Boston Marriage: Women Living Together, 19th/20th Century Style

portrait of two women holding each other on the couch
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With the advent of the David Mamet production, "Boston Marriage," a term once obscure surfaced again to the public consciousness. It's come back into public consciousness since, as a term for women living in a marriage-like relationship, though with the legalization of marriage for same sex couples, the term is being used less frequently for current relationships, and mostly applied historically.

In the 19th century, this term was used for households where two women lived together, independent of any male support. Whether these were lesbian relationships -- in the sexual sense -- is debatable and debated. The likelihood is that some were, some weren't. Today, the term "Boston marriage" is sometimes used for lesbian relationships -- two women living together -- which are not sexual, but usually romantic and sometimes erotic. We might call them "domestic partnerships" today.

The term "Boston marriage" is not derived from the Massachusetts legalization of same-sex marriages in 2004. Nor was it invented for David Mamet's writing. The term is much older. It came to be used, apparently, after Henry James's 1886 book, The Bostonians, detailed a marriage-like relationship between two women. They were "New Women" in the language of the time: women who were independent, not married, self-supporting (which sometimes meant living off of inherited wealth or making a living as writers or other professional, educated careers).

Perhaps the best-known example of a "Boston marriage," and one which may have been a model for James's characters, is the relationship between the writer Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields.

Several books in recent years have discussed possible or actual "Boston marriage" relationships. This new frankness is one result of the greater acceptance today of gay and lesbian relationships in general. A recent biography of Jane Addams by Gioia Diliberto examines her marriage-like relationships with two women at two different periods of her life: Ellen Gates Starr and Mary Rozet Smith. Less known is the long, live-in relationship of Frances Willard (of the Women's Christian Temperance Union) with her companion, Anna Adams Gordon. Josephine Goldmark (key writer of the Brandeis brief) and Florence Kelley (National Consumers League) lived in what might be termed a Boston marriage.

Charity Bryant (aunt of William Cullen Bryant, an abolitionist and poet) and Sylvia Drake, in the early 19th century in a town in western Vermont, lived in what the nephew described as a marriage, even when marriage between two women was still legally unthinkable. The community apparently accepted their partnership, with some exceptions including members of their family. The partnership included living together, sharing a business, and owning joint property. Their joint gravesite is marked with a single gravestone.

Rose (Libby) Cleveland, sister of President Grover Cleveland -- who also served as First Lady until the bachelor president married Frances Folsom -- carried out a long-term romantic and erotic relationship with Evangeline Marrs Simpson, living together in their later years and being buried together.

Relevant Books

Henry James, The Bostonians.

Esther D. Rothblum and Kathleen A. Brehony, editors, Boston Marriages: Romantic But Asexual Relationships Among Contemporary Lesbians.

David Mamet, Boston Marriage: A Play.

Gioia Diliberto, A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams.

Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women From the Renaissance to the Present. I

Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt: 1884-1933.

Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt: 1933-1938.

Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America.

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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Boston Marriage: Women Living Together, 19th/20th Century Style." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Boston Marriage: Women Living Together, 19th/20th Century Style. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Boston Marriage: Women Living Together, 19th/20th Century Style." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).