With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Estelle B. Freedman: Historical Alternatives to Mainstream Marriage

Estelle B. Freedman, in the OAH newsletter (Aug. 2004):

In light of the Massachusetts state court decision allowing gay marriages, the OAH added a session on “The Peculiar Institution of Marriage” at the annual meeting in Boston last March. My assignment was to provide examples of same-sex unions in the past, but I expanded the charge to ask more broadly about alternatives to marriage and to provide historical perspectives on the contemporary social movement for marriage equality.

Subversive Practices: “Marriage-Like” and Marriage Resistant
Before the current wave of same-sex unions, Americans formed a range of extra legal partnerships that included common domicile, financial interdependence, sexual relations, and/or parenting, sometimes by crossing genders. For example, some Native American men who felt or dreamed that their true identity was female could wear women’s clothes, work at women’s tasks, and marry men. Although not culturally institutionalized, gender crossing occurred among settlers, as well. Thus a “Mrs. Nash” who married several soldiers in the nineteenth-century West turned out, at death, to be male. At the time, newspapers frequently ran stories about women who passed as men, often to earn wages, some of whom married women. In upstate New York, Lucy Ann Lobdell became Reverend Joseph Lobdell and lived for a decade with his wife, Maria Perry. In the twentieth century, midwestern jazz musician Billy Tipton, born a woman, married several times and raised children who did not know that their father was a woman until his death (1).

Men or women who retained their gender identity also established marriage-like relationships in the era before homosexual identity. They exchanged rings or set up common domicile, such as Boston Marriages, so named because so many educated women paired off in that city at the turn of the twentieth century. These women often owned property jointly, planned their travels together, shared family celebrations, and usually slept in the same bed. Cultural assumptions of asexuality tended to protect them from scandal. Male lifelong companions, such as Harvard professor F.O. Matthiessen and his lover, Russell Cheney, however, could not escape the increasing stigma associated with homosexuality. When gay and lesbian subcultures formed in large cities in the twentieth century, the opportunities for same-sex unions expanded, along with explicitly sexual identities. Among lesbians, “butch-femme” couples often paired off, and at least some “married.” In Harlem during the 1920s, African American lesbians staged large weddings, complete with bridesmaids and even marriage licenses--when a gay man applied at city hall as the surrogate for a lesbian “groom” (2)....

Click here to read the rest of this essay.