Boston marriage: Domestic partnership in the 19th century
The term “Boston marriage” was used to refer to two single women living together, independent of men, in 19th century America.
Examples of these are pioneer American settlement activist Jane Addams, who had marriage-like relationships with two women at two different periods of her life: Ellen Gates Starr and Mary Rozet Smith.
There was also Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who had a long-term relationship with her companion Anna Adams Gordon.
For these women, these arrangements were not uncommon at the time. It made sense for educated women from good families to seek out each other’s company as they could support themselves rather than seek the help of a man.
History of the Boston marriage
The term was originally coined in Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, which told the tale of an intimate companionship between two wealthy, Boston women.
The author referred to the novel as “a very American tale.” However, it’s unclear whether he was referring to the notion of homosexual relationships or the promise of gender equality.
Later, David Mamet brought the concept to popularity again in the year 2000 with his play of the same name, Boston Marriage.
Jewett and Fields: A Boston marriage
One of the best-known examples of a Boston marriage, which may have been a model for James’ characters, was the relationship between the writer Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields.
Jewett spent her later years enjoying the almost constant companionship of Fields, widow of Atlantic editor James T. Fields.
The two women lived together, traveled to Europe together, and called each other pet names: Jewett was “Pinney” and Fields was “Fuff.”
Beyond a Boston marriage: Drake and Bryant
In 1807, Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant moved in together in a small house in Vermont.
The women were pillars of their community for four and a half decades: running a tailoring business, teaching Sunday school, and acting as caregivers to hundreds of nieces and nephews.
They were also, according to their own understanding and that of those around them, a married couple.
A headstone inscribed with the names of the two women stands in a graveyard in the village of Weybridge, VT.
Boston marriage: But were they gay?
Because of the stigma placed upon homosexuality at the time, we have limited information on the intimate details of these partnerships. What happened behind closed doors is anybody’s guess.
One thing is certain: Boston marriages allowed independent, intellectually-driven women to live as they desired. Female trailblazers bucked against traditional marriage and made historically important steps toward gender equality.
Incidentally, Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004. Perhaps Henry James was on to something.
Maybe that’s also why the legacy of a Boston marriage lives on in today’s lesbian relationships.