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Ideas

Same-sex marriage in the 19th century

In 1807, Charity and Sylvia moved in together in Vermont. A historian uncovers their story.

Silhouetted portraits of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake.

Henry Sheldon Museum

Silhouetted portraits of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake.

In a graveyard in the village of Weybridge, Vt., stands an unusual headstone. It is inscribed with the names of two women, Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, who were born during the Revolutionary era and died in the middle of the 19th century. The women were pillars of their community for four and a half decades, living together in a small house, running a tailoring business, teaching Sunday School, and acting as surrogate mothers and caregivers to hundreds of nieces and nephews. They were also, according to their own understanding and that of those around them, a married couple.

Historian Rachel Hope Cleves, of the University of Victoria, came across their story while reading a biography of William Cullen Bryant, Charity Bryant’s nephew. Bryant was a poet, abolitionist, and editor, and a major figure in 19th-century letters. The poet described his aunt’s partnership with Sylvia Drake in a letter about a visit he had made to western Vermont. “It was beautiful, it was poetic, and it was also very explicitly describing a marriage between two women,” Cleves said of the letter.

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Ten years after the first legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, much has been made by supporters of how pioneering the underlying court decision was; critics meanwhile, portray it a new and radical upending of traditional values. But the lives of Drake and Bryant suggest that the story is not so simple: Such relationships have existed, in various forms, through American history. And more than that, what Cleves found in her research was that an early American community could genuinely recognize a same-sex relationship as a household, even in an era that couldn’t have imagined a legal marriage between two women.

The story Cleves tells in her new book, “Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America” (Oxford University Press), unfolds in the wilds of western Vermont, in a town struggling to establish itself as New England went through economic turmoil. The setting becomes a major part of the story, with the texture of daily life—constant toil in a dimly lit house; illnesses and terrifying medical treatments; the countless small family ties that form the women’s social world—acting as a backdrop to the larger story of Charity and Sylvia’s unusual lives.

The book is the first to delve deep into the history of an early American same-sex marriage. Cleves sees Drake and Bryant not as an aberration, but as part of a larger history of same-sex partnerships that has yet to be written—one that now exists mainly as clues dropped in family histories and stories told in the archives of local historical societies.

The gravestone of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake in Weybridge, Vt.

‘Everyone who knew the couple agreed that Charity occupied the male role within their marriage, and that Sylvia served as the wife.’

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Cleves spoke with Ideas from Paris, where she is currently researching her third book.

IDEAS: Your book traces a relationship that might seem like a deep secret in the 19th century, but you uncovered a huge amount of detail. What were and weren’t you able to find out about Charity and Sylvia’s lives?

CLEVES: There exists a remarkable amount of documentary materials from the women’s lives that shed light both on some of their internal dynamics, how their marriage functioned at a private level, their thoughts about their relationship with God, their thoughts about their relationship with family and friends and each other, as well as a lot of material out there which sheds some light on how other people saw them. I found mention of them in other people’s letters and diaries....I have [Sylvia’s] diaries, a lot of correspondence, mostly letters that the women received, but luckily a few that the women wrote. Lots of poems.

IDEAS: Something people will find striking is that there were official records. Even though these women weren’t legally married, they had a business together, and they owned property together, and the law appeared to recognize that connection.

CLEVES: Within the tax records of the time, they were entered as a common household who owed a common tax to the town. And in the land records they were seen as together, as leasing the property where they built their house and outbuildings. That to me did signify that the government authorities did recognize that this was some sort of conjugal household. There is one important difference...the law of the time traditionally treated married couples under the doctrine called “coverture,” which erased women from the records, so that women’s property was subsumed into their husband’s name. And Charity and Sylvia were not treated that way. Charity’s name was first in the records, but Sylvia was in there too. It’s an important distinction.

IDEAS: You use the word “marriage,” which obviously wasn’t a legal possibility in the 1800s. What are the ways in which you found that Charity and Sylvia themselves considered it a marriage?

CLEVES: Charity and Sylvia often used euphemisms for marriage in their letters and poems to each other....Charity called Sylvia her “helpmeet,” which was a very common synonym for “wife” in the Colonial era and early 19th century....Everyone who knew the couple agreed that Charity occupied the male role within their marriage, and that Sylvia served as the wife within the marriage. So it made sense that Charity referred to Sylvia as a “helpmeet.” But they didn’t use the word “husband,” “wife,” or “marriage.” And I think the reason for that is that Charity at least had real reservations about marriage as an institution. What she understood was that marriage at the time was a real rough deal for women.

IDEAS: Charity seems to have encountered hostility from the more established Massachusetts communities she lived in before moving to Weybridge.

CLEVES: During her 20s, Charity was frequently the subject and the victim of vicious gossip about her character. As clearly as I can read it in the letters [that she received], I think the gossip had to do with her relationships with other women, and the general suspicion that she raised anywhere—and she moved around a lot in her 20s—was that her relationships with her female friends were sexual in nature. And people at the time understood that sex between women was a possibility. The biggest silence in these sources has to do with sexuality, and with the practice of sex. In 19th-century polite letters, people didn’t write about sex. They certainly didn’t write about sex between people of the same sex. They didn’t write about sex between people of opposite sex either!...It has taken delicate acts of interpretation to...try to understand what was going on.

IDEAS: And some members of Sylvia’s family, who were living in Vermont nearby the couple, resisted their partnership.

CLEVES: The two women met and fell in love very quickly....Once it became clear to her family that Sylvia had chosen to spend the rest of her life in company with another woman, there was real resistance from many of her family members. In particular her brothers, who refused to visit the house because there was no man [in residence], except for one brother who had an independent friendship with Charity. Sylvia’s mother refused to visit the house for a very long time, for more than a decade, much to Sylvia’s great distress. It really took decades of effort, decades of contributing to the family, helping their nieces and nephews, paying for their education, contributing to their church, running the town’s benevolent society, taking part in church governance, and contributing in so many other ways to the town and family. It was only through decades of those contributions that the women were able to overcome what seems like any real remaining resistance to their relationship within the community.

IDEAS: How could such an unconventional partnership thrive in a small town in the 19th century?

CLEVES: Weybridge was a real frontier community. There were some efforts to settle [that part of Vermont] before the Revolution, but they were short-lived. And [the area] was riven by warfare during the Revolution and so all the people there cleared out....It was only resettled in the 1780s by members of Sylvia Drake’s family. And so when Charity moved there, it was a new town, it was very rough. There was no permanent school building. Most people lived in very rough homes. And Charity brought...a level of sophistication, a level of class that was missing....She was connected to quite a well-known family, the Bryants. Her father had been a doctor, her grandfather was a doctor, they were college graduates, her brother ended up serving in the Massachusetts State Legislature, her nephew became incredibly famous...so she brought a cachet with her name. She was also extremely well educated....And she possessed a really important practical skill, which was the ability to fabricate clothing.

IDEAS: What are the implications of telling this history for our current understandings of same-sex marriage and gay rights?

CLEVES: You can see how opponents to same-sex marriage have deployed history to fight against the expanding legalization of same-sex marriage. It came up in March 2013 in the oral arguments in the case of US v. Windsor, when Justice Alito argued that same-sex marriage was “newer than cell phones”....I think that it’s important that we counter those who argue that same-sex marriage is something radically new, with the evidence that it’s not something that’s radically new. It’s a minority tradition, and a venerable tradition; history does not provide an excuse to deny equal rights to LGBT people today.

The other lesson to take from Charity and Sylvia is why the legalization of same-sex marriage is so important. They were able to create a publicly recognized marriage and gain the toleration of their community, many of their family, and many of their friends. But their relationship was always vulnerable, because it wasn’t a legal one. They secured it through selfless devotion to the interests of others throughout their entire lifetime. They secured it by giving everything they had to their kin, to their church, to their community. And always with the threat that at any moment, the sanction for their union could be stripped away.

Related:

Interactive: Same-sex marriage in the US

Gay marriage in Mass. — 10 years later

Judge orders temporary halt to gay marriages in Wis.

Rebecca Onion is a writer and historian living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate’s history blog, The Vault.

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