The Famous Lady Lovers

Black Women and Queer Desire before Stonewall

By Cookie Woolner

210 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
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7549-7
    Published: September 2023

Gender and American Culture

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Awards & distinctions

Finalist, Judy Grahn Award, Publishing Triangle

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.


"Extraordinary in its scope and inventiveness to focus on their intimate lives . . . . Woolner’s beautiful prose and writing style makes this book a delight to read. Academics and general readers alike will be drawn to it."—Starred review, Library Journal

"Impeccably researched and compellingly written examination of Black women who loved women during the 1920s and 1930s."—Karla J. Strand, Ms. Magazine

"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

"Fascinating and deeply researched, The Famous Lady Lovers offers us new ways of discussing Black intimate life, urban society and culture, and women's long-standing struggle for freedom. The public and private narratives in this book are certain to transform our understanding of queer and Black women's histories. A must read."—LaShawn Harris, author of Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy