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Boston Marriage

Women Living Together in the 19th Century


portrait of two women holding each other on the couch
Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images Ellen Gates Starr

Ellen Gates Starr, co-founder of Hull House with Jane Addams

Chicago History Museum / Archive Photos / Getty Images Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett

Hulton Archive / Archive Photos / Getty Images

With the advent of the David Mamet production, "Boston Marriage," a term once obscure surfaced again to the public consciousness.

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.

Sexual and gender identity, as many feminist theorists have documented, is in large part constructed -- that is, the details of what are called "male" and "female" behaviors depend significantly on social definitions, experience and training.

The term "Boston marriage" came to be used, apparently, after Henry James' book, The Bostonians, detailed a marriage-like relationship between two women -- "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' 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.

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