It's safe to say that same-sex marriage is an idea whose time has come. Recent years have seen one state after another legalize it or remove obstacles to its passage; the U.S. Supreme Court has opted not to hear appeals from states seeking to uphold gay-marriage bans.
The matter is far from settled in the United States. But the heated ongoing debate gives a special timeliness to a book about an obscure relationship in the first half of the 19th century: two women who lived openly as, for all practical purposes, "married" in rural Vermont.
Rachel Hope Cleves' Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, published this past May, is not only about a pair of Vermonters — Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake. The author also did much of her research in the collection of Middlebury's Henry Sheldon Museum. Cleves, a historian at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, returns to Vermont next week for a talk at Middlebury College, followed by a book signing and exhibit reception at the Sheldon.
According to Eva Garcelon-Hart, the research archivist at the Sheldon, the exhibit comprises Charity and Sylvia artifacts such as letters, poems, business records, diaries, hairpieces and other ephemera. There's also an adult-size cradle; both women "were kind of sickly at the end of their lives, and a relative built it," says Garcelon-Hart. Finally, the exhibition displays silhouette portraits of Charity and Sylvia, the only extant images of the couple from that pre-photography era.
For several decades in Weybridge, the women ran a successful tailoring business; they were active in their church and community and loving aunties to many nieces and nephews. The community appears to have accepted the women's relationship, though no written records refer to a sexual aspect.
Cleves came across the story of Sylvia and Charity while reading a biography of William Cullen Bryant, the renowned poet and abolitionist, who was Charity's nephew. In a letter referring to his visit to Vermont, he described his aunt's partnership. "It was beautiful, it was poetic, and it was also very explicitly describing a marriage between two women," Cleves told the Boston Globe in June.
Why does a story about an early-19th-century female couple — who most certainly could not be legally married — resonate now?
The Globe article puts it this way:
Ten years after the first legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, much has been made by supporters of how pioneering the underlying court decision was; critics meanwhile, portray it [as] a new and radical upending of traditional values. But the lives of Drake and Bryant suggest that the story is not so simple: Such relationships have existed, in various forms, through American history. And more than that ... an early American community could genuinely recognize a same-sex relationship as a household...
Over the decade Cleves was researching and writing Charity & Sylvia, the legal landscape of same-sex relationships has shifted radically. Her book arrives at what may be a tipping point for attitudes concerning gay marriage in the U.S. Meantime, according to Garcelon-Hart, the slim volume — made possible by records in a small Vermont history museum — offers a worthwhile story on its own. "The book reads like a great novel," she says.