Anne Lister: The First Modern Lesbian

March 31, 2019

Anne Lister was a self-aware, self-proclaimed, openly lesbian woman in the 19th century. Called Gentleman Jack, she dressed in all black and did not find herself drawn to the feminine styles of her time. She was a modern butch lesbian for her time, and was proud of it.



She wrote about four million words in her diaries since the age of 15, detailing each of her romantic endeavors with the women who were taken by her charm. She even sounded cocky at times in her writings.


“I took it all well, was amused, led her on & praised her &, I daresay, came off with flying colours,” Lister wrote in an excerpt from August 9, 1818.


However, Lister was not always so risky with writing details of her lovers in her diaries. She made up her own secret code using algebra and the Greek alphabet when she wrote about the more erotic experiences she shared with women. After all, if anyone found that in her time, there’s no guessing what punishments would have came down on her.


Lister had 5 major lovers in her lifetime, most of which she played or was rather picky and unfair with.


Eliza Raine, Lister’s first roommate at boarding school, was the one to awaken Lister’s sexuality. They spent a lot of time together. However, Lister became bored and started seeing other women, which made Raine “go mad” and never quite recover.


Then, enters Isabella ‘Tib’ Norcliffe, who became more of a booty-call to Lister, but would be the person to introduce Lister to the love of her life, Mariana Lawton.


Although Lawton and Lister were passionate partners, they never could be together. Lawton married for money and Lister was determined to find a life partner to marry under the eyes of God.


Lister dated Maria Barlow for a short time. However, she broke it off when Barlow’s social and financial standing did not step up to par.


Eventually, Lister married Ann Walker in the form of a Church blessing and lived out the rest of her life with her. Unfortunately, they did not share a very happy marriage, which could be the result of Lister never being able to spend her life with her soul mate, Mariana.


However, Lister’s love story with Mariana will never be forgotten as her diaries were discovered and decoded, not once, but twice. The first time was by John Lister, a descendant. However, he hid them back away because he was also gay, and did not want to draw attention to that. The second time was by Helena Whitbread, a student trying to find a research project, and she dedicated her life to making sure Lister’s story was heard.


Anne Lister was bold, cocky, and sometimes not the most considerate, but she was fearless. She was brave enough to write those diaries and brave enough to love who she wanted to love. She was a pioneer for the lesbian community, using her aristocratic status to change the minds of the people around her, causing ripple effects that are still reaching today.


Emma Mari is an undergraduate journalism major at Emerson College in Boston, Mass. She has loved writing since she was a child and is a strong believer in democracy. She is aspiring to become a multi media journalist and wants to make her mark in the world. When she isn't reporting, she can be found playing with her dog, spending time with family and friends, and watching teen TV dramas.


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