Visible Women

The UK’s “first modern lesbian” is finally getting a plaque honouring her sexuality

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Moya Crockett
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The wording of a rainbow plaque celebrating 19th century entrepreneur and diarist Anne Lister is being changed to better reflect her lesbian identity. 

Back in 1834, a Yorkshire colliery owner and mountaineer named Anne Lister stood in Holy Trinity Church in York and pledged her lifelong commitment to her partner Ann Walker. Marriage between two women was, of course, not legal at the time – but that didn’t stop Lister and Walker living out the rest of their days together as a married couple, until Lister’s death in 1840.

Lister’s coded diaries detailing her many lesbian love affairs were discovered in the late 19th century, and will form the basis of an upcoming BBC One/HBO drama. She is now commonly referred to as the UK’s “first modern lesbian”, thanks to her refusal to hide her relationships with women and her defiantly unfeminine lifestyle and fashion sense.

In July, a rainbow plaque was unveiled at the church to commemorate Lister and Walker’s wedding. On the plaque, Lister was described as a “gender-nonconforming entrepreneur” who “celebrated marital commitment, without legal recognition, to Ann Walker in this church”.

As the first blue plaque bordered with rainbow colours, it was a historic moment for LGBT+ recognition in the UK. However, the tribute quickly drew criticism for failing to mention the fact that Lister was a lesbian – and for featuring an upside-down rainbow flag. 

A portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, c 1830

The York Civic Trust, which runs the blue plaque scheme in the city, has now said it will change the wording on the plaque.

“The plaque is intended to be a positive celebration to the union of Anne Lister and Ann Walker, and this remains the case,” the trust said in a statement.

“The last thing we wanted to do was to cause offence or upset to any community.”

An online petition to change the wording on the plaque gained more than 2,500 signatures.

“A gender nonconforming woman can be many things because it only means that you do not conform to societal expectations. It has nothing to do with sexuality,” wrote Julie Furlong, who started the petition.

“Anne Lister was, most definitely, gender nonconforming all her life. She was also however, a lesbian. That is why she took vows with her girlfriend in that church, because they were in love with each other and wanted to express that same sex love – the very definition of lesbianism.

“Don’t let them erase this iconic woman from our history.”

Suranne Jones will play Anne Lister in a forthcoming BBC One drama 

Gentleman Jack, the period drama about Lister’s life and loves, is set to air on BBC One later this autumn. The eight-part series is set in 1832, the year Lister returned to her family seat of Shibden Hall in Halifax, West Yorkshire after a period of travelling. The name of the series is taken from a local nickname given to Lister, who always dressed in black and famously walked like a man.

The series is written by Sally Wainwright, best known for her blisteringly good work on Happy Valley, and will star Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones as Lister. Sophie Rundle, who can currently be seen starring as Vicky Budd in the hit BBC One political drama Bodyguard, will play Lister’s future wife Ann Walker.

Gentleman Jack isn’t the first time that Lister’s story has appeared on TV. Lister and Walker appeared as characters in the 1994 BBC Two series A Skirt Through History, and Maxine Peake played Lister in another BBC Two production based on her diaries in 2010. Sue Perkins presented a BBC documentary about Lister that same year.

This ongoing fascination with Lister isn’t surprising, because her story makes for a cracking yarn. Born into a wealthy military family in Yorkshire in 1791, she defied the norms of her class and time by owning her own land, renovating her family seat, running a coal mine and becoming the first woman to climb several mountains in the Pyrenees.

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: / Wikimedia Commons / Getty Images