Instability and Transformation: The Nineteenth Century
The reproductive society began to erode in the late eighteenth century as a result of the decrease in abundant land for children to inherit, the greater social and political instability of the revolutionary era, and, eventually, the social transformations wrought by industrialization. From the late eighteenth through the early nineteenth century, a new familial and sexual order emerged, one that would remain powerful until the early twentieth century. In this period, along with duty and the need to procreate, passion became a more powerful component of sexual life.
The shift from procreation to passion as a central sexual meaning occurred within a particular social and economic context. For the emerging white middle-class family living in the nineteenth century, the growth of a market economy in both agriculture and industry transformed life in two important ways. First, the commercial and industrial economy encouraged a new reproductive strategy of family limitation since children were becoming an economic liability rather than an asset. Second, white men increasingly entered a public world of paid labor and trade, while white women ideally remained in a separate domestic sphere, nurturing children and husbands.4
As a consequence of these economic and social changes, sexual meanings began to shift in subtle and important ways. A key indicator of change in
marital relations was the declining white marital fertility rate, which dropped by 50 percent over the course of the nineteenth century (from over seven children in 1800 to under four in 1900; African American rates dropped as well, but later in the century). While some white couples limited family size by managing their sexual lives through periodic continence, many couples began to use contraception or, when contraception failed, abortion. Thus, for both men and women, marital sex became less associated with reproduction and more important as a form of personal intimacy, especially within courtship and marriage. For example, letters and diaries reveal a new emphasis on the emotional and erotic meanings of marital sexuality, for both middle-class and working-class couples.
As many Americans adopted a more romantic attitude toward marital sexuality, elaborating a new, nonreproductive meaning of sex, they unwittingly created greater opportunity for nonreproductive, passionate same – gender love. Within the working class, men and women who began to live outside traditional families formed same-gender partnerships for economic or sexual reasons or both. Within the middle class, romantic friendships fostered both spiritual and physical intimacy that might become sexual. For men more than for women, same-gender relationships often crossed class boundaries. For both sexes, these relationships formed unself-consciously. Not until the last quarter of the century did those who engaged in same-sex relationships find it necessary to hide or deny their passionate attachments.
Same-gender relationships outside the familial model were most readily available to white, wage-earning men. The industrializing economy offered these men opportunities to explore sexuality outside marriage, whether on city streets or in the separate sphere of all-male activity. The ability to purchase goods and services allowed men to live beyond familial controls, while the city provided anonymity for their actions. Wage-earning men who lived in urban boardinghouses could bring other men to their rooms for the night or longer. For instance, one legal case involved two men in New York City who met in church and lived together for three months, engaging nightly in “carnal intercourse.” During the 1860s, Walt Whitman frequently brought home young, working-class men whom he met in East Coast cities.
These relationships were not confined to cities; whenever young, single men congregated — as soldiers, prisoners, or cowboys — the possibility for same-gender relationships increased. During the Civil War, for example, when Whitman served as a nurse, he formed deep attachments to the young Union and Confederate soldiers he tended. The West also provided extensive opportunities for male-male intimacy. A territorial court case reveals
historical construction of homosexuality
that cowboys attempted to hire younger men to spend the night with them. At Fort Meade in the Dakota Territory, a “Mrs. Nash” first married a soldier, then married another man after her first husband was transferred. After her death, Mrs. Nash’s identity as a man was discovered by the local community.
Working-class women also found that adopting the identity of the opposite sex could expand their opportunities. Most women did not share men’s ability to support themselves outside the family. Thus, when working-class women sought to establish same-gender relationships, they often did so by adopting men’s clothing and “passing” as men in order to earn wages and marry other women. In the 1850s, for example, Lucy Ann Lobdell left her husband in upstate New York and passed as a man in order to support herself. “I made up my mind to dress in men’s attire to seek labor” and to earn “men’s wages,” she explained. Later, she became Reverend Joseph Lobdell and set up house with Maria Perry. The couple lived for ten years as man and wife.
Within the middle class, a different kind of same-sex relationship formed in the separate spheres of men and women, where romantic friendship was an acceptable part of social life. Many women formed close attachments that could rival marital relationships in their personal intensity. Women’s socialization, at home or in boarding schools, encouraged them to form bonds with other women, and many chose a special female friend in whom to confide. These youthful friendships often turned into lifelong relationships that survived both marriage and geographical separation. Among women who attended college in the 1860s and 1870s, many formed intensely romantic relationships that paralleled heterosexual courtship.
In the early nineteenth century, few Americans associated women’s physical closeness with sexuality because female sexuality at that time was still closely linked with reproduction. Gradually, however, the separation of sexuality and reproduction made Americans more conscious of the erotic element of these friendships. In 1875, the anonymous author of Satan in Society claimed that at schools for young ladies “the most intimate liaisons are formed under this specious pretext; the same bed often receives two friends.” Women themselves clearly discovered the erotic possibilities between loving friends. In 1865, for example, a married woman wrote to her friend, the feminist orator Anna Dickinson, “I want to look into your eyes and squeeze your ‘lily white hand,’ and pinch your ears all, for love of you darling.”
Through much of the nineteenth century, romantic friendships could be erotic in part because they were assumed to be sexually innocent. However, by the end of the century, loving friends had begun to question whether their physical intimacies marked them as deviant. Around this time, American doctors, following the lead of Europeans, began to define same-sex relationships as perverse, and they debated methods for treating “homosexuality” — a term coined in Germany in the 1860s and imported to the United States in the 1890s — as a diseased mental state. This shift in attitudes is evident in the case of Lucy Ann Lobdell, the passing woman from upstate New York. In 1855, Lobdell openly acknowledged her cross-dressing when she published a brief narrative of her life as “the female hunter.” By 1883, however, she had become the subject of a medical account of “sexual perversion.” Lobdell spent the last decade of her life in an insane asylum, where Dr. P. M. Wise categorized her as a “Lesbian.”
By the time the medical discourse on sexual perversion emerged at the end of the century, the possibilities for same-gender love had already expanded greatly. Wage labor, the ability to live apart from families, and the sociability of the separate sexual spheres had fostered romantic, spiritual, homoerotic, and sexual unions. The medical labeling of same-sex intimacy as perverse, however, conflated an entire range of relationships and stigmatized all of them as a single, sexually deviant personal identity. Same-gender relationships thus lost the innocence they had enjoyed during most of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the opportunities for intimacy and sexuality apart from reproduction and the family continued to expand. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more men and women would engage in same-sex relations but with greater self-consciousness about their sexual component. Thus, from both expanding opportunities and medical labeling, a new category of sexual behavior — homosexuality—emerged in American social history, supplementing earlier, more isolated cases of same- sex desire.
For at least two important historical reasons, same-gender relationships continued to flourish despite medical stigmatization. One was the increasing movement of women from the home to the public sphere — through higher education, social-reform movements, and wage labor. The other was the growth of a leisure culture that increasingly commercialized recreation, moving personal relationships further from the family to the marketplace. In short, the very forces that encouraged greater heterosexual self-consciousness created homosexual opportunities as well.5
College education and the ability to be self-supporting without marrying encouraged women’s partnerships at the turn of the century. Indeed, so many educated women paired off in one city that the phenomenon gained the name “Boston marriage,” referring to two women who lived together, owned property together, traveled together, shared holidays and family celebrations with each other, and usually slept in the same bed. The love letters these women wrote reveal an extraordinary emotional intensity. Take, for example, the letters between Evangeline Marrs Simpson and Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, the sister of U. S. president Grover Cleveland. At one point, Simpson sent some photos of herself to Cleveland, and the latter wrote back as she looked at them, “My Eve looks into my eyes with brief bright glances, with long rapturous embraces. . . . Her sweet life breath and her warm enfolding arms appease my hunger, and. . . carry my body in one to the summit of joy, the end of search, the goal of love! Here is no beyond!” After many years of correspondence and two marriages for Simpson, Cleveland’s passion was fully requited; in 1910, the two women sailed together to Italy, where they lived until Cleveland’s death eight years later.
“Boston marriages” were complex relationships, not merely sexual ones. As one businesswoman, born in the 1880s, explained, “I have [a] woman friend whom I love and admire above everyone in the world. . . . The physical factor is only one minor factor in the friendship.” Substantial evidence suggests that overtly sexual relationships among unmarried college-educated women were not uncommon. In the 1920s, when Katharine B. Davis surveyed 1,200 unmarried college graduates, she found that 28 percent of the women’s college graduates and 20 percent of those from coed schools had experienced intense ties with other women that included a physical component recognized as sexual. In addition, almost equal numbers had enjoyed intense emotional attachments that involved kissing and hugging.
Besides women’s partnerships, which remained invisible in the privacy of the home, public leisure culture in major cities expanded social opportunities for both men and women, especially within the working class, which included large numbers of immigrants. Dancehalls, nickelodeons, and amusement parks all brought courtship into a public marketplace. Alongside a heterosocial youth culture, a public homosexual culture emerged between the 1880s and World War I. Meeting places proliferated. In 1890, a medical student found that “perverts of both sexes maintained a sort of social set-up in New York City, had their places of meeting, and the advantage of police protections.” In many cities, men openly solicited one another on certain streets and other spots well-known as “cruising” areas — like the Young Men’s Christian Association (ymca) in Newport, Rhode Island, or Washington, D. C.’s, Lafayette Square and certain “smart clubs” in Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans. In San Francisco, the area surrounding the Presidio military base had become recognized by the 1890s as “a regular visiting place” for men seeking sex with men.
The furnished-room districts of large cities provided a setting where working women might form relationships with each other, and descriptions of the red-light districts suggest that some prostitutes formed lesbian attachments. In Harlem after World War I, the cross-dressing lesbian Gladys Bentley performed in men’s attire and served as a magnet for other lesbians and male homosexuals, both blacks and whites.6
This nascent subculture, however, remained hidden and difficult to find, especially for middle-class women. A woman of twenty in the mid-i88os, Mary Casal felt isolated, writing that “I was the only girl who had the sex desire for woman.” Also, for most men and women, the threat of punishment and social ostracism kept sexuality carefully guarded. As Francis Matthies – sen, soon to become a renowned literary critic, wrote to his male lover in the early 1920s, “We would be pariahs, outlaws, degenerates” if the world were to know of their relationship.