There is an erasure of LGBTQA people in history. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, there’s good old fashioned homophobia. Historians have, in the past and present, ‘straightened’ out historical LGBT people. There are also other, more nuanced, reasons as well. Assigning labels to historical people–labels that they themselves might not have used or identified as, is somewhat a-historical. However, there are numerous rumoured heterosexual couples in history (Elizabeth’s I’s many rumoured loves, for example), that have no tangible proof to their existence. And what is proof anyway? Do we need physical, photographic, or documentary evidence to prove a person’s sexuality?
Because, if we do, then LGBTQA history is hard to find. Power structures and cultural rules of society meant that LGBTQA people rarely identified themselves in many periods of European history, for fear of going against the heterosexual norm.
Nonetheless, they existed. So I feel I can safely claim that LGBTQA people played an active role in the fight for women’s votes in the UK.
Some feminist historians have critiqued male historians for their perceived obsession with the sexuality of suffragettes. June Purvis wrote of Martin Pugh that he writes in a ‘prurient, masculinist manner’. Whilst this may be the case, it’s important that as feminists we don’t contribute to the longstanding erasure of LGBT history.
ETHEL MARY SMYTH
Ethel was a talented composer, who studied composition at the Leipzig Conservatory–where she met Tchaikovsky among others. She is still the only woman who’s had an opera performed at the Met, and she composed the suffragette anthem ‘The March of the Women’. Basically, she was uber-ly cool.
Ethel joined the WSPU in 1910, and gave up composing for two years to devote herself to the cause. She was arrested on 4th March 1912, after responding to Emmeline Pankhurst’s call for a mass window smashing. She was sentenced to two months in Holloway Prison for her actions.
Ethel had several passionate affairs with women throughout her life, and described her sexuality as an ‘everlasting puzzle’ in a letter to the brother in law of her first great love, Lisl von Herzogenberg. Lisl was the wife of a composer, and in Ethel’s memoirs, she states that ‘if ever I worshipped a being on earth it was Lisl’. Unfortunately the affair came to a sad end. Lisl’s sister was married to a man named Henry Brewster, and Ethel embarked on an affair with him. This caused a rift, and the relationship with Lisl was never repaired.
She fell in love with both Virginia Woolf and Emmeline Pankhurst. In her book, A Lesbian History of Britain, Rebecca Jennings argues that the relationship with Emmeline was probably reciprocated.
ESTHER ROPER & EVA GORE-BOOTH
Eva Gore-Booth was an Irish aristocrat born in 1870, who became a talented poet. Although her background was immensely privileged, Eva rebelled against this, and was committed to helping those less fortunate then herself. She met Esther in 1896, whilst recovering from an illness at a mutual friends house. They became life-long partners.
Both Eva and Esther were heavily involved in the suffragist movement, and both linked their campaigning for the vote with women’s rights in industry. Esther’s father had been a factory hand, and Esther was one of the first women to study for a university degree at Owens College, Manchester–she graduated with first class honours. They were pacifists during WW1.
Now, there are some who argue that Eva and Esther were merely close friends, but I think there is more than ample evidence suggesting a romantic relationship, including but not limited too:
- They lived together for many years. Eva made Esther the sole beneficiary of her estate.
- They jointly edited Urania, a journal that espoused the benefits of same-sex love and had radical views on gender and feminism.
- Eva was also a poet, and Esther published a collection of her poetry a few years after her death. In the introduction, she stated “Even simple everyday pleasures when shared with her became touched with magic”.
- They are buried together, and a quote from Sappho (ya know — the lesbian icon) is on their tombstone.
These are only a few of the women involved in the suffrage campaign that may have had same sex feelings and/ or relationships throughout their life. There is compelling evidence that others involved in the suffrage movement–Annie Kenney, Grace Roe, Christabel Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davidson–to name but a few, had romantic and passionate relationships with women.
For more about LGBTQA suffrage campaigners, why not listen to Hilary McCollum’s excellent talk from the National LGBT History Festival.