March is Women’s History Month, when we highlight LGBTQ women who have made a positive impact on the world. Since both women and the queer community were likely underrepresented in your history textbooks growing up, there are some remarkable women whose stories you’ve either never heard or were only taught in passing.
To help correct that imbalance and enlighten you about some seriously badass women and their fascinating lives, take a listen to these podcast episodes.
Sappho was a Greek lyric poet who lived on the island of Lesbos, hence the terms lesbian and sapphic. She died in 570 BC. Much of her work has been lost and little is known about her life, but Sappho’s legacy endures.
Gladys Bentley truly did it all. She was a drag performer, singer, lyricist, and pianist who rose to prominence during New York City’s Harlem Renaissance. She later relocated to California, where she was billed as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Player” and the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs.” Her fearlessness, talent, and big personality left a big imprint on those who saw her perform.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a singer, songwriter, and guitarist who gained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s as a gospel act, but her style was too eclectic to fall under any one genre. Tharpe’s bluesy tunes were influential not only to other gospel performers, but also to early rock musicians, earning her the nickname “the Godmother of rock and roll.”
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the 2018 class.
Edythe Eyde, a.k.a. Lisa Ben
Edythe Eyde—also known as Lisa Ben, an anagram of “lesbian”—began publishing the lesbian magazine Vice Versa in 1947, making her a trailblazer at a time when she couldn’t even send her publication through the mail thanks to the Comstock Act.
She would go on to write for The Ladder, which began publishing nearly a decade after she launched Vice Versa. Eyde was also a musician who wrote gay-themed parody songs that presented LGBTQ people positively, a reaction to the self-deprecating acts presented by many of the performers in gay bars and clubs at the time.
Shirley Willer was a nursing student when she first realized she was a lesbian, after a lecture about same-sex attraction, which was seen as a mental disorder at the time. Willer became active in the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights group in the United States, eventually serving as national president for several years. Her work during this time included bringing the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society, another early LGBTQ rights group, which had initially focused primarily on issues concerning gay men.
Investigated by the FBI, blackmailed, but bold enough to keep going, Billye Talmadge was one of the early members of the earliest lesbian rights organization in the U.S., the Daughters of Bilitis.
— Making Gay History (@MakingGayHistry) November 18, 2018
Billy Talmadge was one of the earliest members of the Daughters of Bilitis, and was instrumental in helping it evolve from a social group into an advocacy organization. The unapologetic manner in which she lived helped her thrive in spite of the ignorance and hatred of the time—and even as she was subjected to government surveillance and blackmail. The investigation ended not in her destruction, but rather sent her blackmailer to prison for two years when she stood up for herself.
Talmadge also helped others through her work as a counselor and special education teacher.
— Abprallen (@AbprallenUK) March 15, 2019
Ruth Simpson learned about activism and organizing at a young age. Her parents, Ethel and Edward Simpson, were heavily involved in the labor movement. She used those skills to advocate for lesbians, serving as president of the NYC chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis. Simpson also founded the first lesbian community center in NYC.
Barbara Gittings and Kay “Tobin” Lahusen
— NY Public Library (@nypl) December 13, 2016
Barbara Gittings and Kay “Tobin” Lahusen were life partners and seminal figures in the early gay rights movement. Gittings participated in some of the first pickets fighting for LGBTQ rights in the U.S. and organized the NYC chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis.
Gittings served as editor of The Ladder, which often featured Lahusen’s photography. She was also one of the founding members of the Gay Activists Alliance. They are among the few early LGBTQ activists who remained active after the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
Mexican singer Chavela Vargas is beloved in her home country for her incredible voice and passionate renditions of classics as well as modern Latin American songs. She has been called filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s muse and was Frida Kahlo’s lover. She appeared in a number of Almodóvar’s movies, despite saying she had no desire to be an actor.
Vargas officially came out in her autobiography, at the age of 81. By then, it was no surprise to her fans.
Stormé DeLarverie was a drag king performer most famous for reportedly inciting the crowd at the Stonewall Inn to fight back against the police brutality they faced on the first night of the Stonewall Riots. DeLarverie and several eyewitnesses said she was the woman who fought back against cops as they repeatedly attempted to put her into a police wagon, asking those standing and watching why they didn’t do something, inspiring them to act.
She is also remembered as a pioneer in gender-bending fashion.
Poet, journalist, and activist Kelly Cogswell left her home town in Kentucky and moved to NYC with dreams of making it as a writer. She found success, and also used her talents as part of the Lesbian Avengers, whose attention-getting activism helped bring visibility to lesbians and was an essential part of carrying the spirit of the Stonewall Riots into the future.
Cogswell wrote a book about those years called Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.