Romantic friendship refers to a specific set of behaviors and social circumstances, largely confined to the 17-19th centuries, where close and intensely emotional “friendships” between women were normalized by society and even considered expected or desirable. Romantic friendship were generally considered not to preclude heterosexual marriage although they were often seen in conflict with it.
This book is a glossy, photo-filled companion volume to a museum exhibit on lesbian and gay history in Boston, for a fairly broad definition of those terms. Due to this connection with a museum exhibit, there is a natural focus on material objects, accompanied by a relative minimum of explanatory commentary. The exhibit emphasized the importance of making a historic connection for modern visitors--a “usable history”.
Introduction – Esther D. Rothblum and Kathleen A. Brehony
This summary will cover only the Introduction and the chapter by Lillian Faderman on the history of Romantic Friendship. The remainder of the book is primarily personal memoirs of psychologists and some of their patients around the topic of non-sexual lesbian relationships.
Introduction: Imagined Ancestries
Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.
Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).
In the first decade of the 20th century, love poetry between schoolgirls could still be published “innocently” as an expression of praiseworthy sentiments. Periodicals for women’s and children’s literature were still depicting Romantic Friendship positively. Likely there were several reasons for the delayed shift in attitudes in in the US. In Europe, images of lesbian “vice” (or “vice” in general) were closely tied up in Catholic ideas of sin and Catholic-based reactionary sensationalism.
There was a narrow list of available occupations for a middle-class woman in the later 19th century--teacher, nurse, glorified lady’s maid, or occupations that shaded more in to the questionable: seamstress, actress. But for a select few, the professions were beginning to open up: doctor, professor, social reformer. To succeed in these professions meant foregoing marriage to a man for a wide variety of reasons.
If one had any doubts about the common perception of the phenomenon of unmarried women forming stable, long-term partnerships in the later 19th century in America, those doubts could be settled by the existence of the term “Boston marriage” for such partnerships. Unlike earlier Romantic Friendships, which often had to work around the marriage of one or both parties to a man, the women in Boston marriages were normally unmarried and independent, either through inheritance or a career.
Faderman examines the relationship between the “Cult of True Womanhood” -- i.e., the public myth-making around women’s proper role in society as the keepers of moral and spiritual values -- and the continuing focus on women’s emotional attachments to each other. As the 19th century progressed and women began to push against the limitations of this myth, they found their strongest supporters and allies in other women.