Lately, an elderly female relative — I’ll call her great aunt Elizabeth — has been saying she would have had a happier life if she’d been with women instead of men. Her two husbands, both now dead, were abusive, and in part because of the high profile of Ontario Premiere Kathleen Wynne (first openly homosexual head of government in Canada) Elizabeth recently started to think that she would have been happier living with a woman.
As far as I know, Elizabeth is straight. So I at first assumed she’s adorably confused about what lesbianism entails: That it’s just about companionship and having someone to make jam with (this is not me being rude; she makes a lot of jam). I didn’t consider the possibility that she might not be thinking of lesbianism, but instead of an unusual situation where she and another woman could have a long-term and committed — but non-sexual —relationship.
I’ve since learned that this could be considered a type of “Boston marriage.” The term, coined in New England in the late 19th-century, refers to a popular sort of relationship then and into the early 20th-century: women in monogamous, committed, long-term, romantic relationships with each other, who often lived together, and may or may not have had sex (sex was not a given). What distinguishes Boston marriages from the earlier “romantic friendships” between women is that women in Boston marriages tended to be well-educated, feminist, financially independent and career-focussed.
There are several famous examples of Boston marriages. Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) describes these relationships in her 1877 novel Deephaven. She also lived with her partner Annie Fields (1834–1915) — they had cute pet names for each other; Jewett was “Pinney” and Fields was “Fuff.” Alice James (1849–1892) had such a relationship with Katherine Loring (1849–1943). It may have inspired elements of Alice’s brother, Henry James’s, 1885 novel The Bostonians, which depicts a Boston marriage.
Someone with an excitable modern queer conscience might say that all such relationships must have been lesbian, ie they must have been sexual. I made this mistake with Elizabeth; I assumed this sort of relationship could only be lesbian and that the reason she thinks she would have preferred one is that she’s confused about the nature of lesbianism.
The term “lesbian” wasn’t in common use yet, but it would be correct to describe some of these women as lesbians. Many women hid their lesbian relationships behind the popular misconception in the 19th and early 20th-century that women disliked sex, doing it only for procreation. Even if two women were known to share the same bed, few would imagine they had sex with each other.
However, that wasn’t always the case. Just as some of the women who lived as men throughout history were probably not transgender, but acted as they did in order to have greater control over their lives (only men could vote, own property, have certain jobs, and so on, in most times and places), some women had Boston marriages not because they were lesbians, but in order to escape the tyranny of men. If they had married men, they would have ended up, as a matter of convention and law, losing their autonomy to their husbands. They wanted their lives to be their own.
This illustrates how hazardous it is to apply modern standards to our ancestors. Not everyone who was assigned one gender at birth and went on to live as another was transgender, not every man who slept with other men was gay, and not all women who lived together were lesbians. We can sometimes use those words as a sort of shorthand, but we have to keep in mind that historical figures don’t always fit into modern categories.
Of course, in spite of her crow’s feet my great aunt isn’t a historical figure, but like everything else from Northern Ontario she’s a bit of an anachronism. If indeed she wishes she had had, or she is still yearning for, a Boston marriage of the non-sexual variety, it really wouldn’t surprise me, and if she’s intrepid enough to find herself a woman to live with now, good for her. And I doubt she has any sexual interest in women, but if they did end up making a little jam together, who’s to judge?