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LGBTQI+ History Month Icons – Anne Lister

For LGBTQI+ History Month 2021 members of SRUC’s Rainbow Staff Network will be blogging about someone who is an LGBTQI+ Icon to them. The second in the series is Anne Lister chosen by Kathryn Pierce.

My icon is Anne Lister (1791-1840) diarist, businessowner, landowner, traveller, lesbian, not to mention entrepreneur, scientist, scholar, the list goes on.

Often described as “the first modern lesbian”, the life and loves of 19th century Anne Lister, Halifax landowner and entrepreneur, remained a relative mystery until the 1980s until the first of her volume of 26 diaries, a great deal of which were written in crypthand to preserve her privacy, were decoded and transcribed by then-student Helena Whitbread. In cracking the code, Helena soon realised she had uncovered an entirely unique and important historical document, and one which put a historical LGBTQ+ identity entirely centre stage.

Anne kept a meticulously and fastidiously detailed journal of her day-to-day business, work and romantic relationships to give us the most intricate account of landed 19th century life, and especially one where she lived authentically as a lesbian woman. The volumes contain more than 5 million words and are still in the process of being decoded and transcribed by a dedicated team of “Anne Lister Codebreakers” across the globe, all participating in the Anne Lister Transcription Project coordinated by the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Anne was a very unusual woman and broke a lot of societal rules, with a determination to live and conduct herself by her own ethics, rather than those of a traditional and patriarchal society. She was very hands-on, often doing activities deemed unsuitable for a woman, and she travelled extensively across Europe and Scandinavia, and even into Russia, something entirely unthought of for a woman to do of her own accord. Having inherited her family’s land and fortunes, economic independence gave Anne the opportunity to be herself without risk of disinheritance or ostracism, and her commanding and singular personality and breadth of knowledge and interests meant she was a particularly influential figure in the local region especially.

So why is this important to you?

Growing up in a middle-class family, in a middle-class area, with middle-class friends was all pretty privileged and pretty unremarkable. Except, for me, for one thing which seemed to be different to everyone else I came across and it was certainly not something anyone ever spoke about (I never even heard the word ‘lesbian’ until I was 15, and even then it wasn’t in a nice way), was that from primary school age, I knew I liked girls. I didn’t not like boys, but just not like that, and I knew, even as a kid, that I wouldn’t ever have a husband. I soon felt pretty suffocated with the status quo, and it took a long time and a great deal of unhappiness to finally understand that I had quite a different path ahead and one I would have to explore on my own and create for myself. After university, moving into the city (first Liverpool, then Manchester) meant I could start to find my identity and purpose and when I finally came out aged 25, things started to fall into place.


Kathryn Pierce

Why have you chosen Anne Lister?

Quite simply because she lived her authentic queer life at a time when it would be unthinkable. For her refusal to accept the status quo and bow down to social pressures and expectations and, in a sense, live someone else’s life. Her apparent self-belief is inspirational, and her determination to have the life she chooses and to create opportunities for herself by side-stepping norms and rules is one I also aspire to. Being female, Anne was the “wrong sex” to be eligible for higher education, but she studied anyway. She was a lifelong learner, and, having returned to university exactly 20 years after first graduating, I too share a thirst for understanding things and making new connections and new meanings. Anne was also eternally curious and had vision, and I too like making things happen. I don’t take the world as fixed and immutable – rather I see it as full of opportunity, with as Anne would put it “every moment packed with potential”.

How do you know Anne Lister was a lesbian?

It’s written in her journals, in her own pen and ink. I’m only sorry I’ll never get to meet her – I would love to invite her to dinner and find out all about her latest adventures.

Where can I find out more?

For more about Anne and her story, visit Anne Lister | Calderdale Museums and if you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t managed to watch the award-winning BBC/HBO drama “Gentleman Jack” based on her diaries, then here’s the link! They are in the middle of filming season 2, which should be released later this year, or early 2022. It is a fascinating story, and one which is still unfolding, the more diaries are decoded and transcribed, so we’ll be discovering more about Anne for years to come.

BREAKING NEWS: As per the news on 25 January, the University of York have announced they will be naming a college in Anne’s honour. The Anne Lister College is the first of York’s colleges to be named after a woman and also the first to be named after a person from the LGBTQ+ community, so Anne is still making history, even today!

Image: Painting by Joshua Horner, Copyright Shibden Hall.

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