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Road trip

A lesbian journey through Maine's history
By CAROLYN GAGE  |  June 24, 2009

lesbos main

There comes a time in a woman's life when she just has to leave her husband at home with his mistress, toss her suitcase in a roadster, and head Downeast for a little timeout with her new, butch girlfriend. In July 1933, that's exactly what first lady Eleanor Roosevelt did. The roadster was a light blue Buick with a white convertible top, and the girlfriend was hard-drinking, cigar-chomping, Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok, a/k/a "Hick." Their itinerary took them north to Québec, and then over to the Gaspé Peninsula, and then down the Maine coast. Traveling without benefit of the Secret Service, the two women enjoyed a madcap junket down endless dirt roads, sleeping in a cottage without plumbing, and indulging in nighttime tickle-fests. 

READ: Go back in time; Gay and lesbian Mainers revisit the last 25 years.

Eleanor's road trip remains emblematic of much of Maine's lesbian history: hidden in plain view. Now that Maine has adopted a law legalizing same-sex marriage, perhaps it's time to unpack the closet and take a little road trip through Maine's lesbian history.

Reversing the direction taken by Hick and the First Lady, our first stop will be in the south, South Berwick, to be exact, where we find the home of Sarah Orne Jewett, one of Maine's most celebrated authors. Jewett's 1896 collection of short stories, The Country of the Pointed Firs, about a fictional fishing village called Dunnet Landing (said to be modeled on Tenants Harbor), is considered an American classic, a distinctly female contribution to a catalog of testosterone-charged war epics and whaling sagas. Critics have noted that Jewett's villages appear to be peopled almost exclusively by women, the men all being dead, away at sea, or senile.

But then Sarah always did prefer the girls. Her early poetry testifies to heartbreaking attempts to secure the affections of young women, but few of these girlfriends could support themselves as Jewett did, and perhaps even fewer were willing to forego the joys of motherhood for a same-sex relationship. It was not until she met wealthy widow Annie Fields (pet name "Fuffatee") that she was able to consummate her longing for a life partner, living in what was known as a "Boston Marriage" from 1881 until her death in 1909.

The next stop is Portland, where we drop in on the Maine Women Writers Collection, housed in a wing of the library at the University of New England. And here we have struck the mother lode: The collection houses not only writings by Jewett, but it also has inherited the library of lesbian author May Sarton, who moved to York in 1973, the same year her most famous book, Journal of a Solitude, was published. The roster of her library reads like a Who's Who of Second Wave lesbian-feminist writers. In 1965, when Sarton published her lesbian novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, an entire generation of young women responded to her courageous call by discovering and celebrating their own Sapphic voices.

The Maine Women Writers Collection houses another treasure: the first lesbian novel ever published in America. Who knew that the woman who would donate her mansion for what would become the Portland Museum of Art was also responsible for Ethel's Love Life? Published in 1859, the book describes how a naïve, young fiancée finds herself passionately involved with another woman, making the remarkable discovery that, "Women often love each other with as much fervor and excitement as they do men." Author Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat may have been writing autobiographically, because later she published a book of lesbian love poems, taking care to closet her dedications.

It's time to head north, this time to Southport Island, summer home of Rachel Carson. Wait a minute — Rachel Carson? Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, the book that warned of the dangers of pesticides and saved the planet? The founder of the environmental movement? That Rachel Carson? What's she doing on a lesbian road trip?

It appears that Carson had a lifelong history of passionate attachments to women. At the age of 45, she began spending her summers on Southport Island, where she developed what biographers coyly call "an intimate friendship" with her neighbor Dorothy Freeman, who was 55, a grandmother, and in a long-term marriage she had no intention of disrupting. Rachel, with a history of financially supporting her mother, a disabled niece, and the niece's out-of-wedlock child, appears to have been very comfortable with the arrangement.

But was it lesbian? The "intimate friendship" spanned the last 10 years of Rachel's life, and during the winters when the women lived hundreds of miles apart, they wrote letters to each other several times a week. These letters, published in 1995, make mention of the need to destroy certain letters immediately upon reading and discuss the need for Dorothy to enclose an extra letter that might be suitable for Rachel to share with her mother, in case she were to ask. There is a breathless series of letters leading up to a rendezvous in a Manhattan hotel, where Rachel jokes about how she will feign a chilly greeting for the benefit of the desk clerk.

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