gender studies

Charity and Sylvia: An “Open Secret” in Nineteenth-Century America

In honor of Pride month, I decided to post a few book reviews for those interested in LGBTQ history. In my first semester of graduate school, I took a gender theory class which changed my perspective on so many aspects of queer history and gender studies. By sharing these book reviews and some analysis, my hope is that A- these books will be read to achieve a better understanding of the LGBTQ community environment, which has been present since the dawn of time, and B- that it opens some eyes to the varying relationships, both personal and communal, that gay and transgender men and women became apart of even before they were widely or publically discussed in the United States. This will be the first in a series of posts surrounding gender theory which I will post on the newly created, Gender Studies page. However, gender studies encompass far more than LGBTQ history and will include works on the history of masculinity, feminism, gender roles, rights, the concept of mastery, race, and how these things, in combination, changed or affected the outcomes of major historical periods and events. I hope you enjoy these works and please feel free to leave feedback, and don’t forget to share with other readers.

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Cleves, Rachel Hope. 2014. Charity and Sylvia. New York: Oxford University Press.

For more than forty years, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake lived as husband and wife in Weybridge, Vermont. Through a series of letters, diaries, memoirs, and poems written by Charity, Sylvia, and Charity’s nephew, William Bryant, author Rachel Cleves reconstructs their lives and challenges conventional perceptions of queer history. In contrast to the majority of queer studies, Cleves contends that the communal atmosphere of rural Vermont, opposed to an urban one allowed Charity and Sylvia the freedom to maintain, as what friends and neighbors described as a marriage. Cleves defines the town’s acceptance of the two women as an “open secret” which allowed Charity and Sylvia to run a business, hire employees, and own land while freely and openly living as a same-sex couple. It is this “open secret” concept as well as post-revolutionary ideals of individualism, liberty, and cultural change which Cleves argues eliminates the “closet” for Charity and Sylvia and exhibits the freedom rural areas offered some same-sex couples during the nineteenth century.

Throughout her book, Cleves argues that the loosening of traditional norms and the progression of individualism in the post-revolutionary era were to blame for the changing perspectives, especially among women, concerning education, marriage, and family. Cleves argues that the choice not to marry lent itself favorably to many women, including Charity’s former lover, Lydia (82). She supports this with excerpts from Lydia’s letters to Charity and argues that even as she “had chosen a path unthinkable to a young woman in her parent’s generation, rejecting suitors and working for wages, this preserved her liberty to read and write” and would allow Lydia and Charity to lead a life “of literature and the mind” (82). In addition to having leisure time, which most married women did not, remaining single also maintained a woman’s legal independence and freedom, which is diminished with the contract of marriage. This transfer of legal rights was done through the surrendering of the femme soul and acceptance of the femme covert by which the husband assumed all legal rights for his bride. This seems to be something done in spirit but not in practice between Charity and Sylvia as Cleves includes evidence the women viewed their property, especially their home, as an equally shared commodity (115). This may be why Charity was careful to make clear that the union between Sylvia and herself was a union of love and not for economic necessity or advancement (101).

Additionally, Cleves works to explain the community’s knowledge and acceptance of Charity and Sylvia’s lifestyle. There are several ways Cleves suggests same-sex couples could gain acceptance within rural communities through the “open secret” concept, in which neighbors knew of the nature of a same-sex romantic relationship and, looked the other way. These tactics included contributing to the common welfare of the community, projecting Christian values, or having status among family (111). Cleves asserts that Charity and Sylvia used the former option, gaining community support through generosity and community involvement. The women’s contributions to Weybridge were endless. From the economic stimulus of their tailoring business, both in the way of fulfilling town needs and providing jobs, to their contributions to the church and as teachers, the women were able to create a life for themselves many other women of their circumstance could only dream about. These forms of agency used by Charity and Sylvia gain social acceptance is the main crux of Cleves book as she attempts to trace the women’s economic and sexual liberty. Cleves argues it was because of the women’s generosity and social likeability within the community that allowed Charity and Sylvia to secure their own home, a significant feat in nineteenth-century America for the average male, but nearly impossible for women. Further, owning land gave Charity and Sylvia an elevated social status as “settlers who moved to a frontier village like Weybridge placed enormous significance on property ownership” (110). The fact that the couple came to acquire property itself spoke to the changing social norms and the growing ideas of women’s liberty in the post-revolutionary period.

Cleves also argues that Charity and Sylvia were able to fit into traditional society due to the appropriation of gender roles rather than a rejection of them. Cleves makes clear the couples desire to live as husband and wife and underlines their commitment to each other. These sentiments are documented in Charity’s memoir in which Charity states Sylvia “consented to be (her) help-meet,” a biblical term for, “wife” (101). Whereas Cleves spends most of the book discussing how marriage limited young women in the form of resources, time, and legality, she asserts that Charity acknowledged Sylvia had taken the role of wife to Charity and noted Charity’s assertion that Sylvia was ‘hers.’ Cleaves asserts that this gesture acknowledges Charity’s possession of Sylvia just as a traditional wife would be in possession of her husband (102). This feeling is reciprocated throughout Sylvia’s journals in which she practiced writing her name as Sylvia Bryant which Cleves holds as significant to Sylvia’s desire to take Charity’s last name as traditional wives take their husbands’ (xi). Charity even “asked her brother Peter to buy a ring” for Sylvia to further commemorate the women’s commitment to each other (103). It is in these ways that Charity and Sylvia preserve the tradition of marriage rather than defy it, a sharp contrast to their former proclamations to sever traditional ties with being a wife and entering the world of childbearing and domestic servitude. While this type of union delivered them from the typical nineteenth-century expectation of childbearing and housework, Cleves makes clear the aspects of tradition within the union.

Ultimately, Cleves reconstructs a narrative of Charity and Sylvia’s life that pays homage to their love and their lifelong commitment to each other. Additionally, she takes time to examine the women’s childhoods and significant life experiences such as illness, and death, family connections, and a longing for independence and education which shaped Charity and Sylvia’s lives both before and after they met. Cleves provides ample evidence of the possibility for same-sex couples to create meaningful connections within rural communities and how those ties both protected them and put them at risk of ostracization or even prosecution. Charity and Sylvia’s home in Weybridge allowed them to live as they pleased. Cleves makes clear that the need for community production as well as healthy friendships outweighed the need for absolute moral or social correctness. Her references to the letters written by Charity and Sylvia not only to each other but to Charity’s early lovers, give context and some degree of clarity into their lives. The use of testimonies given by the couple’s neighbors and friends who described them as married served to legitimize their lives together within the community and place their union on equal ground with other heterosexual marriages of the time. By focusing her argument on the rural atmosphere and the prominence of the “open secret” concept, Cleves challenges popular beliefs that LGBTQ populations thrived only in urban areas and opens the field of study to encompass a more complex and extensive picture of queer history.

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