Skip to content Skip to navigation

Women Presenting as Married Couples

Monday, October 26, 2020 - 07:00

The “meat” of the chapters in this book are detailed biographical sketches of specific couples or women. This leaves me with the dilemma of whether to skim lightly over the details of their lives, or to dig deeply. For my own survival, I’m going to have to go with the first approach. I’ll summarize the introductory material in each chapter, which situates the biographies in the larger discussion, then mention just the essentials about the couples themselves.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Publication summary: 

A study of women in loving partnerships in the “long” 19th century.

Chapter 1: Love and Same-Sex Marriage

In examining the performance or perception of female couples as including one with a more "masculine" air, there's a strong sense of societal expectations being imposed. If people expected one of the two to "be the man" then whether or not the couple themselves sorted out into masculine-feminine polarities, those roles might be assigned externally (as in the case of Ponsonby and Butler). The roles might also emerge from the economic or social roles within the relationship. If one woman were perceived as a more public figure, as a bread-winner, as a professional, then there would be pressure on the other to be the "helpmeet", the supportive wife. When both women had professional lives (as we'll see in the next chapter with Cushman and Stebbins), the desire to have "a wife" (as defined by gendered roles) could cause friction.

But this assignment of gendered roles within the relationship was not universal at any timepoint, and its prevalence varied in different eras. Although romantic friends might engage in masculine nicknames for each other, or see professional or creative activities as being "masculine" and therefore affecting their interpersonal relationships, I think it's a mistake to interpret those as necessarily mapping to an internal transgender identity. People work to make sense of their identities and experiences with the concepts and language their society offers them.

Part I – Husband-Wife Coupling

The first two chapters cover a number of couples who explicitly presented their relationships as marriage. They controlled people’s perception of the relationship by careful management of their public performance. The framing of the couples as “married” was often accompanied by one partner performing a somewhat more masculine style and perhaps attributing her attraction to women to an inherent masculinity.

In addition to the couples discussed in detail in chapters 1 and 2, the introduction to this section also mentions Vernon Lee & Mary Robinson, Elma Stewart and George Elliot, Anna Seward and Elizabeth Cornwallis, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper (writing together as Michael Field).

Chapter 1: Love and Same-Sex Marriage

This chapter begins with Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby  who eloped in the late 18th century and, after some difficulties, established a household together in the north of Wales. They helped create the ideal of rural retirement for female couples and skirted the moral disapproval shown to the more overtly sexualized homoerotic relationships of the French court.

The framework of romantic friendship was already well-established at the time Butler and Ponsonby got together. It had its own rituals of expression and recognition. These included a courtship involving gifts, letters, and intimate conversation. A shared love of writing and books was common. The two women might thrill in covert meetings and communications. These interactions then moved to plans for a future together, whether on a practical level or only in fantasies.

The use of nicknames--especially androgynous or masculine ones--was popular. If the two were able to establish themselves as a couple, they might refer to each other as spouses, or with endearments normally indicating marriage. If a clear masculine/feminine contrast in presentation was not something a couple chose, they might choose to dress in an exaggeratedly identical fashion, and this was taken as a symbol of their couplehood.

Long-term fidelity was an ideal, and often there was an effort made to conceal tensions and jealousies within the relationship to maintain this image.

The second part of the chapter comprises detailed biographies. The first is Ponsonby and Butler, showing how they became a byword and icon of female romantic couplehood. The next biography is that of 19th century French artist Rosa Bonheur, who fell in love when she was hired to paint a portrait of Natalie Micas. Natalie’s parents became Bonheur’s patrons, and on his deathbed Monsieur Micas gave them his blessing as a couple. The final biography in this chapter is Anne Lister, with her sequence of courtships finally settling down with Ann Walker.

Time period: 
historical