Profiles of LGBT people, from the past and today – and celebrating their birthdays! All Birthdays →

Jeannette Howard Foster

Born in Oak Park, Illinois to a family of business people who had lived in the Chicago area for decades, Jeannette Howard Foster went on to write what is considered the founding study of lesbian literature. Educated at the University of Chicago and Rockford College, she realized early on that she was drawn to women, and it led her to look for literary portrayals of lesbian love. After teaching English for several years, she received a degree in library science and, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was chief librarian at Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research, when Kinsey was in the midst of writing and publicizing his world-famous studies. Foster, meanwhile, was doing her own research for what became Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956), a study of over 300 works, from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century, that portray love between women. Foster had to publish it with a vanity press and finance the cost herself. As a lesbian movement began to grow in the 1950s and 1960s, Foster came to inspire people like Barbara Gittings, Barbara Grier, and Valerie Taylor. She retired to rural Arkansas with Hazel Tolliver, a woman with whom she had a long-term romantic relationship, and died there on July 26, 1981.