Is Same-Sex Marriage a Modern Institution?

Homosexuality was taboo during the late 19th century, but intense friendships among women were common. Known as "Boston marriages," these relationships offered a degree of equality, support, and independence to wealthy women who were eager for a life beyond domesticity. Some upper-class women chose to live together in order to pursue careers, higher education, or other individual pursuits. In this way they were able to gain respectability and acceptance in society, without the usual requirement of having a husband. Women in "Boston marriages" often kissed, hugged, and held hands, and sometimes even referred to each other as "husband" or "wife." But while there was genuine affection and devotion, the bonds were often more about friendship and independence than romance or sexual intimacy.

Friends and/or lovers:

  • In 1885, novelist Henry James explored the phenomenon in the novel The Bostonians. The novel popularized the term “Boston marriage,” although James never specifically used it in the book.
  • For some, Boston marriages were used as a front for lesbian relationships. Couples could be together without arousing suspicion that it was anything more than platonic feminine affection.
  • Novelist Willa Cather and editor Edith Lewis lived together for nearly 40 years, beginning in 1908, although whether they were lesbians is still debated. They were buried next to each other in a New Hampshire cemetery.
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Discussion Comments


There are several books documenting the existence of homosexual "marriages" of monks in medieval monasteries. There is even a copy of the ceremony used, which is a scarcely modified version of the heterosexual marriage ceremony of the times. See the work of John Boswell, among others, on this subject. And what about the Renaissance?


Too much of everything is poisonous...even love for freedom that drives people to disregard societal norms.

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