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Episode Info

Episode Info:

A new form of relationship arose between 19th century women, which had all the emotional trappings of romantic love, but was long considered to be merely an intense form of friendship. More recently, however, critics have wondered whether Victorian assumptions about the inherent chasteness of womankind allowed couples who would consider themselves lesbians today to hide in plain sight.

These relationships came to be known as “Boston marriages,” both because a number of high profile Bostonians engaged in them, and because Henry James popularized the concept in his novel The Bostonians. As the story of the name indicates, real relationships between women were influenced by contemporary literature by James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendall Holmes, but these authors also drew inspiration from the apparently romantic relationships they saw between women in their lives.

Please support us on Patreon and check out the full show notes at:

Boston Marriages Boston Book Club

Improper Bostonians, not to be confused with the magazine Improper Bostonian, was published in 1998. The book was compiled by the History Project, which is an independent community archive of Boston’s LGBTQ history. The project started as an exhibit at Boston Public Library in 1996, focusing on the history of the LGBTQ community in Boston prior to Stonewall. After that exhibit drew tens of thousands of visitors, the History Project began adapting the material into the book, which was published two years later with a forward by congressman Barney Frank.

The book attempts to reconstruct the often deliberately obscured history of homosexuality in Boston throughout history. It opens with a discussion of sodomy laws in the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, while also exploring how Puritans could embrace same sex love between men, even governor John Winthrop, if it didn’t upset the social order. The book continues into the 18th century, examining cases of non traditional gender roles, including the story of Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man to fight with honor in the Revolution.

With each successive era, the book sprawls out bigger, as more of the history can be recovered. The section covering the 19th century fills more pages than the previous 200 years combined. Although familiar figures like Walt Whitman are featured, many of the chapters in this section embrace famous women, including some of those featured in this episode.

The 20th century is divided into sections for 1900 to 1945 and then 1945 to 1969, and each of those sections is about as large as the section for the 19th century, as homosexuality became more openly discussed. One of the last chapters is a profile of Prescott Townsend, who you might recall from our show about him last November. Born in 1894, Townsend In many ways embodied the 20th century experience of LGBTQ Boston, graduating from a Harvard that was still overtly hostile to homosexuality, serving in the military during the First World War, and then spending his entire life advocating for gay rights, before finally marching in the first pride parade when he was 76 years old.

If you can’t find a copy of Improper Bostonians, you can get a taste of the material from this slideshow. It’s based on the same exhibit put on at the BPL by the History Project.

Upcoming Historical Event

Our featured event this week marks a century of women’s suffrage. The effort to pass legislation allowing women to vote in American elections began picking up steam in the Reconstruction era after the Civil War and went into overdrive with the turn of the 20th century. After a decade long legislative fight, a Constitutional amendment was passed by the House of Representatives in May of 1919, and on June 4 the Senate approved it. When it was ratified by the states the following year, the 19th amendment said simply “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

On June 19, author Susan Ware will be giving a talk based on her book Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote at the Story Chapel visitor’s center at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Here’s how the event page describes it:

For far too long, the history of how American women won the right to vote has been told as the tale of a few iconic leaders, all white and native-born. But Susan Ware uncovered a much broader and more diverse story waiting to be told. Why They Marched is a tribute to the many women who worked tirelessly in communities across the nation, out of the spotlight, protesting, petitioning, and insisting on their right to full citizenship.

Ware tells her story through the lives of nineteen activists, most of whom have long been overlooked. We meet Mary Church Terrell, a multilingual African American woman; Rose Schneiderman, a labor activist building coalitions on New York’s Lower East Side; Claiborne Catlin, who toured the Massachusetts countryside on horseback to drum up support for the cause; Mary Johnston, an aristocratic novelist bucking the Southern ruling elite; Emmeline W. Wells, a Mormon woman in a polygamous marriage determined to make her voice heard; and others who helped harness a groundswell of popular support. We also see the many places where the suffrage movement unfolded—in church parlors, meeting rooms, and the halls of Congress, but also on college campuses and even at the top of Mount Rainier. Few corners of the United States were untouched by suffrage activism.

Ware’s deeply moving stories provide a fresh account of one of the most significant moments of political mobilization in American history. The dramatic, often joyous experiences of these women resonate powerfully today, as a new generation of young women demands to be heard.

The event begins at 6pm. Admission is free, but advanced registration is required.

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