History Project, The. 1998. Improper Bostonians. Beacon Press, Boston. ISBN 0-8070-7948-0
A companion book to a museum exhibition on “Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland”.
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”. The scope extends to people who “lived unconventional lives” with regard to gender and sexuality, whether or not they can be confirmed as falling within the category of homosexual.
All events and individuals mentioned here had a personal connection with Boston--generally having been born there or living much of their lives there--even if the specific events discussed happened elsewhere. As usual, I have cherry-picked the material relating to women.
Boston was founded in 1630, so its history covers nearly the entire scope of the European presence in North America. In a valiant attempt to be inclusive, it begins with a discussion of non-cis/heterosexual understandings of gender and sexuality among indigenous Americans, but notes that there are no relevant records regarding sexuality for the specific cultures in the area that would become Massachusetts.
The earliest materials are legal statutes regarding sexual crimes, at a time when religious law and secular law were functionally identical. A 1656 statue addresses “men lying with men”, and acts of women that are “against nature” (though the phrase “against nature” doesn’t necessarily specify homosexuality). Very little of this early material mentions women specifically, even when homosexual behavior between men is explicitly targeted.
In 1677 a court record notes a charge of cross-dressing against Dorothie Hoyt who left town before the accusation could be lodged, leaving her father to answer for her in court. No explanation or context for her actions is given. Also in the 17th century there is a record that Elizabeth Johnson and a fellow maid where whipped and fined for “unseemly practices...attempting to do that which man and woman do” along with other unruly behavior such as insolence toward their employer. In 1649, Sarah Norman was charged with “lewd behavior on a bed” with Mary Hammon and warned against repeat offences. In 1696 Mary Cox asked the court for leniency for the “inadvertence” of wearing men’s clothing. (Since it’s hard to imagine one wouldn’t notice doing so, perhaps the inadvertence is that she didn’t realize it was forbidden?)
There are far fewer similar records in the 18th century, in large part because the legal authorities became less interested in prosecuting people’s personal lives in this fashion. Women in the 18th century had the social freedom to express emotional attachments to other women in romantic terms, though they were restricted in their ability to share their lives with a woman. In the 1750s, Sarah Prince, the daughter of a Boston preacher, exchanged romantic letters with Esther Burr, the mother of Aaron Burr. When Esther died, Sarah wrote of her heartbreak at the event.
Concern over women cross-dressing persisted, but reactions were mixed. Deborah Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army in male guise and was later granted a pension for her services by the government of Massachusetts. A contemporary biographer implied that she may have had romantic encounters with women while in the army as part of that disguise, though she later married a man. Another woman, Ann Bailey, was not treated as warmly when she tried to enlist in 1777. She was charged with “fraudulently” passing as a man and was fined.
In the 19th century, women gradually begin to achieve the ability to support themselves outside of heterosexual marriage, and thus to set up domestic partnerships together. Early in the 19th century, Margaret Fuller wrote a feminist treatise that argued for the possibility of same-sex love as equivalent to that in heterosexual marriage. She herself had a deep emotional attachment to a cousin, Anna Barker and recorded some revealing sentiments at Barker’s marriage. Fuller translated the correspondence of Karoline Günderode and Bettine von Arnim (a German same-sex couple whose literary works are full of themes of gender transgression), which in turn inspired writers such as Emily Dickinson.
In the mid 19th century, a number of women were establishing international careers in the arts. One notable Boston-born example was actress Charlotte Cushman, who gathered a circle of artistic (and woman-loving) women both in Boston and in her second home in Rome. Cushman had something of a specialty in “trouser roles” on stage and was romantically linked to several of the female artists in her circle, including sculptor Emma Stebbins who had originally been introduced to Cushman via fellow sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Hosmer was another Bostonian by birth. She was described as something of a tomboy in her youth and continued to be criticized for “unfeminine behavior” in adulthood, though in some cases this meant her lack of an appropriate modesty regarding creating sculptures of male nudes. Cushman seems to have made a specialty of collecting sculptors. Another member of her circle was Edmonia Lewis, a Bostonian of West Indian and Chippewa heritage who preferred Cushman’s residence in Rome as a place where her gender and color were not a bar to artistic success.
An anonymous Boston woman writing under the pen name Mary Casal produced an autobiography in the later 19th century (though not published until 1930, under the title The Stone Wall) that included her coming to recognize her lesbian identity.
In the late 19th century social networks of unmarried women founded clubs and held social events that promoted singlehood as a positive state, in contrast to the image of the “old maid.” In addition to the clubs of middle-class, financially stable women, the opportunities for women to come together and form romantic bonds outside of parental view included single-sex schools and colleges where the same-sex “smash” was considered an ordinary and expected experience, and boarding houses for single factory girls.
Among the educated upper classes, the phenomenon of two unmarried women living together in a devoted long-term partnership was so well established and recognized that such relationships came to be known as “Boston marriages”. Among the female faculty at Wellesley College, female couples among the faculty were common enough to be known as “Wellesley marriages”. The catalog details a great many such couples, focusing on those for whom we have photographic and other records. Among these couples are:
The remainder of the book covers the 20th century and so falls outside the scope of this project. It focuses to a large extent on the infrastructure of social institutions such as bars and clubs that catered to a (largely male) same-sex clientele.