Charity and Sylvia Post

Rachel Hope Cleves’¬†Charity and Sylvia¬†tells the overlooked history of two nineteenth century women who pledged to spend the rest of their lives together and with the help of their faith and the culture of tolerance based on silence were recognized as a couple by their peers. The book explains how the women were able to survive together in a patriarchal society and how they gained acceptance from that patriarchal society. Cleves’ delves into both women’s histories prior to their meeting each other and how those histories shaped their futures and their relationship to one another. When Charity and Sylvia met in 1807, they found kindred souls and remained together for over four decades. Their union faced tribulations from the economic struggle of two independent women in an already economically unstable period as well as the more personal issues related to the conflicts of their religion and the “‘unclean’ sins” they committed with each other (128). Sylvia, in particular, struggled with the faith versus sexuality conflict and her diary often took a self-flagellating tone when she considered the state of her soul. Charity felt the same struggle and had a habit of falling ill on some Sundays which suggests her pervading unease about her faith.

The marital dynamic that the women set up for themselves placed Charity at the head of the household and into the infamous role of “female husband” (133). Charity performed all of the business for the couple and performed other social roles associated with husbands while Sylvia performed more of the domestic duties. Charity was also recognized by their peers as the head of the household and even by the Census one year. The society they lived in tolerated their relationship because they were upstanding role models for other women in the community. They were devoted to their faith and donated much of their time and money to religious works. They also were vital, active participants in their community of Weybridge where young women would come to learn essential seamstress skills. Because the women performed good deeds, the community was able to overlook their implied sexual misdeeds. Charity and Sylvia’s marriage is interesting in that it fulfills much of the heterosexual norms of marriage and can be said to be heteronormative while also maintaining a more egalitarian relationship than heterosexual couples would have had at that time.

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