Smashing: Women’s Relationships before the Fall

by Nancy Sahli

Female sexuality has, within the context of the contemporary women’s movement, become the focus of an increasing number of women’s historians and feminist writers. Works as diverse as Susan Brown-miller’s Against Our Will and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born are contributing to our understanding that sexual and emotional attitudes and behavior are culturally defined, nonempirical components of a continuum of time, power, belief, and circumstance.12 Yet we are still confronted by the question of the degree to which these attitudes have been and will continue to be defined and determined by the prescriptions of a fundamentally patriarchal society. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has shown that a network of intimate, supportive relationships existed among American women during much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.3 This network was subjected to increasing stress after about 1875. Prescriptions for female behavior changed; indeed, a new definition of what constituted “normal” female relationships developed in both America and Europe. Middle-class women, specifically feminists and college-educated women, would logically be among the first either to be affected by or to initiate new types of relationships. Luckily, this class also provides readily accessible primary source material. However, the behavior and attitudes described in this article were not atypical and should not be regarded as such by historians trying to understand late nineteenth-century American women. One of the problems encountered in writing about women’s relationships is that of terminology. Words such as “lesbian” and “homosexual” did not come into use until the last decade of the nineteenth century, and even then there was much confusion about whether they referred to emotional or sexual behavior or both. This article uses the word “lesbian” in the same sense as it was used by Blanche Cook in her recent article on female support networks in the early twentieth century:

Women who love women, who choose women to nurture and support and to create a living environment in which to work creatively and independently, are lesbians.4

Until about 1875, intimate, supportive relationships with a high degree of emotional, sensual, and even sexual content existed freely among both single and married women in America. One woman who participated in such a network was Anna E. Dickinson, orator, actress, and political activist. In her papers at the Library of Congress are numerous letters from female admirers written during the 1860’s and early 1870’s. when intense love relationships as well as strongly emotional language were still considered legitimate. Louise Brackett, the wife of a Boston artist, was typical in her enthusiasm:

How much I want to see you: as your letter gave me such exquisite pleasures indeed! I will marry you ― run off anywhere with you, for you are such a darling ― I can feel your soul ― if not your body sweet Anna ― do I offend your delicacy? 5

You are mine, and belong to me, until you get married ― say it is true?… I have an irresistible desire all through this letter to make love to you.5

Laura Curtis Bullard, editor of the suffragist-supported paper Revolution, was another correspondent:

Anna, dear, you don’t know how you have found your way to my heart, nor how ardently you are cherished there ― Come soon to see me ― I kiss you a thousand times.6

Mr Bullard is still in Montreal. Virginia Townsend has his room, so you should have had your place in my bed had you come ― & I am sorry you didnt … Sweet Anna, I shall hope to see you soon & kiss your soft, tender lips, either here or at Long Beach.6

I am so glad that I have got you for my darling that I can’t find words to express my delight in my new love.

A third woman who was close to Dickinson was suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony:

I mean always to keep beckoning you upward & onward till you speak right out in words the deep, rich, earnest love for your own sex that I know lies in the inner courts of your being …. So Anna as I love you & you love me ― and we both love the right ― I ask you to examine the “inner light” ― Lovingly your, Susan B. Anthony.7

Now when are you coming to New York ― do let it be soon ― I have plain quarters ― at 44 Bond St — double bed ― and big enough & good enough to take you in ― .. I do so long for the scolding & pinched ears & every the I know awaits me ― what worlds of experience since I last smuggled the wee child in my long arms … Your loving friend Susan.7

Dearly loved Anna … How I have missed you & yet how I have longed to meet you ― for more reasons that one ― I shall try & meet you at Albany ― the 16th ― or at Rondout ― unless you are going here right after ― I must see you & can’t put it on paper ― My heart is full..7

They parted company around 1874 because of political differences, but as late as 1895 Anthony wrote to Dickenson that her love had never abated for her first Anna.

After the early 1870’s, however, this type of letter becomes increasingly scarce, and those that do exist convey the impression of being rhetorically self-conscious rather than innocently emotional in their language. Caution should be exercised, however, in interpreting this evidence as indicating any real change in Dickinson’s own behavior, for during the 1880’s Dickinson portrayed male roles on commercial stage and was accompanied on her tours by Betty Chatfield, a woman whom Dickinson ― according to her biographer, Giraud Chester “seemed to get a satisfaction … that she had never sensed with her numerous suitors years before.”

During this same period, social change began to have an impact on women’s relationships. One significant development was the entrance of women into coeducational universities such as Michigan and Boston, as well as the new women’s colleges such as Wellesley. Founded by Henry Durant, and evangelical Bostonian, Wellesley had as its first president Ada L. Howard, a rigid authoritarian woman disliked by most of the faculty and students. Durant, along with his all-male board of trustees, was the real ruler of the kingdom and was parodied in an 1879 Harvard Lampoon sketch as “His Royal Highness, the Founder of Welleslee College.” It was a despotism. Faculty and students, as in other women’s colleges, lived together in the same building: visitors were allowed only on Saturdays (and then only parents, brothers, and sisters, unless permission was secured for others from the President): and attendance was required at prayers, Bible classes, and chapel services on Sunday. Not surprisingly, the Lampoon described the students as the Grand Chorus of Unflirtables.”

Asylums and other closed institutions develop internal definitions of acceptable behavior. Wellesley’s first year of operation, 1875-1876, close relationships flourished between student and some of the women faculty ― an understandable phenomenon, since the were together under the same roof twenty-four hours a day, were nearly the same age, and felt a communion not only as innovators for women, but as opponents of the rigid rules by which the college was governed. We may never know exactly why three faculty members ― Mary A. Burnham, Sarah Glazier, and Helen Stock ― were fired at the end of the first year. Ostensibly they presented too great a challenge to the authority of Durant and Howard.; perhaps there were other reasons. What we can know, however, is how the Wellesly student community reacted to this event, as seen in the letters of Francis Robinson Johnson, one of the students to her mother. One June 11, 1876, she wrote:

Oh mother what shall I do? Ive been crying & I can’t write straight. Ella & Emma rushed in a little while ago Ann worked up and said that Mr. Durant has publically dismissed the three leading teachers in this college, the only ones who know anything and amount to anything…. the 3 have shown no signs that anything has happened except I have noticed that Miss Burnham has looked very sad & once I thought she had been crying…. This household has a gloom over it that it has never known before. The girls are fairly heartbroken. Miss Burnham looked so pityful and the tears came into her eyes very very often ― … I never in my life saw such a beautiful, lovely, & good woman as Miss B. ― all the reason Mr. D. gives them is that they conflict with the government of the Coll….I think the man must be crazy..13

Three days later, after writing several other letters describing other aspects of the situation, she continued:

We have been out boating. Such a pleasant time! The boats were all trimmed with daisies and the banners out We took Miss Glazier the first time she has been out;… Miss Burnham went with her own boat;… Miss G. kept us laughing all the time. Poor woman, she little felt like it, I guess. We all sang and were as gay as possible. We escorted them up crowned them with daisys and certainly showed our love and respect for them. Each had a chain of daisies around her neck. Going up the stairs Miss G. says “How easy life would be if we had no harder yokes to bear than these children put upon us” ― & Mother, it seems as if I could not bear the thought of coming back next year; to find these teachers gone; the only ones we loved and respected to be under the thumb of a man and woman that I despise..13

Incidents such as this indicate the extent to which committed homo-emotional relationships among women had begun to take on a counter-cultural aspect.

New types of organizations, such as alumnae groups and sororities, resulted from the entrance of women into higher education. In 1881 the Association of Collegiate Alumnae – known today as the American Association of University Women – was formed, largely because of the alienation from the mainstream of social life which many women college graduates felt. The association’s first research committee, that on physical education, was organized after a paper on that topic was read as the first regular meeting, early in 1882, by Dr. Adaline S. Whitney.14 The best-known result of this committee’s activity was its 1885 report on Health Statistics of Women College Graduate, which disproved the contemporary theory that the rigors of academic life resulted in poor health among women students.15

While the committee’s chief objective was to challenge this view-point, initially set forth in Dr. E. H. Clarke’s 1873 book Sex in Education ( a work that ran into several editions during the following two decades), it is also possible that the committee was equally disturbed by Clarke’s allegation that college-educated women were not “real women.” His description, of course, applied not only to college women, but to feminists as well:

There are those who write and act as if their object were to assimilate woman as much as possible to man, by dropping all that is distinctively feminine out of her, and putting into her as large an amount of masculiness as possible. These persons tacitly admit the error just alluded to, that woman is inferior to man, and strive to get rid of the inferiority by making her a man. There may be some subtle physiological basis for such views; for many who hold ans advocate them are those, who, having passed middle life without the symmetry and development that maternity gives, have drifted into the hermaphroditic condition that sometimes accompanies spinsterism.

When arrested development of the reproductive system is nearly or quite complete – it produces a change in the character, and a loss of power, which is easy to recognize, but difficult to describe … In these cases, which are not of frequent occurrence at present, but which may be evolved by our methods of education more numerously i the future, the system tolerates the absence of the catamenia, and the consequent nonelimination of impurities from the blood. Acute or chronic disease, the ordinary result of the condition, is not set up, but, instead, there is a change int he character and development of the brain and nervous system. There are in individuals of the class less adipose and more muscular tissue than is commonly seen, a coarse skin, and generally, a tougher and more angular makeup. There is a corresponding change int he intellectual and psychical condition, – a dropping out of maternal instincts, and an appearance of Amazonian coarseness and force. Such persons are analogous to the sexless class of termites.16

Given the emphasis that the committee’s report placed on physical health, it is interesting to note, especially in relation to the previous quotations, that a primary focus of the preliminary committee meetings was the emotional rather than the physical condition of women undergraduates, specifically something called “smashing.” One description of this practice can be found in an 1873 letter to the Yale Courant:

There is a term in general use at Vassar, truly calculated to awaken within the ima penetralia of our souls all that love for the noble and the aesthetic of which our natures are capable. The term in question is “smashing.” 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 become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as — smashed. The mortality, so to speak, resulting from these smashups, is frightful to contemplate. One young lady, the “Irrepressible,” rejoices in more than thirty. She keeps a list of them, in illuminated text, framed and hung up in her room like a Society poster. How… such a custom should have come into vogue, passes masculine comprehension.

But the solemn face remains, and Vassar numbers her smashes by the score.17

Nor was this a recent development. For example, Frances Willard and her sister Mary** commented on the prevalence of smashing among themselves and their friends at the North Western Female College in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s.

Mary wrote:

Holland says that all girls have to pass through the “girl friendship” stage. And as they all have to do, so did I, and I am not ashamed to tell of it. So when I first left home to attend a boarding school, I was willing in my loneliness to have a “little friendship.” So I fell in love just like a boy, and wooed and won, as a friend and a good one, a sweet tempered, sweetfaced girl.18

what Holland actually wrote on this topic can be found in the appendix —Tolton

Her short-haired sister “Frank” fell in love with a girl named Maggie, the first of a long succession of close relationships she would have with women. In her autobiography, she wrote:

Of the real romance of my life, unguessed save by a trio of close friends, these pages may not tell. When I have passed from sight I would be glad to have it known, for I believe it might contribute to a better understanding between good men and women.20

Willard’s friends, however, never revealed the nature of this romance. In her copy of the book, The Friendships of Women21, now on the shelves of the Schlesinger Library, she wrote, “Someday I wish to write a book — a novel — with the Friendships of Women as its theme.” That story too was never written.

M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College for nearly thirty years, mutually smashed with another student during her boarding-school days at the Howland Institute in the early 1870’s, thereby causing extreme annoyance and jealousy on the part of Bessie King, one of her Baltimore friends who was also attending the school. Mary Whitall Thomas, while cautioning her daughter to tone down the intensity of her emotions, nevertheless acknowledged their validity: “I guess thy feeling is quite natural. I used to have the same romantic love for my friends. It is a real pleasure.”22 She took a much dimmer view, however, of her daughter’s playing male roles, dressed in men’s clothes, at school functions: “It is repugnant to my taste. I do suppose it is great fun but I think it is not nice. It would be simply disgusting if any men were present and I don’t like it anyhow.”22

One of the members of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae committee was Alice Stone Blackwell, daughter of pioneer women’s tights leader Lucy Stone and in her own right a prominent leader in the women’s movement. A graduate of Boston University in 1881, Blackwell commented on the committee discussions in an early 1882 letter: The committee

gave it as their strong opinion that one thing which damaged the health of the girls seriously was “smashes” — an extraordinary habit which they have of falling violently in love with each other, and suffering all the pangs of unrequited attachment, desperate jealousy etc, etc, with as much energy as if one of them were a man. I could hardly have believed that the things they told were not exaggerations, if Maria Mitchell hadn’t told me, when I was visiting at Vassar, what a pest the “smashing” was to the teachers there — how it kept the girls from studying, & sometimes made a girl drop behind her class year after year. Miss Brown, of our committee, told us her own experience, evidently not without some embarrassment, but for the general good; how she, at Smith, though not at all given to that sort of thing, had been a victim, “A veteran smasher” attacked her, & captured her, & soon deserted her for someone else; & she used to cry herself to sleep night after night, & wake up with a headache in the morning. And they write each other the wildest love-letters, & send presents, confectionery, all sorts of things, like a real courting of the Shakespearean style. If the ‘smash” is mutual, they monopolize each other & “spoon” continually, & sleep together & lie awake all night talking instead of going to sleep; & if it isn’t mutual the unrequited one cries herself sick & endures pangs unspeakable. I listed with undisguised curiosity & amazement, for we had very little of that sort of thing at B.U. My theory is that it comes of massing hundreds of nervous young girls together, & shutting them up from the outside world. They are just at the romantic age, they see only each other, & so their sentimentality has no other outlet. The coeducational colleges don’t suffer much from “smashes.” … There are plenty of cases of “particular friends,” but few or none of “smashes.”23

Significantly, the committee’s final report, published in 1885, contained no mention of smashing, although there were general references to such conditions as “weakness of the nervous system,” “emotional strain,” and “worriment … either over studies or personal affairs.” The report also noted that “only a few of the students were so situated as to be able to enter into society other than the companionship of their fellow-students.”24

Despite her comment that she “listened with undisguised curiosity and amazement,” Alice Stone Blackwell was hardly without knowledge of either homosexual or lesbian behavior. Alice herself had been smashed in 1881 by Theodora, the adopted daughter of emigrant Norwegian feminist artist Aasta Hansteen (who had served as the model for the character of Lona Hessel in Ibsen’s The Pillars of Society). Describing a visit to Hansteen’s studio, Alice remarked on the daughter’s behavior:

She did not squeeze me much this time, but held my hand & kissed it occasionally, which was much less objectionable. She told me how the children she played with at home used to call her “boy face,” which I take to be equivalent to tomboy; & how when she was little she begged her father for a suit of boy’s clothes… When I came away she stood on the steps with the sun making her fair hair bright, & watched me away up the street. They are an odd couple, she & her mother.25

Four months later Alice was still having her difficulties with Theodora:

The poor child has taken a liking to me — one of those wild unreasonable fancies which used to take for older girls — and she comes to Dr. Clarke’s on Sunday & sits by me & walks to the station with me afterward. I am sometimes a little at a loss how to deal with her, for she is uncouth in her ways — a sort of white bear’s cub. As we walked up & down the platform waiting for the train one Sunday, 1 tried to make conversation by saying that it was a beautiful sunshiny day. In reply to this highly original observation, she summoned up her English & answered — “You are the first sunshine in my heart.” And she dreamed about me at night, & tells me her dreams in extraordinary broken English … The mother is a bright woman, but odd. She is an artist, Papa does not like then; I fancy he has never quite got over his suspicion that that girl is a boy.25

It is also interesting to note that Blackwell retained her self-consciousness regarding overt manifestations of her love for women. In 1884, for example, she wrote, “I fell in love with Mrs. P. like a schoolgirl, & feel rather ashamed of it, like that man in Hypatia: I had supposed I was past that.”25

One reason that Alice Stone Blackwell might have had for not regarding behavior of this sort as perfectly innocent was her knowledge that sexual expression could play a part in such relationships. During her first semester at Boston University, in 1877, Professor Buck, her Greek instructor, had explained the concept and practice of so-called Greek love to his class — an action interpreted by some members of the Blackwell family as an attempt to corrupt the morals of the students. Alice quickly pointed out that since Greek literature was

so full of references to that particular vice, an understanding of what it was is absolutely necessary, to understand what you read. … As for recommending such a vice to the class, he didn’t… but he did say that the system had its good side to it, or to that effect.25

One of the most interesting aspects of the history of sexuality is the development of psychiatric and other prescriptive literature on homosexuality and lesbianism, beginning in 1869 with the publication of Westphal’s clinical description of two cases, one male and one female, in the Archiv für Psychologie, a German professional journal.26 The published Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General’s Office, United States Army, gives an idea of the extent to which this question was being discussed by both European and American writers.

The first sixteen-volume series of the Index-Catalogue appeared be tween 1880 and 1895. The index category most closely related to the topic under discussion in this article was “sexual instinct.” Under this general heading, 17 books and nine articles were listed. Its only subheading, “sexual instinct (perversion and disorders of),” included 30 books and 106 articles, the earliest of which was published in 1740, Generally, the term “inversion” was used to describe homosexuality and lesbianism, while “perversion” included these topics as well as such exotic variations as fetishism and necrophilia.

The second series of the catalog appeared between 1896 and 1916 and included entries primarily for materials published subsequent to the first series. The change between these two series, particularly as it related to women’s sexual behavior, is startling. The category “women,” for instance, which in the first series was simply that, was now broken down into a remarkably detailed set of subheadings and cross-references, including “masturbation in the female,” “nymphomania,” “sapphism,” “sexual instinct (inversion of),” and “sexual instinct (perversion of).” A volume-by-volume, term-by-term comparison of both series’ entries pertaining to women’s health reveals no difference in the methods of indexing. Obviously, then, the late-nineteenth-century medical world was focusing more and more attention on sexuality. Now, in addition to the general category “sexual instinct,” with 28 books and 38 articles, there were no fewer than 17 subheadings. The subheading “sexual instinct (inversion of)” listed 36 books and 228 articles. The other relevant category, “sexual instinct (perversion of),” contained 26 books and 300 articles.

Despite all this interest, few cases of female homosexuality ever came to the attention of researchers. For example, in their 1883 review article in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease,28 New York psychiatrists J. C. Shaw and G. N. Ferris observed that out of a total of 19 homosexual case histories described in both European and American literature since 1869, only two were female. Those women who did come to the attention of professionals were likely to be labeled sexual perverts or inverts, not because they engaged in any variant sexual activities, but ‘simply because they felt emotionally attracted to women or engaged in such suspicious practices as dressing in men’s clothing. For example, a translation of Krafft-Ebing’s 1884 article, “Perversion of the Sexual Instinct — Report of Cases,” appeared in the Alienist and Neurologist, one of the United States’ most influential psychiatric journals, in 1888.29 The one female case cited reported that she enjoyed dressing in men’s clothing because it was “more convenient,” Krafft-Ebing presented no evidence that she engaged in any sort of sexual activity with women, simply stating that “her friendship and self-sacrifices towards those she loved were boundless.” The subject also disliked the idea of establishing relationships with men and “was carrying on a purely Platonic love affair with a young woman and wrote her tender love-letters.” Is this really homosexual behavior?

Or is it a pejorative labeling directed more at evidence of a woman’s autonomy than at her sexual activity?

Perhaps the culmination of this tendency to define women’s love relationships as perversions, regardless of the sexual activity involved, was in Havelock Ellis’s 1897 book Sexual Inversion. Ellis’s definition and descriptions are worth more than passing notice, particularly when they are placed in the context of both nineteenth-century feminism and the specific examples of behavior in this article. Ellis used the words “homosexuality” and “lesbianism” interchangeably to describe women’s love relationships that did not necessarily include either physical involvement or actual genital contact. According to Ellis, women who loved women were abnormal, and they should more appropriately feel the pangs of guilt than the joy of innocence in contemplating their condition. Writing about his Case 29, for example, Ellis first let her talk about her own feelings:

Love is with me a religion. The very nature of my affection for my friends precludes the possibility of any element entering into it which is not absolutely pure and sacred.

Ellis then commented:

Miss M. can see nothing wrong in her feelings; and, until a year ago, [when] she came across the translation of Krafft-Ebing’s book, she had no idea “that feelings like mine” were “under the ban of society” as he puts it, or were considered unnatural and depraved. She is reticent regarding the details of her relationships, but it is evident that specific physical gratification plays no part in them.30

Intense friendships among schoolgirls, or between them and their teachers, were particularly suspect: “conventional propriety recognizes a considerable degree of physical intimacy between girls, thus at once encouraging and cloaking the manifestations of homosexuality.”30 What a contrast there is between this view and that of Frances Willard’s favorite, W.R. Alger, who only 30 years before had written the following romantic lines on the same subject:

Keener agonies, more delicious passages, are nowhere else known than in the bosoms of innocent schoolgirls, in the lacerations or fruitions of their first consciously given affections… . Probably no chapter of sentiment in modern fashionable life is so intense and rich as that which covers the experience of budding maidens at school. In their mental caresses, spiritual nuptials, their thoughts kiss each other, and more than all the blessedness the world will ever give them is foreshadowed.31

For Ellis, however, the most suspect women of all were feminists:

It has been stated by many observers who are able to speak with some authority — in America, in France, in Germany, in England — that homosexuality is increasing among women. It seems probable that this is true…. The modern movement of emancipation… must be regarded as, on the whole, a wholesome and inevitable movement, But it carries with it certain disadvantages. … Marriage is decaying, and while men are allowed freedom, the sexual field of women is becoming restricted to trivial flirtation with the opposite sex, and to intimacy with their own sex; having been taught independence of men and disdain for the old theory which placed women in the moated grange of the home to sigh for a man who never comes, a tendency develops for women to carry this independence still further and to find love where they find work. I do not say that these unquestionable influences of modern movements can directly cause sexual inversion, though they may indirectly, in so far as they promote hereditary neurosis; but they develop the germs of it. and they probably cause a spurious imitation. This spurious imitation is due to the fact that the congenital anomaly occurs with special frequency in women of high intelligence who, voluntarily or involuntarily, influence others.32

In other words, lesbianism is a highly contagious disease to which feminists and other independent, autonomous women are particularly susceptible! In light of this, it should hardly seem remarkable that Henry James’ classic novel about the feminist movement, The Bostonians, which was first published in book form in 1886,33 was omitted from the twenty-six volume Scribner edition of his works published between 1907 and 1917.34

This work was not reissued in the United States until 1945, when Philip Rahv in his preface described as its most disquieting feature its keen analysis of “the emotional economy of the Lesbian woman.”35 And yet nowhere in the novel can one find evidence of any variant sexual behavior whatsoever. Rahv’s conclusion is drawn from the equation of autonomy and emotional commitment between women with actual lesbian sexual activity. The point is not whether these women really were lesbians; it is rather that they are called lesbians on the basis of their autonomous emotional behavior and not on the basis of their sexual behavior.

In the late nineteenth century a very definite change was occurring in definitions of normal patterns of women’s relationships. There was a great deal of pressure against the intense, emotional, sensual, even sexual commitment between women that had existed without censure during the earlier part of the century, and we can reasonably expect that many women adjusted their behavior to conform to the new standards. Those who refused to conform, for whatever reason, were risking the disapproval, condemnation, and persecution of both society and their own potentially divided selves.

The question now is why. Why, during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, were relationships between women allowed to exist with the intensity that we have seen? Why was this a viable option? Why did this begin to change in the late nineteenth century, at a time when there was an active feminist movement, development of higher education for women, and a scientific-medical interest in the question of homoemotional and homosexual behavior?

One characteristic of the first generation of feminists, such as Susan B. Anthony and Anna E. Dickinson, was their intense religiosity — their internalization of Christian principles through either childhood training or later evangelical conversion. Whether one chooses to call it inner light, Garrisonian radical Christianity, or romantic evangelicalism, its essential features were the same:

emphasis upon the intuitive perception of truth through the feelings or emotions of the heart, emphasis upon a Christocentric theology in which “the personality of Jesus” became more important than the moral order of God, and upon a concomitant sentimental idealization of women, children, and parenthood as the most perfect embodiments if not the most efficient means of grace.

According to these principles, social relations should be based on love, not force. Therefore, restrictions — be they custom or “legally” enacted statutes — against love, in whatever form, were contrary to the spirit of Christ’s example. As defined by the Bible, particularly the Gospel of St. John, the highest form of love was that of friend for friend. Hymns such as “I’ve Found a Friend, Oh, Such a Friend” and “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” reinforced this link between earthly relationships and the spiritually divine. Certainly it could be argued that if Jesus were the ultimate friend, then behavior acceptable in his presence should also be acceptable with one’s earthly friends. Speculate on the implications of such hymn phrases as

Safe in the arms of ‘Jesus, Safe on His gentle breast
There by His love O’ershaded, Sweetly my soul shall rest
Here let me wait in patience, Wait till the night is o’er
Wait till I see the morning Break on the golden shore.

Or, “There are depths of love that I cannot know Till I cross the narrow sea, There are heights of joy that I may not reach Till I rest in peace with Thee.”38 It is not insignificant that these lines were written by a woman, Fanny J. Crosby. Nor is it insignificant that Havelock Ellis’s Case 29 described her feelings for other women in these terms: “‘Love is with me a religion. The very nature of my affection for my friends precludes the possibility of any element entering into it which is not absolutely pure and sacred’.” By defining their love for other women as a spiritual force, women were, in many cases, able to sublimate any sexual feelings they may have had and make the intensity of their relationships acceptable to society.

In a sense, the feminist movement itself subverted the heightened emotional commitment which had typified women’s relationships during most of the nineteenth century. As women began to be perceived by themselves and others as being capable of rational, intellectual thought, it seems evident that they would want to use this ability, rather than their emotions, to make decisions advancing their position vis a vis the male world, and, in their search for equality with men, that they would perceive this capacity as being on a higher status scale than that of the emotions. For example, in 1888, at an Association of Collegiate Alumnae meeting in Boston, Sarah L. Miner argued that among the qualities a woman gained by college training were

the ability to be controlled by correct judgment and sense of right instead of by impulse, the ability to plan for herself, a knowledge of relative values, a knowledge of the difference between means and ends, thoroughness, system, concentration, and power of reflection.39

Another alumna commented that the college woman “learns to subordinate personal prejudice to impartial logic.”40

This downplaying of emotion by the first generation of college women was observed by Jane Addams, herself a member of this group, who noted that they had

departed too suddenly from the active, emotional life led by their grandmothers and great-grandmothers…. somewhere in the process of “being educated” they had lost that simple and almost automatic response to the human appeal, that old healthful reaction resulting in activity from the mere presence of suffering or of helplessness.41

Likewise, Gail Parker says that Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the second generation of suffrage leaders, “never really believed in the inner light or the potential sublimity of women’s souls.”41

At the same time, members of the growing professional scientific, medical, psychiatric, and social scientific communities assumed the roles of definers and arbiters of acceptable and desirable — i.e., normal — behavior. Female friendships now began to be seen not only as purely spiritual unions but as sexual ones as well, even if only on an unconscious level.

What constitutes normal behavior? Psychiatric historian Erwin. Ackerknecht observed nearly twenty years ago that

what is psychologically normal depends to a high degree on the attitudes of different societies. … The criterion by which a person in any society is judged to be mentally ill is not primarily the presence of certain unvarying and universally occurring symptoms. It depends rather on whether the affected individual is capable of some minimum of adaptation and social functioning within his society, or whether the psychological change has progressed to such an extent that he has become a foreign body in his society.42

As long as women loved each other as they did for much of the nineteenth century, without threatening the system itself, their relationships either were simply ignored by men or were regarded as an acceptable part of the female sphere. Feminists, college graduates, and other independent women, however, were a real threat to the established order, and one way to control these sexless termites, hermaphroditic spinsters, or what-ever one might call them, was to condemn their love relationships — the one aspect of their behavior which, regardless of their other social, political, or economic activities, posed a basic threat to a system where the fundamental expression of power was that of one sex over another.


My thanks for their comments, criticisms, suggestions about sources, and supportive good feelings to Blanche W. Cook, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Pat Haines, Bill Leach, and Wilma Slaight; and my appreciation to the many people who offered encouragement after hearing earlier versions of this paper at the Third Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, June 11, 1976, and the 1977 winter meeting of the Chesapeake Area Group of Women Historians.


1. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).

2. Adrienne Rich. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1976).

3. Caroll Smith-Rosenberg. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Ninewenth-Century America,” Signs 1, No, 1 (Autumn 1975), pp. 1-30.

4. Blanche Wiesen Cook, “Female Support Networks and Political Activism: Lillian Wald. Crystal Eastman, Emma Goldnan.” Chrysalis, No. 3 (1977). p. 48.

5. Louise Brackert to Anna E. Dickinson, (a) June 15, 1863, and (b) March 8, 1865, Anna E. Dickinson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

6. Laura Curtis Bullard to Anna E. Dickinson, (2) April 2, (b) June 6, and (c) June 8, 1872, Anna E. Dickinson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

7. Susan B. Anthony to Anna E. Dickinson, (2) October 23, 1866, (b) March 18, 1868, (c) November 11, 1869, and (d) November 5, 1895, Anna E. Dickinson Papers, Manuscript Division. Library of Congress.

8. Giraud Chester, Embattled Maiden: The Life of Anna Dickinson (New York: Putnam, 1951), p. 217.

9. Handwritten transcription of “The Rose of Welleslee,” from the Harvard Lampoon, 1979, Class of 1879 Papers, Wellesley College Archives.

10. Wellesley College, Regulations, 1876 and 1890, and “Legislation of Wellesley College,” 1875-1888, Wellesley College Archives.

11. “Statutes of Wellesley College.” in Acts of Incorporation, Deeds of Gift, and Statutes of Wellesley College (Boston: Frank Wood. 1885).

12. Erving Goffman, Asylums (New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1961).

13. Frances Robinson Johnson to her mother, (2) June 1 and (b) June 14, 1876, Frances Robinson Johnson Papers, Wellesley College Archives.

14. Marion Talbot and Lois Kimball Mathews Rosenberry, The History of the American Association of University Women, 1881-1931 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1931). pp. 16. 115-117.

15. Health Statistics of Women College Graduates, Report of a Special Committee of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, Annie G. Hawes, Chairman (Boston: Wright and Porter, 1885).

16. Edward H. Clarke. Sex in Education, or, A Fair Chance for Girls (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1873), pp. 14, 92-93.

17. Letter to the Yale Courant, reprinted in The Cornell Times, March 15, 1873.*

18. Mary Earhart Dillon, Frances Willard: From Prayers to Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1944).

19. Josiah Gilbert Holland. Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married (New York: C. Scribner, 1858).

20. Frances E. Willard. Glimpses of Fifty Years, the Autobiography of an American Woman (Chicago: Woman’s Temperance Publishing Association, 1889).

21. William Rounseville Alger. The Friendships of Women (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868).

22. Edith Finch, Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947). (a) p. 47 and (b) pp. 48-49.

23. Alice Stone Blackwell to Kitty Barry Blackwell, March 12, 1882, Blackwell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

24. Health Statistics, passim.

25. Alice Stone Blackwell to Kitty Barry Blackwell, (2) October 10, 1880, (b) February 20, 1881, (c) November 30, 1884, and (d) December 24, 25, and 31, 1877, and January 1, 1878, Blackwell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

26. “Die conträre Sexualempfindung”, Archiv für Psychologie, Band Il, Heft I, S. (1869), pp. 73-108, (Abstract in reference 25, pp. 187-189.)

27. Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General’s Office, United States Army, 1st Series Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1895) and 2nd Series (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896-1916).

28. J.C. Shaw and G. N. Ferris, “Perverted Sexual Instinct,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 10, No. 2 (April 1883).

29. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, “Perversion of the Sexual Instinct — Report of Cases,” translated by A. M. Jewett, Alienistt and Neurologist 9 (1888), pp. 565-581.

30. Havelock Ellis, Sexual Inversion (New York: Arno Press, 1975; reprint of the 897 edition), (2) p. 89 and (b) pp. 84-85.

31. Alger, op. cit, pp. 269-271.

32. Ellis, op. cit, pp. 99-100.

33. Henry James. The Bostonians (London and New York: Macmillan and Co., 1886),

34. Henry James, The Novels and Tales. of Henry James, 26 vols. (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons. 1907-1917).

35. Cited in Jeannette Poster, Sex Variant Women in Literature (Baltimore: Diana Press, 1975; reprint of 1956 edition), pp. 95-96.

36. William G. McLoughlin. ed., The American Evangelicals 1800-1900, An Anthology (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 14.

37. Aileen Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 83.

38. Fanny J. Crosby. (a) “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” and (b) IAm Thine, O Lord reprinted in The Mission Hymnal (Chicago: Biglow & Main, 1913), Nos. 41 and 13.

39. Ellis, op. cit, p. 89.

40. Secretary’s Report, April 28, 1888, Papers of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, in American Association of University Women, Boston Branch Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.

41. Gait Parker, ed, The Oven Birds (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. 1972), (a) p. 48 and (b) p. 12.

42. Erwin H. Ackerknecht, A Short History of Psychiatry (New York and London: Hafner Publishing Company. 1959). pp. 2:3.

* I am grateful to Patricia Foster Haines for providing me with this reference.

Nancy Sahil is on the staff of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission in Washingron. She is currently working on a bibliography on women and sexuality in America, to be published by G.K. Hall.

First published in: Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture, No. 8, (Summer, 1979), pp. 17-27


Holland on boarding-school friendships

… Still others yoke themselves in pairs, drawn together by sympathetic attraction, and by community of mental exercise on the subject of beaux. You shall see them walking through the streets, locked arm in arm, plunging into the most charming confidences…

… a female boarding school, shut off from general society by law, its members lacking free exercise in the open air, denied the privilege of daily amusements, and presided over by teachers who fail to understand the nature of the precious material they have in charge, is as much worse for mind and morals … as can well be imagined.

… I know boarding-schools where beaux are the everlasting topic of conversation, and where an unhealthy imagination is so stimulated by irrational restraints and mutual fellow-feeding, that the foundation of nearly every character is necessarily laid in rottenness.

Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married: The Transition from Girlhood to Womanhood

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