“Boston Marriage” was a term used in the 19th century and early 20th century to refer to two single women living together, independent of men. The term was originally coined in Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, which told the tale of an intimate companionship between two wealthy, Boston women. Rumored to have been based on his sister’s relationship with a woman, James referred to the novel as “a very American tale.” Whether he was referring to the notion of homosexual relationships or the promise of gender equality is unclear. Interestingly enough, Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004. So perhaps Henry James was on to something.
David Mamet brought the concept to popularity again in the year 2000 with his play of the same name, “Boston Marriage.” According to the New Repertory Theatre’s notes on the Mamet play, “[Boston Marriages] potentially fostered rather than interfered with the heady and exciting new ambitions of the early generations of professional women … Most likely, the Boston Marriage was many things to many women: business partnership, artistic collaboration, lesbian romance. And sometimes it was a friendship nurtured with all the care that we usually squander on our mates.”
Last week, an article in the The Atlantic asked the question of the women in Boston Marriages: “But were they gay?” The answer remains inconclusive, even when examining Boston Marriages on a case-by-case basis. Because of the stigma placed upon homosexuality at the time, the intimate details of these “marriages” are scant. Whether or not the “Boston Marriage” was the predecessor to the same-sex marriage or not (I suspect some were romantic in nature and some weren’t), one thing is clear: the arrangement allowed independent, intellectually-driven women to have the careers they desired, making the arrangement a historically important step toward gender equality.
Click through to learn more about some of female trailblazers who bucked against traditional marriage before anyone else was doing it.