A "Boston marriage" was, historically, the cohabitation of two wealthy women, independent of financial support from a man. The term is said to have been in use in New England in the late 19th/early 20th century. Some of these relationships were romantic in nature and might now be considered a lesbian relationship; others were not.
The fact of relatively formalized romantic friendships or life partnerships between women predates the term Boston marriage and there is a long record of it in England and other European countries. The term Boston marriage became associated with Henry James's The Bostonians (1886), a novel involving a long-term co-habiting relationship between two unmarried women, "new women", although James himself never used the term. James' sister Alice lived in such a relationship with Katherine Loring and was among his sources for the novel.
There are many examples of women in "Boston marriage" relationships. In the late 1700s, for example, Anglo-Irish upper-class women Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were identified as a couple and nicknamed the Ladies of Llangollen. Elizabeth Mavor suggests that the institution of romantic friendships between women reached a zenith in eighteenth-century England. In the U.S., a prominent example is that of novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and her companion Annie Adams Fields, widow of the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, during the late 1800s.
Lillian Faderman provided one of the most comprehensive studies of Boston marriages in Surpassing the Love of Men (1981). Twentieth-century film reviewers used the term to describe the Jewett-Fields relationship depicted in the 1998 documentary film Out of the Past. David Mamet's play Boston Marriage premiered in 2000 and helped popularize the term.
Some women in Boston marriages did so because they felt they had a better connection to women than to men. Some of these women lived together out of necessity; such women were generally financially independent due to family inheritance or career earnings. Women who chose to have a career (doctor, scientist, professor) created a new group of women, known as new women, who were not financially dependent upon men. Educated women with careers who wanted to live with other women were allowed a measure of social acceptance and freedom to arrange their own lives. They were usually feminists with shared values, involved in social and cultural causes. Such women were generally self-sufficient in their own lives, but gravitated to each other for support in an often disapproving, sexist, and sometimes hostile society.
Until the 1920s, these arrangements were widely regarded as natural and respectable. After the 1920s, women in such relationships were increasingly suspected of being in lesbian sexual relationships, so fewer single women chose to live together.
Boston marriages were so common at Wellesley College in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the term Wellesley marriage became a popular description.: 185 Typically, the relationship involved two academic women. This was common from about 1870 until 1920. Until the later part of the 20th century, women were expected to resign from their academic posts upon marriage, so any woman who wanted to keep her academic career had to make housing arrangements other than a home with a husband and children, such as sharing a home with another like-minded single female professor. Additionally, as Lillian Faderman points out, college educated women commonly found more independence, support, and like-mindedness by partnering with other women. Further, these alternative relationships freed women from the burdens of child-rearing, tending to husbands, and other domestic duties, thus allowing professional women like college faculty to focus on their research.
There are many examples of Wellesley marriages in the historical record. Faderman documented that in the late 19th century, of the 53 women faculty at Wellesley, only one woman was conventionally married to a man; most of the others lived with a female companion.: 192 One of the most famous pairs were Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Ellis Coman. Bates was a professor of poetry and the author of the words to "America the Beautiful", while Coman was an economic historian who is credited with writing the first industrial history of the US.
- Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen (London: Penguin, 1971)
- Margaret Cruikshank, "James, Alice" in George Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman, eds., Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures (Taylor & Francis, 1999), 411, available online, accessed February 12, 2015
- Rita K. Gollin, Annie Adams Fields (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2011)
- Faderman, Lillian. (1981.) Surpassing the Love of Men. New York: William Morrow and Company. ISBN 0688003966.
- Holden, Stephen (July 31, 1998). "Finding Courage and Anguish Along the Road to Gay Pride". New York Times. Retrieved January 2, 2014.
- Faderman, Lillian To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America - A History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
- D'Emilio, John, and Estelle Freedman. (2012). Intimate matters: A history of sexuality in America (third edition). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226923802.
- Ponder, Melinda M. (2017). Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea. Chicago, IL: Windy City Publishers. ISBN 9781941478479
- Gibson, Michelle (2012-12-06). Lesbian Academic Couples. Routledge. pp. 3–5. ISBN 9781135834593.
- Schwarz, Judith (Spring 1979). "'Yellow Clover': Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Coman". Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. University of Nebraska Press. 4(1): 59–67. doi:10.2307/3346671. JSTOR 3346671.
- Vaughn, Gerald F. (2004). "Katharine Coman: America's first woman institutional economist and a champion of education for citizenship". Journal of Economic Issues 38(4): 989–1002. ISSN 0021-3624.
- Katherine B. Davis, Factors in the sex life of twenty-two hundred women (NY: Harper Brothers, 1929)
- Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (Columbia University Press, 1991)
- Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (NY: Morrow, 1981)
- Carol Brooks Gardner, "Boston marriages", in Jodi O'Brien, ed., Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, vol. 1 (SAGE Publications, 2009), pp. 87–88, available online (mistakenly says Henry James used the term)
- Rita K. Gollin, Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters (University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2011)
- Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study of Romantic Friendship (London: Penguin, 1971)
- Esther D. Rothblum and Kathleen A. Brehony, eds., Boston Marriages: Romantic but Asexual Relationships Among Contemporary Lesbians (University of Massachusetts Press, 1993)
- Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (Oxford University Press, 1986)
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