HOUSTON VOICE • DECEMBER 3, 1999
by DAVID BIANCO
Intimate 'Boston marriages'
What were Boston marriages?
In his novel "The Bostonians" (1886),
I lenry James modeled the relationship
between his characters Olive and Verena on
what he called "those friendships between
women so common in New England." The
"friendships" James observed were intimate,
long-term relationships between two unmarried women, who were often feminists.
Though dubbed "Boston marriages," these
relationships occurred throughout the country.
With the growth of cities and an urban
middle class in the mid-19th century, opportunities that had been previously unavailable
to women began to emerge. As women's colleges were founded and previously all-male
schools began to admit women, many middle- and upper-class women left their parents'
homes, received an education, and embarked
on careers. Many of these women also became
politically motivated. "New Women," as they
were called, could for the first time choose to
remain unmarried and pursue their own
goals and interests.
Many of the.se women enjoyed circles of
like-minded female friends. Within these networks, two women might pair off in a close
relationship in which they shared housing,
living expenses, vacations, and often a bed.
Much more than roommates, these women
were soul-mates and partners, married in
spirit and mind. In "The Bostonians'" Olive
"proposes" to Verena this way; "Will you be
my friend, my friend of friends, beyond
everyone, everything, forever and ever?"
These intimate friendships were socially
acceptable, and women in Boston marriages
were often recognized as couples by their
families, friends and colleagues.
Some of the most accomplished and prominent women of that era lived in Boston marriages. Most often they wea- white, though
there are also records of African-American
female couples. For example, Lucy Diggs
Slowe, the first dean of women at Howard
University, shared her life with writer Mary
Powell Burrill, who had earlier been intimate
friends with Harlem Renaissance poet
Angelina Weld Grimke.
Many women in Boston marriages were
prominent in education, social work,
women's rights, and the arts. M. Carey
Thomas became the president of Bryn Mawr
College when her wealthy philanthropist
partner, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, offered the
trustees of the school a hefty endowment to
entice them to appoint Thomas. Thomas and
Garrett shared a home on campus for more
than 20 years.
lane Addams co-founded Chicago's Hull
House, one of the country's first settlement
houses, with Ellen Gates Starr, her intimate
companion since college. When she and Starr
grew apart, Addams began a -ll 1-year relationship with another Hull House colleague,
Mary Ko/et Smith. Founder of the 1 e
Many women in 'Boston marriages' were
prominent, including Martha Carey Thomas,
who became the president of Bryn Mawr
College and shared campus quarters with her
partner for 20 years.
Women Voters, Carrie Chapman Cart outlived two husbands and then shared the latter
part of her life with Mary Garrett Hay, a colleague from the suffrage movement. Hay's
death in 1928 "shook Mrs. Catt to the soul,"
one friend recalled. When Cart died 19 years
later, she was buried in the same cemetery plot
as Hay under a joint tombstone that reads,
"Here lie two, united in friendship for 38 years
through constant service to a great cause."
Perhaps the best-known of all Boston marriages is the relationship of Sarah Orne Jewett
and Annie Adams Fields. Jewett, a fiction
writer from Maine, was a devoted feminist
who early on rejected heterosexual marriage
as destructive to a woman's identity and creativity. Her first novel, "Deephaven" (1877),
depicted a romantic friendship between two
young women who dreamed about living
together like the Ladies of Llangollen, an 18th-
century Welsh couple.
In December 1879, Jewett attended a literary reception in Boston at which she met
Fields, the wife of Atlantic Monthly editor
James Fields. The two women became friends
instantly, and when Fields's husband died in
1881, she and Jewett formed a Boston marriage. Jewett kept the family home she had
inherited in Maine, and for five months out of
the year, she stayed there alone, writing full
time. The two women wrote letters back and
forth almost daily, calling each other names
like "dear love" and expressing their loneliness for each other.
Whether these relationships were typically
sexual in nature is unknown, though among
the wider society they were (and generally
continue to be) presumed to be asexual. With
the rise of scientific and medical inquiry into
sexuality m the first decades of the 20th century, these close, loving friendships between
women came under sharp scrutiny and began
to be pathologized as "female inversion."
David Bianco is the author of "Gay Essentials,"
a collection of his history columns. He can be
reached cure of this publication or at
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