38 Lesbian and Bisexual Women From History Who Did That Thing First

Decades before Carol Ann Duffy became Britain’s first female poet laureate and Deborah Waxman became the first female rabbi to lead a Jewish seminary and Lisa Kron became part of the first female writing team to win the Tony for Best Original Score there were HEAPS of other lesbian, bisexual or otherwise retroactively-identified women being the first to do all kinds of things!

For example, last night when it turned out we were short on content for today, I was the First Woman in the United States to come up with a new post to write to fix that problem, and you’re reading it right now! I’d like to thank Airtable, the best application of all time, with which I have labored for many hours to build a database that enables me to make posts like this much faster!

This list includes people born prior to 1940 who have been the first to do a thing. I included only things that were unrelated to sexual orientation (as in, I didn’t include “first to publish a openly lesbian book of love poetry”) (But it was Elsa Gidlow, FYI) and also did not include anybody for being the first [sexual orientation] to do a thing, because that’s a different kind of list!

Most of the women here were for sure lady-loving-ladies. Some were probably lady-lovers but I can’t say with 100% certainty. In cases where there isn’t a stable of scholarship and a reliable historical consensus regarding the Sapphic constitution of the woman in question, I have included a brief description of my source regarding their possible queerness. General sources include Elisa Rolle’s Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time and Lillian Faderman’s To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America – A History.


Mary Lyon, Educator (1797 – 1849)

  • First president of Mount Holyoke

According to To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America – A History, Mary Lyon had a romantic relationship with educator Zilpah Grant.


Sophia B. Packard, Educator (1824 – 1891)

  • First president of Spelman College, which is also America’s first private, liberal arts historically black college for women.


Phebe Hanaford, Minister (1829 – 1921)

  • First woman ordained as a Universalist minister in New England
  • First woman to serve as chaplain to the Connecticut state legislature


Mary Edwards Walker, Doctor & Activist (1832 – 1919)

According to To Believe in Women, Walker’s “major relationships appear to have been with other women.”


Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, Activist (1842 – 1932)

  • First woman to give a political address before the United States Congress


Edmonia Lewis, Artist (1844 – 1907)

  • First woman of African-American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame and recognition as a sculptor in the fine arts world


Selma Lagerlöf, Writer (1858 – 1940)

  • First woman writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature


Jane Addams, Social Worker (1860 – 1935)

  • First woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize


Amy Levy, Writer (1861 – 1889)

  • First Jewish woman to attend Cambridge University


Caroline Spurgeon, Educator (1869 – 1942)

  • First female university professor in London and the second in England


Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, Musician (1872 – 1948)

  • First person to record the harpsichord
  • First to broadcast harpsichord music

Many sources report all kinds of things about Violet’s love life. For sure she was poly and often had several male paramours at once, rumored relationships with women include Radcylffe Hall and Ethel Smyth.


Julia Morgan, Architect (1872 – 1957)

  • First woman admitted to the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris

During a visit to the Hearst Castle I developed a strong psychic feeling that Julia Morgan, the architect the tour guide was telling us about, was definitely a lesbian, and it seems many others felt this same feeling.


Freda Du Faur, Athlete (1882 – 1935)

  • First woman in recorded history to climb New Zealand’s tallest mountain


Lili Elbe, Artist (1882 – 1931)

  • First identified recipient of gender confirmation surgery


Ethel Collins Dunham, Doctor (1883 – 1969)

  • First female member of the American Pediatric Society
  • First woman pediatrician to receive the American Pediatric Society’s most prestigious award, the John Howland Medal


Eleanor Roosevelt, Politician, Diplomat and Activist (1884 – 1962)

  • First United States Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights
  • First chairperson of the preliminary UN Commission on Human Rights
  • First presidential spouse to hold regular press conferences, write a daily newspaper column, write a monthly magazine column, host a weekly radio show and speak at a national party convention


Gabriela Mistral, Writer (1889 – 1957)

  • First Latin-American author to receive a Nobel Prize in literature

Velma García-Gorena, the translator of Gabriela Mistral’s Letters to Doris Dana, states that “Mistral was in love with Doris Dana and never expressed a desire for a heterosexual relationship.”


Jeanne Eagels, Actress (1890 – 1929)

  • First actor to receive posthumous Oscar consideration

Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time links Jeanne to Mercedes De Acosta and Libby Holman.


Katharine Cornell, Actress (1893 – 1974)

  • First actress to win a Drama League Award


Hattie McDaniel, Actress (1895 – 1952)

  • First African-American entertainer to win an Academy Award

Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

This blog says “another of [Tallulah Bankhead’s] conquests was Hattie McDaniel,” and appears to have garnered this information from Joel Lobenthal’s 2005 biography Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady, which he cites as his source for the main topic of his post, a Bankead/Billie Holiday hookup.


Nobuko Yoshiya, Writer (1896 – 1973)

  • First Japanese woman to own a racehorse and one of the first Japanese women to own a car

Yoshiya Nobuko


Ethel Waters, Actress and Singer (1896-1977)

  • First African-American woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award


Elizabeth Reynard, Soldier (1897 – 1962)

  • First woman to be appointed lieutenant in the United States Navy Reserve


Ruth Charlotte Ellis, Activist (1899 – 2000)

  • First American woman to own a printing business in Detroit


Evelyn Irons, Journalist (1900 – 2000)

  • First female war correspondent to be decorated with the French Croix de Guerre.


Mabel Mercer (1900 – 1984)

  • First to receive Stereo Review Magazine’s Award for Merit, renamed the Mabel Mercer Award in 1984.
  • First entertainer to have her performance broadcast in a week-long late-night television program on the BBC

According to The Advocate, Mabel Mercer was a lover to openly lesbian speedboat racer and heiress Marion “Joe” Carstairs.


Fay Jackson Robinson, Journalist (1902 – 1988)

  • First person to found a black news magazine on the West Coast
  • First black Hollywood correspondent for the Associated Negro Press

According to Color, Sex & Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Robinson had an affair with poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson.


Marguerite Yourcenar, Writer (1903 – 1987)

  • First woman elected to the Académie française, the pre- eminent French council for matters pertaining to the French language.


Marty Mann, Activist (1904 – 1980)

  • First woman to publicly identify herself as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and the third woman to ever seek help from Alcoholics Anonymous


Anna May Wong, Actress (1905 – 1961)

  • First Asian-American actress to gain international recognition


Josephine Baker, Actress, Singer & Dancer (1906 – 1975)


Frida Kahlo, Artist (1907 – 1954)

  • First Mexican artist to be featured at the Louvre
  • In 1990, became the first Latin American artist whose work broke the one-million-dollar threshold at Sotheby’s with the sale of Diego and I
  • In 2001, became the first Hispanic woman to be honored with a U.S. Postage Stamp


Helen Hull Jacobs, Athlete (1908 – 1997)

  • First woman to wear man-tailored shorts at Wimbledon

by Dorothy Wilding, half-plate film negative, 1935


Pauli Murray, Activist / Lawyer/ Priest / Author (1910 – 1985)

  • First black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest as well as being among the first group of women to become priests in that church.


Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Athlete (1911 – 1956)

  • First female golf celebrity


Esther Eng, Filmmaker (1914 – 1970)

  • First Chinese-American filmmaker
  • First director to shoot Cantonese-language films in Hollywood.


Lorraine Hansberry (1930 – 1965)

  • First Black woman to write a play performed on Broadway


Barbara Jordan (1936 – 1996)

  • First African-American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction
  • First Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives
  • First African-American woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention.


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Riese is the 36-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2536 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. Also, regarding evidence of historical gayness, how do you rate Days of Love because some of the claims seem a bit sketchy to me. FTR though, I completely accept pyschic connection as proof of gayhood.

    Also, if you are gathering all of your findings into a big Gay-ta-base, is this something that will ever be accessible to other curious humans?

    • I love “Days of Love” so much and I feel the author is a kindred spirit. That being said, I rarely use it as my only source, and I’ve gotten pretty adept at sussing out which seem to be FOR SURES and which seem to have much looser cases. For example I’m not confident about her assessment of Helen Keller but like can somebody else get on that ’cause I need to know

      Re: database, i’m not sure, probably not at least not soon or for free, but TIME WILL TELL

  2. Let’s make it 39 and add Pauli Murray! Pauli’s first from Wikipedia: “Drawn to the ministry, in 1977 Murray became the first black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and she was among the first group of women to become priests in that church.” But that is one of the less interesting things about this incredible person’s place in queer and women’s history. Read about Pauli! https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauli_Murray

    • ahahhsaha i kept thinking that i was mixing up her name in my head and i didn’t realize that’s ’cause i was actually reading about two different people! removed, thank you for the kind correction

  3. Lili Elbe?

    I only know the dramatized version of her story from watching and then reading “The Danish Girl,” but neither of those accounts suggested Lili had any romantic interest in women?

  4. I’m glad you included Josephine Baker! Please do a sequel to this article and include another awesome lady-loving lady with a similar name, Dr Sara Josephine Baker. The first woman to earn a doctorate in public health from New York University, the first woman to be a professional representative to the UN (then called the League of Nations), and the first person (of any gender) to direct the New York City Bureau of Child Hygiene. Her approach, which emphasised preventative medicine, reduced the infant mortality rate in NY by 50%.

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