In November of 1920, the black newspaper The Chicago Whip ran a front-page article with the provocative headline, “Have We a New Sex Problem Here?” The short article detailing “one of the most peculiar divorce cases to yet be heard in Chicago” described an incident involving a married couple and another woman. After six years of “marital peace and harmony,” a woman named Ida May Robinson had “forsaken” her husband, Sherman Robinson, when “she left him without any cause” for a woman that she “had formerly known in Paducah, Kentucky.” According to their landlord, the two women had been living together in a boardinghouse prior to the official divorce. The possibility that a woman would leave her husband to enter a romantic relationship with another woman and live with her as a family unit was a new concept for the anonymous journalist; so shocking was this notion that the author wondered if Ida May Robinson and her partner heralded a “new sex problem.”
The “here” to which the headline referred was the rapidly growing African American district of Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, which swelled with recent Southern migrants like Ida May Robinson who were escaping the violent Jim Crow South. In 1920, the early Great Migration—a mass movement of Southern African Americans to the North and West—was in full swing.
The black population of the city had more than doubled since 1910, and women outnumbered men. The majority of these Southern migrants were young, single, and often lived in boarding houses like the one where Robinson and her female partner made a home. At the time, such women were becoming known as _________ in both white and black communities, and the emergence of this term (before the usage of “lesbian” caught on) reveals their increasing visibility and numbers as women formed relationships and queer social networks in the urban North.
By the 1920s, black _______ had more places to meet one another than ever before, such as the popular entertainment industry, which encompassed segregated forms of black vaudeville, the spectacle of black musicals, and the rapidly expanding market for “race records”—later renamed “rhythm and blues.” Popular performing women like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters subtly hailed their audiences with veiled references to homosexuality and took advantage of the privacy and liminal space of touring life to enact same-sex relationships on the road.
Beyond the stage, black __________ were becoming newly visible on northern city streets. Singer Ethel Waters and her girlfriend, dancer Ethel Williams, could often be found in a lover’s quarrel on Harlem sidewalks, while performer Gladys Bentley also took to the streets, day or night, in men’s suits. Not only performing women, but also “sophisticated ladies” with “boyish bobbed hair,” wearing men’s “brogan shoes” were regularly viewed on Seventh Avenue in Harlem and State Street in Chicago.
Q: What did society call queer women before the term “lesbian” became popular?