Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Same-Sex "Marriage" in Early America

Cleves, Rachel Hope. Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Charity & Sylvia is a carefully-researched and well-written book about two women in early nineteenth-century America who were as married as they could have been. Along the way, readers learn a great deal about Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, their extended families, their decades-long relationship as "husband and wife," and their status as members of the church and pillars of the community in Weybridge, Vermont.

Rachel Hope Cleves tells this interesting tale in part to demonstrate her thesis: "Same-sex marriage is not as new as Americans on both sides of today's debate tend to assume; it is neither the radical break with timeless tradition that conservatives fear nor the unprecedented innovation of a singularly tolerant age that liberals praise. It fits within a long history of marriage diversity in North America that included practices such as polygamy, self-divorce, free love, and interracial unions" (xviii).

One reason that Charity & Sylvia is getting so much "buzz" is that the story related in this book stands on the other side of typical boundaries in the field of LGBT history. Specifically, it pays attention to: 
  • women, not men
  • the early nineteenth, not the late twentieth century
  • life in a small town, not a large city
  • religion as part of the story, not the antithesis of the story
In other words, it is significant that this book is not about gay men living in San Francisco during the late twentieth century who typically stay as far away from churches as they possibly can. Charity & Sylvia also breaks with previous historiography in another way: unlike many scholars of queer history, Cleves argues that people in early America actually assumed that women who were close friends, and especially those who lived together as a couple, were likely more than just friends.

One question the book raises has to do with its character as a microhistory or case study. This is a story about one couple. So just how representative might this story be? However we answer that question, one thing is not in doubt: because "same-sex marriage" is such a hot-button topic in American culture and politics these days, this book will be read and discussed for several years to come.

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