Tuesday, October 9, 2018
October 9, 2018: American Gay Studies: Boston Marriages
[October 11th marks the 30th annual National Coming Out Day, an important occasion in the unfolding story of gay rights in America. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of figures and stories from the history of gay rights, leading up to a special weekend post on gay identities in American popular culture!]
On three prominent historical examples of a complex, ambiguous, homosocial interpersonal relationship.
1) Alice James and Katherine Loring: The term “Boston marriage” is thought to have originated in reference to Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886), which depicts such a long-term co-habitating relationship between two women (although James never uses the phrase “Boston marriage” to describe that situation). James based that depiction in large part on the relationship between his youngest sister Alice and her long-term companion Katherine Peabody Loring, a prominent educator and progressive reformer. In a famous 1879 letter describing Loring to her friend Sara Darwin, Alice James reflected how such relationships could still rely upon, yet also complicate and blur, lines of gender and sexuality: “I wish you could know Katharine Loring [...] she is a most wonderful being. She has all the mere brute superiority which distinguishes man from woman combined with all the distinctively feminine virtues. There is nothing she cannot do from hewing wood and drawing water to driving runaway horses and educating all the women in North America.”
2) Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields: Neither Alice James nor Katherine Loring ever married, which reflects one way in which such a Boston marriage could develop. The long-term relationship between the wonderful regionalist author Sarah Orne Jewett and the poet and social reformer Annie Adams Fields began in a very different way: Jewett became very close to Fields and her husband, Atlantic Monthly editor James Thomas Fields; when James passed away unexpectedly at the age of 63 in 1881, Jewett (then 32) and Annie Fields (then 47) moved in together and co-habited for the remaining few decades of Jewett’s life (she was injured in a carriage accident in 1902 and died of a stroke in 1909), traveling extensively and making their home into a center of late 19th century literary and cultural life. Without pretending to be able to remark on the intimate or romantic feelings of any of the subjects of today’s post (or pretty much any of my other non-autobiographical posts!), I would say that Jewett and Fields’ relationship could be described at least in part as a professional partnership, in addition to the personal motivations and meanings it undoubtedly also featured.
3) Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Ellis Coman: Boston marriages became so common in the late 19th century among the faculty of Wellesley College that they were also referred to as Wellesley marriages; historian Lillian Faderman, the preeminent scholar of women’s homosocial relationships (and lesbian histories more broadly), has documented that among 53 women faculty at Wellesley toward the end of the century, only one was married to a man. One the more famous such Wellesley marriages was the one between Katharine Lee Bates (a poetry professor who composed the words to “America the Beautiful,” first as the 1895 poem “Pikes Peak” which was then set to Samuel A. Ward’s music as “America” in 1910) and Katharine Ellis Coman (an economics professor whose 1905 The Industrial History of the United States is considered the first such book-length account). I’m not sure there’s ever been a more influential AmericanStudies power couple than Bates and Coman, one more reason to better remember these complex and crucial relationships.
Next story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Gay rights figures or stories you’d highlight?