Gidlow, Elsa (1898-1986)
Gidlow, Elsa (1898-1986)
Elsa Gidlow, poetess, Goddess worshipper, and herald of the contemporary Women's Spirituality Movement, was born in Hull, Yorkshire, England. Soon after her birth, her family to Montreal, Canada, where she grew up. As a teenager she became aware of her lesbian inclinations and began to read the works of Sappho, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, and other works reflective of a homosexual life. She also began to write her first poems. At the age of 19 she moved to New York, where two years later she published her first book of openly gay poems, On a Grey Thread. As early as 1918 she penned a poem indicative of her later Goddess worship, "To an Unknown Goddess."
In the 1920s, she settled in northern California. She was attracted to the Theosophical Society and the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, but was put off by the homophobic attitudes she found among theosophists. She turned to Eastern religions and developed a devotion to bodhisattva Kwan Yin. She also studied Celtic lore. In the 1940s she purchased land in Marin County, north of San Francisco, which became a private retreat for many in the Bay Area's alternative community that emerged into prominence in the 1950s. She began to associate with the likes of Gary Snyder and Alan Watts. She and Watts cofounded the Society for Comparative Philosophy, an organization anticipating the burst of interest in Eastern religions that would be initiated in 1965 by the change in the immigration law and the subsequent migration of large numbers of Asians to the United States.
During the 1960s Gidlow led the Druid Heights Artists' Retreat, which anticipated the Neo-Pagan Witchcraft movement with its celebration of the moon phases with both original liturgies and the reading of poetry. She had for many years celebrated the Goddess with a Yule ritual that recalled the women she had known who had, metaphorically speaking, tended sacred and domestic fires in their life. In the 1970s she easily became a participant and leader in the emerging Women's Spirituality Movement. In 1973 she published a manifesto, Ask No Man Pardon: The Philosophical Significance of Being Lesbian, in which she defined the lesbian as by nature a "virgin, androgynous, priestess, dedicated to the Goddess… a daughter of the Amazons."
Shortly before her death in 1986, she completed her autobiography, Elsa: I Come with My Songs.
Conner, Randy P., David Hatfield, and Mariya Sparks. Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit. London: Cas-sell, 1997.
Gidlow, Elsa. Elsa: I Come with My Songs. San Francisco: Bootlegger Press, 1986.
——. Sapphic Songs: Eighteen to Eighty: The Love Poetry of Elsa Gidlow. San Francisco: Bootlegger Press, 1982.