Why Americans Are All Freer Today Thanks to Our Lesbian Sisters

Since abolition, women have led the fight for rights we now take for granted

When those rich white males turned the Declaration of Independence’s “All men are created equal” into the original U.S. Constitution, they took “men” quite literally. Their constitution made landed white men equal.

They denied the vote to everyone else. “Taxation without representation” ended — for them. Freedom in its fullest form was limited to them. When we immortalize these founding fathers, let’s be realistic: They didn’t include most of us in the American dream.

It took “radical” and “disruptive” people who were willing to give blood, sweat, and tears to change that constitutional discrimination so that freedom would be something legal regardless of gender, race, skin color, or sexual orientation. We white males, even if we’re gay, might hate to admit that we’ve had historical privileges others haven’t.

Change to all this came about often because women — often those who today would identify as lesbians — forced that change upon us against the odds. There were courageous, subversive men too — but the Americans who often highlighted the need for change were seldom privileged, well-off white males.

Early American lesbians in the fight for liberty

A closer look at U.S. history reminds us of the place of our sisters, many of them our lesbian sisters, in the ongoing struggle for freedom. Nineteenth-century women who formed domestic partnerships with other women were more likely to be pioneers for broadening liberty.

They often began as abolitionists. Their struggles would turn to women’s suffrage as a result of their experiences while advocating for the end of slavery. Extending the vote to men of color was only a step that they found was not enough, but they participated fully and led in both movements.

The most well-known sister was Susan B. Anthony, who began her public career as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Then, in 1869, after forming a close relationship with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they both called the first post-Civil War women’s suffrage convention, which formed the National Woman Suffrage Association.  The ultimate result was the extension of voting rights to women.

Seldom, however, are women such as Anthony recognized for their affection for other women. Our culture still prefers to “straighten up” our heroes and heroines, now often under the excuse that we shouldn’t care.

Anthony’s most well-known beloved was Emily Gross of Chicago, a married woman. As Anthony wrote in a letter to her niece: “I shall go to Chicago and visit my new lover — dear Mrs. Gross — en route to Kansas…”

Such sentiments are found regularly throughout these and other movements that expanded our freedoms. Fortunately they’ve been documented by Lillian Faderman in her classic 1999 book To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America — A History.

Faderman’s history reminds us that we owe the extension of our freedoms to the work of our sisters, and to our lesbian sisters. And we white males, even if we identify as gay, do not know the greater strength it took for these women to overcome layer upon layer of prejudices they faced fighting for freedom.

The backlash against feminism

With the various waves of feminism and the movements for human rights since, there has been more progress toward expanding freedoms to all. But there has also been one backlash after another from well-funded, powerful, privileged and loud-beyond-its-numbers minorities most often buoyed up by conservative religious leaders and organizations.

When we act as if such recent decisions as the radical Supreme Court taking away a woman’s right to healthcare autonomy or the Southern Baptist Convention renewing its rejection of women “as any kind of pastor or elder” don’t continue to send the message about the lesser status of women, we downplay the lingering prejudice against women in our culture.

And as long as lesbians are treated as even lesser because they reject the “straight” role for women that requires their dependence upon men (and preferably also “getting” one), we will see women who stand up publicly and powerfully merely for their equality continually denigrated even further with lesbian slurs.

So many men are still taught openly and subtly to minimize “feminism,” as if feminists constitute some evil, anti-male force. But those who have argued over the centuries for equal rights for women (a definition of feminism) have done all of us a favor because, if we’re listening closely, we will see that they have led again in extending freedom for all of us.

They have shown us that every time a boy is criticized for doing something “like a girl,” it’s not only a putdown of girls, but also the installation of a straightjacket that binds boys to a gender role that will limit their freedom to be themselves, to pursue their own paths, and to express themselves any way they want — and it will probably kill them early.

Feminists have shown us that the binaries in definitions assigned to masculine and feminine not only hinder and hurt us and our relationships, but also are used to regulate and oppress LGBTQ+ people while they scare us all into living within limits that constrict our lives.

They have shown us a future of freedom for every individual while frightening the timid, those who make money off the current limitations, those who are afraid of other people (other than themselves) being free, and the religious right-wing leaders who claim to know what the Divine restrictions are for everyone — while secretly breaking their own rules.

We claim to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We owe the freedoms we have, and the freedom we can have, to live as full human beings to many past and present. But that means that we remember those brave sisters who continued to, and still push us to, recognize what freedom for all really can be.

The least we all can do is make sure we’re not the ones putting those sisters down when we celebrate our freedoms.