordan and Dr. Sally Ride that they were partnered with other women for decades — best kept secrets among their friends. We didn’t know the first woman and Black person to give a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention was a lesbian or that the first American woman in space was a lesbian.

Nor did we know the most famous American anthropologist was a lesbian. Dr. Margaret Mead married men, but her affairs with women sustained her. Her longest life partner was a woman and fellow anthropologist, Rhoda Metraux.

“Their status as mothers and ex-wives offered them a gentile facade behind which to conceal what may also have been a sexual relationship,” wrote Mead’s biographer of their 20 year collaboration on papers, books and a shared life together in a Greenwich Village house.

Edie Windsor said in an interview with me that there were many lesbian scientists and engineers — fields where it was easy for unmarried women to remain hidden.

Windsor won the landmark marriage case United States v. Edie Windsor in 2013, in which the Supreme Court held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Windsor was also a groundbreaking computer engineer and mathematician, working at the highest level of computer programming for IBM with UNIVAC. She also worked for the Atomic Energy Commission. It was her contention that there were many lesbians in the sciences in part because the work was so intense not marrying raised no eyebrows.

Yet hiding in plain sight like Windsor herself had done for years concomitantly made it easier to erase the private lesbian lives these women led. Actresses and musicians, artists and writers were regularly deemed wild “bohemians” and their lesbian affairs dismissed as unserious. After their breakup, Bankhead erased Holiday from her memoir out of anger and her attorneys forced Holiday to erase Bankhead from hers when Holiday told their story in vivid detail.

But life-long partnerships between women — who by day were breaking ground in social work, immigrant healthcare and occupational medicine — were chastened and de-sexed. The whole concept of the Boston Marriage (two women living together as discreet lovers) was twisted into a sexless dual spinsterhood.

Noted lesbian writer Katherine V. Forrest said in an interview with me for Lambda Literary a few years ago that we hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of our queer histories as a community: that we were still in the “coming out stories” phase of LGBTQ history. That seems regrettably true. Google LGBT history and it is always the same names. Mostly white. Mostly of the same mid-19th century period or Stonewall-centric. Mostly writers, artists, musicians, academics.

We have to break through that patterning and make our histories a priority. We have to not allow the breadth of achievements by lesbians and bisexual women to be erased and revised as straight people write those histories.

Feminist poet and activist Muriel Ruykeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about. her life? The world would split open.” 

Telling women’s truths — including the lesbian, bisexual and queer truths — is an essential component of women’s history. Tell those truths. Name the names. Split the world open, during Women’s History Month and beyond.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.