Boston Marriages: Two Healthy Unmarried Women Cohabiting Legally
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."
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."
Though the term is somewhat outdated, David Mamet's play Boston Marriage (2000) brought it back. In a description of the play, the New Repertory Theatre noted that "Most likely, the Boston marriage was many things to many women: business partnership, artistic collaboration, lesbian romance. And sometimes, it was a friendship nurtured with all the care that we usually squander on our mates."
Who Had A Boston Marriage?
Trendsetters to the end, 18th-century aristocrats Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were so inseparable that they were nicknamed the Ladies of Llangollen. Fearing the possibility of being forced into marriage, the Irish lasses ran away together, and although they were often seen in men's clothing on the rare occasion that they were seen at all, they were reportedly appalled by the rumors that they were sexually involved.
Historical consensus is more ambiguous about later prominent figures. 19th-century writer Charity Bryant's relationship with a woman named Sylvia Drake was described as like a "husband" and his "fond wife," and their community treated them as they would any other married couple. In the latter half of the century, writers Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields entered into a similar relationship after Fields's husband died. Ever heard "America the Beautiful"? Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote the lyrics, was in a Boston marriage with writer Katharine Ellis Coman. The two seemed to share an interest in America, as Coman wrote the first industrial history of the United States.
That's just to name a few. Suffragist and pacifist Jane Addams had two marriage-like relationships over the course of her life: one with Elen Gates Starr, and the other with Mary Rozet Smith. Other examples include Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union with her lady-friend Anna Adams Gordon, labor reformer Josephine Goldmark with Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League, and Evangeline Marrs Simpson with Rose "Libby" Cleveland. Simpson served as First Lady to Rose's brother, President Grover Cleveland, until he got around to finding a wife.
If it sounds like this was common, that’s because it was. In fact, there were so many of these arrangements among the faculty at Wellesley College that they coined their own term, "Wellesley marriage." At one point, of the 53 women on the faculty, only one was in a traditional marriage with a man. Everyone else had shacked up with another woman.
Women who decided to live with each other rather than hitch themselves to a man's wagon had a variety of reasons for doing so. Some were affluent women who simply didn't have to. Others were too passionate about their studies or other work to retire, as a married woman was expected to do up until the turn of the century and even beyond, in some places. Of course, quotes like this one from the aforementioned Alice James ...
I wish you could know Katharine Loring ... she is a most wonderful being. She has all the mere brute superiority which distinguishes man from woman combined with all the distinctively feminine virtues. There is nothing she cannot do.
... raises the question "Okay, but were they gay?"
Who Needs A Man, Anyway?
Whether a pair was simply girl friends or girlfriends depended an awful lot on the pair in question. Yes, some of these women were simply interested in living an independent life with an amiable roommate, but others committed to each other for decades before they were buried under a single tombstone. That goes quite a ways beyond "just friends," but whether these Boston marriages included consummation or not is historically difficult to determine. The stigma against homosexuality that blurs the record is also the reason why, by the 1920s, Boston marriages lost their social respectability. Nowadays, with the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States, the only thing you can call a "Boston marriage" is a reception full of Red Sox hats and clam chowder. Anything else is just marriage.
Tags: Henry James | literature | marriage | victorian era | women in history | womens movement
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