Boston Marriage and Romantic Friendships (Wikipedia)
Boston marriage as a term is said to have been in use in New England in the decades spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe two women living together, independent of financial support from a man. The term was little known until the debut in 2000 of the David Mamet play of the same name. Since then, a trend has arisen to make mention of the term. Since 2000, many mentions of “Boston marriage” cite as examples the same few literary figures, in particular the Maine local color novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and her late life companion, the widow of the editor of The Atlantic Monthly . There is often an assumption that in the era when the term was in use, it denoted a lesbian relationship. However, there is no documentary proof that any particular “Boston marriage” included sexual relations.
In general, the amount of historical and social scientific knowledge of this phenomenon, and even of the currency of the term at the turn of the 20th century, is scanty.
Origin of the term
The term Boston marriage was used by Henry James in The Bostonians (1886), a novel involving a long- term co- habiting relationship between two unmarried women, “New Women “. The use of the term is thought to have persisted in New England for several decades.
Some women did not marry because men feared educated women during the 19th century and did not wish to have them as wives. Other women did not marry because they felt they had a better connection to women than to men. Some of these women ended up living together in a same- sex household, finding this arrangement both practical and preferable to a heterosexual marriage. Of necessity, such women were generally financially independent of men, due either to family inheritance or to their own career earnings. Women who decided to be in these relationships were usually feminists, and were often involved in social betterment and cultural causes with shared values often forming a strong foundation for their lives together.
The living arrangements of a Boston Marriage helped its participants have careers. American culture of the 19th century made it very difficult for women to have careers while married to men. Wives were expected to care for their children. Society dictated that men were everything that women were not. Men were seen as taller, stronger, richer, smarter, etc., and women were seen as weak and were expected to spend most of their time and effort pleasing their husbands. Even if her husband did not treat her as inferior, society did.
Women who wanted a different, more independent life (and could afford to have one) sometimes set up households together. While the women involved may have seen their relationship as one of equals and designed their own roles, society dictated that one partner in a relationship needed to be superior. Because of this view, one of the women was often perceived to be “a man trapped in a woman’s body”.
In comparison to heterosexual marriages, Boston Marriages at that time had many advantages, including more nurturing between partners, and greater equality in responsibilities and decision making. Women who understood the demands of a career first- hand could give each other support and sympathy when needed. These women were generally self- sufficient in their own lives, but gravitated to each other for support in an often disapproving and even hostile society.
Whether any given Boston Marriage involved sex is unknown. In a 1929 study, Katherine B. Davis reported that, of 1,200 female college graduates who talked about their sex lives, 605, or 50.4 percent, responded that they had “experienced intense emotional relations with other women”, and 234, or 19.5 percent, had “intense relationships accompanied by mutual masturbation, contact of genital organs, or other expressions recognized as sexual”.
These women spent their lives mainly with each other. They gave their time and energy to each other. Their practical reasons for not marrying men were strong but their emotional reasons were even stronger. These relationships would probably be known as lesbian relationships now.
Romantic Friendship (Wikipedia)
The term romantic friendship refers to both very close but non- sexual relationship and at times sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond that which is common in modern Western societies, and may include for example holding hands, cuddling, and sharing a bed.
Up until the second half of the 19th century, same- sex romantic friendships were considered common and unremarkable in the West, and were distinguished from then- taboo homosexual relationships. But in the second half of the 19th century, expression of this nature became more rare as physical intimacy between nonsexual partners came to be regarded with anxiety.
Several small groups of advocates and researchers have advocated for the renewed use of the term, or the related term Boston marriage, today. Several lesbian, gay, and feminist authors (such as Lillian Faderman, Stephanie Coontz , Jaclyn Geller and Esther Rothblum) have done academic research on the topic; these authors typically favor the social constructionist view that sexual orientation is a modern, culturally constructed concept. Historian Stephanie Coontz writes of premodern customs in the United States:
“Perfectly respectable Victorian women wrote to each other in terms such as these: ‘I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you… that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish.’They recorded the ‘furnace blast’ of their ‘passionate attachments’ to each other… They carved their initials into trees, set flowers in front o f one another’s portraits, danced together, kissed, held hands, and endured intense jealousies over rivals or small slights… Today if a woman died and her son or husband found such diaries or letters in her effects, he would probably destroy them in rage or humiliation. In the nineteenth century, these sentiments were so respectable that surviving relatives often published them in elegies…. [In the 1920s] people’s interpretation of physical contact became extraordinarily ‘privatized and sexualized,’ so that all types of touching, kissing, and holding were seen as sexual foreplay rather than accepted as ordinary means of communication that carried different meanings in different contexts… It is not that homosexuality was acceptable before; but now a wider range of behaviour opened a person up to being branded as a homosexual… The romantic friendships that had existed among many unmarried men in the nineteenth century were no longer compatible with heterosexual identity.”
Examples of historical romantic friendship
The study of historical romantic friendship is difficult because the primary source material consists of
writing about love relationships, which typically took the form of love letters, poems, or philosophical essays rather than objective studies. Most of these do not explicitly state the sexual or nonsexual nature of relationships; the fact that homosexuality was taboo in Western European cultures at the time means that some sexual relationships may be hidden, but at the same time the rareness of romantic friendship in modern times means that references to nonsexual relationships may be misinterpreted, as alleged by Faderman, Coontz, Anthony Rotundo, Douglas Bush, and others.
Shakespeare and Fair Lord
The content of Shakespeare’s works has raised the question of whether he may have been bisexual.
The question of whether an Elizabethan was “gay” in a modern sense is anachronistic, as the concepts of homosexuality and bisexuality as identities did not emerge until the 19th century; while sodomy was a crime in the period, there was no word for an exclusively homosexual identity. Elizabethans also frequently wrote about friendship in more intense language than is common today.
Although twenty- six of Shakespeare’s sonnets are love poems addressed to a married woman (the “Dark Lady”), one hundred and twenty- six are addressed to a young man (known as the “Fair Lord “). The amorous tone of the latter group, which focus on the young man’s beauty, has been interpreted as evidence for Shakespeare’s bisexuality, although others interpret them as referring to intense friendship or fatherly affection, not sexual love.
Among those of the latter interpretation, in the preface to his 1961 Pelican edition, Douglas Bush
“Since modern readers are unused to such ardour in masculine friendship and are likely to leap at the notion of homosexuality… we may remember that such an ideal, often exalted above the love of women, could exist in real life, from Montaigne to Sir Thomas Browne, and was co nspicuo us in Renaissance literature.”
Bush cites Montaigne, who distinguished male friendships from “that other, licentious Greek love”, as
evidence of a platonic interpretation.
Montaigne and Etienne de La Boétie
The French philosopher Montaigne described the concept of romantic friendship (without using this
English term) in his essay “On Friendship.” In addition to distinguishing this type of love from homosexuality (“this other Greek licence”), another way in which Montaigne differed from the modern view was that he felt that friendship and platonic emotion were a primarily masculine capacity (apparently unaware of the custom of female romantic friendship which also existed):
“Seeing (to speake truly) that the ordinary sufficiency of women cannot answer this conference and communication, the nurse of this sacred bond: nor seeme their mindes strong enough to endure the pulling of a knot so hard, so fast, and durable. (sp.)”
Lesbian- feminist historian Lillian Faderman cites Montaigne, using “On Friendship” as evidence that romantic friendship was distinct from homosexuality, since the former could be extolled by famous and respected writers, who simultaneously disparaged homosexuality. (The quotation also furthers Faderman’s beliefs that gender and sexuality are socially constructed, since they indicate that each sex has been thought of as “better” at intense friendship in one or another period of history.)
Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed
Some revisionist historians have used the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed as another example of a relationship that modern people see as ambiguous or possibly gay, but which was most likely to have been a romantic friendship.
Lincoln and Speed lived together, shared a bed in their youth and maintained a lifelong friendship. David Herbert Donald pointed out that men at that time often shared beds for financial reasons; men were accustomed to same- sex nonsexual intimacy, since most parents could not afford separate beds or rooms for male siblings. Anthony Rotundo notes that the custom of romantic friendship for men in America in the early 19th century was different from that of Renaissance France, and it was expected that men would distance themselves emotionally and physically somewhat after marriage; he claims that letters between Lincoln and Speed show this distancing after Lincoln married Mary Todd. Such distancing, which is still practiced today, could indicate that Lincoln was following the social customs of his day, rather than rebelling against the taboo on homosexuality.
Emily Dickinson and Sue Gilbert
Faderman uses the letters between poet Emily Dickinson and her friend and later sister- in- law Sue Gilbert to show how love between women, understood as nonsexual romantic friendship, was accepted as normal at the time, and only later thought of as deviant:
“Emily’s love letters to Sue were written in the early 1850s. Bianchi’s [Martha Dickinson Bianchi, her niece] editio ns appeared in 1924 and 1932. Because Bianchi was Sue’s daughter, she wished to show that Emily relied on Sue, that Sue influenced her poetry, and that the two were the best of friends. But working during the height of the popularization of Sigmund Freud, she must have known to what extent intense friendship had fallen into disrepute. She therefore edited out all indications of Emily’s truly powerful involvement with her mother.”
Following is an excerpt of the examples of censorship that Faderman cites: The 1924/1932 editions of Dickinson’s letters include a letter dated June 11, 1852, from Emily, saying:
“…Susie, forgive me darling, for every word I say, my heart is full of you, yet when I seek to say something to you not for the world, words fail me. I try to bring you nearer…”
The original letter reads:
“…Susie, forgive me darling, for every word I say, my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say something to you not for the world, words fail me. If you were here— and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine we would not ask for language… I try to bring yo u nearer…”
Those who favor the homosexual interpretation might argue that Dickinson would feel no need to censor any sort of relationship in a private love letter, even if the relationship was taboo at the time. Faderman’s position is that the originals were not destroyed because they were not taboo at the time.
Biblical and religious evidence for romantic friendship
Proponents of the romantic friendship hypothesis also make reference to the Bible. Historians like Faderman and Robert Brain believe that the descriptions of relationships such as David and Jonathan or Ruth and Naomi in this religious text establish that the customs of romantic friendship existed and were thought of as virtuous in the ancient Near East, despite the simultaneous taboo on homosexuality.
The relationship between King David and Jonathan is often cited as an example of male romantic friendship; for example, Faderman uses 2 Samuel 1:26 on the title page of her book: “Your love was wonderful to me, passing the love of women.”
Ruth and Naomi are the female Biblical pair most often cited as a possible romantic friendship, as in the following verse commonly used in same- sex wedding ceremonies:
“Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following yo u; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.”
Faderman writes that women in Renaissance and Victorian times made reference to both Ruth and Naomi and “Davidean” friendship as the basis for their romantic friendships.
While some authors, notably John Boswell, have claimed that ecclesiatical practice in earlier ages blessed “same sex unions”, the accurate interpretation of these relationships rests on a proper understanding of the mores and values of the participants, including both the parties receiving the rite in question and the clergy officiating at it. Boswell himself concedes that past relationships are ambiguous; when describing Greek and Roman attitudes, Boswell states that ” [A] consensual physical aspect would have been utterly irrelevant to placing the relationship in a meaningful taxonomy.” Boswell’s own interpretation has been thoroughly critiqued, notably by Brent D.
Shaw, himself a homosexual, in a review written for the New Republic:
“Given the centrality o f Boswell’s “new” evidence, therefore, it is best to begin by describing his documents and their import. These documents are liturgies for an ecclesiastical ritual called adelphopoiesis or, in simple English, the “creation of a brother.”
Whatever these texts are, they are not texts for marriage ceremonies. Boswell’s translation of their titles (akolouthiaeis adelphopoiesin and parallels) as “The Order of Celebrating the Union o f Two Men” or “Office for Same-Sex Union” is inaccurate.
In the original, the titles say no such thing. And this sort of tendentious translation o f the documents is found, alas, throughout the book. Thus the Greek words that Boswell translates as “be united together” in the third section of the document quoted above are, in fact, rather ordinary words that mean “become brothers” (adelphoigenesthai); and when they are translated in this more straightforward manner, they impart a quite different sense to the reader. Such agreements and rituals are “same-sex” in the sense that it is two men who are involved; and they are “unions” in the sense that the two men involved are co-joined as “brothers.” But that is it. There is no indication in the texts themselves that these are marriages in any sense that the word would mean to readers now, nor in any sense that the word would have meant to persons then: the formation o f a common household, the sharing of everything in a permanent co-residential unit, the formation of a family unit wherein the two partners were
committed, ideally, to each other, with the intent to raise children, and soon. Although it is difficult to state precisely what these ritualized relationships were, most historians who have studied them are fairly certain that they deal with a species of “ritualized kinship” that is covered by the term “brotherhood.” (This type o f “brotherhood” is similar to the ritualized agreements struck between members o f the Mafia or other “men of honour” in our own society.) That explains why the texts on adelphopoiesis in the prayerbooks are embedded within sections dealing with other kinship-forming rituals, such as marriage and adoption. Giovanni Tomassia in the 1880s and Paul Koschaker in the 1930s, whose works Bo swell knows and cites, had already reached this conclusion.”
It should be noted that historian Robert Brain has also traced these ceremonies from Pagan “blood brotherhood” ceremonies through medieval Catholic ceremonies called “gossipry” or “siblings before God,” on to modern ceremonies in some Latin American countries referred to as “compadraz go”; Brain considers the ceremonies to refer to romantic friendship.