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  • Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleves
  • Jessica Robertson
Cleves, Rachel Hope. Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (2014). 336 pages. ISBN: 978-0199335428

In Charity and Sylvia, Rachel Hope Cleves addresses same-sex marriage in America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Cleves analyzes the narrative of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake two women who provide insight into the social and historical constructs of marriage equality, gender, and sexuality. She highlights three key elements in Charity and Sylvia: the importance of family narrative, the role of gender in eighteenth-and nineteenth century American society, and the importance of embracing diversity in society. Cleves provides a compelling overview of this marriage, engaging key questions about Charity and Sylvia: What were the circumstances of their childhood upbringings? Did they have other romantic relationships? Did they have a sexual relationship? How did Charity and Sylvia gain acceptance in their communities including their local church?

Cleves's account demonstrates the ways in which the women were 'married' and functioned as a homonormative couple. In doing so, she calls on historians to rethink social constructions of marriage and family, providing ample context for the relationship. Born in 1777, Charity was nearly thirty when she met Sylvia in 1807 (p. x). In 1784, war swept through Massachusetts, wreaking havoc on the colony and foreshadowing the economic misfortune to come. To help readers understand Charity and Sylvia as individuals within a marriage, Cleves describes the Bryant and Drake families, both affected by the war. This setting, including the loss of family members and changing family structure illustrates the circumstances that brought Charity and Sylvia together on the Vermont frontier.

Cleves notes that the Drakes were fortunate not to lose any family during the revolutionary war (p. 8). They did, however, suffer significant financial losses in the depression that followed. In 1784, they were homeless and destitute. According to probate records, the standard of living was much lower than depicted by newspapers, paralleling, Cleves asserts, the severity of the 1930s Great Depression (p. 9).

Prior to meeting and falling in love, Charity and Sylvia's lives were illustrative of the experiences of many eighteenth century single women, as evidenced by their pursuits of teaching and literature. Neither Charity nor Sylvia is representative of the "feminine married woman" depicted in prescriptive literature of the day. Both women found solace in the teaching profession, which offered them increased freedom and education not afforded to women who married. Charity's "independent mindedness" (p. 28) is revealed in her writing and teaching, both of which reflect the impact of social change and support for women's education. The Revolution brought with it, "a movement to improve education for girls, creating [End Page 357] a generation of young women with the skills to instruct children in elementary school" (p. 28). Teaching allowed women to pursue wider intellectual pursuits, as illustrated by Charity's poetry and prose. This agency did not extend to all professions: Sylvia wanted to become a minister, but the social constraints on women made that unfeasible. This restriction applied to both public and private spheres, where individuals were pressured to comply with social norms, as is evident in Charity's marginalization for her sexuality and free-spiritedness.

Cleves writes a narrative of a couple who defied normative conventions of the time by choosing to perform heterosexual norms in their relationship, in order to remain within a committed same-sex relationship. In doing so, she invites readers to reconsider the roles in a normative marriage. Cleves draws on numerous strengths, including thick description of the community's climate, Charity and Sylvia's individual lives, and their relationship. Charity and Sylvia is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the story of same-sex marriage in America. Given ongoing public dialogue about same-sex marriage in the United States today, Cleves's work demonstrates that long-lasting same sex relationships (or marriages) are not a recent development.

Cleves's careful use of sources, allows for both Charity and Sylvia's voices to be represented, though little historical record exists from Charity's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1929-9850
Print ISSN
0047-2328
Pages
pp. 357-359
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-13
Open Access
No
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