As free and healthy female sexuality is derided by the current presidential administration a la attacks on Planned Parenthood and affordable, accessible birth control (among other things), it often feels like we're headed back in time instead of moving forward. But if that's the game that our politicians want to play, then we say batter up! In terms of the history of female sexuality, it’s certainly important to remember where we come from. And side note: there were sooooo many badass queer women of the past whose biographies and/or mentions in history books have been sanitized and straight-ified, but we think young girls deserve to know that queer women have been living and giving since well before the past couple of decades--and well before Mike Pence fell in love with conversion therapy. Today, let’s celebrate the pioneers who paved the way to the sexual freedoms for which we apparently must still fight. In the spirit of the new(ish) Amazon series Z: The Beginning of Everything, about Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, here’s a list of lady sex icons, many of whom were queer, from the 1920s and 30s who were loud and proud long before sex positivity was even a glisten in our zygote eyes. Do zygotes have eyes? Probably not! Moving on!
1. ZELDA FITZGERALD
Photo from Wikipedia, originally scanned from "Zelda" by Nancy Milford
Author and multi-talented gal Zelda Sayre (later, Zelda Fitzgerald) is often considered “the first American flapper,” and though she struggled with manic depression and schizophrenia later in life, was widely known for her love of parties, pleasure, rule-breaking, and her public relationship with her husband. They spoke about the “sexual recklessness” of their early relationship, and were open about their celebrity and sex appeal. After her first biography was published 1970, people began to appreciate Zelda as an artist who was stifled by a controlling husband instead of the other way around, as it had so long been thought. Though a lot of her work was stolen and used by her more famous husband, Zelda did publish books of her own, and certainly managed to maintain her independence as a public figure.
2. JOSEPHINE BAKER
Photo from Wikipedia, courtesy of Bibliotheque nationale de France
Widely considered the first global black sex symbol, Josephine Baker carved out a life for herself in a world that explicitly wanted to keep women like her from doing just that. Perhaps most famous for her choice to adopt 12 “rainbow” children and live with them in a French mansion, there are a number of things about Baker’s life that are simply extraordinary. A child of poverty, a member of the French resistance during WWII, a civil rights activist, and a world-famous dancer, Josephine Baker also lived a famously sexually fluid, queer life. She had many marriages, divorces, and affairs over the course of her lifetime, most notably her affair in the late 30s with the original selfie queen, Frida Kahlo. Dream team extraordinaire.
3. FRIDA KAHLO
Photo from Wikipedia, available in U.S. Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division
And SPEAKING of Frida Kahlo, she was also a sex-positive icon of this era. Not only did her paintings often feature herself as the subject--she once allegedly said “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best”--but she lived a life of fierce individuality and resilience that is still famous to this day. The illness and chronic pain that she suffered from all her life informed her work and her rebellious nature, as she pursued sex and love and alcohol the way only men were supposed to--boldly, unabashedly, and in great quantity. Though she married fellow Mexican painter Diego Rivera as a young woman, she had many outside relationships with both men and women, as she traveled around the world presenting her art. Confident, independent, unapologetically woman, and extremely talented, Frida Kahlo is a sex positive, feminist hero for the ages.
4. TALLULAH BANKHEAD
Photo from Wikipedia
Talk about a sex icon--actress Tallulah Bankhead was so raunchy and ahead of her time that she was considered “unsuitable for the public” because of her “verbal moral turpitude” by the Hays Committee (those are the people who enforced the Hays Code which determined what passed as suitable content for motion pictures before the more modern Motion Picture Association of America rating system). Famous for her husky voice and unbeatable wit, Tallulah Bankhead was also shockingly open about her sexual appetite and unconventional (for the times, that is) sexual preferences. She was rumored to have had affairs with dozens of Hollywood starlets (and some dudes, too), and proudly refused to embody the highly limiting and unjustly narrow characteristics expected of women in this era. A shero for sure.
5. BILLIE HOLIDAY
Photo from Autostraddle, by William P. Gottlieb
Queen of Jazz and the Blues, Billie Holiday was also a bisexual woman of color in a time where neither of those things were acceptable. She struggled with a lot of personal issues from drug abuse to volatile and often violent relationships with men, but despite all of her adversity, her sexuality remained a priority for her. Her most storied same-sex romance was with none other than Ms. Tallulah Bankhead, who traveled with her on tour and would show up backstage after Holiday’s shows. Their breakup was apparently quite passionate and ended with the two of them writing nasty letters to the other about how each was portrayed in the other’s biographies. Woof, sounds dramatic. But what’s an early 20th century same-sex romance without a little ~drama~??
6. A’LELIA WALKER
Photo from Autostraddle
The daughter of the first female self-made millionaire in the U.S., and thus heiress to the Walker hair-care fortune, A’Lelia Walker had a major presence in the Harlem Renaissance as an outspoken, party-throwing, bisexual woman in the New York socialite circle. According to Lillian Faderman in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, “A’Lelia Walker probably had much to do with the manifest acceptance of bisexuality among the upper class in Harlem.” Faderman writes that “those who had moral reservations about bisexuality or considered it strange or decadent learned to pretend a sophistication and suppress their disapproval if they desired A’Lelia’s goodwill.” Sounds like we would have gotten along well!
Other gals you maybe didn’t know were into the whole #sexualliberation thing (or at least explored their sexualities when there was no outward encouragement to do so): “mother of modern dance” Isadora Duncan, actress Joan Crawford, poet Emily Dickinson, novelist Willa Cather, activist and poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson, queen of nursing Florence Nightingale, golf guru Babe Didrickson, civil rights leader Barbara Jordan, composer Katharine Lee Bates, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, OG badass first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, film director Dorothy Arzner, Russian actress Alla Nazimova, and so many more! Though we're often taught it doesn't really exist, let us not forget that the history of female sexuality is as long as human history itself (duh), and that sexual liberation is key to true gender equality. Cheers to lady sex!