10 Famous Lesbian Couples in History

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While same-sex love between women have existed since ancient times - as proven by the classical writings of Sappho and references to culture of Lesbos – in later ages, lesbian love often had to mask itself as feminine companionship or a professional collaboration. Here are ten famous lesbian couples in history who found different ways of enjoying and/or affirming same-ex love.

  1. Anne Bonny and Mary Read

    Way back in eighteenth century England when breaking sexual norms was no easy thing, Anne bonny and Mary Read found love with each other by sailing away on the high seas. The two were not only one of the earliest lesbian couples but pirates too boot. Historical knowledge of these two women is based mainly upon the account written by Captain Charles Johnson - probably a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe - in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, published in 1724 shortly after Anne and Mary were brought to trial for piracy on the high seas. While Anne bonny was born Anne Cormac the daughter of a wealthy lawyer and plantation owner, Mary was born to a poor mother who preferred to dress the child in boy’s clothes so as to claim inheritance from wealthy relatives. Mary eventually came to prefer the masculine identity over her natural one and took the persona of ‘Mark Read’. She met Anne Bonny when the latter was in and out of relationships with several disreputable men of the seas. The two finally formed their own pirate crew and went on several raids. Eventually Anne and Mary were captured by a Captain Barnet and brought to trial.

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  2. Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby

    Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby were two aristocratic women of Anglo-Irish descent who scandalised contemporary society by leaving Ireland against the wishes of their families and setting up home together in small Welsh hamlet. The ladies had tried to leave Ireland before but had been prevented by their families, who disapproved of their desire for independence. However their second attempt was successful and they made their way to Wales where they settled down at Plas Newydd in Llangollen.

    Despite their abandoning social and sexual norms of the times, the Ladies of Llangollen were far from social outcasts. Among the famous people who visited the Ladies in Llangollen were the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott, Edmund Burke, Wordsworth and Lady Caroline Lamb. Lady Eleanor Butler died in 1829 and Sarah Ponsonby died two years later. They were buried in the church of St Collen in Llangollen. They left behind volumes of letters and journals which give a fascinating insight into their life together and their deep abiding love for each other.
     
  3. Maud Hunt Squire and Ethel Mars

    American artists and life partners Maud Hunt Squire and Ethel Mars forged distinguished careers in book illustration, painting, and woodblock printing. Mars was born in 1876 and Squire in 1873, and they met at some point in the 1890's at the Cincinnati Art Academy. After graduation, they moved to New York City  where they were hired as book illustrators. In By 1906 they had settled in Paris together. Paris at the turn of the twentieth century had become a magnet for American women with artistic aspirations. Within a few months of their residence in the city, Squire and Mars had adopted the radical (for the times) use of flamboyant hair coloring and garish makeup However, it was their artistic accomplishments rather than their outrageousness that garnered them repeated invitations to Gertrude Stein's salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, where they met such luminaries as Picasso and Matisse. Eventually the couple would go on to figure prominently in two of Gertrude Stein's "word portraits," in which she referred to Mars and Squire as "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene."  the intimate nature of the relationship between the two was far from lost upon Stein whose incessant reiteration of the word "gay" at a time when its coded meaning was not in mainstream use is interpreted today as an in-group double entendre.
     
  4. Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas

    Noted American writer, mentor and art collector Gertrude Stein had had a string of lesbian relationships before with Alice B. Toklaswho was to become her partner for nearly four decades. Stein met Alice on September 8, 1907, on Toklas' first day in Paris, at Sarah and Michael Stein's apartment. From then on, the two became companions. Together they hosted a salon that attracted expatriate American writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, Paul Bowles, Thornton Wilder, and Sherwood Anderson, and avant-garde painters, including Picasso, Matisse, and Braque. During the 1930s, Stein and Toklas became famous with the 1933 mass market publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – a fictional biography which remains Stein’s bestselling novel till date. Stein and Toklas remained lovers till the former’s death in 1946. Further proof of the intimate nature of their relationship emerged In the 1980s, when a cabinet in the Yale University Beinecke Library, which had been locked for an indeterminate number of years was opened and found to contain some 300 love letters written by Stein and Toklas.
     
  5. Maria Louise Poole and Caroline Branson

    Maria Louise Poole was a noted American woman writer of the nineteenth century who has since lapsed into obscurity. During her twenties, Pool met Caroline M. Branson who, in the tradition of lesbian romantic friendship was to become her life-long companion. The two women lived together for thirty-two years. They moved to Brooklyn in 1870 but in 1877 returned to Massachusetts where they settled in a house that had been a station of the underground railroad in the town of Wrentham, the place where Caroline had grown up. In keeping with the social mores of the times, the romantic nature relationship was never acknowledged and Bronson was listed as “literary companion” in Pool’s obituary. However the two are buried together, with a double headstone, in the Rockland, Massachusetts Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
     
  6. Radclyff Hall and Una Vincenzo

    British novelist Radclyffe Hall and her companion of 28 years, Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge were another lesbian couple who lived and breathed the world of letters. Hall's first novel was The Unlit Lamp, the story of Joan Ogden, a young girl who dreams of setting up a flat in London with her friend; this was followed by two social comedies The Forge and A Saturday Life. She is however best known as the writer of The Well of my Loneliness, a novel which is now recognized as the first lesbian-themed fiction in the English language. The 1928 novel deals with the life of Stephen Gordon, a masculine lesbian who, like Hall, believes herself to be a “congenital invert”. Although Gordon is seen as embodying a tortured attitude toward her own sexuality, the novel presents lesbianism as natural and makes a plea for greater tolerance.

    Una Vincenzo was a sculptor and translator in her own right though today she is mostly remembered as Hall’s longtime companion. In fact Una was married and mother to a daughter too though she came to be separated from her husband Admiral Toubridge who later went on to be knighted. Hall and Troubridge met in 1915 as Troubridge was the cousin of singer Mabel Batten who was Hall's lover at the time. Mabel died in 1916, and Hall and Troubridge moved in together the following year. However the couple could not find lasting happiness as In the last nine years of Hall's life she had become obsessed with a White Russian nurse, Evgenia Souline. This made Troubridge very unhappy, but she tolerated their relationship. Troubridge stayed with Hall and nursed her until she died in 1943.
     
  7. Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus

    In the book Saphhistries:  A global history of Love between Women1, author Leila J Rupp, tells the story of two African-American women who in nineteenth century America negotiated the barriers of class and sexuality with each other for company. Free-born domestic servant Addie Brown and schoolteacher Rebecca Primus formed a passionate relationship in Hartford, Connecticut during the 1860s. The book quotes several passages from their letters which reveals the love and passionate longing shared between two ‘friends’. In the end though Addie and Rebecca were unable to cross the boundaries of class and sexuality. Addie married her suitor, stopped writing to Rebecca and died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine; Rebecca too got married to a man but went on to live till old age all the while preserving her letters from Addie.
     
  8. Eleanor Roosevelt and Loren Hicock

    Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok began their decades-long relationship in 1933, before FDR's inauguration. Lorena, or Hick – as Eleanor called her - was a highly successful reporter, while the latter herself was about to become First Lady. They shared an emotional and romantic relationship that peaked in passion and later developed into a friendship that endured until death. Because of the public profile of the two women and especially Eleanor Roosevelt, it was only natural that correspondence between the two has been heavily censored over the years. It is only recently that the actual nature of the relationship between the two is emerging. Among recent evidence is the collection Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, published in 1998, which has given the public a new glimpse into the life of one of America's most beloved First Ladies.
     
  9. Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper

    Writing under pair of literary collaborators who were also partners in real life are Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper. The two wrote under the shared pen name of Michael Fields on a number of poetic dramas with historical and mythical subjects, one prose play, and eight volumes of verse. What made the pseudonym even more necessary was their interest in portraying women's love for each other. For example, Canute the Great (1887) contains an explicit love scene between two women, while the poetry in Long Ago (1889), ostensibly in imitation of Sappho, and celebrates lesbian love.

    Being born into affluent Birmingham merchant families provided them access to the limited educational opportunities for the nineteenth-century British woman. In 1878, at University College at Bristol, where they advocated such causes as antivivisection and women's rights, they decided to live and write together. Towards later part of their life, they converted to Roman Catholicism and mainly published devotional poetry.
     
  10. Jane Rule and Helen Sonhoff

    Teacher, author, and out lesbian, Jane Rule was best known as a fiction writer. Her book of criticism, seven novels, and numerous short stories and essays address lesbian and gay issues to varying degrees, most often by presenting them as universal concerns. Rule’s most famous work is Desert of the Heart which offers an affirming, insightful, and optimistic depiction of lesbian love, one rare indeed in pre-Stonewall fiction. The novel was dedicated to Rule's life partner Helen Sonhoff, and later it was made into the 1986 lesbian cult film Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch.


Reference:

  1. Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women. By Leila J. Rupp. (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2009.