Hansen, Karen V. 1995. "No Kisses is Like Youres" in Gender and History vol 7, no 2: 153-182.
Sorry about missing the Monday posting -- I spent the day in bed, chugging orange juice and hacking my lungs out. Coherent typing was beyond me.
This week's accidental theme is "marriage between women in the 17-19th century." The group of three articles makes an interesting contrast in the perception and reception of marriage and marriage-like relationships between individuals that society accepted/assigned to be female. (The one that will be covered on Friday is definitely more on the "probably transgender" end of the scale of interpretation.)
Because my personal interests tend to center more on earlier centuries, the material I cover tends to fall more in the Old World. That makes today's article a refreshing change in a number of ways.
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This article traces the relationship, documented in letters, between two black women during the period around the end of the American Civil War. Both women were free-born and lived the earlier part of their lives in Connecticut, but one of the two spent time in the south after the war as a teacher, so a wider variety of social issues came into their lives. The two correspondents were Addie Brown, a domestic worker, and Rebecca Primus, a school teacher. In the letters they express a passionate relationship that was expressed openly in the context of their community and survived in the face of intermittent separation and the distractions of male suitors.
The women's correspondence defies a number of stereotypes and sheds light not only on the reception of same-sex relationships in African American society of the time but on other everyday details of their lives, such as abolitionism, the church, the club movement, the struggle for suffrage, anti-lynching campaigns, and more. This summary will focus specifically on their romantic relationship. The corpus consists of about 120 letters from Addie to Rebecca and 50 from Rebecca to her family, written between 1859 and 1869. Because Rebecca was the one who preserved the letters, her replies to Addie are not included but must be inferred. Overall, the correspondence raises interesting questions about the dividing lines (if any) between the 19th century culture of passionate women's friendships and overt lesbianism, and the reception of the latter by the culture women lived in.
Rebecca's family was solidly middle class and had lived in Connecticut for several generations. Her training as a schoolteacher and her missionary enthusiasm led her to travel to the South after the Civil War to help establish a school for ex-slaves. She experienced (and wrote home about) serious racial hostility, both in response to her vocation and in response to her personal behavior because she saw no reason to automatically defer to whites who did not similarly respect her.
Addie was an orphan without Rebecca's extensive network of family ties and support. Her correspondence is less literate but full of enthusiasm, passion, and sensuality. She was an avid reader, had a forceful personality, and tended to be judgmental of others. She, too, lived in Connecticut which was probably where the two met, and made a living variously as a seamstress, a domestic worker, various factory jobs, and shortly before her early death at 29, as a teamster. She was intolerant of racism and segregation and unafraid to speak her mind to white employers (which may or may not be related to the number of times she changed jobs during the course of the correspondence).
Addie's concern in her relationship with Rebecca centered around her awareness of their differences in education and social class, which she explored in the context of discussing Grace Aguilar's novel Women's Friendships portraying a similar difference between passionate friends. The evidence for the nature of Addie and Rebecca's relationship consists not only of protestations of love and devotion, but descriptions of kisses and "bosom sex" (the author's term for the breast-centered sexual activity described in their correspondence), as well as the clear indication that their relationship was felt to be in competition with potential heterosexual relationships.
The literature of romantic friendship between middle-class white women indicates that kisses, caresses, and sharing a bed were not considered to be improper between "friends" or incompatible with heterosexual marriage. The absence of directly comparable material raises the question of whether Addie and Rebecca's relationship was qualitatively different from "romantic friendship" or whether the context of the data allowed for a more explicit indication of its nature. They proclaim themselves "more than friend or sister" and regularly reject the language of friendship as being insufficient to describe their bond. "When I bid you good by it's seem to me that my very heart broke."
But though much of the language is closely similar to that of "romantic friendship", more erotic language appears regularly. Addie reassures Rebecca with regard to a female admirer that she shared a bed with, "If you think that is my bosom that captivated the girl that made her want to sleep with me, she got sadly disapointed injoying it, for I had my back towards all night and my night dress was butten up so she could not get to my bosom." And she continues with a protestation that her bosom is reserved for Rebecca.
There are clear indications that Rebecca has expressed jealousy toward Addie's female co-workers that she shares a bedroom and a bed with. This puts an overtly erotic spin on the larger volume of descriptions of their behavior together of "resting on your bosom" and similar language that might otherwise be taken as non-erotic. Addie writes Rebecca that she has no desire to be kissed by anyone else, "No kisses is like youres." And she directly compares their love and actions to a hypothetical relationship with a man. "O Rebbeca, it seem I can see you now, casting those loving eyes at me. If you was a man, what would things come to? They would after come to something very quick." and "What a pleasure it would be to me to address you My Husband."
Both women felt insecurity over their long separations and expressed longing for their next meeting. There are suggestions on occasion of a misunderstanding or brief estrangement, followed by reconciliations. "I imprint several kisses upon your lips and gave you a fond imbrace." There is a break in the correspondence for two years around 1863 when they were both living in Hartford and when it resumes the relationship depicted is less tempestuous but also somewhat less passionate, though when Addie speaks of a (male) suitor she emphasizes that though she loved him, she did not do so "Passionately". And there are continued references to sharing a bed and the desire for "my head reclining on your soft bosom".
The relationship between the women was supported by their community and by Rebecca's family, though not always without ambivalence. Addie reports a visit to Rebecca's family and having Rebecca's mother tell another visitor that "if either one of us was a gent we would marry" at which Addie was surprised but pleased. The constant stream of greetings from mutual friends and relatives that were conveyed in the letters made it clear that those friends and relatives were aware of the women's regular correspondence and treated it as a normal and accepted part of the social fabric.
They eventually came to express their bond in the language of sisterhood, and Addie sometimes added Rebecca's surname to her own when signing letters. Rebecca's mother and sisters treated Addie as part of the extended family, sharing letters with her and providing job leads, as well as regular social visits. And Addie felt comfortable discussing her physical longing for Rebecca's presence with this network and reported to Rebecca that she had told a friend that "I wish that I was going to sleep in your fond arms to night." This acceptance, however, did not preclude attempts by the larger social network to facilitate relationships with men for both of the women and Addie was regularly advised and warned regarding interactions with men (both in and out of the family) that assumed a potential for romantic entanglements, though Addie regularly protested that, "I did love you [Rebecca] more than I ever would him [the suitor]."
The relationship between the two women was recognized as primary, but was not seen as entirely incompatible with heterosexual relations if managed carefully. And though Addie admitted to attractions to men, they were evaluated directly against her feelings for Rebecca, rather than the two being considered independent of each other. In some cases, Addie seems to be relating these approaches to Rebecca specifically for the purpose of either provoking or assuaging her jealousy. Addie seems to have have had fewer occasions to be jealous of Rebecca's beaus, though she once writes of dreaming of seeing Rebecca "carases another lady and not me. How bad I did feel."
Addie's discussions of the pros and cons of marriage (to a man) generally fell on the "con" side, feeling that the risks outweighed the potential economic benefits, but she did express a desire for greater stability and close companionship. On one occasion when asking Rebecca how she would feel about her (Addie) marrying for those reasons, she says, "Rebecca, if I could live with you or even be with you some parts of the day, I would never marry." but this was in a context where Rebecca was living elsewhere and the two were unlikely to be able to set up a household together.
Addie eventually did marry her long-term (male) suitor and moved to Philadelphia to live with his family, after postponing the marriage several times. She died of tuberculosis two years later. Rebecca did eventually marry a man who had been involved with the school where she taught in Maryland, but not until after Addie's death. Addie died at age 29 in 1869, while Rebecca lived to the age of 95 and died in 1932.
The author concludes with a discussion of the depiction of "bosom sex" in these letters and the implications it raises for breast-centered discourse in the correspondence of 19th century "romantic friends" that does not shade into quite as explicit erotic language.