Boston Marriages

Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields
Boston marriage as a term is said to have been in use in New England in the decades spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe two women living together, independent of financial support from a man. The term was less well known before the debut in 2000 of the David Mamet play of the same name. Since 2000, many mentions of “Boston marriage” cite as examples the same few literary figures, in particular the Maine local color novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields her late life companion, the widow of the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. There is often an assumption that in the era when the term was in use, it denoted a lesbian relationship. However, there is no documentary proof that any particular “Boston marriage” included sexual relations.

It’s an antique phrase, dating back to the 1800s. In Victorian times, women who wanted to maintain their independence and freedom opted out of marriage and often paired up to live together, acting as each other’s “wives” and “helpmeets.” Henry James’s 1886 novel about such a liaison,The Bostonians, may have been the inspiration for the term, or perhaps it was the most glamorous female couples who made their homes in Boston, including Sarah Orne Jewett, a novelist, and her “wife” Annie Adams Fields, also a writer.

Were they gay? Was the “Boston marriage” simply a code word for lesbian love? Historian Lillian Faderman says this is impossible to determine, because nineteenth-century women who kept diaries drew curtains over their bedroom windows. They did not bother to mention whether their ecstatic friendship spilled over into — as Faderman so romantically puts it — “genital sex.” And ladies, especially well-to-do ones who poured tea with their pinkies raised, were presumed to have no sex drive at all. Women could share a bed, nuzzle in public, and make eyes at each other, and these cooings were considered to be as innocent as schoolgirl crushes. In a 1929 study, Katherine B. Davis reported that, of 1,200 female college graduates who talked about their sex lives, 605, or 50.4 percent, responded that they had “experienced intense emotional relations with other women”, and 234, or 19.5 percent, had “intense relationships accompanied by mutual masturbation, contact of genital organs, or other expressions recognized as sexual”. These women spent their lives mainly with each other. They gave their time and energy to each other. Their practical reasons for not marrying men were strong but their emotional reasons were even stronger. These relationships would probably be known as lesbian relationships now.  Whether any given Boston Marriage involved sex is unknown. 

So, at least in theory, the Boston marriage indicated a platonic, albeit nerdy relationship. With ink-stained fingers, the Victorian roommate-friends would smear jam on thick slices of bread and then lounge across from each other in bohemian-shabby leather armchairs to discuss a novel-in-progress or a political speech they’d just drafted. Their brains beat as passionately as their hearts. The arrangement often became less a marriage than a commune of two, complete with a political agenda and lesson plan.

“We will work at [learning German] together — we will study everything,” proposes Olive, a character in The Bostonians, to her ladylove. Olive imagines them enjoying “still winter evenings under the lamp, with falling snow outside, and tea on a little table, and successful renderings . . . of Goethe, almost the only foreign author she cared about; for she hated the writing of the French, in spite of the importance they have given to women.” James poked fun at Olive’s bookworm passion. But he lavished praise on his own sister Alice’s intense and committed friendship with another woman, which he considered to be pure, a perfect devotion.

Most likely, the Boston marriage was many things to many women: business partnership, artistic collaboration, lesbian romance. And sometimes it was a friendship nurtured with all the care that we usually squander on our mates — a friendship as it could be if we made it the center of our lives.

Some women did not marry because men feared educated women during the 19th century and did not wish to have them as wives. Other women did not marry because they felt they had a better connection to women than to men. Some of these women ended up living together in a same-sex household, finding this arrangement both practical and preferable to a heterosexual marriage. Of necessity, such women were generally financially independent of men, due either to family inheritance or to their own career earnings. Women who decided to be in these relationships were usually feminists, and were often involved in social betterment and cultural causes with shared values often forming a strong foundation for their lives together.

The living arrangements of a Boston Marriage helped its participants have careers. American culture of the 19th century made it difficult for women to have careers while married to men. Wives were expected to care for their children. Society dictated that men and women play very different roles. Men were seen as taller, stronger, richer, and smarter; women were seen as weak and were expected to spend most of their time and effort pleasing their husbands. Even if her husband did not treat her as inferior, society did.

Women who wanted a different, more independent life (and could afford to have one) sometimes set up households together. While the women involved may have seen their relationship as one of equals and designed their own roles, society dictated that one partner in a relationship needed to be superior. Because of this view, one woman perceived herself to be “a man trapped in a woman’s body”.  Romantic relationships were especially common among academic women of the 19th century. At many colleges, female professors were not allowed to marry conventionally and still remain part of the faculty. Academic women also broke with the social view of women as mentally inferior: such a woman was likely attracted to another woman who would recognize her intelligence, rather than a man who most likely would not. Having invested so much of their lives in scholarship, such women could find needed respect for their work and lifestyle among other academic women.

In comparison to heterosexual marriages, Boston Marriages at that time had many advantages, including more nurturing between partners, and greater equality in responsibilities and decision making. Women who understood the demands of a career first-hand could give each other support and sympathy when needed. These women were generally self-sufficient in their own lives, but gravitated to each other for support in an often disapproving and sometimes hostile society.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

2 responses to “Boston Marriages

  • Will

    That's a very nice write-up of the Boston Marriage phenomenon. As a gay man and Boston resident from 1962 (college) to 2007 (retirement from MIT–but I'm still only an hour away) I have dug heavily into the whole Boston Bohemia (code term for gay/creative) scene that spread out from the city as far north as Gloucester (Henry Davis Sleeper/A. Andrew Piatt), and as intensely as Harvard. It was an amazing situation in many ways and filled with fascinating men and women. Do you know the books of Douglas Shand-Tucci? He is the chronicler of Boston's Bohemian scene. Some people don't care for his writing style, but his social history is fantastic and extremely valuable.

  • Coop

    I started reading the Bostonians a few years ago… and gave up on it. Will, thanks for the info. I'll check out Douglas Shand-Tucci. I'm a native of the North Shore, btw. lived here all my life.

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