Brain Pickings

A Brief History of Romantic Friendship

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“Smashes,” “crushes,” “spoons,” and other curious nineteenth-century relationship varieties.

Thoreau used to lie awake at night and “think of friendship and its possibilities,” while his dear friend Emerson, in contemplating the secret of friendship, marveled, “What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” — language strikingly similar to that of all the great Romantic poets in extolling the union of love. It’s been argued that friendship is a greater gift than romantic love, but what about that strange, wonderful, and often messy neverland between the two and the inevitable discombobulation of our neatly organized relationship structures that happens when romantic love and friendship converge?

In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (public library), historian Lilian Faderman chronicles the extraordinary, era-defining rise and fall of precisely that phenomenon — romantic friendship — as an agent of cultural change:

While romantic friendship had had a long history in Western civilization, it took on particular significance in nineteenth-century America, where men’s spheres and women’s spheres became so divided through the task of nation-building. Men saw themselves as needing the assistance of other men to realize their great material passions, and they fostered “muscle values” and “rational values,” to the exclusion of women. Women, left to themselves outside of their household duties, found kindred spirits primarily in each other. They banded together and fostered “heart values.”

Still, given the economic and social demands of life at the time, most of these female bonds were necessarily secondary to women’s familial obligations, whether in a father’s house or a husband’s. But college, Faderman argues, changed all that — access to education swung open the gates to a new world for women and, as pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell memorably marveled in her diary, it allowed women to set their sights much higher than pervious generations had imagined possible.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

What amplified the impact of that progress, beyond the raw material of academia, were young women’s relationships with each other and the ecosystem of those relationships, which created “a healthy and productive separatism.” This allowed them to explore their own boundaries, to build their own hierarchy of values, to try on the roles of leaders in a self-contained universe free from the traditional yardsticks of society and from the pressure of male demands. But there was one especially potent driver of this empowerment — romantic friendships, which were referred to in college slang as “smashes,” “crushes,” or “spoons.”

In 1873, a Yale student newspaper described the phenomenon in terms that bespeak either utter obliviousness to the sexual undertones of these relationships or nonchalant acceptance of them:

When a Vassar girl takes a shine to another, she straightway enters upon a regular course of bouquet sendings, interspersed with tinted notes, mysterious packages of “Ridley’s Mixed Candies,” locks of hair perhaps, and many other tender tokens, until at last the object of her attentions is captured, the two women become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as — smashed.

Vassar, as it happens, was not only the university where Maria Mitchell had begun teaching as the only woman on the faculty, paving the way for women in science, but also where Edna St. Vincent Millay became “smashed” with another woman and penned for her some of the most enchanting queer love letters of all time.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

The romantic friendship, also well-documented among men, was not only culturally condoned — in fact, William Alger wrote in 1868 that it brought to women “freshness, stimulant charm, noble truths and aspirations” — but also deeply woven into the fabric of college life. Institutions like Vassar and Smith regularly held all-female dances in the early twentieth century. A Cosmopolitan magazine article from 1901 on life in women’s colleges describes Smith’s Freshman Frolic, in which a sophomore girl played “the cavalier” for the freshman girl she escorted:

She sends her flowers, calls for her, fills her order of dance, fetches ices and frappes between dances and takes her to supper… Every “soph” sees her partner home, begs for a flower … and if the freshman has taken advantage of the opportunity and made the desired hit, there are dates for future meetings and jollifications and a good night over the balusters, as lingering and cordial as any the “freshie” has left behind. And if the gallant soph who lives in another hall runs away from her shadow on the way back to her dormitory, it’s nobody’s business but her own.

Despite the reluctance of the era’s writers to detail that aspect, Faderman notes that such courtship rituals often led to “lovemaking,” both in the 19th-century sentimental sense and in the modern meaning of sexual intimacy. She marvels at the fault line between the oblivious and the obvious:

How could such excitements not lead to passionate loves at a time when there was not yet widespread stigma against intense female same-sex relationships?

What’s more, young college women’s romantic friendships were modeled heavily after the relationships between their female professors, who resided on campus, usually in pairs, often forming lifelong love relationships — “marriages,” like that of Charity and Sylvia. They also provided a new model of economic independence — wholly self-supporting, they didn’t need to marry in order to survive.

Once college-educated women began entering the workforce, the romantic friendship took place against a new backdrop, which Katherine Anne Porter once described as “a company of Amazons” — those early professional women, the first generations of female doctors, professors, ministers, union organizers, and social workers. Faderman cites the case of two Englishwomen from the 1890s, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, a pair of “romantic friends” who penned some 25 plays and eight books of poetry together under the pseudonym Michael Field, vowing to each other to be “poets and lovers evermore.”

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

But it didn’t take long for the cultural establishment to begin fearing romantic friendships as a threat to the traditional institution of marriage, which was still a pivotal part of society’s economic model. By the early 1900s, Faderman notes, sexologists and other newly anointed “experts” in the social sciences began condemning these relationships, which only a decade earlier had been universally accepted as innocuous and even ennobling. An 1895 book titled Side Talks with Girls cautioned that it was dangerous for a woman to have “a girl-sweetheart” because wasting her love on another woman would leave nothing for “Prince Charming when he comes to claim his bride.” One pseudo-medical text from the beginning of the century admonished against women’s “increasing affection” for one another:

They kiss each other fondly on every occasion. They embrace each other with mutual satisfaction. It is most natural, in the interchange of visits, for them to sleep together. They learn the pleasure of direct contact, and in the course of them fondling they resort to cunni-linguistic practices… After this the normal sex act fails to satisfy [them].

By 1906, one Swiss psychiatrist issued the alarmist statement that “the excess of female inverts exceeds those of the male” and that for female lovers, sexual lust “is their one thought, night and day, almost without interruption.” (That gentleman had clearly missed the memo on lesbian bed death.) And yet through the 1920s, college women were able to enjoy their romantic friendships with varying degrees of freedom and self-consciousness. Faderman cites one particularly amusing 1921 satirical essay from the Oberlin College yearbook, titled “My Heart Leaps Up,” in which the writers deploy delightful irony at the admonitions against romantic friendship:

Crushes are bad and happen only to the very young and very foolish. Once upon a time we were very young, and the bushes on the campus were hung with our bleeding hearts. Cecil’s heart bled indiscriminately. The rest of us specialized more, and the paths of Gertie Hearne, Dosia, Eleanor Marquand, Adelaide, Tip, and others would have been strewn with roses if public opinion had permitted flowers during the War.

The type of person smitten was one of the striking things about the epidemic. For instance, our emotional Betty Mills spent many stolen hours gazing up at Phoebe’s window. The excitable Copey was enamoured successively of all presidents of the Athletic Association, and has had a hard time this year deciding where to bestow her affections.

But there were some cases that were different from these common crushes. We know they were different, because the victims told us so. Only the most jaundiced mind could call by any other name than friendship Nora’s tender feeling toward Gertie Steele, which led her to keep Gertie’s room overflowing with flowers, fruit, candy, pictures, books, and other indispensable articles. (I always thought rather pathetic the story that once Gertie had been exposed to the measles and for a whole week could not be kissed good-night.) We will all admit that only the purest friendship caused Marjorie to knit the shell-pink sweater and gallantly rescue V.K.’s gown from the waste basket…

Of course, all these things happened in our extreme youth.

Willa Cather (right) with Louise Pound, University of Nebraska, early 1890s

(Image: Willa Cather Archive)

While some early-twentieth-century women saw no need to hide their same-sex relationships, Faderman points out that many were already bending down to the culture’s budding pressures against “romantic friendship.” She points to celebrated writer Willa Cather as one particularly appropriate example — early in her college career at the University of Nebraska in the late 19th century, she called herself Dr. William and practically dressed in male drag, but by graduation, despite continuing her romantic relationships with women (one of whom would eventually become the love of her life), she had conformed to a much more feminine presentation.

Willa Cather as a freshman (left) and upon graduation

(Images: Willa Cather Archive)

Indeed, the turn of the twentieth century did eventually beget the death knell of romantic friendship — a phenomenon that, as Faderman notes, “might have been too simple to survive in our complex times anyway.” She writes:

It was also the beginning of a lengthy period of general closing off of most affectional possibilities between women. The precious intimacies that adult females had been allowed to enjoy with each other earlier — sleeping in the same bed, holding hands, exchanging vows of eternal love, writing letters in the language of romance — became increasingly self-conscious and then rare.

Thanks to the influence of Freud and “all his spiritual offspring,” Faderman argues, the late twentieth century became “hyper-sophisticated” about matters of sexuality and love between women was stripped of that older veneer of sexual innocence:

Whether or not two women who find themselves passionately attached choose to identify themselves as lesbian today, they must at least examine the possibility of sexual attraction between them and decide whether or not to act upon it. Such sexual self-consciousness could easily have been avoided in earlier eras.

Of course, Faderman was writing more than two decades before the triumph of marriage equality and its political leap in eliminating an enormous part of that “self-consciousness,” which we owe largely to one particular woman: Edith Windsor, the courageous patron saint of modern love, who fought for the sanctity of the love she shared with her spouse of 42 years, Thea Spier, and for its rightful status as a marriage in the eyes of the law, fighting her case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in Windsor’s favor and deemed DOMA unconstitutional.

Still, it pays to remember that any landmark cultural shift is the product of decades, and often centuries, of incremental strides and cumulative efforts. The remainder of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers chronicles precisely those ordinary stories and imperceptible victories that, together, laid the groundwork for one of the greatest triumphs of human rights and dignity in the past century. Complement it with the sweet story of how two women married each other in early America.

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