Boston Marriages: Two Healthy Unmarried Women Cohabiting Legally

By | February 12, 2020

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Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, also known as the Ladies of Llangollen, lived together in a Boston marriage. (Wellcome Colection Gallery)

With so many Elizabeths and Darcys running around over the years, you’ve likely heard that "it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife." But what happens when you're single, financially independent, and the prospective wife in question? Put two of these women together in New England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and you've got yourself a "Boston marriage."

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Alice James (reclining) and Katharine Loring, taken at the Royal Leamington Spa (England) c. 1890 (Wikimedia Commons)

What Is A Boston Marriage?

A "Boston marriage" isn't just any old marriage that takes place in Boston. Historically speaking, it's how you'd describe two financially independent women who decided to team up and live together rather than bring a man into the mix. If you're thinking "Those are lesbians, the word for that is 'lesbians,'" you'd be right in many cases, but a Boston marriage wasn't always romantic or sexual. Some of these women simply rejected the expectation of submitting to one's husband. Others were already married to academia, but they got lonely after a long day in the lab. Sue them.

Opting out of traditional marriage and deciding to bunk up with another lady was nothing new, but calling it a "Boston marriage" began with the 1886 Henry James novel The Bostonians. James based the lead characters of Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant on his sister's relationship with her own gal pal, and apparently missing the long history of independent women who don't need no man, James called women who led these independent lives "new women."