Marriage is a Natural Institution: Just Ask Charity and Sylvia




“If I were permitted to draw aside the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me most interesting history of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sicknesss; for sickness has made long and frequent visits to their dwelling. I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband. I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, which now in the days of their broken health, bloom wild without their tendance, and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them, but I have already said more than I fear they will forgive me for, if this should ever meet their eyes, and I must leave the subject.”

—William Cullen Bryant, Letters of a Traveller (1850)


The next book up on my Kindle is Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, about the 40-plus year shared life of two women in rural Vermont in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Laura Miller reviewed the book here; Rebecca Onion interviewed Cleves here.

Jim Burroway regularly includes, in Box Turtle Bulletin‘s “Daily Agenda” feature, stories of gay marriages that made it into the historical record. Their situations vary—sometimes, as inthis story, one partner lived as the opposite gender. Sometimes these marriages were secretive, sometimes they were acknowledged by a small circle, like the gay or bohemian or exile community in which the couple lived. Burroway often highlights relatively unknown couples that appear in newspaper articles as novelties or anomalies, but of course there were more prominent examples, and anyone who spends any time in the literature of the past is going to come across a gay marriage. There’s Allen Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky; there’s Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, whose marriage was even acknowledged (with a bit of a smirk) by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. Then there are “Boston marriages,” so-named after characters in Henry James The Bostonians, reputedly based on a relationship of the author’s sister.

What makes Charity and Sylvia distinctive is that their marriage was recognized in some measure by their wider community. In fact, Miller describes Cleves’ book as “a story of the love between those two women and their town,” in which the couple was an “integral and beloved fixture.” As Cleves documents, one local memoirist said that “in town he always heard it mentioned as if Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other.” And the women’s families seemed to respect their relationship as a marriage, too: Charity’s sister-in-law wrote the women, “I consider you both one as man and wife are one,” and Sylvia’s brother told Charity that “I consider you and my Sister Sylvia Happely one.”

One of the tropes you see a lot when you read anti-gay marriage arguments goes like this: the state can’t redefine marriage because marriage is a timeless institution, one that predates the state itself. For example, here’s Ryan T. Anderson, writing last year: “The government does not create marriage. Marriage is a natural institution that predates government. Society as a whole, not merely any given set of spouses, benefits from marriage.”

You know what? That’s one talking point with which I agree.* The state doesn’t determine what is truly a marriage and what is not. The state merely tries (hopefully tries its best) to recognize marriage as it exists.

But that’s not an argument against gay marriage, because, by that standard, gay marriage has always existed, too. In fact, Cleves’ and Burroway’s documentation shows that it’s actually a pretty good argument in favor of gay marriage.

Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to Cleves’ book, which you can order from Book People here.


*Obviously, I disagree with Anderson’s next sentence: “This is because marriage helps to channel procreative love into a stable institution that provides for the orderly bearing and rearing of the next generation.” But that’s a topic for another post. Actually, many many other posts.


One thought on “Marriage is a Natural Institution: Just Ask Charity and Sylvia

  1. Pingback: Sexless as the Bees? Part II: Back to the Little House | Letters to the Catholic Right

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s