Lesbians who made a difference

Jamakaya

Noble and Nobel-winning, creative and creepy, these wildly different lesbians are worth noting during Women’s History Month.

Born in 1860, Jane Addams overcame crippling self-doubt to become one of the greatest social and peace activists in American history. 

The educated daughter of a wealthy Illinois family, Addams experienced many youthful traumas. Her mother and four of her siblings died by the time she was 8. She was ashamed of her looks and the limp she acquired from a bout of spinal TB. She felt oppressed by the expectation that she should marry well and raise a family. She yearned for a higher purpose but despaired over what course to take. 

Her years of depression were lifted after a trip to England, where she visited Toynbee Hall, a “settlement house” where professionals lived among and worked to empower poor people. In 1889, Addams brought the idea to America. She used much of her own money to establish Hull House in Chicago.

Hull House offered recreation, meal programs, emergency housing, English language and other instruction to poor people and immigrants. It provided the dynamic laboratory from which professional social work developed and fueled what is known as the Progressive Era. 

Hull House tackled issues like blighted housing, infant mortality, juvenile crime and the rights of workers. It won significant reforms: stricter building codes; improved street lighting and sewer maintenance; a separate juvenile justice system; child labor laws; factory inspections; and public health services.

Addams thrived on the work. Her vision of social welfare and justice continually expanded. She was a leading voice for women’s suffrage and a founding member of the NAACP, the ACLU and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Addams’s companion through the years was Mary Rozet Smith.

Patricia Highsmith achieved fame in the 1950s for writing nail-biting psychological thrillers like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, both made into hit movies. She also wrote, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, The Price of Salt, one of the first novels in which a lesbian did not meet a tragic end, instead walking into the sunset with her lover.

Like Addams, Highsmith endured years of anguish before achieving clarity. Texas, where she was born in 1921, could not contain her wayward energy. Highsmith’s mother was mortified by her intractability and their lifelong relationship was bitterly contentious.

Transplanted to New York to attend Barnard, Highsmith excelled intellectually and had a number of affairs with women. She worked for college publications and spent years writing copy for comic books, a job that honed her plotting skills. People who knew her in the 1940s recall her beauty and wit but also her cold and aloof nature.

Pressured by family and a boyfriend, Highsmith underwent a long period of psychoanalysis to “cure” her homosexuality. It failed. The acceptance of her lesbianism ushered in decades of unbridled creativity and publishing success with bestselling novels and short story collections.

There are two good biographies of Highsmith: Beautiful Shadow and The Talented Miss Highsmith. Both detail her personal struggles, many love affairs and macabre imagination. Always an odd duck, Highsmith became increasingly misanthropic and creepy before her death in 1995. She developed a fondness for snails, for instance, and toted her pet snails around in her purse!