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August 2, 2011 Comments (24) Views: 7020 Forum, Nerds

Right Under Our Noses: Anne Lister

When you get right down to it, it’s often harder to find notable lesbians throughout history because up until the Women’s Liberation movement of the early 20th Century, women simply weren’t afforded much of a place throughout society.  That’s why this edition of Right Under Our Noses is particularly remarkable.  Not only is she a clearly defined lesbian during an age where the term “lesbianism” did not exist, but she was a woman who explicitly took control of her own life and went after everything she wanted.  That alone makes Anne Lister stand out as someone who trail-blazed her own path.

Famous Lister Portrait

Anne Lister, or "Gentleman Jack" as she was sometimes known, poses here in her most famous existing portrait.

While Anne Lister isn’t a name that gets thrown about history books too often, she still offers an interesting look into what life was like during the early 19th century.  Despite her strong-willed nature, however, one would be a bit foolish to say that luck had nothing to do with Lister’s success story.  Born in 1791 to a British soldier, by the age of 25, Anne was in the unique position of having inherited the family’s estate.  This was incredibly uncommon during the period, as women were rarely granted the right to own property.  (Think of how, during Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn Estate is threatened to be inherited by Mr. Collins instead of one of the daughters.)  Instead, Anne Lister’s story tells us what might have happened had Elizabeth Bennett actually been granted the property.  And, you know, been an actual lesbian.

The income and power that came with being a landowner herself granted Anne Lister the ability to live in a way that women of that era simply did not.  Not only did she have a number of female lovers throughout her lifetime which eventually culminated in what amounts to a common law marriage with another wealthy heiress, but she defied the traditional attitudes of the time by dressing in all-black, accentuating her already masculine features.  In many circles, Lister was referred to as “Gentleman Jack.”  She rebuked the notion that women should have no place in politics and would often have a defining influence on issues of the day herself, all through the 50 or so tenant farmers who resided on her property.  Additionally, tradition-be-damned, Lister decided to further her own income by getting involved with a coal mining operation, something absolutely unheard of for a woman to be participating in.

Lister Diary

Perhaps the most well-known of Anne Lister's published diaries, I Know My Own Heart.

Despite the fact that Anne Lister was such a strong woman, however, she seemed to have some quite contradictory attitudes.  She was incredibly politically conservative and did not believe in granting women the right to vote or to pursue a formal education.  She, herself, was entirely self-taught and apparently believed that if women wanted to gain knowledge and power, that they should go out and pursue it on their own.  It’s a curious attitude, surely spawned by the prevailing attitudes of the day.  The simple fact that she pursued everything she wanted and that gave her a sense of strength and superiority is undeniable.  It seems, however, that Lister was unable to acknowledge the fact that she was given a tremendous gift by inheriting the family estate and that she might not have been able to achieve everything she did on her own without that head start.

What really makes Anne Lister notable, however, are her diaries.  She kept a diary throughout her entire life, leaving behind a record of over 4 million words.  This alone grants an unparalleled look into her life and the society of the day… but it’s not what makes Lister truly special.  About one-sixth of this entire collection is comprised of explicit details about Lister and her various sexual experiences and feelings, written entirely in code that she devised herself.  These entries not only go into her accounts of the lesbian experiences that she had with various women, but they describe the various seduction techniques that she used on them.  All in all, the diaries themselves are quite a scandalous read.

More than just being accounts of various liaisons, though, Lister’s diaries contain a remarkable look into her own thoughts and feelings regarding her sexual orientation.  She fully acknowledges herself as a lesbian, even though she doesn’t have the vocabulary to define herself as such.  As she says, “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs.” That’s a pretty self-aware acceptance and this makes Anne stand out against the pages of history.

Lister Diary Sample

An example of the coded diaries that Anne Lister kept.

Anne Lister is a remarkable person in my eyes, despite the character flaws that crop up when examining her history.  Anyone who has the sheer determination to go after what they want in spite of the milieu of the day is impressive, especially when such actions can even be considered dangerous to a degree.  The fact that she leaves behind such a thorough account of her life and inner-most thoughts is impressive, but what really gets me is that she wrote her most private entries in a self-devised code that took until the 1930s to break.  Not only was she a strong-willed and imposing woman, but she was a lesbian that did something all of us Gay Nerds can surely admire.

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