On a recent trip to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky I was happy to encounter a wonderful bit of women’s history in the visitor center’s exhibition on the history of the cave. A wall panel introduced visitors to a photographer named Frances Benjamin Johnston who explored the cave by lantern to capture its beauty. By examining the photos of the expedition party, she traveled with at least three other women and five other men, two of whom were people of color. In 1893 she published these photographs under the title “Mammoth Cave by Flashlight.” Johnston went on to have a widely successful career as a portrait photographer and photojournalist.
More Than Meets the Eye
However, parsing through some of the text on the panel, I soon had a hunch there was more to this story. With a little further research, I soon discovered that on the wall of a National Park Service visitor center was a lesbian.
Frances Benjamin Johnston had a long and loving relationship with another woman, Mattie Edwards Hewitt. Hewitt herself was a photographer and the two eventually lived together and opened a studio together in 1913 in New York City after Hewitt’s divorce from her husband. Brain Pickings republished some of the love letters from Hewitt to Johnston in the early stages of their relationship when they were not together, sourced from a 2000 biography on Frances Benjamin Johnston titled The Woman Behind the Lens.
In the notes to her book The Positive Image: Women Photographers in Turn of the Century America, C. Jane Grover also discusses the intimate lesbian relationships between women during this time period. A 1977 article by Ann Novotny published in Heresies 3, Lesbian Art and Artists refers to Johnston as a lesbian whose “private life remains hidden behind a veil of Victorian manners.”
The Woman Behind the Curtain
In the uncovering of Lesbian History in our narrative, we come across The Woman Behind the Curtain. This was a wonderful turn of phrase Nancy VanReece used in her #HerStory Podcast on Katherine Lee Bates. Most famous now for authoring America the Beautiful, Katherine Lee Bates had a long time partner, Katharine Coman.
Nancy VanReece points out the importance of recognizing these women and their significant others. She beautifully articulates how much of our history is laced with LGBT History and we just don’t know it. So, with a little digging, here is one more story to add to our collective narrative of history.