I have been doing a lot of fact checking at work, and in the process I have run across two presumed lesbians of historical note: Lizzie Borden and Louisa May Alcott.
Borden was acquitted of the 1892 murder of her penny-pinching father and disagreeable stepmother. By all accounts, the pair was unpleasant at best, and Borden had a strained relationship with them.
While there are several theories on who, why and how the murders were committed, Lizzie by Evan Hunter theorizes that Borden was having an affair with the Irish maid (extremely scandalous for the time) and her stepmother found out, so of course she had to kill her. Oh, and her father too for good measure.
Another possible theory is the maid killed the couple and Lizzie kept her mouth shut because they were having an affair.
Either way, it still isn’t definitively known what happened that day, but there is other evidence that indicates Lizzie was a lezzie. She kept company with some scandalous characters including Nance O’Neil, an actress who was thought of as an overt lesbian. In fact, a party she threw for O’Neil disgraced Borden’s sister so much that she moved out of the family home to avoid the shindig. Borden was also an active member in the pre-suffrage group Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a precursor to the National Organization for Women.
Alcott, on the other hand, is a bit less scandalous. Her novel Little Women, which many suspect is an autobiography laced with Alcott’s dream of the perfect family, did have a strong female character who was determined to transgress her gender roles to become a writer. Jo was also a bit of a tomboy, dressed in men’s clothing from time to time and wanted to just be friends with the dreamy boy next door who was in love with her.
However, that isn’t enough to deduce Alcott’s sexuality. That leads to he Penguin Classic’s edition of Little Women, which states the following in the introduction: “In an interview with the writer Louise Chandler Moulton, [Alcott] later commented with pre-Freudian candor on her own feelings: ‘I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … Because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.’”
Now I am not quite sure what the context of this quote is, but that is pretty striking evidence.
But, all told, women of a certain age during these times who did not marry are usually suspected to be lesbians regardless of any other evidence. I suppose we shall never really know.