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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 24d - Women and Same-Sex Marriage in Western History

Saturday, July 28, 2018 - 09:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 64 (previously 24d) - Women and Same-Sex Marriage in Western History - transcript

(Originally aired 2018/07/28 - listen here)

The topic of same-sex marriage has seen enormous changes over my lifetime. I can still remember that when I was coming out in the late ‘70s, one of the things I felt I had to come to terms with was the acceptance that marriage would never be an option for me. Back then I couldn’t imagine society changing enough to see legal same-sex marriage in the USA in my lifetime. Then came the formalization of domestic partnerships, the beginning of individual states legalizing same-sex marriage on a local basis, and in my home state of California the drama of how Gavin Newsom’s bulldozer approach in San Francisco helped drive an initial legalization, followed by the heartbreak that was Proposition 8, and then the long slow slog through the courts to establish marriage equality as a right. And then finally the Supreme Court decision that made marriage equality the law of the land for the United States. Many other countries have progressed along similar paths, in recent decades. And though there are still forces trying to nibble away at the edges of those rights or to sweep them away entirely, it can be worth sitting back and marveling at the wave of change.

Within the field of historical romance, marriage is usually a major plot element. Marriage legitimizes the developing relationship. It sets the seal on the couple’s story arc. Traditionally it has provided the concluding event of the novel, though modern fashions in historical romance are a bit more liberal in whether marriage is required for a Happily Ever After ending, or where in the relationship’s timeline it needs to occur.

But what does that mean for same-sex couples in historical romance? For that matter, what does it mean for same-sex couples in near-contemporary romance? Certainly, lesbian romance novels were possible before mariage was an option. I’ve seen some interesting reactions around the importance of marriage to romance novels, especially regarding the historic options. That combined with a question that Sheena had on one of her recent podcasts about what it meant when women in the late 19th century talked about being “married” to each other. So it seemed a good subject for a podcast.

To map out the scope of today’s discussion, I first need to define the concepts mentioned in the title: “women,” “same-sex,” and “marriage”. Although the topics in this podcast often engage with the ambiguities of gender identity and sexuality in history, in this case, it’s a bit simpler to find a useful definition. Because western culture has historically made a strong connection between marriage and heterosexual relationships, and because western culture has historically placed significant weight on physiology in defining the sexes, and because one of the central concepts of marriage has been about the recognition of a relationship by its community, I think that in this context we can reasonably use “same-sex” to mean “two persons to whom society would assign the same physiological sex.”

So although some of the historic cases I’ll talk about may very well be reasonably classified as a heterosexual relationship between a woman and a trans man, within their historic context, those relationships would have been evaluated by contemporaries as being same-sex.

Marriage can most generally be understood as a socially-recognized personal contract. And therefore the understanding that society had of the people involved is relevant to whether and how they recognized a particular contract. So in this episode when I talk about “female husbands” or about marriage involving gender disguise, I’m defining how contemporaries understood the people involved. This isn’t to say that these historic societies didn’t have an understanding of transgender concepts, but that’s an entirely different show that maybe I’ll be tackling at some point.

“Marriage” is actually the trickiest concept to define of the three. While all of the cultural contexts that I’m going to consider today had a core, prototypical model for marriage, those models could vary enormously and could have extremely different methods of recognizing or controlling the institution.

Marriage might be a personal contract between two individuals, or the familial equivalent of a business merger involving two extended families. A significant theme is the recognition and provision for any children produced by the couple and defining their relationship to the larger kin group. This focus on establishing the legal status of any children is one of the aspects that has continued to tie the concepts of marriage and procreation together up to the present day. One type of argment raised against the legalization of same-sex marriage in the present century was that same-sex couples had no need to use marriage as a framework for legitimizing children. (Never mind that the argument ignored shifts in the understanding and mechanism of parenthood. The point is that the concepts are still closely associated in people’s minds.) But while sexual relations are typically asociated with marriage, they have never been considered an absolute deal-breaker. Some versions of Christianity have considered the most desireable form of marriage to be a chaste one in which the partners don’t engage in sex at all. So in looking for historic examples of same-sex marrige, I’m not concerned with whether the relationship was sexual or not.

A marriage contract might be religious in nature, or secular, or both. The religions considered in this review were not always the familiar major monotheistic ones. Marriage might involve a formal legal contract or a personal commitment or even simply a recognition that the couple were behaving as if married.

There might be different types of marriage within a culture, and people might be allowed to engage in more than one at a time. Despite the general emphasis on marriage as a relationship relevant to procreation, there have been cultures with formally recognized institutions of same-sex marriage between women, although those are largely outside the scope of what I’m looking at today. Entire volumes have been written about the history and institution of marriage and no matter what characteristics you identify to define it, you’ll find some culture that breaks that rule.

So the question of determining whether a given relationship is or is not a “marriage” can be complicated. A few historic shifts in the practice of marriage within Christian Europe can show some of these complexities. The early Catholic church, although it frowned on sex outside marriage, had no interest in administering marriages and declined to be involved in formalizing them. Marriage wasn’t recognized as a sacrament until the late 12th century and it wasn’t until the 13th century that it became required practice for marriages to be announced in church. Only in the 16th century did it become a requirement that a priest be a witness for a Catholic marriage to be valid. And, of course, by that time the emerging Protestant cultures established different structures, largely shifting management of marriages to the state. In England it wasn’t until the mid 18th century that marriage required a formal registration and witnesses. Before these various formalizations, a marriage could be contracted simply by the two parties making a statement to each other. Or, in the case of common-law marriage, by behaving publicly as if they were married.

Apart from these questions of what the boundaries of formal, recognized marriage were, there’s the question how couples understood a private relationship that used the forms and language of marriage, such as the exchange of rings and vows. Even in cultures where the common understanding was that marriage would involve a heterosexual couple, there was not always an obvious legal bar to same-sex marriages. Often because it wasn’t considered necessary.

So with all that as background, let’s look at some of the broad issues in same-sex marriage between women in Western culture before moving on to specifics.

It can be useful to identify three general categories of same-sex marriage. The first is when the institution of marriage is openly available to a same-sex couple and is acknowledged or accepted as such.

The second is when individuals participate in the formal institution of marriage by means of presenting themselves as an acceptable couple. Here we’re talking about one member of the couple being accepted as fulfilling a male social role. As we’ll see later, this didn’t necessarily mean complete secrecy about that individual’s physiological sex. Remember that one of the central themes of marriage is recognition and acceptance by the community. There are cases where a couple’s community tacitly accepted the legal fiction that allowed two women to marry by this means. It was a precarious acceptance, but there are cases where such couples were recognized as married.

The third situation is where the couple themselves viewed their relationship as the functional equivalent of a marriage, often with community support for that understanding, but without the backing of formal approval by the relevant legal or religious institutions. One might argue that these cases aren’t “real” marriage, but in that case one could similarly argue that there were no “real” marriages in eras or cultures where marrige wasn’t under formal administrative control.

So let’s look at some historic examples of same-sex marriages.

Same-Sex Marriage Openly Available

There is a repeating theme in several classical-era Roman texts referring to women engaging in same-sex marriage in Egypt. Keep in mind that, throughout history, it’s been common to associate women’s same-sex relationships with foreign locations--whatever “foreign” meant in that particular context. So when Roman writers indicate “this is a thing that those foreign people in Egypt do” we should keep a certain level of critical awareness. But at the least, these are practices that Roman culture believed about Egypt. A novel by the 2nd century Greek author Iamblichos that is known only through secondary references tells a story about a woman named Berenike (that is, Bernice), the daughter of the king of Egypt, who loved and married a woman named Mesopotamia. Within the context it’s clear that this is an allegorical story about the personifications of various regions, but it presents marriage between women as possible.

In support of the possibility that this represents an actual Egyptian practice, Jewish writings of the classical era refer to marriage between two men or two women as “following the practice of Egypt or Canaan”. Other writers of the 2nd century also associated Egypt with marriage between women.

The lack of a central authority over marriages in classical Rome raises the question of the status of some satirical references to female marriages. In Lucian’s Dialogs of the Courtesans, one story tells about a masculine-presenting woman named Megilla who refers to her female partner Demonassa as her wife. Was this a case where such a partnership was recognized as a marriage specifically because Megilla’s trans-masculine presentation was considered sufficient to meet the cultural expectations? Or was this a situation where women had access to marriage as a de facto status despite the social and economic pressures against it?

Classical Roman culture shared with ancient Greek culture a strongly binary and performative definition of masculinity and femininity that corresponded to active and passive roles in sex. This meant that Roman writers (and we’re inevitably talking about male writers here) found it hard to conceptualize an erotic relationship between women that wasn’t, in effect, a butch-femme couple. What isn’t entirely clear is to what extent couples who matched that image would be accepted as being married. And keep in mind that we aren’t talking about the Roman elite here, where familial power structures were solidly partriarchal. So when we’re considering possible candidates for Roman same-sex marriage, we’re talking about the lower classes and foreigners, not patrician families.

One other piece of tantalizing Roman evidence involves a visual representation associated with married couples. The depiction in art of a man and woman with their right hands joined was a solid, unambiguous symbol that they were married. This pose, called dextrarum iunctio, literally “the joining of right hands” was a part of the marriage ceremony and was often used on tombstones to indicate the married status of the people being commemorated. Tombstones were not casual and informal artifacts and were a very public statement regarding their subjects. So the Roman tombstone from the 1st century BCE showing two women, Eleusis and Helena, with joined right hands is either an official public recognition of their married status, or at the very least a proclamation that they considered their relationship to be a marriage.

Same-Sex Marriage By Gender Disguise

At the other end of the scale of public acceptance we have those cases where women married by fitting themselves into a heterosexual template by means of one of them taking on a male persona. This is the topic where I need to emphasize most strongly that I’m talking about two individuals who would have been classified as being women by their contemporaries. There were a wide variety of reasons why a female-classified person would choose to take up a male social role. There are also a variety of reasons why such a person would add marriage to a woman to the performance of that role. The topic of this discussion doesn’t involve motivations or self-identity but simply the fact that this was one context in which same-sex marriage occurred. And from the point of view of writing fictional characters in history, it’s the most obvious option if you want your characters to be able to marry. Furthermore, as we’ll see, taking this option did not mean that the “husband” was restricted to performing a male role in public for the rest of their life.

There are so many examples of this type of marriage that I’m only going to skim the surface. And by definition, we only know about the ones where someone found out about it and recorded the case for posterity. So I’m not going to dwell on the sometimes unpleasant context in which the marriage was recorded, except to note that the question of marriage itself wasn’t always considered a problem. Sometimes there is a mention of crimes against the institution of marriage, but more often the negative reaction involved forbidden sexual practices, or the use of marriage for fraudulent purposes. In many cases, the “wife” in the couple was perfectly aware and accepting of her husband’s female physiology but there may have been other interpersonal problems that led to making the matter public. In other cases, the wife raised an objection due to this discovery. And in some cases, the matter came to light only after death.

The earliest recorded marriages of this type date to the 15th century. That doesn’t mean they weren’t happening earlier. There’s a great deal of variation in how much interest and attention was given to same-sex marriages. So the numbers in the historic record aren’t a certain guide to actual demographics. But circumstances like easy movement between communities, and the relative anonymity of town life as compared to more rural communities, mean that the 15th century may well have been a turning point for the ability to successfully engage in same-sex marriages by gender disguise.

In fact, we have clear evidence that people understood the idea of this sort of marriage earlier, because they wrote stories about it. The earliest version, and the one that gave rise to several later variants, is the Greek author Ovid’s story about Iphis and Ianthe, although the original version doesn’t quite count as a same-sex marriage as the goddess Venus changes the gender-disguised Iphis into a biological man before the wedding takes place. But Benserade’s Renaissance version of the story has the two women marrying and enjoying a happy wedding night before the transformation. And one of the annotated medieval manuscripts of the story offers support for its plausibility in an anecdote about a same-sex marriage involving gender disguise where the “husband’s” mother assists in the plan.

Similarly, some versions of the medieval tale of Yde and Olive, in which the disguised Yde wins the heart and hand of Olive, the emperor’s daughter, show them going through with the marriage, and only later does the story resolve to eliminate the problematic same-sex aspect of the marriage.

This also happens in the romance of Tristan de Nanteuil, where the gender-disguised Blanchandine goes along with marriage to the Saracen princess Clarinde and only afterward is magically transformed into a biological man to solve the dilemma.

But getting back to the 15th century and real life, Katherina Hetzeldorder may not technically have been married to the woman she identified as her wife when they arrived in Speier, Germany in the 1470s. And in any event, she didn’t behave in a very married fashion as she got into trouble due to making advances to other women there. We don’t have a record of the name of her male identity, as is often the case.

The 16th century sees an expanding number of same-sex marriages in the records. Examples are recorded in Germany, between Agatha Dietzsch and Anna Reulin, in France where a group of seven or eight women began traveling together as men, one of whom married a local woman, and another case in Switzerland where the couple is not named.

In the 17th century, we have the marriage of Amy Poulter, using the identity James Howard, to Arabella Hunt. Unlike the more scanty descriptions in the previous century, here we learn how they met, and something of their life together before Arabella found out that her husband was a bigamist, being previously married to a man. This isn’t the only case where a same-sex marriage raised the question of bigamy, which would seem to strengthen the idea that these were considered valid marriages of a sort. Bigamy was a fairly common legal problem in the context of opposite-sex marriages, and it’s interesting to see the number of cases where it was treated as the central problem in same-sex marriages, rather than the central problem being that of the identity of the participants.

Another 17th century case was recorded in Spain in private records, where a woman escaped an abusive marriage by becoming a man and marrying a woman in that guise. The record appears to indicate that she disclosed her story to the writer, but was not otherwise discovered in her lifetime.

18th century English records offer a wealth of examples of same-sex marriage, commonly known at that time as “female husbands”. Some of our knowledge of them comes from newspaper accounts where they were popular fodder for tabloids. We often get quite touching stories in these cases, with a sense of sympathy from the reporters.

In 1760, a woman named Barbara Hill tried to enlist in the army under the name John Brown but was recognized by a former acquaintance. It came out that she was married to a woman “with whom she has lived very agreeably ever since.” The account further notes that after the discovery, her wife pled not to be separated from her, and the writer appears to be sympathetic to their position.

When Mary East and her female friend decided that marriage to each other was the most practical way to arrange their lives, they said they drew lots to decide which of them would become the “husband”, with Mary being assigned the male role as Mr. How. They kept a public house together for many years.

A similar long-term marriage, lasting 20 years, was recorded in 1764 after the death of farmer John Chivy who was discovered to be a woman.

Although reports of female husbands were common, one was elevated to celebrity status due to her story being adapted by novelist Henry Fielding as The Female Husband. The true story of Mary Hamilton is only slightly less sensational than the novel. She began living as a man at age 14 and apprenticed to a quack doctor. Practicing medicine on her own under the name Charles Hamilton, she married Mary Price who somewhat belatedly raised objections to the match. It appears that Charles Hamilton may later have traveled to America as a person matching that life story appears in legal records there.

In addition to sensational news reports, another source of data on same-sex marriages comes from parish marriage registers. Curiously, the clergymen keeping these records sometimes recorded suspicions about the identity of the couple they were marrying but didn’t feel compelled to refuse to perform the ceremony. A pastor recorded his suspicion that John Smith who showed up to marry Elizabeth Huthall was actually a woman, noting “I almost could prove them both women, the one was dressed as a man, thin pale face and wrinkled chin.” But he performed the ceremony nevertheless.

The ceremony for John Mountford and Mary Cooper, however, was cancelled as the clergyman suspected John of being a woman. Whereas John Ferren and Deborah Nolan married successfully and then John was later discovered to be a woman, though we don’t have any evidence of whether the marriage was annulled because of it.

The Dutch woman Maria van Antwerpen began living as a man to make a living as a soldier, and then courted and married a woman. When the disguise was discovered due to encountering someone who had known her in her previous life, one of the charges brought against her was “mocking laws concerning marriage” indicating that the authorities did consider this to be an offense in and of itself.

After the 18th century, records of “female husbands” decline in number, though it’s unclear whether this was due to stricter scrutiny of couples, because the image of same-sex marriages was no longer considered to be entertaining news, or because women no longer considered this a desirable or necessary path to spending their lives together.

Cross-over Cases with Elements of Gender-Crossing and Overt Same-Sex Marriage

But it isn’t always the case that same-sex marriages involving a male persona were entirely concealed from the authorities. Some female couples lived openly as women either before or after the marriage.

The 17th century Dutch couple, Bertelmina Wale and Maeyken Joosten began their relationship openly as women. Maeyken began wearing male clothing and using the name Abraham in order for them to marry. Another Dutch couple in the 18th century took a similar path. Cornielia Gerrits van Breugel and Elisabeth Boleyn began their relationship as a female couple. Cornelia took on a male persona in order for them to marry but returned to a female presentation afterward.

In 18th century Germany, Catharina Margaretha Lincken moved back and forth between female and male presentations. She became engaged to Catharina Margaretha Mühlhahn while living as a man and identified her mother as one of the witnesses that she was legally free to marry. Although Mühlhahn seems not to have been aware of Lincken’s physiological sex at the time of the wedding, she later supported her spouse when questions arose. When the matter finally came out and went to trial, Lincken testified that regarding her marriage, “she thought she would be well able to answer this before God.”

In some cases, people who had been living as female went to the authorities and requested to be reclassified as male so that they could marry their chosen female partner. Eleno de Céspedes, in 16th century Spain, had been living a male identity for a number of years, though raised as female and with a previous marriage and pregnancy as a woman. Eleno requested to be examined and certified as male in order to marry María del Caño. Some time after the marriage, suspicions were raised that resulted in a second examination that contradicted the first. Ironically, this was one of the cases where one of the charges against Eleno was that of bigamy, as there was no proof that the father of Eleno’s child was dead prior to Eleno’s marriage to María.

A similar case occurred in early 17th century France, where a person who had been raised as female asked permission to be reclassified as male to marry their lover. The request was evidently successful. Less successful was the request of 18th century Dutch prisoner Elisabeth Wijngraaff to be reclassifed in order to marry a fellow female prisoner.

The situation of Anne Grandjean in 18th century France demonstrates the confusing contortions that the authorities were willing to go through to re-define same-sex relations as heterosexual. There seems to have been no reason for anyone to classify Anne as male except for the fact that she’d fallen in love with a woman. But on that basis, Anne was ordered to dress and behave as a man and eventually married a woman in that guise.

And sometimes, inexplicably, we may have evidence of two women being recorded in a marriage register under female names and with no comment at all. This is the case in 18th century England for Ane Norton and Alice Pickford, and for Hannah Wright and Anne Gaskill. We know nothing at all about their stories except for the records of their marriages. Was this a case of a liberal minded local pastor? Or perhaps one who simply couldn’t be bothered to make an objection, similarly to the ones who suspected a disguise but performed the marriage anyway? We also have to accept the possibility that the female names in the register don’t correspond to female persons. Name gender isn’t a fixed and certain thing. In medieval records, forms of names that we would consider masculine were used by women. And in some Catholic cultures, names of female saints were sometimes given to men. I don’t know if any local historian has tried to scour the records for more information about these four apparent women. But in the mean time, we’re allowed to imagine just what those records might mean.

Same-Sex Relationships Treated as Equivalent to Marriage

Once the institution of marriage came under government administration and there are formal authorities determining what does and does not count as a legal marriage, some of the less formal avenues became closed off to female couples. But there have always been couples who decided to consider themselves married and use the symbolism and language of that legal status. In countries that had a formal institution of “common-law marriage”, such relationships might even have legal long as they fit the acceptable paradigm of man and woman. But especially from the 18th century onward, we find many examples of female couples behaving publicly as if they were married and being accepted by their associates as having that status, if not that legal state.

The famous “Ladies of Llangollen”, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, used the language of marriage to describe their relationship, referring to each other specifically as husband and wife, as well as more obliquely with language like “my better half.” And their friends and associates described them in similar terms.

Butler and Ponsonby’s contemporary, Anne Lister, invoked marriage as the nature of her relationship with her longtime lover Marianne. In one diary entry she writes, “Went upstairs at 11. Sat up lovemaking, she conjuring me to be faithful, to consider myself as married, & always to act to other women as if I was Marianne's husband.” Later she writes a very loving letter to Marianne and addresses her as “my wife”. And a few months afterward, visiting Marianne at the home of her brother in Newcastle, Anne records two important events: they exchange “an irrevocable promise for ever” and symbolize it with the exchange of a ring that Anne had previously given Marianne. Although, note that all of this happens in a context where Marianne has an existing marriage to a man.

The marriage-like pairings of women in the later 19th century were so widely known and accepted that terms like “Boston marriage” and “Amherst marriage” were in common currency, the latter named for teachers at the women’s college of Amherst who frequently set up households in pairs.

While such relationships may have had no legal standing, they had the social recognition and acceptance that has always been one of the organizing principles of the institution of marriage. Such social recognition might be commemorated after death just as it was in life, as I discussed in a previous podcast on grave memorials. The visual and descriptive symbolism of marriage was sometimes used to commemorate female couples after death even when the specific terminology was not used, as in the joint memorials of Mary Kendall and Catharine Jones, or Katharina Bovey and Mary Pope, both in the early 18th century.


This survey may not be entirely satisfactory for those looking to validate their historic female couples with the blessings of matrimony. The circumstances in which two women, living publicly as women, could enter into a legally binding and legally recognized marriage were few and not always solidly documented.

A more universal option, in nearly all time periods, was for one member of the couple to play a male role and gain access to marriage in that way.

But even the strategy of having one partner present as male for the sake of the marriage did not necessarily mean a lifelong masquerade or require the ignorance of their community, even though communal acceptance was certainly rare and tenuous.

And women across the ages have entered into personal oaths and commitments, using the symbols and rituals of marriage regardless of the opinions of their contemporaries--though sometimes with their blessing and acceptance as well.

So if you feel that your lesbian historical romance requires a marriage for its happily ever after, know that you have a variety of options to choose from, and go ahead and have your characters start shopping for rings.

Show Notes

A survey of strategies for getting your historical protagonists hitched across the centuries.

In this episode we talk about:

  • How the concepts of “women”, “same-sex”, and “marriage” are being defined for the purpose of this discussion
  • Cultures that may have supported marriage between women as an equal option
  • Cases of same-sex marriage enabled by presenting as an opposite sex couple
  • The permeability of the “opposite sex” requirement in actual practice
  • Using the forms and rituals of marriage, even when the legal status was not available

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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