150 years of photos of American lesbians

Autostraddle's Riese has collected an astounding gallery of photos of American lesbians, spanning 150 years, from 1850 to 2000.

I really threw myself into Herstory Month, in June, eating every accessible herstory archive on the internet and spending hours in the library, accumulating massive stacks of borrowed books which I stored at the foot of my bed. My girlfriend was not a big fan of the stacks of books at the foot of the bed.

I was looking for words but eventually, also, for pictures. Honestly before tumblr it was difficult to find very much lesbian imagery at all online — it was always the same ten or twelve stock photos — let alone pictures of lesbians taken prior to 2000. I wanted to see an evolution of our community, how we'd grown and changed over the years — and not just in a montage of famous out actresses and models, but pictures of actual people, pictures of women who were active in the community — regular human beings, writers and social activists.

Epic Gallery: 150 Years Of Lesbians And Other Lady-Loving-Ladies (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

(Images: Top, "1880s"; right, "Evelyn “Jackie” Bross (left) and Catherine Barscz (right) at the Racine Avenue Police Station, Chicago, June 5, 1943. They had been arrested for violating the cross-dressing ordinance.")


      1. definitely, probably why they are all laughing in the picture.
        on a side note, when did “dyke” becomes offensive? i see these pictures and i see all these girls self identifying as “dyke” even up to the 1990’s but today dyke is considered a slur, when did that happen?

          1. yeah me too, i dont know quite how it came to be associated with lesbians, nor why it is offensive. but it does sound nice…though it tends to give me more of an image of a dam…

        1. It’s always been considered a slur. The fact that some lesbians reclaimed it in the 1970s doesn’t change that.

  1. Lots of families had Aunt Edna and Aunt Rose who lived together and maybe when you are in your 20’s you ask which side of the family Rose is from and you find out she’s not a blood relative, but they have been living together for 45 years and Oh My God!

    1. I have an aunt who’s always bringing her best friend to family events even though she’s married and after I came out my mom took me aside and explained why that was, exactly, and OH MY GOD..

  2. I noticed a caption describing that the women in the picture had been jailed for violating the cross-dressing ordinance. OMG, they wore pants! They might have sneaked into a men’s bathroom and raped some guy!

    1. I know you’re kidding, and it made me laugh, but do a Google search for Tennessee state representative Richard Floyd.

      Or just Google the phrase “stomp a mudhole”.

      Amazing progress has been made in the past 150 years. It’s even more amazing when you consider the sort of people who are still trying to prevent it. 

    1. What?  Did you never see Laverne and Shirley?  By then they’d reduced it down to a single letter, but the thought remains.

    1. Because it’s easier to rail against words than do something constructive to change the unacceptable situation.

  3. Cataloging the continuing activities of homo sapien, var. Lesbian Americanus.  Great photos, but not such a great curating job.

    For example, a woman running a drill press sometime in the ’40s does not say lesbian to me. It says, “That’s what my grandma did during WW II.” Was she a lesbian? I don’t think so, but if she was, I’m pretty sure getting laid wasn’t what she was thinking about at the time. She was probably concerned more about keeping all of her fingers and considering how she would spend her money, since just about everything was rationed.

    A number of other photos seem a bit pigeon-holed too — there’s so much more to them than sexual identity, and cataloging them thus seems reductionist. In particular, the Diane Arbus image, “Two Friends at Home,” is mesmerizing not because it’s two lesbian women, but because it’s a masterful work. Art, great Art, transends politics. Art created to serve the necessities of politics is always 2nd-rate — no matter how much social caché it may acquire in its time. Looking at you Maya Angelou.

    1. Statistics Canada noticed a problem with their married same sex data recently. It was strangely elevated in some small communities. The culprit apparently was the issue of same sex roommates who were also married – but not to each other. So places like the oil patch where people would go to work and be living with other workers were showing up as hotbeds of same sex married couples.

      I will try to find a link and edit it in.

    2. I had this issue as well. I really wanted the series to be exactly as stated, pictures of lesbians. But without accompanying text explaining who the women are, or without body language clearly demarking a couple, some of the pictures felt like portraits of people who are, yes, outside the cultural norm, but who may or may not actually be gay.  Am I left to assume that everyone fraternizing with a lesbian is gay and that no straight women ever wore pants?

      In that I think it does a disservice.

      [BTW, is there a female equivalent to fraternizing? Sororitizing? Using fraternizing for a bunch of females being friendly just seems inaccurate.]

  4. “Honestly before tumblr it was difficult to find very much lesbian imagery at all online — it was always the same ten or twelve stock photos — let alone pictures of lesbians taken prior to 2000.”

    I beg to differ…. as far as I can remember using the internet have I been able to find tens, nay, hundreds, nay thousands of lesbian images.

    1. Boy, you beat a whole lot of people to that punch…myself included.

      My great aunt is gay and these pictures remind me a whole lot of her various photos with all her “friends” throughout the years. 

      Sad and melancholy in the way that old photos usually are. 

  5. regular human beings, writers and social activists.

    not sure what to say about this …. odd phrasing, is all.

  6. One possible correction. In the photo of Gladys and Annabell, The house, their style of dress (in particular, Annabell’s dress is well above her ankles), the blue ink, and the overall quality of the photo suggests early 1930’s rather than the 1880’s.

    (I’ve made the same comment at the linked website)

  7. I’m a little uncomfortable just assuming that the women in some of these pictures are lesbians (or what self-identify as such). Anyone who has spent a little time with old photos, even from a few generations ago, will recognize that friends used to be a little more touchy feely than we are today. Men and women both would routinely link arms or hold hands in what would have been recognized then as merely familiar and friendly.

    No doubt some of the folks here would have had a love that dare not speak its name (etc.) but you might not be able to tell who that is simply from how cozy and familiar they are in pictures of the era.

  8. BTW, ancient Greeks didn’t call women who preferred other women “lesbians”. “Lesbian” was a 19th century euphemism for “Sapphist” (after Sappho, the famous ancient Greek female poet from Lesbos who wrote about her love for women). “Sapphist” itself was a coded euphemism based on upper-class male familiarity with classic Greek and Roman literature. In the 19th century, women might have been called “tribades” – from the French expression for women who presumably entwined their legs together for sexual satisfaction, or “toms” – that is, a masculine pussy. The expression remains in the disparaging “tomboy”.”Dyke” was also used by the late Victorian era.

  9. Call me a skeptic, but it seems a bit presumptuous to assume that because these are pictures of women together, and of women breaking traditional gender roles of their times by wearing “mens” clothing, that these women are lesbians. I’m sure some of them are, but it could also be that some of these were just totally awesome women who wanted to wear pants.

    That being said, these are great photographs, and I’m happy that women have been bending gender stereotypes since the dawn of pants.

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