"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.
Origin of the term
The fact of relatively formalized romantic friendships 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, who lived in such a relationship with another woman, Katherine Loring, was among his sources for such a relationship.
There are many examples of women in "Boston marriage" relationships. In the late 1700s, for example, two 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 the 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, which premiered in 2000, helped popularize the term.
Some women did not marry because they felt they had a better connection to women than to men. Some of these women lived together. 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 class of women who were not 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 and sometimes hostile society.
- Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen (London: Penguin, 1971), page ??
- 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
- 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), pp. ?
- 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)
- 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)
- Elizabeth Mavor, "The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study of Romantic Friendship" (London: Penguin, 1971)
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