Elsa Gidlow

Elsa Gidlow

About Elsa Gidlow

Elsa Gidlow (December 29, 1898, in Yorkshire, England - June 8, 1986, in Mill Valley, California) was an Canadian-American poet, journalist, philosopher and feminist activist. Born in Yorkshire, England, Gidlow's moved with her family to Montreal, Québec, Canada, when she was six. Her childhood was marked by poverty and an often interrupted education. Gidlow wrote poetry from an early age and was a lifelong feminist, having read about suffragists in the United Kingdom as a teenager. In 1920, she moved to New York City, where she became the poetry editor of Pearson's magazine, a frequently censored progressive publication.
Her first book of poetry, On a Gray Thread (1923), the first openly lesbian poetry collection in the United States, was published by the famous typographer Will Ransom. Gidlow was aware of the social attitudes toward lesbians but believed she had an intrinsic right to publish erotic poetry about women. That she did this without the support of a lesbian community or financial resources to fall back on marks her as a bold and fearless creative spirit.
Her poetry is singularly free of external influences, although she often wrote poetry reminiscent of Japanese haiku, especially in Wild Song Singing (1950) and Makings for Meditation (1973). Letters from Limbo (1956) and Moods of Eros (1971) were printed by her own Druid Heights Books. Sapphic Songs, Seventeen to Seventy (1976), published by Diana Press, was reissued in a revised and expanded edition, Sapphic Songs, Eighteen to Eighty (1982), by Booklegger Press.
In the early 1930s, Gidlow moved to the San Francisco area of California. She was an early supporter of the Daughters of Bilitis and an important member of artistic, philosophical, and bohemian circles, cofounding the Society of Comparative Philosophy in 1962. She counted among her admirers Alan Watts, Kenneth Rexroth, Ansel Adams, Robinson Jeffers, and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. She was accused of Communist leanings, and in 1947 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) came to her defense.
In Ask No Man Pardon: The Philosophical Significance of Being Lesbian (1975), Gidlow wrote that lesbians are born with different desires and needs, but just as nature intended. She appeared in the documentary Word Is Out (1978); and in ELSA: I Come with My Songs (1986), she chronicles a long life of unabashed eroticism, deep spiritual questing, and profound love of women and nature.
In 1962, she founded the Society for Comparative Philosophy in Druid Heights together with the religious philosopher Alan Watts and his wife Mary Jane Yates. Gidlow socialized with many famous artists, radical and Anarchists thinkers, mystics and political activists in the 1960s-1980s including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Margo St James, Allen Ginsberg, James Broughton, Baba Ram Dass, Lama Govinda, Robert Shapiro, Maude Oakes, Robert Duncan, Clarkson Crane, Sara Bard Fields, Kenneth Rexroth, Edward Stiles, Roger Somers, Catharine MacKinnon, and Maya Angelou.

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