In Memoriam: 3 Pioneering Lesbian Mothers

From left, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Cheri A. Pies and Dr. Susan Love.
From left, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Cheri A. Pies and Dr. Susan Love. (Photo: Leslie Feinberg; courtesy of Berkeley Public Health; courtesy of Dr. Susan Love Foundation)

The world lost three groundbreaking lesbian mothers this July, who each helped in different ways to strengthen and support queer families.

Minnie Bruce Pratt, an acclaimed poet, essayist, and activist who wrote, among other things, about losing custody of her children when she came out as a lesbian, died on July 4 of an aggressive brain tumor at age 76.

Pratt was born in 1946 in Selma, Alabama, and graduated from a still-segregated high school before earning a B.A. and a Ph.D. in English Literature. When she came out in 1975, she had been married to a man for almost 10 years and had two young sons. A North Carolina court biased against lesbian mothers granted custody to her husband. She managed to keep visitation rights — but her husband then moved the boys hundreds of miles away.

She found ways to keep in touch, driving around the South to see them and to do readings of her writing. Yet their separation cut deep. “I paid for my freedom with my children,” she observed in her second book of poetry, “Crime Against Nature” (1990). That volume, about her relationship with her sons and losing custody, won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize (now the James Laughlin Award) from the Academy of American Poets and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

The loss also fueled her involvement as an activist, organizer and writer at the intersection of women’s, gender, and LGBTQ+ issues, anti-racist work, and anti-imperialist initiatives.

She was also an adjunct teacher for 45 years, ending her career as an on-contract Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Writing & Rhetoric at Syracuse University, where she helped develop an LGBT Studies Program.

Pratt was predeceased by her partner and spouse of more than 22 years, renowned trans activist and author Leslie Feinberg, who died in 2014. She is survived by “her two sons and their partners, five grandchildren, and a chosen family of friends and loved ones,” per her obituary in the Syracuse Post Standard.

Cheri A. Pies, whose book, “Considering Parenthood: A Workbook for Lesbians,” helped innumerable queer women become parents during the 1980s “gayby boom,” died from cancer on July 4 at the age of 73. The book, published through lesbian feminist press Spinsters Ink in 1985 (and updated in 1988), evolved from two influences: Pies’ work in the 1970s running Planned Parenthood workshops for straight women contemplating motherhood, and her own experience becoming an adoptive parent in 1978 with her then-partner. Pies realized that she and other lesbians considering parenthood could benefit from group workshops, too. She held the first one in her living room in 1978 and 25 women attended.

“Considering Parenthood” drew on these workshops to offer practical tips, questions to ask oneself, and plentiful quotes drawn from the hundreds of lesbians Pies had worked with, covering not only how to start a family as a lesbian parent, but also how to help it thrive.

Pies, who got her doctorate in public health education in 1993 from the University of California-Berkeley, spent the bulk of her career as a clinical professor at that university’s School of Public Health, researching ways of addressing social and economic inequities that influence birth outcomes and generational health. A popular teacher and mentor, she also published dozens of papers and was nationally recognized many times for her contributions to public health.

She is survived by her spouse Melina Linder; sisters Lois Goldberg and Stacy Pies; and “a legion of honorary children and grandchildren in families with lesbian and gay parents who were conceived because of her work,” notes her obituary at the Berkeley Public Health website.

Dr. Susan Love, one of the world’s foremost breast cancer researchers and a visionary leader in breast cancer advocacy, died at age 75 on July 2. She was also part of a groundbreaking parenting case in Massachusetts.

Love was an early proponent of cancer surgery that conserves as much breast tissue as possible. She also helped found the breast cancer advocacy movement in the early 1990s. In 1995, she became medical director of the Santa Barbara Breast Cancer Institute, and retired from active surgery a year later to focus on finding the cause of breast cancer. The institute was renamed in her honor in 2000 and is now the Dr. Susan Love Foundation for Breast Cancer Research.

“Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book” first published in 1990, is widely recognized as a seminal book on breast cancer for patients and others. It will be released in its seventh edition this fall.

Love earned a business degree from UCLA’s Anderson School in 1998 and was appointed by President Clinton to the National Cancer Advisory Board, where she served from 1998 to 2004.

When she and her partner (later spouse) Helen Cooksey, MD, had their daughter in 1988, only Love, her gestational mother, was recognized as the legal parent. In 1993, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court granted the women the right to jointly adopt her, the first time a same-sex couple had been allowed to do so in the state.

Ten years later, Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, in the landmark Goodridge decision that made Massachusetts the first U.S. state to allow same-sex couples to marry, cited their case among others to support her statement that, “Protecting the welfare of children is a paramount State policy. Restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples, however, cannot plausibly further this policy.”

Love is survived by her wife Helen Cooksey and their daughter Katie Patton-LoveCooksey and her wife, Diana Patton-LoveCooksey, per the Foundation’s website.

May the memories of all three women and their work continue to sustain us.

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