Boston Marriages and The New Woman


This month is LGBTQ+Pride month so let’s talk about Boston marriages. 

These were not really marriages (that is, legally) and they weren’t always in Boston. The term came from Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, published in 1886. This book (made into a film almost 100 years later starring Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve) tells the story of women’s suffrage and the New Woman from a man’s point of view. In it, the very prim and proper spinster Olive takes under her wing a free-spirited, charismatic speaker named Verena with the intent of educating her and grooming her as a leader of the suffragist movement. Their affectionate and mutually respectful relationship is challenged by Olive’s Southern cousin, a Civil War veteran who is not exactly a believer in women’s lib.

James’ novel is set in Boston and depicts the Olive/Verena relationship as a kind of intellectual marriage of minds — hence, Boston Marriage. But Olive and Verena’s relationship wasn’t exclusive to fiction. In fact, James took the model for their relationship from his own sister. Alice James lived in a Boston Marriage with her companion Katharine Loring for almost twenty years.

Photo Credit: Alice James (reclining) and her companion Katharine Loring, 1890, Royal Leamington Spa in England, unknown source, unknown author: Elisa.rolle/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 70 expired

To understand the appeal of Boston Marriages, we want to go back to the philosophy of the separate spheres that dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries. Women were confined to a very small space and expected to remain there, physically, mentally, and intellectually. Women who had intelligence, wit, and charisma were oftentimes encouraged not to express it, and those who did have the courage to be themselves were oftentimes ridiculed and mocked.

Women who entered a Boston Marriage, which means they created a domestic partnership where they shared a home, finances, and an emotionally attached relationship, sought to be respected and revered for their intelligence. It was no wonder many of them were New Women, as the ideals and values of New Women fit in with the Boston Marriage perfectly. These were women who were independent in mind and spirit, usually financially well off (so they didn’t need a man to support them), educated, and intellectually curious. They knew they had a lot to give and chose to give it to a female partner instead of a male one.

The question debated for years about these domestic arrangements is: Were they lesbian relationships too? Many say there is evidence from passionate correspondences that many did have a sexual component. However, one thing to remember is the line between romance and friendship wasn’t as tightly drawn in the 19th century as it is in the 21st. If you look at letters written between women friends, and even men friends, during this period, you’ll likely find language we would consider appropriate only for a romantic partner nowadays. So romantic language was not always evidence of romance during this time. 

The likely answer to this question is: Some of the relationships were sexual and some were platonic, and because of the taboo put on same-sex love in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we’ll probably never know which ones were and which ones weren’t. 

Boston Marriages were one way out of the conventional path for many intelligent and independent women. They had the companionship they deserved and were able to pursue their own values without being expected to behave in certain ways that they found constricting and inauthentic to them.

Between Adele Gossling, my protagonist for the Adele Gossling Mysteries, and Nin Branch, her sidekick, there exists not a Boston Marriage (Adele lives with her brother while Nin prefers to live on her own) but the same respect and reverence for women’s intelligence and wit. Each woman honors the strengths of the other and encourages her in her talents. They give one another emotional support and comfort throughout the series, especially when faced with the more restrictive mindsets of men like Jackson, Adele’s brother, and the county sheriff.

Book 1 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries is out and you can pick it up here at a special price. And don’t forget to check out Book 2 of the series, which is now on preorder also at a special price!

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Author: tammayauthor

Writing has been Tam May’s voice since the age of fourteen. She writes stories set in the past that feature sassy and sensitive women characters. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and features suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with the town’s more conventional ideas about women’s place. She has also written historical fiction about women breaking loose from the social and psychological expectations of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in the Midwest because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting yummy plant-based dishes.