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Friendship is the Glue

Monday, April 6, 2020 - 10:00

I'm gaining a new appreciation for the structures and rituals of friendship that are depicted in 18-19th century diaries and correspondence. We're currently seeing how fragile the focus on "face to face" personal relationships can be, and how we are strengthened and maintained by friendships engaged in at a distance. My blog posts and facebook statuses and zoom chats are, in essential ways, the equivalent of 19th century women writing long, intimate letters to women who they might see in person only once a year, but who stood larger in their emotional lives on an everyday basis. The gender-segregation that gave 18-19th century friendships their homo-social character is not as prominent today. But perhaps we can gain a new understanding of the centrality of such bonds as a way of developing and maintaining community across miles and over lifetimes. Reach out to the people who are your foundation--and whose foundation you are--and build your hopes and dreams on them.

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Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. 1975. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” in Signs vol. 1, no. 1 1-29.

This article was written before the emergence of studies of women's romantic friendships in the context of lesbian history, although it touches on that question in terms of how individual friendships have been exained. Given this, Smith-Rosenberg provides some good "neutral" grounding in the dynamics of women's same-sex friendships. (See also next week's article focusing specifically on boarding-school friendships.) I think it can be very useful to see the general phenomenon of intense same-sex friendship as a separate layer of understanding from the consideration of homoerotic desires or the question of sexual identities. Too often there seems to be a take that boils down to "all romantic friendships were sexual" or "no romantic friendships were sexual". But if one considers sexuality as an independent factor, we can see that some romantic friendships can be non-sexual without erasing the erotic potential of the dynamic. And some romantic friendships can be sexual without creating an implication that all must have been. The very reason why some romantic friends were able to integrate an erotic aspect to their relationship (without either they or their society considering that this changed the qualitative nature of their bond) is the ubiquity and utter "normalness" of such friendship structures. To a large extent, it is only the more sex-obsessed attitudes of the last century that projected a stark either/or contrast onto the nature of women's friendships.

Smith-Rosenberg takes an in-depth look at the nature and dynamics of women’s intense and intimate same-sex friendships in 19th century America, as documented in the correspondence from 35 middle-class families dating between the 1760s and 1880s, from a variety of geographic regions, both rural and urban, and belonging to a variety of Protestant denominations. Private correspondence and diaries have the advantage of presenting the best available approximation of unfiltered personal reporting. They were never intended for public consumption and therefore are able to reveal private thoughts. [Note: All too often, when those thoughts might be a bit too private, either the writer herself or her posterity have seen that they were destroyed. Therefore a study such as this may already be “filtered” to some degree.]

Such intense, long-lasting friendships between women were casually accepted and almost formalized through a variety of structures, but have rarely been studied a phenomenon on their own. The could be symbolically framed as familial in nature--sisters, or surrogate mother/daughter bonds--or even as marriage-like relationships.

When studied in specific instances, it has generally been to examine individual psycho-sexual development, with an air to determining whether the particular bond is “normal” or “abnormal,” suggesting latent homosexuality.

Smith-Rosenberg takes a different approach, looking at the overall cultural and social context for women’s same-sex friendships in this era and identifying general patterns, rather than trying to analyze the dynamics of specific relationships.

The article begins by looking at two such friendships that might be considered “typical.”

Sarah Butler and Jeannie Musgrove met in their mid-teens in 1849 when their families were vacationing in Massachusetts. They then spent two years together in boarding school where they formed a deep, intimate friendship that included romantic gestures and the assumption of noms de plume, Sarah (the younger) taking a male name for the purpose. They continued using those names to each other through old age.

Sarah married, but this did not change the frequency of their correspondence or their desire to spend time together. They often wrote of longing to be with each other and of how much they meant to each other. “I want you to tell me in your next letter, to assure me, that I am your dearest.” “A thousand kisses--I love you with my whole soul.”

Jeannie married at age 37 precipitating significant anxiety about how it might change their relationship. And it did result in physical separation, though with no change in emotional intensity.

The second pair has a similar story. Molly and Helena met in 1868 while attending college together in New York City. Over several years, they studied together, visited each other’s families, and became part of a network of artistic young women. They developed a close intimate bond that continued the rest of their lives. In their letters, they called each other dearest and beloved. They expressed this affection in kisses and embraces.

After five years, they had planned to share a home together but when Molly bowed to her parents’ wishes and decided against the plan Helena responded angrily leading Molly to fear it would mean a break-up. The friendship cooled somewhat and both gained male suitors and married. During this time of upset, they expressed their feelings in romantic and marital terms. Molly wrote, “I wanted so to put my arms round my girl of all the girls in the world and tell her...I love her as wives do love their husbands, as friends who have taken each other for life--and believe in her as I believe in my God.” And she wrote to Helena’s fiancé, “Do you know sir, that until you came along I believe that she loved me almost as girls love their lovers. I know I loved her so. Don’t you wonder that I can stand the sight of you.”

To represent such intimate friendships as anything but love would be absurd. Smith-Rosenberg takes the position that an obsession with whether they included genital activity and could thereby be classified as homosexual is very much beside the point. The point being that all the parties involved considered such relationships and such rhetoric to be socially acceptable and fully compatible with participating in heterosexual marriages. Individual personalities and dynamics might influence the details of such relationships, but the historian’s task is to explore the social structure and world view that made them possible and acceptable.

From the particular, Smith-Rosenberg now moves to a general survey of women’s lives in the 18th and 19th centuries and the factors that permitted and encouraged women to form a variety of close emotional relationships with other women. American society in this era involved rigid gender-role differentiation within the family and gender segregation during many of ordinary activities of life. Shared life experiences bound women together in physical and emotional intimacy resulting in a general and unselfconscious pattern of homosociality. In contrast, there were severe restrictions on mixed-sex social interactions. Not only personal correspondence, but an entire genre of etiquette and advice manuals point to the assumption of separate male and female spheres.

This didn’t mean that women were isolated within the household, but rather than their networks reached between households, built not only by shared labor and emotional support, but by the rituals of social visiting. In urban areas, visiting was a routine part of the day, while rural women engaged in patterns of extended visits that could last weeks or months. Among those who enjoyed summer vacations, they were frequently organized to gather female friends, while leaving husbands behind in the city.

Even closely paired friends did not exist in isolation but were part of integrated networks. Both visiting and correspondence maintained those networks and provided regular updates on the personal lives of their families. Despite the superficial appearance of isolated nuclear families, most women were part of multiple networks that crossed family boundaries. Bonds between sisters-in-law were often as close as sisters, but non-familial bonds could be equally close.

Female friendships served an important emotional purpose in a society that considered men’s and women’s emotional lives to be distinct. Shared experiences and concerns were prominent in correspondence. There are few signs of hostility or criticism of other women in the records, even where such things are assumed as “normal” today, as in the relationships of mothers and adolescent daughters. Smith-Rosenberg attributes this to a dynamic where daughters expected and aspired to follow their mothers in traditional domesticity. The period after formal education was complete and before marriage was an intensive apprenticeship in running a household, taught by mothers and other women of the older generation. Only with societal shifts that gave the younger generation different goals and aspirations than their mothers did generational tensions arise.

During her school years, a girl began to develop her own friendships and networks separate from those she inherited from her family. Even relatively poor families expected to send girls away to school for at least a limited period. This separation might be assisted by support from existing female networks, whether as local mentors or by friends sending their daughters to the same school for company.

The commentary of schoolgirls with regard to their same-sex friendships as contrasted with their relations with male suitors shows the latter to be distant if not hostile, while the former are close, supportive, and having an air of solidarity. Men might be viewed as the ultimate goal in life, but they are “other”, treated with stilted formality. Female friendships were expressed with warmth, spontaneity, and a sense of fun. Girls routinely slept together, kissed and hugged, and enjoyed dancing with each other.

While the theme of female friendship was the maintenance of strong bonds and a desire for physical presence, marriage to a man typically involved physical separation from the birth family and existing social networks. This might be mitigated by friends and family joining the newlyweds on their honeymoon or even spending extended visits in their new home together.

Within marriage, most rites of passage were gender-segregated, especially those around birth and death. As healthcare was considered within the female sphere, both caring and being cared for was a same-sex activity for women. Even in bereavement, women typically were comforted by female friends rather than male relatives.

Same-sex friendship bonds often involved physicality, including the sharing of beds, embraces, and kissing. The erotic nature of these experiences is hinted at in the jealousy women felt toward their friends’ male suitors. Women sent love poetry and confessions of emotional dependence to each other along with the letters of everyday life. Such sentiments were not confined to “schoolgirl crushes” but might increase in intensity throughout the women’s lives.

Husbands might be explicitly put in second place after female friends, as when one woman writing in the 1830s promises that if she visits, “I would turn your good husband out of bed and snuggle into you and we would have a long talk like old times in Pine St.”

The language of marriage was frequently invoked, even when sexuality was denied. In 1892 one woman writes after the death of her lifelong friend, “To me it seems to have been a closer union than that of most marriages. We know there have been other such between two men and also between two women. And why should there not be. Love is spiritual, only passion is sexual.”

This last provides one hint at how women understood their passionate friendships. Kissing and embracing and snuggling in bed together were not necessarily understood as sexual. Once the idea that such activities might be sexual emerged toward the turn of the 20th century, only then were intense female friendships looked askance. In the 20th century a variety of such cultural taboos arose that interrupted the tradition of intimate female friendships.

In particular, the rise of psychiatry and sexology began the pathologization of relationshps of all types between women, instead viewing heterosexual bonds as the only “natural” evolution of personal development. Smith-Rosenberg concludes with a suggestion that the study of cultural variation in patterns of diversity in sexual and nonsexual relations might help erase the division of behaviors into a binary of “normal” and “abnormal” but rather as a continuum. [Note: please do remember that this was written in 1975.]

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