Same-Sex Marriage in Early America



2 comments
Seth Dowland

In September, Carol Faulkner wrote an excellent post on Rachel Hope Cleves' excellent new book, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, which details a 44-year marriage between two Vermont women, who lived together from 1807-1851. Having just finished teaching the book to students in my course, "Religion & Gender in American History," I wanted to return to this fascinating work, hopefully building on rather than duplicating Carol's post.

One of the book's most fascinating themes is the way Charity and Sylvia adopted conventional gender norms in their marriage. For historians of same-sex relationships, this isn't a new conclusion, but Cleves does a marvelous job demonstrating how overtly the two women embodied gendered roles. Charity Bryant, seven years older than Sylvia Drake, took on various masculine roles: she was listed first in property records, fixed furniture, shopped at markets, and acted as the disciplinarian for their nieces, nephews, and other children in the town. Sylvia cooked, cleaned, and comforted. One visitor to their home, Hiram Hurlburt (what a name!), said bluntly, "Miss Bryant was the man." Even so, Sylvia thought of herself as an equal partner in the women's tailoring business -- theirs was a gendered but not patriarchal relationship. This gendering helped Charity and Sylvia position themselves as a married couple.

The role of the church (both women were Congregationalists) in Charity and Sylvia's marriage is probably of most interest to readers on this blog. Sylvia and Charity were spiritual giants in their community by the time they reached middle age. Townspeople sent their children to apprentice with the two women, and not just because they were good seamstresses; the expectation was that time with such pious women would positively influence young souls. The ministers in town expressed deep regard for Charity and Sylvia. Several of Charity and Sylvia's ministers carried on lifelong correspondence with the two women, and one even referred to Charity and Sylvia as "my superiors." To be sure, Charity and Sylvia spent their entire lives thinking of their sexual relationship as deeply wicked, and Charity showed an aversion to attending church on Sunday. They could never speak openly of each other as spouses and lived in fear of judgment.

My class's most interesting conversations emerged as we considered the multi-faceted way Christianity intersected with Charity and Sylvia's relationship -- and the differences in how same-sex couples experience the church today. Charity and Sylvia lived in a world where same-sex marriage was not a political issue. As a result, their relationship was not "threatening." So long as they kept quiet about their sexuality, Charity and Sylvia were free to become spiritual giants in their community. Yet they always talked about themselves as "failed Christians" and never escaped the weight of their "wickedness," even as everyone around them praised their piety. This seems like a near inversion of the relationship many same-sex couples have with their churches today.

2 comments:

Tom Van Dyke at: March 14, 2015 at 2:19 PM said...

Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America

The title rather begs its question, and is not supported by the facts as stated in this essay.

To be sure, Charity and Sylvia spent their entire lives thinking of their sexual relationship as deeply wicked, and Charity showed an aversion to attending church on Sunday. They could never speak openly of each other as spouses and lived in fear of judgment.

...

Yet they always talked about themselves as "failed Christians" and never escaped the weight of their "wickedness," even as everyone around them praised their piety.




Anthony Petro at: March 15, 2015 at 12:10 PM said...

Thanks for this post, Seth. Looks like a great book -- and one that should be on my sexuality and American religion syllabus!

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