It is often said of independent, strong-willed women of the past who defied the social rules and norms that they are women “ahead of their time”. By this it is understood that should a woman behave in a similar way in contemporary society, they would be included and accepted within society, that less barriers would exist for contemporary women who wished to have a comparable lifestyle and equitable achievement. It is always within this context that we are invited to view the lives of women in the past.
I personally find that this creates a completely false divide between the struggles of women in the past and the struggles of women today. In some ways, yes, we as women walk an easier path because of the trails that were blazed by the defiant women who came before us… but in many ways I see our paths running together, fighting the same fights as so many women have fought in the past, with the same determination, passion and desire for freedom. Perhaps we are always women “ahead of our time”. When is it our time, I have to wonder, and will we ever get there?
It is on this note that I wanted to write about Miss Anne Lister who was an upperclass Englishwoman from Halifax, West Yorkshire. She lived from 1791-1840. She was an amazing woman. A mountaineer, traveller, scholar/intellectual and industrialist. She was also an out lesbian.
Throughout her lifetime Anne kept diaries which detailed much of her life from her business dealings, her work on restructuring the estate and landscaping the ground to her intimate feelings and detailed descriptions of her love affairs. She developed a code so she might write of her affairs in secret. When eventually one of her male relatives began to decipher the codes and discovered their contents, the diaries where in danger of being destroyed. Fortunately, they were not, and more recently, Helena Whitbread spent six years decoding and bringing them to light.
Recently, a film was made based on her life and the contents of the journals called, The Very Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. It is an excellent film and I highly recommend watching it. It made me curious to find out more about this remarkable woman so I read the published extracts of her diaries and visited Shibden Hall, which was her home from the age of 24. The estate was beautiful, the landscaping gorgeous and the house which Anne had invested in renovating, complete with a gothic library tower, was really witchy! I thoroughly enjoyed the tour. Even the boring male historian guide was interesting as all he did was talk about Anne.
Although Anne’s diaries are interesting because of her frank and unapologetic awareness and engagement with her sexuality and her lesbian desire, it is far from the only thing that is remarkable about her. She was obviously a very intelligent and self-aware women, fiercely independent and uncaring of social opinion. She was physically courageous, climbed mountains, travelled and refused to be intimidated when men threatened her.
According to Helena Whitbread, “she became the first woman to be elected to the committee of the Halifax branch of the Literary and Philosophical Society because of her academic contributions to that society. She took an active interest in schools in the area and generally encouraged the spread of education. She managed her estates, dealt with the business of farming, and developed coal-mining on her land. Much of her working life was spent out of doors supervising workmen and, at times, tackling some of the physical tasks herself.”
All in all a portrait of a truly inspiring woman, who like any woman who believes in her own humanity, defied the conventions of the time and forged a full life upon her own terms. Not a ‘modern’ woman, but a woman with courage and determination, who refused to let male supremacy quash her dreams and desires or dictate the course of her life.
And because lesbianism is beautiful, I leave you with this quote from Anne, “I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”