Boston marriage is a term used in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century America for a lifelong relationship of two women who share a household. In history of LGBTQ folk identities, Boston marriage is not identical with Lesbian identity, but is seen as a means in which lesbians could fall in love with each other and live together within the more acceptable framework as confirmed spinsters, thus avoiding censure and possibly violent repercussions.
Boston Marriage as an Noble Alternative
Boston marriages were most prevalent among first generation college graduates and pioneers in women’s higher education in New England. Some proponents went so far as to promote Boston marriage as a noble alternative for career women. The arrangement allowed educated women to balance their intellectual goals with the love and support that unions between two people provide, but without the subordination that characterized traditional marriage of a woman to a man. Boston marriages may have enabled career women to balance demanding careers with personal lives.
President M. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr and President Mary Emma Woolley of Mount Holyoke are two notable examples of people in Boston marriages (note: not with each other). But social stigma associated with “lesbian” was strong, and many women in higher education, career women, and feminists who lived in Boston marriages would most likely have been reluctant to publicly claim the label of “lesbian” or Lesbian identity.
From Boston Marriage to Lesbian Identity
For several decades, Boston marriages provided women with the love and security they needed so they could focus on higher education, the woman suffrage movement, and other professions.
As time passed, however, these relationships became increasingly viewed with suspicion. Romantic love between women in the Western world became sexualized and stigmatized in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century as sexologists began describing same-sex love in scholarly terms that were not always positive. The term lesbian, which hinted at deviant and psychotic behavior rather than an objective understanding of same-sex love, fell into common usage. Any independent, non-traditional woman whose heterosexuality was uncertain might be viewed as suspect. Increased sexual discrimination marked the Great Depression era, and lesbians were committed to insane asylums, lost their jobs, were isolated from family and friends, and suffered internal anxieties.
Nevertheless, a few women claimed the label “lesbian” and endured hardships imposed by society and the government, forming the beginnings of Lesbian identity and community. In 1960, the Daughters of Bilitis held the first National Lesbian Convention, effectively beginning public discussion of Lesbians, Lesbian folklife, and romantic relationships between women (including permanent shared households) into the public sphere.
Faderman, Lillian. To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America—A History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Weiss, Andrea and Greta Schiller. Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community. New York: Naiad, 1988.