Charity and Sylvia Blog Post –Alex Poly

Alexandra Polymeropoulos

Charity and Sylvia Blog Post 


  • Rachel Cleves’ book Charity and Sylvia describes a beautiful lesbian relationship that spans over 40 years, highlighting poetry, diary entries, and letters that described their union. 
  • Engaging in traditionally heteronormative practices directly allowed these two women to survive in the 1800’s, specifically through adopting masculine vs feminine roles—Charity behaved like a husband whereas Sylvia behaved like a “help meet” (other known as a wife) and “companion” (introduction,101, 133).  
  • Cleves includes relevant information regarding their family history that led to their meeting, such as Charity being disowned at 20 years old, her sexual and romantic exploits with other young teachers, and their eventual meet in Vermont 9 years later. Most importantly, however, is the inclusion of how both women used their positions in society as a means to live openly, where neighbors relied on them and their extremely important work throughout the community thus making it impossible to ostracize Charity and Sylvia entirely. 
  • For the roughly the first half of the book, Cleaves focuses on their lives prior to meeting and then continues in the final half by exploring their relationship, issues surrounding finances, religious shame, and marriage/marriage equality among others.


  • I really enjoyed reading Charity and Sylvia as a lesbian who has studied queer history and queer literature in depth, which has led me to a similar conclusion of Cleaves—that our modern understanding of acceptance in the west is not a unique experience. In fact, same sex relationships were prevalent throughout history as well as transgender or cross dressing individuals that were loud and proud about who they were, contrary to the idea we have adopted surrounding historical figures simply staying inside the closet. I was surprised that Cleaves stands out against many of her peers given how queer studies has developed overtime, and I appreciate her research in this field of study. 
  • The span of their influence and how they achieved that is what interested me the most, especially regarding interactions within the community and their own families. Specifically, raising over 100 nieces and nephews, working at the church for sunday school, teaching young children, operating a tailor shop using needlework to address financial imbalances, and using gender norms led to this method of assimilation/conforming that made it easier for the couple to live comfortably. Not only was this strategic, it also allowed Charity the ability to express her masculinity in an acceptable way by taking on the economic and societal role of a husband—wearing more masculine clothing, being in charge of the finances, etc while Sylvia essentially became a housewife (132, 203). I think they were extremely intelligent and were able to be themselves authentically through these practices, but I wonder what would have happened if Charity was not a masculine/butch lesbian. Would they have been able to not only live peacefully but be viewed as a legitimate ‘marriage’ or would that have been impossible? 
  • Additionally, one aspect of the book that was hard to read through was the shame included in their religious writings. It is clear they had sex but that religious shame impacted their idea of “sins” and what was deemed as morally acceptable or righteous behavior (128, 158). This part made me sad because I used to feel similarly until I met gay affirming pastors and congregations that introduced me into biblical research. Finally, I was able to study how language changed overtime and specifically, how homosexual was never used in the Bible before the 18th/19th centuries. No one likes to address that however, so it is hard for LGBTQIA+ youth who are exposed to harmful and INACCURATE teachings about homosexual they internalize. It makes sense that so much of their correspondence and Charity’s writings in particular were destroyed as they wished to keep certain aspects of their relationship private and other aspects only for those that already accepted them in their community (though imagine your siblings findings in depth passages about your sex life—way too awkward. I would have wanted to get rid of them too especially if my reputation with my wife relied on being open but “silent” in larger society). 
  • Most notably, however, is how living in an “open closet” only worked due to selective “silences” in which community members, family, and neighbors alike kept Charity and Sylvia’s relationship as a shared secret. In contrast to what we see now, the couple thrived based upon strategic trial and error that allowed them to be accepted and loved in the community as “aunts” without hiding who they were. I think this book is such a beautiful example of how there are many gaps throughout queer history just waiting to be discovered and filled, whether accident is lou like Cleaves did or intentionally through research is this field. Definitely my favorite read so far and I’m excited to discuss it further in class!!! 

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