Anne Lister is best known as the ‘first modern lesbian’ and was a British diarist and landowner in the first half of the 1800s. Her diaries consist of over 5,000 words, and a sixth of them—passages largely dealing with her relationships and self identity as a lesbian woman—were written in a code of her own devising that combined the Greek alphabet, the zodiac, punctuation, and mathematical symbols.
Lister had as normal a childhood as anyone growing up in the late 19th century would have had; she had three siblings, only one of whom survived to adulthood, and was educated at girls’ schools, which is where she had her first love affairs with fellow students.
After her aunt’s death, Lister inherited her estate, which allowed her economic freedom and the means to live as she chose, including traveling all over Europe, adding a personal library to the estate, dressing in all black (considered quite unfeminine for the time), and living with her partner Ann Walker, who she was in a relationship with until her death in 1840. In a church in York they took communion together and pronounced themselves married; although this of course had no legal recognition, the church is now seen as an icon where the first lesbian marriage ceremony was held.
Lister’s diaries were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Program in 2011 not only for their content related to her travels, the time period, and national events, but also, and specifically, for their ‘comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life’ during the 1800s. In addition to diary writing, reading, and traveling, Lister earned the distinction of becoming the first woman to ascend Mount Perdu and the Vignemale, mountains located in the Pyrenees.
She ran the family estate on her own for over a decade and was outspoken about her political and personal beliefs. She had the privilege of her money and social status, but she also had the bravery to live as she pleased in a world where that was unacceptable, paving the way for a better world for future LBTQI+-identified people. Plus, on a lighter note, her story combines some of my favorite things, so it was impossible not to want to know more about her and shine a light on her 😉