- Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic by Cassandra Good
Sex, Gender, Friendship, Family, Relationships
Cassandra Good begins and ends her book with references to the movie When Harry Met Sally (1989) and its seemingly age-old proposition that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” This was a belief held among elites in the early republic as in our own day. And yet Good finds that many succeeded in building male–female friendships, and that these relationships were important and fulfilling for all involved.
In her introduction, Good defines what she means by friendships between men and women and the ways in which this type of relationship has a history. She then gives in-depth examples of three such friendships in the first chapter, before turning to an analysis of their cultural contexts. In five central chapters, she explains how novel and advice writers had little to say about male–female friendships other than that they were risky; compares this lack of treatment with the era’s more ample discussions of the pitfalls and proper conduct of romantic relationships; explores how men and women positioned their friendships in public given these uncertain rules; and shows how they maintained their relationships through exchanges of letters and gifts. The final chapter explores how friendships between men and women at the apex of early national society allowed women access to power in the form of influence, patronage, and political information.
Good is deeply conversant with the literatures on related subjects (and [End Page 399] sheds new light on marriage and same-sex friendship), while carving out a new area of inquiry. A caveat is that Good’s subjects are confined to the literate, white, middling and affluent sort who possessed the means and literacy to read the advice books and novels she discusses and to correspond with one another. This reader wonders whether she too readily eliminates ordinary folk. On the other hand, Good’s exploration of the relationship between prescriptive literature and behavior is one of the book’s strengths. She finds that advice books and novels had plenty to say about conduct with persons of the opposite sex, but always in the context of courtship and marriage. Given that context, commentators were pessimistic about the possibility of safe friendships between men and women. Good thus argues that the men and women she studies were undertaking a sort of cultural experimentation when they formed and maintained friendships with each other, making up their own rules as they went along. She pays close attention to the relevant models, emotional expressions, and language available to her subjects. She compares these friendships to different family relations, carefully distinguishing throughout the book, for example, between male–female friendship and courtship leading to marriage. While acknowledging that one could evolve into the other, Good insists that male–female friendships had their own benefits.
Given the law of coverture, it is relatively easy for Good to distinguish male–female friendships from marriage. Friendship was by nature egalitarian; unlike marriage, one party did not have rights or mastery over the other. She might have done more to consider the unequal situations of men and women more generally, especially in public. Good describes the pains men and women had to take to observe proprieties in their friendships; these had to be open to public observation. But there were real differences in the constraints on men’s and women’s behavior in public. Good occasionally refers to friendships in which women depended on men for help, from widows raising sons to the simple need for an escort. These needs were related to power differences between the genders, and Good might have explored more deeply the effects of those power differences on their friendships.
The other and more salient model for male–female friendship was that between siblings. Good acknowledges this, but gives the comparison scant treatment. She notes that men and women...