The Famous Lady Lovers

Black Women and Queer Desire before Stonewall

By Cookie Woolner

The Famous Lady Lovers

Approx. 208 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 4 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7548-0
    Published: September 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7547-3
    Published: September 2023

Gender and American Culture

Paperback Available September 2023, but pre-order your copy today!

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Black queer women have shaped American culture since long before the era of gay liberation. Decades prior to the Stonewall Uprising, in the 1920s and 1930s, Black "lady lovers"—as women who loved women were then called—crafted a queer world. In the cabarets, rent parties, speakeasies, literary salons, and universities of the Jazz Age and Great Depression, communities of Black lady lovers grew, and queer flirtations flourished. Cookie Woolner here uncovers the intimate lives of performers, writers, and educators such as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Gladys Bentley, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Lucy Diggs Slowe, along with the many everyday women she encountered in the archives.

Examining blues songs, Black newspapers, vice reports, memoirs, sexology case studies, and more, Woolner illuminates the unconventional lives Black lady lovers formed to suit their desires. In the urban North, as the Great Migration gave rise to increasingly racially mixed cities, Black lady lovers fashioned and participated in emerging sexual subcultures. During this time, Black queer women came to represent anxieties about the deterioration of the heteronormative family. Negotiating shifting notions of sexuality and respectability, Black lady lovers strategically established queer networks, built careers, created families, and were vital cultural contributors to the US interwar era.

About the Author

Cookie Woolner is associate professor of history at the University of Memphis.
For more information about Cookie Woolner, visit the Author Page.


"A compelling book that offers a fresh perspective on the sexuality of many well-known entertainers and, importantly, centers love in the context of a broader culture insistent on seeing only violence and jealousy. A striking contribution to the history of Black women, queerness, and urbanization."—Michele Mitchell, author of Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction