Life of a Woman: Historical Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Women

Written by Anna Holzinger

To celebrate Women's History Month, a list has been compiled of some of history's most influential women who identified as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.  These women were incredibly brave and were highly successful and respected for their individual work.  Unfortunately, many of these women were unable to be completely out in their identity due to the time in which they lived.  All the listed women are icons in women's history, as well as members of the LGBT community.  These women should be recognized for their accomplishments, and many for their activist work, that has helped to shape the world we live in today. 

Billie "Lady Day" Holiday (1915-1959)

Billie Holiday was a talented jazz singer who started out singing in jazz clubs and rising to fame as an American jazz artist with a record release in the 1930's.  Holiday was openly bisexual and had multiple relationships with women, including actress Tallulah Bankhead. 

Roberta "Betty" Cowell (1918-2011)

Roberta Cowell was a race driver and a British Spitfire pilot in World War 2, where she was shot down in Germany and became a prisoner of war in 1944, until she was rescued and returned to the United Kingdom.  Betty had two children and divorce from their mother, Diana, in 1948.  The same year, Dr. Michael Dillon illegally performed surgery to remove her testes so she could be certified as intersex and, therefore, legally have further surgeries.  In 1951, Betty was the first transgender woman to undergo gender-reassignment surgery in the world.  Betty met Lisa, her lifetime partner, in the 1940’s, and they were together until Lisa’s death in the 1980’s.  After the war Betty continued racing and flying well into the 1970’s. 

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Florence Nightingale is well known for her humanitarian work in nursing during the Crimean War and pioneering the nursing profession.  Florence Nightingale was consider extremely rebellious for her time, as she was a remarkably independent woman and well educated.  She refused multiple marriage proposals by men and was quoted for having passionate feelings for female family members and friends.

Rita Mae Brown (1944: Age 71)

Rita Mae Brown is a well-known rights activist and author.  Her most popular writing is the lesbian-themed novel, Rubyfruit Jungle.  Rita Mae has been active in civil rights, women's rights, and LGBT rights.  She was an active member of the National Organization of Women (NOW) until she was forced to resign.  Her resignation was preceded by her push to include lesbian rights in the NOW agenda, a substantial task to accomplish for the 1960's and 1970's..

Jane Addams (1860-1935)

Jane Addams was a social worker, a social activist, and a feminist.  She helped found America's first settlement house, the Hull House, in Chicago, Illinois. In 1931, Jane Addams was also the first American women to win a Nobel Peace Prize for her work as president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom to end World War I.  Addams' long-term relationships were with women, including Mary Rozet Smith.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Eleanor Roosevelt is known for having used her political status to fight for minority rights.  Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena "Hick" Hickok wrote over 3500 romantic letters to each other and were known to have traveled together.  Their letters have been compiled in a book titled Empty Without You

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Virginia Woolf was a renowned British author with popular publications including Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando.  Virginia married Leonard Woolf in 1912.  During the 1920's Virginia met fellow author Vita Sackville-West, and the two women began a romantic affair that last several years.  Virginia and Vita remained close friends even after their romantic relationship ended.

Lili Elbe (1882-1931)

Lili Elbe was a well-known Danish painter, married to fellow artist Gerda Gottlieb in 1904.  Lili would sit for Gerda, donned in women's clothing, to model for her paintings.  In 1912, Lili began her transition and was living openingly as a woman.  Lili underwent four separate sex reassignment surgeries, beginning in 1930, at the Dresden Municiple Women's Clinic.  Lili died from complications from her fourth surgery before marrying her new fiance. 

Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)

Gladys Bently was a famous blues singer who, at the age of 16, was part of the Harlem Renaissance and grew in fame in the 1920's and 1930's.  Gladys sang and played piano at parties and clubs, often pushing the boundaries.  The Harlem blues scene allowed Gladys to be herself, no longer hiding her sexuality.  In 1931, Gladys married a woman in a civil ceremony in New Jersey, something unheard of at the time.

Renee Richards (1934: Age 81)

Renee Richards is a champion tennis player, a retired Lieutenant Commander of the U.S. Navy, and a successful eye surgeon.  In 1975, she underwent gender-reassignment surgery at a New York Hospital.  After being denied to play in the U.S. Open in 1976 as a woman, Richards sued and won the right to play.  Richards played the following year in the U.S. Open. 


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Anna Holzinger is a registered nurse who lives along the lakeshore. She is a new blogger who enjoys spending time with her sister and friends. She likes reading and is trying her hand at writing.

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