LGBTQ+ Women Who Made National History
In May 2019, the city of New York announced plans to honor LGBTQ+ activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera with a statue. The city of New York claimed the monument will be the “first permanent, public artwork recognizing transgender women in the world.” Johnson and Rivera were prominent figures in uprisings against 1969 police raids at the gay bar Stonewall Inn. Their protests increased visibility for the cause of LGBTQ+ acceptance.
In celebration of Pride Month, we honor LGBTQ+ women who have made remarkable contributions to the nation and helped advance equality in fields as diverse as medicine and the dramatic arts. Here are a few of their stories, represented by objects in the Smithsonian’s collections.
1. Josephine Baker
Entertainer and activist Josephine Baker performed in vaudeville showcases and in Broadway musicals, including Shuffle Along. In 1925, she moved to Paris to perform in a revue. When the show closed, Baker was given her own show and found stardom. She became the first African American woman to star in a motion picture and to perform with an integrated cast at an American concert hall. At the March on Washington in 1968, Baker was the only woman speaker. In her speech, she honored fellow women civil rights activists. She had relationships with both men and women throughout her lifetime.
2. Jane Addams
Jane Addams wore many hats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: suffragist, social worker, activist, Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Notably, Addams founded Chicago’s Hull House in 1889, a time when many new immigrants lived and worked in harsh conditions. This settlement house provided health care, day care, education, vocational training, cultural and social activities, and legal aid to the immigrant community, creating a new model for social welfare. Addams maintained a decades-long relationship with philanthropist Mary Rozet Smith, marked by loving letters.
3. Sylvia Rivera
Activist Sylvia Rivera may be best known for her participation in the 1969 uprisings around the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. When police raided the bar, patrons fought back. After these uprisings, LGBTQ+ community members founded the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). Rivera campaigned with the GAA to urge New York City to end discrimination against LGBT residents. However, the GAA’s leadership often rejected the role trans people, many who were people of color, played in Stonewall. Rivera worked with Marsha P. Johnson to create STAR (Street Transvestite* Action Revolutionaries). Rivera and Johnson provided a home and family for young LGBT people. Through STAR, they organized and protested around issues affecting their community in New York City.
*Bryan Miller, cataloguer at our National Museum of African American History and Culture, says, “Marsha P. Johnson never used ‘transgender’ to describe her gender identity, since the term was popularized after her death in 1992. In fact, she often referred to herself as a ‘transvestite’—a term many today consider offensive. While some claim that Johnson would identify as transgender today as opposed to transvestite, I use the prefix ‘trans’ to describe Marsha, as a more inclusive nomenclature that allows for a more expansive understanding of non-binary gender identities.”
4. Sally K. Ride
Astronaut Sally K. Ride wore this in-flight suit during the six-day STS-7 mission aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in June 1983, when she became the first American woman to travel in space. Later in life, Dr. Ride, also an engineer and physicist, became director of the California Space Institute and a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.
In 2013, President Obama posthumously honored Ride with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. “She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools,” he said. “Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve.”
5. Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie
Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie is a Two Spirit* photographer and curator known for her artwork depicting Native women and families, urban Native people, and Indigenous responses to colonialist history. She was born into the bear and raccoon clans of the Seminole and Muscogee nations and born for the Tsinajinnie clan of the Navajo Nation.**
She is active in several Native American organizations and continues to document Indigenous community gatherings and acts of activism and sovereignty in northern California. She works as Professor of Native American Studies at UC Davis and Director of the C.N. Gorman Museum.
*Two Spirit is an umbrella term for Native people who have both male and female spirits and is used to describe different gender identities present among Native Americans and First Nations. Two Spirit people also use words from their Indigenous languages for gender variance.
** Because the Navajo Nation is matrilineal, children are born into the clan of their mother and “born for” the clan of their father.
6. Charlotte Cushman
Charlotte Cushman was an icon of 19th century theatre, competing on equal footing with the greatest male actors of the age and winning a loyal following across the United States and Europe. While Cushman played both male and female roles, she was best known for her male roles including Romeo (pictured), Hamlet, and Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. On stage and off, Cushman challenged conventions of gender and sexuality. In her adult life, she lived in a community of what she called “jolly female bachelors” or “emancipated women,” known for producing art, wearing men’s clothing, and lobbying for working women.
7. Cecilia Chung
Cecilia Chung works to advocate for human rights, social justice, health equity, and LGBT equality. Chung was born in Hong Kong. She has lived in San Francisco since 1984. Today she works as the Director of Evaluation and Strategic Initiatives at Transgender Law Center. In 2008, she became the first transgender woman and first person living openly with HIV to chair the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. She served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS from 2013 to 2015. In 2020, she participated in a panel featuring HIV Activists and Caretakers for our National Museum of Natural History, as part of the museum’s fourth annual commemoration of World AIDS Day. During the event she spoke about how she founded Positively Trans, a national network of transgender people living with HIV, especially people of color, focused on storytelling, policy advocacy, and leadership development.
8. Lorraine Hansberry
Playwright, writer, and activist Lorraine Hansberry is best known for her Broadway play and later film, A Raisin in the Sun. She was inspired by her family’s landmark court case against Chicago’s discriminatory real estate laws. Hansberry participated in civil rights demonstrations and the communist movement throughout her lifetime. Though she married her closest friend, Robert Nemiroff, she secretly affirmed her homosexuality in her letters and unpublished short stories. Her life was cut short from pancreatic cancer at age 34 on January 12, 1965.
9. Dr. Renée Richards
This Dunlop tennis racket belonged to Dr. Renée Richards, ophthalmologist, former tennis player, and one of the first professional athletes to identify as transgender. In 1976, following Richards’ sex reassignment surgery, the U.S. Tennis Association required her to undergo genetic screening to play at the U.S. Open as a woman. Richards refused and was barred from the tournament. She then sued the U.S. Tennis Association for gender discrimination and won in a landmark decision. The following year, Richards was admitted to play in U.S. Open, where she reached the final in women’s doubles tournament.
Special thanks to Anya Montiel, curator in the History and Culture Department of the National Museum of the American Indian, for contributing the section on Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie.