My research has been informed by my attraction to Canadian women’s narratives. When reading Charlotte Whitton’s biography, I was compelled by the idea of a Boston Marriage. To me, this kind of relationship was something that I would love to read books about. And of course, as I quickly found out, there are many books written about it, both fictional and non-fictional. My research also began in another area which I hoped I could find the evidence to connect to the Boston marriage and the idea of female cohabitation. I was interested in A. May Henry’s mysterious sister that she describes periodically and fleetingly in her memoir.
These two beginnings never came together as I had hoped that they would. Although I was able to prove that A. may Henry and her sister Lilian Henry had lived together soon after Lilian was widowed, I was not able to find documents that would attest to the closeness of their relationship. My speculation was based on the inclusion of A May. Henry’s name in Lilian’s death notice (below), and the likelihood that they had supported each other financially.
After I chose the topic of female cohabitation in early to mid twentieth-century North America, I found out that a couple of women from my ancestry had lived as the main breadwinner of their households, either alone or with the support of other women. My mother often speaks of her Aunty Ruby, who lived alone all of her life, and supported herself from a small salary as a clerical worker. She has also recently revealed to me (because of our discussion of my research in HIST 4250) that my great grandmother was abandoned by her first husband after my grandfather was born. I was interested in gaining a better understanding their lives: what living as a woman, unattached to a man meant for the early twentieth century women both emotionally and financially. While reading A. May Henry’s memoir, I wondered at how she was able to support herself alone, and what kind of lifestyle she would have led, especially once her and Lilian were living together with Lilian’s newborn baby. Charlotte Whitton’s biography brought up similar questions about the quality of life of breadwinning women, but with the added interest of the idea of the “Boston marriage”. Notwithstanding speculations about her sexuality, Whitton’s relationship with her long-time friend and roommate demonstrated an interesting possibility for women. Without the companionship and support of a husband, women could seek the same support from each other.
My process of searching for sources started in several different places. First, I had a couple of books about unmarried women’s lives recommended to me by Dr. Tracy Penny Light. From the references in these books, and a search for related titles in the library stacks, I was able to a few more resources. Similarly, I found a number of scholarly essays that were cited in Charlotte Whitton’s biography. Next, I searched for sources that documented the rise of the term “Boston marriage” to understand how it was defined. This led me to Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, where the term was coined, and to Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, an integral part of my research and the basis for my sources on romantic friendship and female cohabitation. I also searched for documents that outlined living and working arrangements for women in my period, and tried to determine how common it was for women to live together, apart from men or other family members. Finally, I did some research into the lives of A. May Henry and Lilian Murray Henry and found a newspaper obituary that has helped me to understand the relationship between the two sisters. I supplemented my understanding of some of the above sources with methodological articles from the course readings.