Famous women suspected of lesbianism

Lizzie Borden. Photo from Google Images.

Lizzie Borden. Photo from Google Images.

I have been doing a lot of fact checking at work, and in the process I have run across two presumed lesbians of historical note: Lizzie Borden and Louisa May Alcott.

Borden was acquitted of the 1892 murder of her penny-pinching father and disagreeable stepmother. By all accounts, the pair was unpleasant at best, and Borden had a strained relationship with them.

While there are several theories on who, why and how the murders were committed, Lizzie by Evan Hunter theorizes that Borden was having an affair with the Irish maid (extremely scandalous for the time) and her stepmother found out, so of course she had to kill her. Oh, and her father too for good measure.

Another possible theory is the maid killed the couple and Lizzie kept her mouth shut because they were having an affair.

Either way, it still isn’t definitively known what happened that day, but there is other evidence that indicates Lizzie was a lezzie. She kept company with some scandalous characters including Nance O’Neil, an actress who was thought of as an overt lesbian.  In fact, a party she threw for O’Neil disgraced Borden’s sister so much that she moved out of the family home to avoid the shindig. Borden was also an active member in the pre-suffrage group Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a precursor to the National Organization for Women.

Alcott, on the other hand, is a bit less scandalous. Her novel Little Women, which many suspect is an autobiography laced with Alcott’s dream of the perfect family, did have a strong female character who was determined to transgress her gender roles to become a writer. Jo was also a bit of a tomboy, dressed in men’s clothing from time to time and wanted to just be friends with the dreamy boy next door who was in love with her.

However, that isn’t enough to deduce Alcott’s sexuality. That leads to he Penguin Classic’s edition of Little Women, which states the following in the introduction: “In an interview with the writer Louise Chandler Moulton, [Alcott] later commented with pre-Freudian candor on her own feelings: ‘I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … Because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.'”

Now I am not quite sure what the context of this quote is, but that is pretty striking evidence.

But, all told, women of a certain age during these times who did not marry are usually suspected to be lesbians regardless of any other evidence. I suppose we shall never really know.

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6 thoughts on “Famous women suspected of lesbianism

  1. LIZZIE BORDEN, our new rock musical in NYC, strongly suggests that Lizzie had something going on with Alice, her close friend — whether it was real romance or just an attempt to keep Alice from telling the police what she’d seen. I should say that while the script draws heavily from historical records, our version is a fable and takes some liberties with the story. But we do agree that there is evidence for her having been a lesbian.

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  3. I have to concur. The more I think about it, the more plausible it seems that Alcott was, in fact, attracted to women, not men. I’ve been reading Graham Robb’s Strangers, and his description of how lesbians were portrayed in nineteenth-century novels suddenly struck a chord for me, especially because I’d recently been discussing An Old Fashioned Girl with my husband and it reminded me of a scene in which the girls get together for an improvised picnic. When I reread the scene and Alcott’s official biography, it all started to coalesce in my head and seem really quite probable.

    You mentioned, in your post, a quote from an interview with Alcott, and I would dearly love to have a copy of the book you read it in. But I can’t figure out which Penguin Classics version to buy! I found three: one published in 1994, one published in 2007, and one published in 2010. If you could help me out, I’d be ever so grateful! Thanks.

  4. I’m rather taken aback (and being written as a staight man with no axes to grind), by the LGBT community’s rather unusual reluctance to claim a famous (if fictional) character as one of their own. I’ve just finished Little Women and I can tell you point blank that Jo is a lesbian. There is no ambiguity, no maybe she just preferred a single life, perhaps she just hadn’t found the right man yet. Come on, the evidence is there throughout. This quotation by Amy, just one of many such references throughout the book: “But Jo never would act like other girls”(p.790) sums Jo’s character and Alcott’s characterization of her. Alcott was a lesbian, she admits as such. Is there going to be no projecting from author to her work? She was writing in the 19th century, what does everyone want? Graphic and explicit gropings upstairs with some hussy whilst Beth et al are sewing and playing the piano? Clarissa Dalloway was clearly a lesbian in Mrs Dalloway, yet she was also married. What next? Virginia Woolf was probably just confused?

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