Moms Mabley: The Dirty Granny of Stand Up

Moms Mabley was…to be blunt: a god damn American Institution. Gay, black and all kinds of political she was smashing boundaries left and right.

Born Loretta Mary Aiken on May 1894, Mobs Mabley would become the first African American female stand up who crossed over to mainstream audiences AND she was an out and proud lesbian.

Seriously, she and her story are amazing and I am ridiculously excited to tell you guys all about it! 

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The Gorgeous Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley

Now the start of Moms life reads like the worst Shakespearean tragedy; it’s truly FUCKING HORRENDOUS!

She was born in North Carolina to two loving parents; James Aiken, a business savvy man with fingers in many pies and her Mum, Mary Smith, a hardworking, badass matriarch.

Her Dad died in 1909 while working as a volunteer fireman. After he was caught up in an explosion when their fire engine caught fire.

Moms was just 15.

Her Mum stepped up and took over running the family’s general store,…until 1910, when whilst coming home from church on CHRISTMAS DAY she was run over by a truck and killed

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Bad right? Gets worse! 

Moms also had two illegitimate children who were born out of rape.

One of the children was fathered by a white town sheriff who raped Moms.

Both children were given up for adoption… old timey men are awful.

Ok…now all that horrible stuff is out the way lets look forward to the birth of a hilarious stand up QUEEN!

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When Loretta was 14 her awesome Gran convinced her to run away and join a travelling vaudeville show, and it was here she started working as a stand up.

She quickly become one of the most popular acts in the Theatre Owners Booking Association Circuit (also known as the Tough on Black Asses circuit) and was soon traveling all over America developing her talent.

At the age of 27 Loretta came out as a Lesbian, a massive deal at the time because most people didn’t even know what a lesbian was, and TBH gay rights was not a thing.

Then add being black during the great depression into that mix?

Girl was a fucking trailblazer.

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Loretta’s humour was downright filthy and she was DECADES ahead of her time, with her acts landing more in the ‘CAN SHE REALLY SAY THAT?!’ category.

She talked about racism, sexism, queerness… nothing was off limits.

Her early acts in the 20s and 30s featured her talking about living as a black lesbian in the USA.

Sadly she didn’t record anything during this time so we’ve just got testimonials from people who knew her. (which is a downright shame as that ish sounds amazing!)

The birth of ‘Jackie Moms Mabley’

The character of Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley was developed early in her career. The dirty talking old lady with a penchant for younger men was based on her much loved Grandmother.

Loretta portrayed Moms while being a younger lady, by hiding behind huge floral dresses, bad grey wigs and big floppy hats.

She struck gold with Moms! Audiences LOVED this dirty granny, which meant she could get away with using blue language and chatting about all sorts… cause she’s just a harmless old lady right?

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The OG Dirty Granny. 

Also as if that wasn’t great enough Loretta got the nickname Moms from fellow performers because she was such a loving and friendly lady.

Here’s some of our fave Moms one liners.

  • “Only time you see me with my arms around some old man… I’m holding him for the police.”
  • “My husband was so ugly, he used to stand outside the doctor’s office and make people sick.”
  • “There ain’t nothin’ an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young one… I’d rather pay a young man’s fare to California than tell an old man the distance.”
  • “It’s no disgrace to be old. But damn if it isn’t inconvenient.”
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All the lolz 😂

Moms gained popularity with mainstream audiences in the 1960s when her career took off in television.

She appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and later The Ed Sullivan Show and also appeared in a handful of films throughout her career.

Her last starring role was in Amazing Grace, which she completed AFTER having a heart attack!!!

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My face when learning that… She’s badass

Moms finally started recording comedy shows during the 1960s and completed around 20 in her lifetime.

They are all hilarious and you should listen to clips of them on YouTube. We recommend her bra shopping joke.

Moms paved the way for future generations of stand up, her influence was far reaching even though she didn’t get the recognition she deserved during her lifetime.

She was the first popular female stand up EVER! so every self-identifying female comedian owes her a serious debt of gratitude. She showed the world that women are fucking hilarious.

That was great, where can I learn more? Whoopi Goldberg also produced a cracking documentary on Loretta in 2014 Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The Baddest Queer Bitches in History

It’s Pride Season and we’ve already started planning our outfit for London & Brighton Pride (hint… RAINBOW-LEOPARD PRINT-GLITTER) SO lets celebrate everything LGBTQ+! To kick things off here are some of our favourite queer ladies.

Sappho

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Sappho with Erena – Simeon Solomon

You cannot start a list about history’s greatest queers without mentioning Sappho. She was a Greek poet who lived on the Island of Lesbos (sign me up) around 615 B.C. Sappho wrote about her love for many a woman and was one of the highest regarded poets of her lifetime.

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Sorry,…Mrs Fancy Pants         Via Giphy

Plato called her ‘The Tenth Muse’ which was a massive compliment at the time. The other nine muses were the Greek Goddesses of Art & Science; so he thought Sappho was a pretty big deal.

There’s an argument between historian’s as to if Sappho did have relationships with women or if her poetry was just about her dearest ‘gal pals’. Only fragments of her poems survive and since she lived a really fecking long time ago we can’t ask her.

Personally I think her poems evoke a deep sense of love and sexual longing for her female subjects that goes way beyond the ‘female admiration’ lots of male historians like to think Sappho had for platonic pals.

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Presented without comment… Via Giphy

See what you think for yourself. Here’s an extract from Sappho 94 translated by Julia Dubnoff:

“For by my side you put on

many wreaths of roses

and garlands of flowers

around your soft neck.

And with precious and royal perfume

you anointed yourself.

On soft beds you satisfied your passion.”

……HELLA GAY!

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So so so gay.

Later history mocked and destroyed her work. It was denounced by the church and was ridiculed by poets and playwrights who wrote her off as a sexual deviant or a tragic character. But finally our girl is getting her rep back!

Sappho is the mother of lesbians and her influence cannot be argued with.

Mabel Hampton

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Mabel was a staunch activist and LGBT+ historian, she was instrumental in recording and preserving queer history, especially the experience of living as a gay, black woman in America during periods of huge upheaval.

Hell… Mabel IS the reason we know so much now. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York are full to the brim thanks to Mabel. She was a bit of a hoarder.

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Yikes! Via Giphy

She had a pretty tragic upbringing, her Mum died not long after giving birth to her and her Grandmother followed a few years later. She was raised by an abusive Aunt & Uncle before deciding ‘Fuck this, I’ve had enough’

She moved to Harlem and worked as a dancer during the Harlem Renaissance (see our blog post on this INCREDIBLE movement.) And she was a regular at Harlem drag balls; an early celebration of queer black identities during the roaring 20’s.

She left showbiz and started work as a cleaning lady. When asked why she left behind the glitz and glamour she famously answered

‘Because I like to eat.’

I have never related to a statement this hard.

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Fo realzies. Via Giphy

Mabel publicly declared herself as a lesbian during a time when being black alone made you heavily persecuted, but gay too?! THE LADY WAS BRAVE!

She met her partner Lillian Foster at a bus stop in 1932 describing her as: dressed like a duchess’. They were together until Foster’s death in 1978. Serious relationship goals.

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Mabel and Lillian spent their lives documenting their experiences as a lesbian couple. They helped set up the Lesbian Herstory Archives and Mabel & Lillian donated hundreds of newspaper clippings, gay books, photographs and other paraphernalia to the archives.

Mabel gave a speech at the New York Pride Parade in 1984 stating to the crowds

‘I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for 82 years, and I am proud of my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my black people.’

She was incredible. We were lucky to have her.

Anne Lister

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Possibly our fave on this list, Anne (born in 1791) was seriously rich…like MTV Cribs level minted. Her family owned a bunch of land in Halifax, West Yorkshire and they were desperate to marry her off to some rich oik to keep that money rolling in. ANNE WAS HAVING NONE OF IT!

She inherited fancy country house Shibden Hall from her uncle, immediately built herself a posh new library and decided to live openly with another super rich babe Ann Walker. She’s lucky Ann came along when she did because the money was running out at that point.

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Via Giphy

She was known locally as ‘Gentleman Jack’ for the way she dressed in male clothing. She tended to wear sensible black jakets, with no frilly business. Our girl was a Georgian butch. She kept coded diaries which tell us pretty plainly that Anne was very definitely a lesbian.

‘I love & only love the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.’

Her diaries were coded, she thought we’d never crack it, but thank feck we did because these diaries are SO JUICY! Anne had mad game and went through a lot of high societies ladies.

Here are some of our fave snippets

‘But I mean to amend at five & thirty & retire with credit. I shall have a good fling before then. Four years. And in the meantime I shall make my avenae communes, my wild oats common. I shall domiciliate then.’

So she wanted life to be like a big gay 18-30 holiday. Can’t argue with that.

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Same. Via Giphy

‘I begin to despair that M- & I will ever get together. Besides I sometimes fancy she will be worn out in the don’s service & perhaps I may do better.’

M was Mariana Lawton, who was the love of Anne’s life. She married a rich old dude, which devastated Anne as she wanted to live with M as her partner. Their affair carried on for a while after the marriage, but it fizzled out a few years later.

Much of the info we have on Anne’s diaries is from Helena Whitbread, another incredible woman working to preserve lesbian history. THANK YOU HELENA!

Marlene Dietrich

Dietrich!!

Marlene is one of my favourite old Hollywood starlets. This German had a mind like a razor and cheekbones to match, plus she looked fucking amazing in a suit.

She made androgynous dress sexy and alluring. Up till this time most women dressing as drag kings was done very much for laughs or in the sanctity of queer spaces underground. Marlene brought it to the mainstream.

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YASSSSSSSS BISSSSSSSSH!         Via Giphy

Dietrich was a German silent film actor in the 20’s before moving into talkies and raking it in with her ‘exotic’ looks and fabulous accent. During this time period the gay scene in Berlin was happening, hip, where it’s at etc.

Marlene bloody loved a drag ball, as she was openly bisexual, and could frolic with all the young ladies she could get her hands on. At these parties she learnt how to rock the fuck out of a three piece suit.

In the late 20’s/early 30’s she got her big break in Hollywood films where she usually played a sexy cabaret singer of some kind. In one of her most famous films, Morocco, (where she plays a sexy cabaret singer) Marlene dresses in a fancy very masculine top hat and tails suit (PHWOR!) during one of her numbers and at the end sneaks in a kiss with a young lady! SCANDAL!

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She kissed a girl AND she liked it. Via Giphy

She just about got away with it because American’s assume us Europeans are a passionate and sexually charged lot.

This theme of taking on masculine traits was something she embraced with gusto, training as a boxer in a sweaty gym in Berlin owned by a Turkish prizefighter. She enjoyed boxing and followed the sport throughout her life.

Marlene was known to have a network of Hollywood starlets she had affairs with, she referenced this overlapping group as Marlene’s Sewing Circle. I’m going to sew this onto my biker jacket right now.

Later in life she said some stupid shit (women’s lib was ‘penis envy’…) so she’s a pretty problematic favourite. But she was a real pioneer. Drag Kings and androgens owe her a debt of thanks.

Billie Holiday

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The Lady of the Blues is one of the most recognisable voices in the world. Billie had a tragic and abusive upbringing after which she then spent most of her adult life battling a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Billie had relationships with many women but her most well known was with actress Tallulah Bankhead. It was a volatile relationship which was always on again, then off again, THEN ON. We’ve all been there.

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PREACH! Via Giphy

While Tallulah was starring in Noel Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway Billie had a contract singing in New York’s Strand Theatre. Tallulah would sneak in and watch Billie performing after her show finished. That’s sweet innit?

However the breakup went bad. Billie was arrested for opium possession and Bankhurst bailed her out, then got her into therapy. They parted ways soon afterwards, but things did not stay civil.

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Stay down bitch! Via Giphy

Billie was working on her memoirs, which included mentioning her friendship with Bankhead, but Talullah maintained she’d never even met Holiday (despite lots of evidence to the contrary) and she sent a letter to Billie’s publishers threatening to sue unless she was taken out of it.

Billie sent back an amazingly shitty letter to Bankhead reminding her that she had people around who could back up her story and she wrote-

‘And if you want to get shitty, we can make it a big shitty party. We can all get funky together!’

Mic drop. Holiday out.

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BOOOOOOOOM! Via Giphy

So that’s some of our fave historical queer ladies.

We’ll be doing more posts on LGBTQ+ history during Pride season, we’ve got Marsha P Johnson & the Stonewall riots up next week!

Who do you want us to write about?!

Answers on a post card…or in the comments.

Alternatively gives us a shout on the F Yeah History Twitter and Facebook 


Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

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