I Would Like to Know Her: On Cookie Woolner’s “The Famous Lady Lovers”

By Leigh-Michil GeorgeMay 21, 2024

I Would Like to Know Her: On Cookie Woolner’s “The Famous Lady Lovers”

The Famous Lady Lovers: Black Women and Queer Desire Before Stonewall by Cookie Woolner

ONE THURSDAY NIGHT in late August 1927, Alice Dunbar-Nelson went to see Ethel Waters sing. Dunbar-Nelson was 52 years old, Southern-born, and middle-class. She was a writer and an activist who had formerly been married to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Waters, on the other hand, was just 30 years old and had grown up dirt-poor in Chester, Pennsylvania. She had risen from obscure showgirl to celebrity in the early 1920s, recording hits like “Oh Daddy” and “One Man Nan” for the Black-owned Black Swan label; now she was performing in Africana, her first Broadway musical. In her diary, Dunbar-Nelson wrote, “I love Africana chiefly because of Ethel Waters. She’s loveable. […] I would like to know her.”

Dunbar-Nelson’s description of Waters is slight, yet intriguing. Did the older woman ever get to know the younger woman in the way she desired? Unfortunately, there is nothing in the rest of Dunbar-Nelson’s diary that indicates any further connection between the two women. They were a generation apart, but their lives, like so many other Black women living in the United States at this time, were shaped by the profound shifts brought about by the Great Migration and the New Negro Movement. In addition to these similarities, the two women were also both lady lovers.

In The Famous Lady Lovers: Black Women and Queer Desire Before Stonewall (2023), Cookie Woolner uses the backstage meeting between Dunbar-Nelson and Waters as a thematic framework for the larger narrative she explores in her study of the Jazz Age: how Black women—musicians, actresses, writers, and middle- to upper-class clubwomen and society ladies—“craft[ed] queer kinship networks.” Alongside her discussion of Dunbar-Nelson and Waters, Woolner examines the lives and loves of a wide range of queer women, including blues singers Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, writer Dorothy West, and educator Lucy Diggs Slowe. Each woman found ways, sometimes publicly, sometimes privately, to express their desire for same-sex relationships. As Woolner notes, “through the house parties, speakeasies, buffet flats, and Black vaudeville circuits where [they] performed […] Blues women subtly hailed their audiences with veiled references to queerness.” In contrast, middle-class women, like Dunbar-Nelson, might rendezvous with a lover and then “document their inner worlds through letters and diaries.” Or in some cases, couples—like Slowe (the first Dean of Women at Howard University) and her partner, Mary Burrill, who shared a home together for over a decade—might find “cover” in “earlier nineteenth-century conceptions of women’s emotionally intimate, yet sexless, relationships.” Despite the racial and gender discrimination and homophobia they so often faced, these women succeeded in creating spaces and forging networks that made it possible for them to pursue love and sex on their own terms.

The Famous Lady Lovers begins in 1920 with a sensationalist account of a “new sex problem” in Chicago’s Bronzeville district. According to the Black newspaper the Chicago Whip, the complainant Sherman Robinson, “in one of the most peculiar divorce cases to yet be heard in Chicago […] asked [for] complete divorce from his wife, Ida May Robinson, on the grounds that she had forsaken him to run away with another woman.” In the introduction and first chapter, Woolner draws attention to how the “Black press and other male authorities,” such as the renowned pastor Adam Clayton Powell Sr., fueled anxiety over lady lovers in reaction to a “politics of respectability” that “demanded hewing to traditional gender roles, which did not involve women leaving their husbands for other women.” Women who loved other women, particularly “new settlers” like Ida May Robinson who had migrated from the South, were portrayed as morally defective and shamed for detracting from the uplift of the race with their “sex perversion.”

Woolner deftly analyzes an array of provocative headlines from Black newspapers, in which Black lady lovers were often criminalized as prostitutes and murderers: “Woman Kills Woman for Love of Woman,” “Woman Slain in Queer Love Brawl,” “Woman Rivals for Affection of Another Woman[,] Battles with Knives, and One Has Head Almost Severed from Body.” In doing so, she highlights how the representation of queer Black women dramatically differed from the depiction of white upper-class lesbians. “[C]onceptions of modern lesbian identity were crystallizing,” Woolner writes, “in public understanding through art and media in the 1920s”; through books, like Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928); and through Broadway plays, like The Captive (1926). But “these popular 1920s depictions of white lesbians did not feature violence the way articles in the Black press did throughout the decade.” As a result, Black queer women “emerged as violent subjects who needed various forms of policing in the Jazz Age.”

Saidiya Hartman has previously covered much of this cultural and historical ground in her award-winning Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals (2019). Both Hartman and Woolner draw from similar sources—newspaper clippings, police reports, prison files, blues songs, and case studies and interviews, like those collected by lesbian author and researcher Jan Gay for George W. Henry’s 1941 study Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns. Both Hartman and Woolner seek to illuminate the important role that “minor figures” (Hartman’s term) and “everyday” (Woolner’s) queer Black women played in shaping American culture in the early 20th century.

As Hartman explains in her “Note on Method,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is “a counter-narrative liberated from the judgment and classification that subjected young black women to surveillance, arrest, punishment, and confinement.” She emphasizes the lives of beautiful but ordinary Black women (queer and straight), housemaids and sex workers, “girls deemed unfit for history.” Notwithstanding the title’s emphasis on the “famous,” Woolner’s book is also interested in the quotidian, in everyday “moments, when women wrote about each other in their diaries, danced together in speakeasies, flirted at bus stops and in theaters, and sang and listened to the blues women’s stories of desire and heartbreak.” In both studies, accounts of the minor and everyday are intertwined with stories of the popular and prominent. As a result, Hartman and Woolner retrace the lives of many of the same lady lovers, including the hair-care heiress A’Lelia Walker, daughter of the self-made millionaire Madame C. J. Walker; theater star Edna Thomas, who lived with her Black husband, Lloyd Thomas, and her white British socialite lover, Olivia Wyndham; and the cross-dressing “bulldagger” singer Gladys Bentley.

What distinguishes Woolner’s study from Hartman’s lies in Woolner’s observations about middle-class lady lovers and the politics of respectability. As Woolner points out, “when middle-class Black women’s lives have been documented for posterity, concerns over respectability have often led to the hiding of details regarding same-sex relationships.” Like Hartman, Woolner guides us through the vice districts, backstage dressing rooms, and boardinghouses where queer women connected, but unlike Hartman, she also takes us to more bourgeois and seemingly “respectable” settings, like clubwomen’s conventions and college campuses. Consequently, women who make only a cameo appearance or who do not appear at all in Hartman’s book are featured players in The Famous Lady Lovers.

Woolner’s discussion of Dorothy West is especially welcome. West, who died in 1998, is the author of two novels, The Living Is Easy (1948) and The Wedding (1995), and numerous short stories. Even though West is, as Woolner remarks, “a well-known figure in the field of African American women’s literature,” her writing deserves greater attention. She was “an integral member of the queer Harlem Renaissance,” but “she has been invisible and left out of significant works on the topic.” This may be because West’s stories do not seem on the surface to be about queer love and intimacy. The Living Is Easy, for instance, does not fit the mold of a capital-L Lesbian novel, but as scholars like Verner D. Mitchell and Cynthia Davis have noted, there is something implicitly queer about the book, from its subtle depiction of same-sex desire to its critique of the heteronormative family structure.

Outside of her novels, West also sought to create queer family structures with several Harlem Renaissance compatriots. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, when she considered marrying and having a baby, she repeatedly approached queer Black men—Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Bruce Nugent. But West didn’t marry or have a child with any of them. Instead, she deepened her romantic relationships with women, including the artist Mildred Jones and the writer Marian Minus, with whom she co-founded the literary journal Challenge in 1937, which featured the work of Hughes, Cullen, Nugent, and many others, including Richard Wright, Alain Locke, and Pauli Murray.

In The Famous Lady Lovers, Woolner cites West’s collaboration with Minus as a key example of how “lady lovers were on the front lines of forging Black intellectual culture in the 1930s.” But Woolner’s most compelling discussion of the cultural impact of lady lovers appears in her chapter on the Black popular entertainment industry, where she persuasively shows how celebrities like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters “interjected Black queer culture into the American consciousness.” In one especially strong section, Woolner dissects the 1928 release of Ma Rainey’s “Prove It on Me Blues,” which “teased audiences with the possibility of Rainey’s desires for women.” Woolner’s exhilarating close reading zooms in on the song’s rhetorical sophistication—the way Rainey seductively hints at the communal pleasures of being “crooked,” not straight, the tonal shifts from line to line that carefully mediated rumors surrounding her queerness—underscoring the book’s larger argument about the strategic “formation of Black queer women’s networks” in the period.

Alongside her discussion of the lyrics, Woolner analyzes a Paramount Records print advertisement for the song that appeared in The Chicago Defender. The ad shows Rainey dressed in a suit jacket, tie, and skirt, with a fedora on her head, chatting with two well-dressed women. Off to the side is a leering police officer. The image, Woolner remarks, “ignores the joy Rainey expressed in her song and instead depicts her desires as suspect and deviant.” Even still, the advertisement, like the song, is an important “cultural product” because it “demarcate[s] one of the first representations of Black queer popular culture.” Furthermore, by “provocatively self-representing as a bulldagger in song,” Ma Rainey fashions her own “proto–coming out.”

In contrast to Rainey, Gladys Bentley signaled more than a knowing wink with her sexually explicit lyrics and signature tuxedo and top hat. She was “always open about her love of women,” Woolner tells us, and “went as far as to have a public wedding ceremony with her partner, a white female singer.” But Bentley’s popularity dimmed as Prohibition ended and the Great Depression began. The 1930s “heralded a more conservative moment as the transgressive gender expressions enjoyed onstage during the ‘anything goes’ Jazz Age were now met with backlash.” The backlash impacted not only Bentley but also Black queer women in general, by limiting the public spaces in which they could meet. “Despite this,” Woolner concludes, “Black lady lovers continued to privately honor their desires by nurturing their queer relationships and networks amid the pleasures and hardships of city life.”

Woolner’s study is illuminating in many ways, but it leaves one wondering how exactly Black lady lovers continued to “honor their desires” after the 1920s. Partly, this is because the subtitle’s qualifier “Before Stonewall” suggests a longer span of time in Black queer history than what is actually covered. Instead, the book effectively ends in the 1930s, decades before the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. But this criticism is a minor one—regardless of periodization, we would still be left wanting to know more about these women, how they found and made love. There is too much about desire and intimacy that is private and unknowable for us to ever stop wondering.

For example, one cannot say for certain that Lucy Diggs Slowe and Mary Burrill were lady lovers. There is no record of love letters. There is no image of them kissing. But there were insinuations. In 1933, Howard University’s Board of Trustees ordered Slowe to leave her house, in which she, along with Burrill, often hosted female undergraduates. The chairman, Abraham Flexner, implied that “something [was] certainly wrong in the relationship between [Slowe] and them [Howard women].” Slowe defiantly stayed put in her home with her partner. When she died in 1937, she left ownership of half of her home to Burrill and the other half to her own legal kin. In their biography Faithful to the Task at Hand: The Life of Lucy Diggs Slowe (2012), Carroll L. L. Miller and Anne S. Pruitt-Logan describe Burrill as Slowe’s “longtime friend” and a “companion and confidant,” sketching a rather heteronormative picture of their relationship. Woolner’s book, however, offers a significant contribution by identifying their companionship as queer kinship. The women were certainly friends, but they may also have been lovers. We can sense this, even though there is much we will never know about the intricate nature of Slowe and Burrill’s long-sustaining attraction for each other.

There is a wonderful sense in which the allure of the unknowable expressed inside the pages of the book—the evocatory quality of Black queer women’s desires—is also intimated by Vivian Lopez Rowe’s gorgeous cover design. Alongside cameos of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Gladys Bentley, we see glimpses of hands touching, lips kissing. But whose hands are touching? Whose lips are kissing? We don’t know. We can’t know. And still we want to know. This is important, and it is why Woolner’s emphasis on pleasure feels both urgent and hopeful at a time when LGBTQIA+ history and Black studies are increasingly targeted. Now when I listen to Ethel Waters sing “I Got Rhythm,” I can’t help but hear the queer joy in the words, in the way she syncopates: “I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man / Who could ask for anything more?” She is singing not just about her man, but also about her gal. Her bulldagger. Her mannish actin’ woman. Her lady lover.

LARB Contributor

Leigh-Michil George has a PhD in English from UCLA and an MFA in screenwriting from American Film Institute. She teaches in the English department at Geffen Academy at UCLA. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in The RamblingFine Books & Collections, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction.

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