A smash (also known as rave) was an informal courtship ritual in the middle to late nineteenth century between young American women, mostly in New England, while they were in college.
The Female Sphere
Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, the boundaries of the women’s sphere of influence became increasingly rigid as society established stricter gender segregation and restricted opportunities for intimacy between young men and women. A distinctively feminine world developed in the women’s sphere, where women’s lives were predictable, constant, and largely based on biological functions such as birth, death, illness, and menopause. Some women formed romantic friendships, which often began during adolescence within the boundaries of the women’s sphere.
In education as in society at large, segregation of the sexes helped foster the emotional intensity of female friendships. Exclusive same-sex relationships among female students were first noted in the 1850s when women began to gain access to higher education. The tradition of women’s romantic friendships allowed nineteenth-century college women to express same-sex love openly, as long as it was framed, even loosely, as platonic friendship. Students commonly referred to emotionally intense same-sex relationships among college women as “smashes,” particularly in Wellesley, Vassar, and other prominent New England women’s colleges. These relationships became so prevalent that students and faculty discussed them openly, since love between women (including a remarkable degree of physical intimacy) was still viewed as natural and nonsexual.
Observers characterized smashes as emotionally intense and physically intimate. The courtship customs that led to smashing included gift-giving and the declaration of love along with commitment. As with any intense romantic relationship, there was the possibility of heartbreak and jealousy. Smashes were usually deeply passionate, and a break-up could prove debilitating. A smashing couple (ravees) would often kiss, sleep together, and declare their love publicly. Smashes distracted students, which in turn annoyed college faculty. Nonetheless, most viewed smashing with the same understanding as that of romantic friendships: pure love unsullied by lust, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Scholars of Lesbian history in the United States almost unanimously agree that women’s higher education led to visibility of what would be called lesbianism. Higher education enabled significant numbers of mid-to-late nineteenth century women to claim emotional and economic independence. For the first time in United States history, a significant number of independent women were no longer dependent upon heterosexual marriage for survival. Economic independence allowed countless women to choose to remain single or form life-long unions with other women. Likewise, the development of permanent same-sex relationships allowed career women to thrive professionally and emotionally.
Smashing as Scandalous
Prior to entry in higher education, early-to-mid-nineteenth century women sometimes formed intimate same-sex relationships, commonly known as romantic friendships, but obligatory heteronormal marriage almost always placed distance between same-sex lovers. In the early twentieth century, same-sex intimacy between women became stigmatized, in part due to public uproar over a well-publicized murder.
In 1892, nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell murdered her seventeen-year-old lover, Freda Ward, rather than be separated from her. As major newspapers capitalized upon the murder, a distorted and criminalized idea of intense love between women emerged. Mitchell and Ward’s relationship began as a typical schoolgirl smash, which led to a scheme where Mitchell would pass as a man and marry Ward. Ward’s family learned of the plan, prevented the young women from seeing each other, and demanded that Ward return her engagement ring to Mitchell. Distressed, Mitchell slit Ward’s throat with a razor. This sensationalized story resulted in strong public opinion: unchecked love between women would lead to unnatural consequences, such as mannish women, sexual perversion, and the possibility of insanity and violence. Newspaper articles went so far as to warn parents of the dangers of smashing.
Romantic Friendships in LGBTQ Folklife
Prior to Ward and Mitchell, non-tragic examples of women declaring their love for each other and incorporating men’s dress include the Ladies of Llangollen (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two Irish women who moved to Wales at the end of the eighteenth century, set up a household, and wore items of men’s clothing). Love between two fictional women (Cui ZhenYun and Cao YuHua) was the theme of Li Yu’s seventeenth century Chinese play, Women in Love. In both cases, affection between the women is portrayed as intense, intimate, and not at all erotic, reflecting multicultural portrayals of women as incapable of expressing themselves as sexual beings without men.
Since Stonewall, however, Gay Liberation and the movement towards legalizing same-sex marriage has virtually eliminated any necessity for women’s romantic friendships to be uniformly framed as non-erotic. Women who live together as couples without men are frequently assumed to be homosexual as a matter of course.
From Smash to Crush
Some of the innocence initially assigned to the smash has re-emerged in American culture as the girl crush, a nonsexual infatuation one girl may have for another girl or adult woman. Although a girl crush is understood not to be erotic, the association of “crush” as a deep and painful adolescent longing with sexual overtones gives girl crush a certain sense of the forbidden, hence one of the reasons for the term’s popularity as outrageous and vaguely forbidden language among teenage girls and young women.
“Girl crush” has led to boy crush and bromance, terms applied to heterosexual men who are infatuated with other men, and also hinting at possible homoerotic feelings.
Faderman, Lillian, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University, 1991.
Bennett, Judith M. “‘Lesbian-Like’ and the Social History of Lesbianism,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9, No. 1/2 (January 2000): 1-24.
Duggan, Lisa, “The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology, and the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century America,” Signs 18, no. 4 (1993): 794-800.
Sahli, Nancy. “Smashing: Women’s Relationships Before the Fall,” Chrysalis 8 (1979): 20-21.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1 (Autumn 1975): 1-10.