On Monday 5th January I was honoured to attend Hull City Council’s Centenary Plaque unveiling, hosted by Councillor Mary Glew and with the Lord Mayor in attendance. This is an ongoing initiative to honour people from Hull, and these latest five plaques are all dedicated to inspirational women, launching a week of celebrations for International Women’s Day on the 8th. The women celebrated were Flo Bilton (goalkeeper and founding member of women’s FA), Mary Hatfield (first female Hull City councillor), Eva Crackles (botanist and conservationist), and Pat Albeck (textile designer). As Lecturer in American Literature in American Studies at Hull, I was there to give a short talk on Elsa Gidlow, who was a remarkable poet and pioneer of sexual freedom.
Elsa (originally Elfie) Gidlow was born in Hull in 1898, and lived there until her family moved to Quebec when she was six. She became a journalist and wrote for a literary magazine called Les Mouches Fantastiques (The Fantastic Flies), which championed gay rights from 1918-1920; long before such ideas became mainstream. Around this time she even became embroiled in a spat with horror writer H.P. Lovecraft during her time as President of a faction of the United Amateur Press Association of America (UAPAA). She moved to New York for six years before moving on to San Francisco, eventually acquiring five acres of land which she christened Druid Heights. Druid Heights become a major destination for intellectuals, artists and bohemians from the Beat poets to the hippies, even musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Neil Young. It was a countercultural experiment in communal living, and attracted people interested in environmentalism, paganism, and Eastern philosophy, as well as being a space of sexual liberation, with young lesbians and gay men visiting to seek advice and belonging. Her nickname of ‘Sappho’, after the ancient Greek poet, fits her own legendary status very well.
Also known as the ‘Poet-Warrior’, Elsa Gidlow championed gay rights, women’s equality, racial equality, class consciousness, and social justice in all its forms. This is in addition to writing the first openly lesbian volume of poetry in North America in 1923 with On A Grey Thread, and more than sixty years later the first openly lesbian autobiography, I Come With My Songs, published just before her death in 1986. Readers would be well advised to seek out poems such as ‘For the Goddess Too Well Known’, and ‘Love’s Acolyte’ should they wish to encounter the passion, beauty and humanity of her writing. It is in her poetry that her belief in individual freedom truly comes alive. It was a real pleasure to speak at this event and to join in what was a warm and inspiring celebration of these pioneering women, and in particular to celebrate Hull’s own modern Sappho.