Wonder Woman Wednesday: Anne Lister

May 1, 2019

“She asked if I thought the thing was wrong. If it was forbidden in the Bible…I dexterously parried all these points…I urged in my own defence (sic) the strength of natural feeling and instinct…as I had always had the same turn from infancy. That I had never varied…without attempting to account for the thing, I hoped, it might, under such circumstances, be excused.”  -- Anne Lister, “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister”

 

 

We can all relate to Anne Lister’s description of her amorous tendencies—including the notion that these have been ingrained in us since youth or “infancy”. Anne’s words resonate with everyone, regardless of one’s sexual orientation or gender expression. As it happens, Anne Lister was a lesbian living in England in the mid 1800’s. Lister is referring to her sexual feelings or “inclination” towards women in the above quote.

 

Anne’s assuredness in her sexuality was revolutionary for her lifetime. This is especially true given the societal perception of lesbians in 19th century England. Throughout Anne’s life, there was no mandate in England prohibiting women from having relations from one another. However, lesbian relationships were typically not acknowledged by the court. The court chose not to consider such relationships out of fear of having to explain or recognize them, according to researchers Catherine Craft-Fairchild and Terry Castle in an article titled, “Sexual and Textual Indeterminacy”. Gay marriage was also illegal in England throughout Anne Lister’s lifetime.

 

These societal barriers did not stop Anne from having several romantic relationships with women. Lister recounted many of her same-sex relationships in a hefty journal that amounted to almost four million words, according to the Historic England organization. In an article for the organization, it is written that Anne was further able to keep her relationships secret by writing most of her journal entries recounting her romantic affairs in code. Among the crafty code that Lister developed included writing the word “kisses” when denoting orgasms and placing a cross in the pages’ margins. Anne’s first documented romantic relationship with a woman was when she was just fifteen, according to Harriet Sherwood in an article for The Guardian.

 

Anne was further able to keep her romantic relationships private and, subsequently, her social standing in tact through her many renovations of her primary home. Anne Lister inherited her family’s private estate, called Shibden Hall, in 1826, after her four brothers passed away, Ms. Sherwood recounts. Anne would eventually add a wood paneling, and a gallery to the home, making it resemble medieval manor hall. These and other home changes permitted Anne to live in a more private environment where should could freely and secretly engage in relationships with other women.

 

It was Shibden Hall where Anne Walker, an heiress from nearby Yorkshire, would move in with Anne Lister in 1834. Ms. Lister and Ms. Walker lived publicly as lovers—a stark change from Anne Lister’s previously clandestine affairs. But Ms. Lister would want her relationship with Ann Walker to be recognized even more traditionally. She wanted to take the next step that straight couples were offered freely—to have her relationship with Walker sanctified in a church. Ms. Lister was staunchly religious, and viewed officiating her relationship with Ms. Walker in a church as a right that would be approved by God. Researcher Helena Whitbread expanded on this, noting, “(Anne Lister’s) firm belief was that as God had endowed her with her sexual nature, it would be wrong to act against it.”

 

It was on Easter Sunday of 1834 that Walker and Lister would share rings, vows and take communion in a ceremony celebrating their union. The celebration would take place at Holy Trinity Church in York. Their marriage was not viewed as legal by the court, but the romantic and spiritual ceremony would serve as the start of an official marriage in Lister’s view. Helena Whitbread writes that, for Lister, the union “sealed the matrimonial pact in which (she and Ms. Walker) had entered.”

 

Holy Trinity church is now known for acknowledging the first lesbian marriage in England, recounts Ms. Whitbread. Anne Lister would die at the mere age of 49—just five years after she and Ms. Walker officiated their union. However, Ms. Listers’ legacy continues to exist today. Anne Lister is often lauded today as Britain’s “first modern lesbian” and a plaque has been placed at Holy Trinity church in her honor. Ms. Lister would enter into a romantic union with Walker 180 years before gay marriage was legalized in the UK. Anne Lister’s confidence in her sexuality and drive to have her relationship be recognized verifies her as an influential heroine. This Wednesday, and every day, let’s celebrate Anne Lister – a lesser-known woman who made a lasting impact on gay rights.

 

Kat Frabotta is a young adult living in New York City.  In her dream world, she has a Chihuahua named Frances, but for now, dog-sitting will have to be enough.  She hopes to visit Nigeria one day and has an unhealthy obsession with pasta.

 

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