Charity and Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage In Early America

Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, illustrates the relationships between two young lesbians. These two, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, were born in the early days of the American Era. Their lives saw distress from a young age, as Charity believed that “her mother’s death destined her to become a ‘child of melancholy'” (3), however, the author asserts that this was not uncommon for the time period. Many people regularly lost their parents and faced an early orphanhood, even people in Charity’s own life, such as Lydia, had only one parent.

The assertions that many of the narratives that are upheld by people now about the people from the early national era are incorrect makes up a large majority of the text, and I find it very interesting. Firstly, the discussions of Daniel’s suicide and the intense emotional connection that he had with Gideon shows that the “friendly” relationships we imagine between people of this time period were not free from any sort of drama. Accounts of the time period don’t take into account relationships like Gideon and Daniel’s so they don’t fully show what was happening during the time period. Relationships that ended poorly– like the one I described above– may have weighed on someone like Charity and make it so she was more cautious to end up in relationships.

Along with this Chapter 5, So Many Friends, introduces a really interesting point and an additional layer to the perceptions of people from the early national era. “If Charity did not fall in love with teaching a job, she did fall in love with many of her fellow teachers” (36). This sentence absolutely floored me when I read it, I had never thought about the fact that many teachers didn’t marry not out of a lack of suitors, but because their suitors were not eligible for marriage. Along with this, the discussion of the sexual adventures of school teachers and school girls alike shows that people of this time were not as prudish as we view them now. On page 65, Cleaves explains that stories that we see as popular from the time were “prescriptive, not descriptive,” (65) as many couples were documented having children that were a result of premarital sex. The pedestal we’ve placed people from time periods similar to these on are based on the concept of sexual purity, but this concept seems to have been completely fabricated.

Charity’s relationships to both Mercy and Lydia reveals that she was beginning to worry her parents with her lack of interest in relationships with men. The relationship she has with Lydia also reveals that people in the early national era were not always faithful to their significant others. Many arguments have been made about how divorce has essentially ruined the sanctity of marriage and they turn to the relationships from days prior to suggest that they were more “stable.” However, partnerships like Lydia’s and Charity’s shows that even without divorce fidelity is not required. While writing this, I realized that this relationship would most likely not be a valid one in the eyes of many who use arguments against divorce, but I still think it’s an example of how it was normalized in society.

To change topics briefly, Charity and Sylvia benefitted from being able to fit into the heteronormative roles of “husband” and “wife.” This is particularly seen on page 101 where Sylvia is described as Charity’s help-meet. The term “help-meet” is derived from the Bible, and suggests that the woman is supposed to help with her husband’s duties as a good Christian and head of household. If they had refused to subscribe to these traditional household roles as seen in their community, the community may not have been as comfortable with this relationship. Obviously, all two women households caused some sort of stress on a community as they began to fear same-sex couples becoming the normal in their areas; however, relationships like Charity and Sylvia’s were able to find solace in small Christian communities. As they lived in an “open-closet” they may never have come out to their peers and community members, but it was practically assumed that they were a couple.

Finally, Cleaves brings up the belief that many historians and archivists have been suspected of purposefully misplacing documents that would show the true nature of queer relationships. This shows just how many gaps there are in queer history and why narratives such as Rachel Hope Cleaves’ book are important to the future of queer history. Telling queer history to the fullest extent that we can will help future generations to see that they are allowed to embrace their identity to the fullest extent.

Alex Lagon

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