A Short History of American Lesbians Who Were As Good As Married

The line of questioning directed to Mary Bonauto in last Tuesday's oral arguments before the Supreme Court on the right to marry curiously focused on one point: the 'millennia' during which the definition of marriage excluded homosexual couples. I didn't find this idea of 'millennia' to be particularly persuasive, and neither did Bonauto, who did an excellent job refuting it. But it got me thinking: is it really so that there was no 'gay marriage' prior to the Netherlands in 2001? In this instance, in reply to this complex issue, the answer is a nuanced 'no.' It is true that legal marriage was not extended to gay couples prior to 2001, but to say that gay couples prior to 2001 did not seek marriage, did not live in marriage-like relationships, were not accepted by their communities as 'married' is simply not true. There were many couples who were 'as good as' married but who couldn't possibly have been recognized as such by the state. As Bonauto insisted yesterday, it took a long time to convince the courts of the basic human dignity of LGBT people. Marriage wasn't on the horizon when the fight was for recognition as people. We see examples of similarly committed gay couples throughout history, but for the sake of argument and time, I'll confine myself to a very brief overview historical American lesbians (and also because the Wikipedia page focuses on gay male couples).

This week, we'll be featuring our first 'theme week': short text & photo posts around a given subject. This time around we'll be focusing on historical lesbian couples. This post is meant to give a bit of background. There's a bibliography at the end - please check it out! Some are more academic in nature but most should be readily available for Kindle download. These books, particularly Lillian Faderman's works, go into great detail and deserve attention. Consider this post merely a brief outline to get you started.

Romantic Friendships & Boston Marriages

Intense, intimate relationships were not frowned upon by turn-of-the-century social customs - in fact, one could even say they were downright encouraged, particularly when compared to social views on same-sex romantic friends during the latter half of the 20th century. So long as women didn't actively dismiss a male suitor because of their romantic friendship, and so long as they conducted themselves with sufficient propriety that no one would think there was a sexual element to their relationship, women were free to manage their relationships with other women as they saw fit.

Intimate friendships were, surprisingly enough, a fairly common occurrence for women of a particular class, of particular wealth (either inherited or due to a professional career), well-educated, and generally not possessed of very many flying figs to give. The colloquial 'Boston marriage' derives from Henry James's novel The Bostonians, which features a romantic friendship between two women, and became a kind of 19th century shorthand for women in committed, romantic friendships (though the term is apparently making something of a comeback today), made possible, strangely enough, by an odd conflation of homophobia and sexism. Although we know that the Victorians were not nearly as prudish as they made themselves out to be, the idea of women having anything beyond a 'romantic friendship' (a sexually platonic friendship with romantic overtones) was a bit outside the realm of polite comprehension. Socially speaking, these women were educated spinsters, and the heteronormative paradigm that made spinsterhood pitiable also gave them a great degree of freedom. They were in unique positions of relative privilege because of their education: they were doctors, university administrators, writers, social workers.

However, it's not especially historically responsible to call any of these women 'lesbians.' I have done so here only for facility's sake, and because 'Amanda's List of Awesome Vintage Ladies Who Loved Ladies' is too long a title for our upcoming theme week. These are relationships characterized by what we would call lesbian traits, but these women are more likely to have chosen other words to describe their relationships. Some of them would have eschewed any kind of label at all. Just because a couple shared a home doesn't mean they slept together; just because a couple wrote passionate love letters doesn't mean they acted on them. But is sex the only thing that shifts a relationship from friendship to love? Certainly not, and it most definitely is not a requirement. These were special friendships, distinguishable from the partners' platonic friendships with other women. There was love there, if not necessarily sex, and if you ask me, it's the nature of that love that makes the difference. After all, that's why 'just being friends who live together' isn't enough for gay couples who want to marry. We want the dignity of recognition of who we are to each other, the dignity of being a couple, not just roommates. These women were not just 'friends who lived together' - they were women who nurtured between them a deep love and caring for the other - in my book, that's grounds for getting to the altar.

Charity Bryant & Sylvia Drake

In their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for 40 years, during which they have shared each others’ occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness…
— William Cullen Bryant

Before the Boston Marriage became social parlance (if not a social norm), Vermont was home to two women whose love story was fairly public. Charity Bryant (aunt of William Cullen Bryant) and the younger Sylvia Drake spent nearly half a century in a common household, operating a joint business, and participating vitally in the life of their community. They were so transparently married, in fact, that they were eventually accepted as such (or as good as) by their community - but not without having to overcome prejudice and familial discord. In 2014, historian Rachel Cleves published a fascinating book, Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, and spoke at length about their place in history, as well as the marriage debate, in this interview with the Boston Globe.

Amy Lowell & Ada Dwyer Russell

A Decade

When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savor,
But I am completely nourished.
— Amy Lowell

Massachusetts socialite Amy Lowell's imagist poetry won her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1926. In 1919, she published a book of poetry titled Pictures of the Floating World, which contained within its pages a cycle called 'Two Speak Together.' It is a beautiful sequence of poems narrating the blossoming of love between two women widely understood to be Lowell and her partner, the actress Ada Dwyer Russell. Several poems are coded, using the language of flowers as an allegory of lovemaking. But others are very explicit in their depiction of the poet and her Beloved living ordinary lives together: sleeping in the same bed together, cooking, baking, shopping - all of that, together. Throughout their relationship, Russell serves as Lowell's muse in many works, even her literary biography of Yeats.

Lowell and Russell's Boston marriage was hardly a secret, but it was, as would be the case for decades of committed lesbian partnerships, rarely acknowledged as such - in part because of homophobia within their social circle. They were at once acknowledged as a couple - letters send love to them both, for example - and dismissed as friends. And yet, in her will, Lowell left her estate to Russell.

So, there exists documented historical precedent for women living in committed relationships. Moreover, there's evidence of couples who sought recognition as such, whether from their community or just their circle of friends, women who did what they could to prove who they were to each other. The logical conclusion seems to be that we have finally, as a society and as individuals, found the words necessary to describe these relationships and, by naming them, to dignify them with social and legal respect. It just so happens that the words that do this best are the same ones that do this for heterosexual couples. I'm not sure why that's surprising to anyone. It seems a fairly rational progression of social mores to me. These women lived in a time when society had no paradigm through which to understand them, save that uniquely Victorian talent for turning a deliberate blind eye. Thankfully, that has changed.

It was Ada Dwyer Russell, acting on Amy Lowell's request, who burned Lowell's papers following her death. Russell resisted Lowell’s desire to dedicate her books of poetry to her muse, but Lowell won in the end. The dedication to Lowell’s biography of John Keats reads:

               To A.D.R.,
                         This, and all my books.

It seems a fitting epitaph for both their relationship and those of many couples like them, saying very much while saying as little as possible.

This week, we'll feature some of the couples who compose Amanda's List of Awesome Vintage Lesbians, which is, admittedly, a pretty awesome list. Check back!

For further reading, we suggest:

To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America (Lillian Faderman)

Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (Lillian Faderman)

Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (Rachel Cleves)

Amy Lowell, American Modern (Adrienne Munich and Melissa Bradshaw, eds).

For more information on romantic friendships, thought not American-centric, you might enjoy:

Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Sharon Marcus)