Home » Blog » Uncategorized » Romantic Women Friends, Boston Marriages

Romantic Women Friends, Boston Marriages

Partnerships between women 100 years ago

Early 20th century woman
Woman early 20th century — Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels

Boston marriage refers to a long-time partnership between single women, often during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The term originated with Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, depicting a long-term relationship between two female characters who share their home.

Suffragettes and feminist activity were part of the backdrop of the 19th century, with the birthplace of feminism marked as the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. The “new woman” referred to the emerging examples of women who were educated, career-oriented, and not interested in giving up their independence to marriage with a man. These “new women” appeared at the end of the 19th century.

Some, like Candace Wheeler, came into their own when their years as a mother raising her children ended, as her children grew out of her home. Mr. Wheeler, Candace’s husband, was a wealthy grocery wholesaler in New York City, but Candace developed her own career.

Mrs. Wheeler established a couple of organizations focused on providing employment and income to single women, like the Decorative Arts Society. She worked with Louis C. Tiffany in interior decoration and invented the field of interior design during the Gilded Age when the wealthy competed in luxurious interiors. She formed her own company, Associated Artists, comprised of women artists and craftspeople.

Wellesley College employed 54 staff women who were professors at that time, and 53 were unmarried. To maintain a household and their unmarried status, college-educated women were likely to set up households with each other. Wellesley primarily hired women as teachers and administrators. Women’s colleges were a new entity, and higher education for women was a new opportunity.

We don’t know which of these partnerships, these Boston marriages, were between two lesbians, or two women who had a life-long friendship. Perhaps the friendship was a romantic one, a domestic partnership, or between roommates. Does it matter?

Nineteenth-century friendships between women were often romantic and filled with endearments, signs of physical affection such as walking arm-in-arm, and little gifts like poems to each other.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorraine Hickock’s intense relationship at the beginning of their long friendship was certainly romantic. Some historians believe it was erotic, others not. Again, does it matter? Franklin and Eleanor had a marriage agreement, and the White House was often a landing pad for friends of various sorts.

Marriage had its clear disadvantages for women in the 19th and 20th centuries. Women were to be subservient to men; women’s earnings were not separate but belonged to their husbands; the cult of motherhood revered women as wives and mothers. Few careers were open to women, and often professions like teachers required women to be unmarried. A woman who married was expected to give up her career.

The Boston marriage model makes sense to me. As cultural changes make an egalitarian marriage the expectation now, for any two people, the relationship is negotiated between the participants.

Few Career Paths or Paths to Independence

How much easier for those women who wanted to be independent a century ago to find that independence by sharing a household with another woman? There were few other paths for women to hold a professional role. One option was to become a nun — and nurse, or teacher, or administrator, or physician, or other role while serving as a religious sister.

Women who joined clubs and the women’s club movement could engage in board decision-making, charitable acts, philanthropy, and join causes. Clubs provided opportunities to learn leadership and organizational skills, usually for upper-class women. They were also a source of women’s association, friendship, and support.

Women who were “professional widows” often married their husband’s memory — it helped to have a well-known husband, as did Elizabeth Custer and LaSalle Pickett, Indian War and Civil War widows. They might continue his legacy by writing, lecturing, or running his business, or otherwise acting as if his mantle passed to her. These activities could also generate income for the woman, long before the days of Social Security survivor’s benefits, limited as that income may be.

Artifact or Prologue?

When marriage between same-sex couples was legalized by the Supreme Court in 2015, I thought about how some heterosexual same-sex couples could take advantage of the new opportunities availed to them. (This is not to lessen the significant milestone same-sex marriage is for couples previously unable to marry.) Marriage is many things, but it is also a legal contract and commitment. It might make sense for any couple in partnership for the long haul to get married, or otherwise have legal rights.

We think of the Boston marriage as an artifact of its time. But maybe it was ahead of its time. We think of romantic friendship, and freely expressing love for friends as an antiquated 19th-century behavior. But maybe it’s a behavior we should reconsider.

We think we progress. But sometimes the past is indeed prologue.

Spread the love

Leave a Comment