Gay marriage is no recent phenomenon, according to Lillian Faderman. As a Women’s History Month guest speaker and a scholar of lesbian history and literature, Faderman spoke on Wednesday, March 19, on the significance of lesbian marriages that existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries — before the legalization of gay marriage as society understands it today.
An internationally-known scholar, Faderman is the author of eight books, two of which, “Surpassing the Love of Men” and “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers,” have been considered “Notable Books of the Year” by the New York Times.
As women came out to the public as lesbians in what she described as a “dangerous time,” Faderman argued that “the only way for (gays and lesbians) to survive was to hide.”
Faderman described four sources of this fear before the onset of gay civil rights: ideas imposed on homosexuals as criminals by the police force, as psychologically ill by psychologists, as sinners by the church and as unlawful by the government.
Without any written record, Faderman explained, homosexuals had no history to identify themselves with.
“One way to oppress people is to deny their history,” said Ann Marie Nicolosi, chair of women’s and gender studies at the College.
In order to give lesbians a history to tie themselves to, Faderman began researching lesbian marriages of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Faderman began her research as a college professor in 1967, an era considered to be “still dangerous.”
“I went off of hints,” Faderman said regarding her research.
Using archives and often censored published writing, she uncovered a series of lesbian relationships between women, such as Emily and Martha Dickinson, Evangelene Simpson and Rose Cleveland and pioneers in same-sex marriage, Anna Howard-Shaw and Lucy Anthony.
During the 1890s, many educated women decided not to marry, as they wished to pioneer careers instead. They did not wish to bear and care for children or maintain the household, but instead, found love and companionship in same-sex partnerships, Faderman said.
At a time when women were fighting for equality in education and professionalism, unions like “Boston Marriages” — a relationship between two professional women — and “Wellesley marriages” — unrecognized same-sex marriages — were prevalent.
The word lesbian, in the 1890s, was a term often associated with lower-class women, even sodomites, Faderman said. She explained that she does not label these women as lesbians, because it is not how they would have identified themselves.
Faderman simply uses the term as society understands it now. Many of the women involved in same-sex partnerships during past centuries did not use the term lesbian — they simply “loved whom they loved.”