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social sciences

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Boston Marriages  

--romantic unions between women that were usually monogamous but not necessarily sexual--flourished in the late nineteenth century. The term was coined in New England, around the time that numerous women's colleges such as Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley emerged.

The concept of love between women was, of course, not new; "Boston marriage" and the very similar, earlier nineteenth-century term "romantic friendship" connote a type of relationship that dates back to at least the Renaissance in the West, and possibly further in the non-Western world.

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Boston marriages signified a new phenomenon, however, in that the women involved in them tended to be college-educated, feminist, financially independent, and career-minded--hardly the social norm among females of the day. These characteristics distinguish women bound together in Boston marriages from participants in the earlier romantic friendships.

The novelist Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) is a prime example of a woman involved in a Boston marriage. A writer who described the dynamics of the Boston marriage in her 1877 novel Deephaven, Jewett maintained a same-sex relationship of her own for decades. She and her partner, Annie Fields (1834-1915), belonged to a support group of couples in Boston marriages.

Another couple involved in a Boston marriage were Alice James (1849-1892) and Katharine Loring (1849-1943). Their relationship may have inspired Alice James's brother Henry to write The Bostonians (1885) as an exploration of Boston marriages.

Boston marriages were long-term and committed, and resembled traditional marriages in many ways. But remaining unattached to men gave women a chance to attain significant decision-making power over their own lives, power they would have forfeited to their husbands in a conventional marriage.

The social acceptance of the Boston marriage was predicated upon the common assumption that the women involved did not practice any form of genital sexuality with each other. At the time, sexologists had not begun the regular use of pejorative terms such as "sexual inversion" and "perversion" to decry homosexuality, and the term "lesbian" was not yet in popular usage.

Since nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women were often considered not to have strong sex drives--sex for them was supposedly a duty, and intended for procreation only--nothing was deemed wrong with women's public displays of affection. Neither were their sharing households and even beds considered suspicious.

Whether women in these romantic relationships did indeed refrain from sexual contact with each other is difficult to determine, but it is very likely that some, if not all, of Boston marriage couples were physically as well as emotionally involved. Their love letters to each other often indicate a passion that could hardly be considered platonic, and modern lesbian historians and writers have speculated that if members of Boston marriages were alive today, they would openly identify as lesbian.

Although the phrase "Boston marriage" went out of vogue when "lesbian" became part of the American vocabulary, and the phenomenon is often viewed as obsolete today, such unions are not exclusively a thing of the past. The stereotype of "lesbian bed death"--the tendency of long-term lesbian couples to cease sexual activity--aside, numerous gay women do identify themselves as participants in Boston marriages today.

Because fulfillment through non-sexual intimacy with a female partner is possible for many modern-day lesbians, some continue sexless relationships with each other, asserting that romantic involvements are not always predicated upon sexual activity.

Non-sexual romantic relationships are not, of course, an exclusively lesbian or even female phenomenon. Other people--including male homosexual couples--also participate in very close, loving, non-sexual relationships that transcend the boundaries of friendship. But interestingly, no term analogous to "Boston marriage" has been employed to describe such relationships among gay men or heterosexuals.

Teresa Theophano


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Novelist Sarah Orne Jewett.
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Boston has seen a variety of responses to its glbtq citizens, ranging from acceptance of "Boston marriages" to vice squad raids of gay bars to joyous weddings of same-sex couples.

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Nursing, which has been both welcoming and hostile to gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered, is important to glbtq history.

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.

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literature >> Bates, Katharine Lee

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literature >> James, Henry

Though closeted, Henry James had a number of intimate relations with young men, and his sexual orientation imbued his fiction.

literature >> Jewett, Sarah Orne

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

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Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

_____. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1981.

Rothblum, Esther, and Kathleen Brehony, eds. Boston Marriages. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.


    Citation Information
    Author: Theophano, Teresa  
    Entry Title: Boston Marriages  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated November 9, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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