Lesbians changed course of history, biographer claims

November 30, 1993|By Jennifer Bojorquez | Jennifer Bojorquez,McClatchy News Service

What do Florence Nightingale, Jane Addams, Anna Freud and Edith Hamilton have in common?

They were all lesbians.

At least that's what Sacramento, Calif., journalist Dell Richards says.

"They were all great gay women who made great contributions to our society," says Ms. Richards. "Only they are not recognized gay by historians. They [historians] want to gloss over that part because they either find it distasteful or they think it doesn't matter. But being gay made these women who they are.

"I want to set the record straight," Ms. Richards says as she leans forward on the forest green couch, and mischievously adds, "so to speak."

Ms. Richards is a self-described political gay journalist who has been writing about gay lifestyle issues for the past 10 years. Last year, she published a book called "Lesbian Lists," which lists everything you ever wanted to know about lesbianism from "10 Women From the U.S. Military Who Faced Court Martial, Discharge or Imprisonment for Allegedly Being Gay" to "9 Non-Fiction Books Every Lesbian Should Own."

While researching that book, she realized there were a lot of famous lesbian women that the "straight" world didn't recognize as gay. Ms. Richards decided to write the book "Superstars: Twelve Lesbians Who Changed the World" (Carroll & Graf, $12.95). The 284-page book focuses on the relationships these women formed.

"And it's not about sex," Ms. Richards says. "It's about their long-term emotional relationships."

Ms. Richards wrote the book because she says she wanted to "give a fuller picture" of these women and to show other lesbians, especially younger women, that there is a rich history of lesbians accomplishing great things.

In the 19th century, Florence Nightingale fought her family for 15 years before they "let her" have a career in nursing. She introduced the idea of hygiene as a way of avoiding disease and created the modern image of nursing. She later became the first woman awarded the British Order of Merit.

Jane Addams never gave in to family and school pressure to join a convent. Instead, in 1889, she founded Hull House, the Chicago neighborhood center, to help the poor. She virtually institutionalized social work and won the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

Anna Freud, Sigmund's daughter, never gave in to family pressures to get married. She went on to be one of the founders of modern child therapy. In 1942, she wrote "Young Children in Wartime."

Edith Hamilton did not accept the common belief that retired people should enjoy a life of leisure. After 25 years as headmistress of Bryn Mawr School, she retired at age 55 and moved in with Doris Fielding Reid, a former student. During this time, in the '30s and '40s, she wrote her classics on Greek mythology.

"I don't think that anyone would dispute that these were wonderfully accomplished women. Yet biographers leave out or dismiss the fact that these women were lesbians, [although] their lesbianism defined who they were," says Ms. Richards.

She says it is important to recognize them as lesbians so other young gay women will learn to accept themselves. "And, of course, there's the whole role model issue," says Ms. Richards. She cites the high gay teen suicide rate. (In 1989, a U.S. Health and Human Services report theorized that as many as 30 percent of young people who commit suicide do so because of isolation around [gay and lesbian] sexual identity issues.) "They need to know there were a lot of gays who have done great things."

Another reason for acknowledging their homosexuality is because that gives straight people some insight into gay culture.

"We don't connect with blood family like heterosexuals, for example," says Ms. Richards. "So we pick our family from our friends. That's why you'll see a lot of gay people who remain friends with former lovers; it's like they are family. This is a much more common phenomenon in the homosexual community than in the heterosexual community."

Ms. Richards read all the biographies she could find on the 12 women she profiled. None fully explored how their sexuality may have influenced the woman's work, says Ms. Richards.

"A gay person would see some of the things that they did in a

different way than a straight person would," says Ms. Richards. "Many heterosexual biographers would not understand many things they did."

Having a large network of female relationships is one such example, says Ms. Richards. Many of these women surrounded themselves with women only, something which puzzles many biographers. Ms. Richards says this is a common part of the lesbian culture.

"I think it's important to note this because being around other women gave them the confidence to do what they did. The male-dominated society doesn't allow that . . . it oppresses women."

And, in one way or another, each of these women rejected the oppressive male-dominated culture, Ms. Richards says. "These were exceptional women who fought incredible forces to accomplish what they did."

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