Who was Elsa Gidlow?

Liz Highleyman | September 13, 2006

Photo: Lynda Koolish

"You're jealous if I kiss this girl and that,
You think I should be constant to one mouth?"
– from "Constancy," by Elsa Gidlow

Writer Elsa Gidlow – dubbed the "Poet Warrior" – is regarded as a lesbian-feminist pioneer, and was an active participant in many of the San Francisco Bay Area's cultural and political movements over the course of nearly six decades.

Gidlow was born on December 29, 1898, in Yorkshire, England; her family emigrated to Quebec when she was a young girl. Though she came from a poor family and had little formal education, Gidlow later recalled that she aspired from an early age to become an independent woman and a poet.

As a teenager, Gidlow moved with her family to Montreal, where she worked as a typist and took classes at McGill College. It was during this time that she had her first romantic relationships with women. A few years later, she moved to New York City, where she lived in Greenwich Village and worked as poetry editor for the progressive political magazine Pearson's.

Gidlow lived an openly lesbian life long before an organized gay movement existed in the United States. In 1923, she published On a Grey Thread, widely considered to be the first book of lesbian love poetry in North America. In the late 1920s, she moved to San Francisco, where she lived in the bohemian enclave of North Beach and was friends with people who would become leading lights of the Beatnik scene. She later purchased property in the redwood forest of Marin and established Druid Heights, which became a haven for writers, philosophers, and other creative and eccentric types.

Gidlow lived with her long-term partner, Violet Henry-Anderson – known as "Tommy" – for 13 years, until Tommy died of cancer in the late 1930s. Even in the pre-liberation era, Gidlow later recalled, "We were profoundly sure of our right to be as we were, to love and live in our chosen way, we were happy in it." Several years later, Gidlow began a relationship with a Caribbean woman, Isabel Grenfell Quallo, with whom she lived for about a decade. In her 70s, Gidlow had a shorter relationship with a woman some 50 years her junior.

Gidlow was as unabashedly open about her radical politics as she was about her sexuality. An activist on numerous fronts, she was a member of the first U.S. lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, in the 1950s. During the McCarthy era, she was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee; however, Gidlow told the committee that she was an anarchist and considered Marxism an oppressive ideology.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Gidlow was an active participant in the psychedelic subculture, the antiwar movement, and the New Age and alternative spirituality communities, embracing both paganism and Eastern religions. By the time lesbian feminism emerged, Gidlow was already in her 70s, and was soon hailed as movement foremother; her standing was strengthened with the publication, in 1975, of Ask No Man Pardon: The Philosophical Significance of Being Lesbian.

In her final years, she continued to write and tend her garden at Druid Heights. After experiencing a series of strokes, she died in June 1986, just a month after the publication of her autobiography.

For further reading:

  • Epstein, Rob. 1978. Word Is Out (documentary).
  • Gidlow, Elsa. 1986. Elsa: I Come with My Songs (Druid Heights).
  • West, Celeste. 1986. "Farewell, Elsa Gidlow, Poet-Warrior." off our backs (August/September).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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