Why you should care
Wait, women can like sex?
Jane Addams wired ahead of her travels for a double bed so that she and her companion could sleep side by side. Nothing eyebrow-raising about that — except that her companion was Mary Rozet Smith, benefactor of Hull House, Addams’ Nobel Peace Prize–winning social reform project in Chicago. When the two women were apart, Addams wrote (bad) love poems about Smith: “One day I came into Hull House … I had forgotten love … And did not guess what now I know. — Delivering love was sitting there!”
The two lived together for decades, in what was called a “Boston marriage,” a common practice in the Northeast from the 1800s to 1920s, in which two women devotedly co-habited. Based on couples’ letters, some of these relationships were likely sexual, while others were just about being friends, without benefits. To an outside observer, such relationships were a sociable way to keep the rent down. “At the time it is quite certain that most people would have seen these women as having a romantic friendship, but not a sexual relationship,” says Esther Rothblum, co-editor of Boston Marriages. “Today, after a sexual revolution, we can scoff at that and say of course they were [sexual].” Rothblum herself is not so skeptical, though — women of that time may not have known much about their own sexuality, she points out.
Two women could enjoy the status of asexual, “pure” friendships (even if they weren’t), while two men living together were openly, and harshly, judged.
Who was involved? The ranks of an early-20th-century all-star cast included Emily Blackwell (the third woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree), Lucy Anthony (suffragist Susan B. Anthony’s niece), Alice James (a published diarist) and M. Carey Thomas (Bryn Mawr’s second president). It makes sense that such arrangements were successful: The roommates were less financially dependent on men — many of them came from wealthy backgrounds — and, unlike married women, they weren’t tethered to domesticity, which freed them to pursue careers.
Sometimes the relationships weren’t even defined by co-habitation. Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the leaders of the suffrage movement, was married twice — to men — but also had two close female friendships that may have been more than they seemed. The marriages to men were economically convenient, allowing Catt the freedom to reform. She wrote to fellow suffragist Mary Peck, calling her “beautiful” and “unutterably precious,” and before Catt died, she chose not to be buried next to either of her husbands but instead next to Molly Hay, another suffragist.
On the flip side, men did not commonly participate in Boston marriages. The response to bisexual and gay men in the 19th century was often negative. Two women could enjoy the status of asexual, “pure” friendships (even if they weren’t), while two men living together were openly, and harshly, judged.
Why the popularity of Boston marriages from the late 19th century through the early 1900s? It was a time when women’s higher education was gaining ground. Founded in the 1860s and ’70s, schools like Wellesley, Smith and Vassar helped produce more economically independent women and nurture closer nonfamilial female bonds. For some, such educational developments sparked outrage: One (male, natch) writer penned a column in Scribner’s Monthly about his fears of empowered women. “Diseases of body, diseases of imagination, vices of body and imagination — everything we would save our children from — are bred in these great institutions,” he warned. And he was right that the colleges made an impact; while 10 percent of American women did not marry between 1880 and 1900, around half of female American college grads refused to put a ring on during this period, according to LGBTQ historian Lillian Faderman.
Boston marriages were the subject of literary fascination too. Inspired by his sister Alice’s relationship with Katharine Loring, Henry James penned The Bostonians, with one female character asking another: “Will you be my friend, my friend of friends, beyond everyone, everything, forever and forever?” Sarah Orne Jewett made female love her subject in such novels as Country of the Pointed Firs. It couldn’t have been too hard for Jewett to conjure up the story, given her own long-term relationship with another woman, Annie Fields.
But then Freud came along. The influential Austrian psychologist studied female same-sex love and with his pen brought down the myth of strictly platonic female friendships. “A woman who has … loved in a masculine fashion, will hardly let herself be forced into playing the part of a woman … which is not in every way advantageous, by renouncing all hope of motherhood,” he wrote of one couple’s case study. After calling the attraction “an inversion” — meaning aberrant, or perverse — Freud also demonstrated how women had sex drives, which had not been the prevailing wisdom. “In a sense it was progressive for people to realize women had a genital sexuality, but the freedom for women to express love for women went underground” as a result, Rothblum says. The term “Boston marriage,” along with the practice, fell out of vogue.
In 2004, same-sex marriage was finally legalized in a U.S. state: Massachusetts approved marriage licenses, and ceremonies began being held … in none other than Boston.