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Freeman, Mary Eleanor Wilkins (1852-1930)  

Many of the celebrated short stories by Mary Wilkins Freeman are characterized by intense love and passionate devotion between women.

After an adolescence unsettled by increasing financial hardship, Mary Wilkins moved with her family from her birthplace, Randolph, Massachusetts, to Brattleboro, Vermont. There, attempts to recoup economic stability ended with the successive deaths of her only sibling, her younger sister Nan, in 1876, her mother in 1880, and her father in 1883.

Mary was alone, with neither income nor profession, a history of indifference to conventional social activities, a passion for literature, no important social connections, and no prospects for or recorded interest in marriage.

She returned to Randolph to live with the family of her life-long friend Mary Wales. The two Marys lived together through the years of Wilkins's literary apprenticeship and her greatest literary success until her often-postponed marriage to Charles Freeman, a New Jersey physician turned businessman, in 1902. The marriage was disrupted by Charles's increasing alcoholism and its associated disorders. After several years, the couple separated.

Freeman belonged to the network of literary women whose hub was Annie Adams Fields, wife of Henry Fields, publisher of the Atlantic Monthly. Among those women was Sarah Orne Jewett, who had been the young Wilkins's literary inspiration and model.

Many of these women never married. Mary E. Wilkins, at least until her disastrous marriage, lived as a woman-oriented woman, her life centered on her writing and her relationship with Mary Wales.

Her first literary success came with the publication in 1883 by Harper's Bazaar of her story "Two Old Lovers." By 1887, enough stories had been published there and in Harper's New Monthly Magazine to compile her first collection: A Humble Romance. Four years later, A New England Nun followed. She received the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1926.

Freeman's genius lay in her ability to penetrate and illuminate the conjunction between necessity and desire in a woman's life. Her stories often focus on that moment in a woman's life when she must act in the face of conflict between her personal values and the demands made by the "real" world--whether social, natural, or material--or between her ethics and her happiness, comfort, or even safety.

Many of her stories are characterized by intense love and passionate devotion between women. In particular, "Two Friends" and "The Long Arm" illustrate the climate of the time and place in which life-long partnerships between women were lived publicly and with community acceptance and support.

These two stories, among the most important nineteenth-century U.S. lesbian stories, explore the extremes of devotion. However, whether Wilkins Freeman's stories are explicitly lesbian, as are these two, or about women whose daily lives, emotional and often financial commitments are focused on women who are friends, neighbors, or family members, her fictional world is primarily women-centered.

Called a genius by peers and by those whom she influenced, she has long been recognized as one of the most important and influential practitioners of U.S. literary realism.

Susan Koppelman


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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Lesbian, 1900-1969

American lesbian literature prior to Stonewall exploited the "outlaw" status of the lesbian as it moved from encrypted strategies of expression to overt political celebrations of woman-for-woman passion.

literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Nineteenth Century

Although sometimes coded as romantic friendship, both gay male and lesbian attractions are reflected in nineteenth-century American poetry and fiction, including works by such major figures as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Female

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, intimate, exclusive, and often erotic romantic friendships between women were largely perceived as normal and socially acceptable.

literature >> Jewett, Sarah Orne

Sarah Orne Jewett is a major figure in the literature of female romantic friendship, the precursor of modern lesbian literature.


Foster, Edward, ed. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. New York: Hendricks House, 1956.

Freeman, Mary Wilkins. "Two Friends" and "The Long Arm," in "Two Friends" and Other Nineteenth Century Lesbian Stories by U.S. Women Writers. Susan Koppelman, ed. New York: Meridian, 1994.

Marchalonis, Shirley, ed. Critical Essays on Mary Wilkins Freeman. New York: Macmillan, 1991.

Reichardt, Mary R., ed. A Web of Relationships: Women in the Short Fiction of Mary Wilkins Freeman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

_____. The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

_____. The Wind in the Rose-bush & Other Stories of the Supernatural. New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1903.

Westbrook, Perry, ed. Mary Wilkins Freeman. Twayne's United States Authors Series. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1988.


    Citation Information
    Author: Koppelman, Susan  
    Entry Title: Freeman, Mary Eleanor Wilkins  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 24, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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