Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleves (review)
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LGBTQ studies, Same-sex marriage and relationships, History of sexuality

Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. By Rachel Hope Cleves. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 296. Cloth, $29.95.)

To say that Charity & Sylvia fills a void in the history of early America is an understatement. Charity & Sylvia portrays in great detail an intimate relationship between two women in the early decades of the nineteenth century. They fell in love, worked together, set up a household and the [End Page 320] rest—they say—is herstory. They chose each other over any (and every) man and never feigned otherwise. They bound themselves to each other for life and everyone recognized this, from family members and neighbors to church authorities and tax collectors. The abundance of surviving information about their lives, painstakingly pieced together by the author, leads to an absolutely unprecedented view of same-sex love and intimacy between women in the early republic. No longer can anyone pretend that such relationships were restricted to the other side of the Atlantic, as historians have been known to do.

Early Americanists will love looking at familiar topics such as the frontier, work, religion, health, family, and education through this unique lens. While they may have charted an unusual path for their adult lives, Charity and Sylvia’s childhoods were well-marked by the larger forces that made coming of age in the revolution’s wake a trying and unstable time for many. Both women’s families faced economic hardship, illness, and separation. Both pursued education while rejecting the company of men. Both became beloved, engaged aunts later in life while refusing motherhood. But their young adult lives also diverged dramatically before coming together in 1807.

If language did not betray our ability to see beyond a gender binary, we might characterize Charity as a lady’s man. Charity had many female lovers and was adored by countless others. Of Charity, Cleves writes that women found ''her masculine independence and authority attractive''(x). Her ''masculine demeanor,'' combined with her penchant for intimacies with women, ''troubled onlookers'' (42). Charity had many lovers before meeting Sylvia. We know her relationship with Mercy was ''passionate, physically intimate'' (71). Charity loved another woman named Lydia whose heart she broke, plain and simple. They wrote of their forbidden love and longed for a ''reunion of their bosoms,'' which the author attributes to a ''sexual culture of breast play'' that was common at the time (78–80). Charity suffered devastating personal rejection early in life, when her father withdrew support from her because she was a ''different sort of woman'' (25). Later, she moved repeatedly to escape rumors that dogged her as she pursued connections with other woman that were ''beyond ordinary'' (38). Few must have been surprised when she announced she would never marry.

Sylvia’s trajectory into romantic partnership with a woman seemed less of a foregone conclusion. She was the youngest in a family who ''lived in the poorest and most isolated part'' of town (10). She also [End Page 321] showed little interest in men, and her pursuit of education became an acceptable excuse for delaying courtship. Sylvia was staying in the Vermont home of her brother Asaph Haward and his wife Polly when Charity arrived to visit her old friends in February 1807. Charity resumed her work as a tailor during this time and enjoyed the assistance of Sylvia, who served as her apprentice. While Sylvia herself was not shy about her aversion to marriage, the arrival of Charity introduced her to a new world of romance and companionship. The spring thaw brought news of their love to light. As Cleves writes, ''From the moment that Charity and Sylvia met to the moment Charity died, the women spent only one month apart: June 1807'' (97).

The idea that Sylvia and Charity were engaged in a marital relationship will surely be subject of critical scrutiny by some readers. The author marshals a convincing amount of evidence to support the claim that not only did Sylvia and Charity view each other as spouses, but that everyone else did as well. In a memoir, Charity...


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