The phrase WLW (women who love women) is a very new, modern internet acronym that seeks to be inclusive of all sorts of women who, well, love women. It is a phrase that through its simplicity manages to encapsulate lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals and women who fall in between – or outside of – these identities. Whilst the phrase itself is new, WLW have existed long before the advent of the internet.
In the modern day, when we think about famous queer women who have had meaningful impacts in the world we often think of Ellen DeGeneres, Billie Jean King and Audre Lorde. However, WLW have existed, and continue to exist, across every culture, every country and every part of history. These women have been artists, poets, politicians, royalty, scientists and activists, working on the front line to make the world a better and more exciting place.
They have been game changers, law breakers and peace makers.
They are women whose work you should respect and women whose names you should know.
Sappho of Lesbos (620 – 570 BCE)
Now, I was in two minds about including Sappho on this list, not because I don’t think she deserves a worthy place. But, instead, because she is already widely known in academia and queer communities. However, there are still those out there who do not know who Sappho is, or the influence she still holds. Largely, this is because these people run outside of literary circles or may not know that much about ancient Greek poets. I mean it is a niche interest, so, no hard feelings.
So, simply for that reason I have chosen to include her in this list.
Sappho of Lesbos was an ancient Greek poet whose work is extremely famous for concerning itself with romantic relationships between women. So famous is she in fact that her name has lent itself to the phrases which are now used to describe queer women: Sapphic, from Sappho and lesbian, from Lesbos.
During her time Sappho was extremely popular, so popular in fact that she was praised by figures such as Plato and had statues and coins made in her honour. However, her popularity certainly fell victim to the ravages of time and, as a consequence, a lot of her works are completely lost. Some works do remain and are a living testament to one of ancient Greece’s finest poets. Who was also a WLW, btw.
Gladys Bentley (1907 – 1960)
Gladys Bentley was a black, openly lesbian, cross-dressing blues singer and entertainer during the 1920s and 30s. Bentley was well-known for wearing a tuxedo suit (top hat and all), performing risqué lyrics and flirting with the women in the crowd during her performances.
Extremely open with her sexuality at a time that was not at all accepting, Bentley had a public marriage to a woman in 1931 which was a both a brave and daring move.
Bentley continues to be an inspiration for both the LGBTQ and African-American communities even today both for her daring nature and innate power as a black, lesbian performer. During her lifetime, Bentley challenged conceptions around gender, specifically challenging the conceptions around what it means to be ‘masculine’ as a black woman. A concept that, even today, people are uncomfortable with.
Frieda Kahlo (1907 – 1954)
Most of us probably know Frieda Kahlo for that famous unibrow.
The Mexican painter definitely does have a killer brow but alongside that she is a famous example of a passionate and political bisexual woman whose work has gone on to inspire millions.
Kahlo may never of become the artist she turned out to be if it wasn’t for a freak accident in 1925. Whilst riding on a bus, the vehicle collided with a streetcar and the accident caused serious injuries to Kahlo, many of which she would never recover from. It was during her recovery that Kahlo began painting, finishing her first self-portrait not long afterwards.
Kahlo is particularly known for her colourful self-portraits, her work drawing inspiration from the folk-art style of her native Mexico and explored notions of gender, race, class and identity. The life of Frieda Kahlo was as colourful as some of her portraits, as she led an extremely passionate on-off-on-again-off-again relationship with fellow painter Diego Rivera. Their periods of separation were filled with different lovers for both parties, Kahlo undertaking affairs with both men and women during these times. Outside of her romantic life, Frieda Kahlo was an openly political woman who is to this day regarded as a feminist figure.
Since her death Kahlo has been honoured all over the world both for her life and for her art. She has been the subject of many books, films and exhibitions with her work inspiring artists all over the world. She is also seen an icon of Mexican culture, the LGBT community and a feminist.
Do you think theres someone else we should include? Drop us a comment below!