Friends, Family and Lovers

Female Cohabitation in the First Half of the Twentieth Century


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.


Looking back, I wish that I had gone deeper into my research right from the beginning. I had to wait for some sources, and was only pointed towards others later on as I got further in my reading and became more interested in specific aspects of my research. Unfortunately, this led to a lack of cohesion in some parts of my research paper. Although I tried to maintain a connection between my research and the memoir of A. May Henry, I found that my research into romantic friendship and Boston marriages interested me more that the realities of the average single woman. As I became more aware of the history behind Boston marriages, I realized that they were a phenomenon that had always been sensationalized, and that perhaps I was doing the same thing. As I mentioned in my methodologies discussion, I tried to ground my research around the role that societal thought on women and sexuality had in creating room for romantic friendships and Boston marriages.

One of the drawbacks to my research was that I was sometimes unable to find sources that were specifically Canadian. Unfortunately, other than Charlotte Whitton, most of the examples of Boston marriages that I found occurred in the United States. Although I wish that I had more examples of specifically Canadian relationships, I used the American examples with the confidence that social patterns in the united states were (and are) hugely influential in Canada.

Another challenge that I have faced with my research is my experience with fiction. My research includes both fictional and non-fictional primary sources. While my interests in literature have helped shaped my interests when studying history, this has come with some challenges. I have had to be careful to separate my knowledge from fictional sources with my knowledge from historical sources. But, as the articles from our course readings that I discussed in my methodologies section have helped me to understand, the delineation between fiction and non-fiction is not as clear as I had previously thought. This is fascinating to me because fiction from the period in which I did my research demonstrates how real aspects of social history were turned into consumer products (books), which could have the effect of normalizing, sensationalizing, illuminating, misconstruing, etc. a social phenomenon. As a student of English, I am likely to overanalyze the language that is used in both fictional and non-fictional works, and perhaps draw conclusions that are not historically accurate. To help to avoid this, I have tried to back up my arguments based on historical writing with empirical evidence and secondary sources. Nonetheless, the social themes that appear in fiction often reflect reality.

Finally, I have also had to be careful not to apply my 21st century perspective of women’s sex and sexuality to my readings of documents about female cohabitation. Secondary sources, like Lilian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, have been helpful in informing me of the historical opinions surrounding sex and sexuality. It took me a while to properly understand romantic friendship, and as I researched it more, I became more aware of the fact that it could mean very different things for different women, and was unlikely to have been defined as anything beyond friendship in most cases, while in others it may have been what is now defined as lesbianism. In my interpretation of the research, I was careful not to interpret the living arrangements of 19th and 20th century women in ‘Boston marriages’ through a 21st century perspective. Given the delicacy afforded to all subjects involving sex and sexuality in most early twentieth-century documents, it was impossible to determine the degrees of platonic, romantic and sexual, in ‘Boston marriages’ and even romantic friendships.

Overall, I have become more aware of the gaps that are a natural part of studying history. I have learned to be more skeptical of historical narratives, and to be careful how I present my own.  Ulitmately, I realize that there is no perfect represenation of history, but that history as an ongoing and constantly changing process, that requires many perspectives and backgrounds to be done as accurately as possible.


Reading about different ways of studying history in this class has helped to inform me about my own prejudices, and helped to give me tools to more effectively analyse the sources that I am using. While trying to understand the relationship that Aunt May shared with her sister, reading Jocelyn Bartkevicus’s “The Person to Whom Things Happened,” and Paul Ricoeur’s “The Reality of the Past,” helped me to understand the complexity of the past’s existence in the writer’s present. Both authors have pointed to the nature of memoir, and autobiography, and as Ricoeur argues, any kind of historical text, as having an element of fictionality[1]. When I applied this to my reading of Aunt May’s diary, it pushed me to search for records that would support my theory of Aunt May’s closeness with her sister Lilian, instead of relying completely on Aunt May’s account, which may have had an element of nostalgic fondness to it. As Lynn Abrams outlines in her chapter “Memory” in Oral History Theory, “autobiographical memory is, in simple terms, the events of one’s life as they are personally reconstructed in the mind (rather than faithfully recalled) … we use memories in a number of ways: to explain an event to others, to illustrate our personal place in an event, as a guide to subsequent behaviour, and as a means of reassurance.”[2] These aspects of autobiographical writing can all be applied to A. May Henry’s memory. Henry’s memoir recollects her childhood, probably for her family’s sake, it places her during important events like the First and Second World Wars, and it likely reassures her, as she wrote it not long after her sister’s passing. Because of the fallibility of an individual’s memory of their own lives, and my own desire to create cohesion where there might be none, I have tried to approach the sparser parts of Henry’s memoir skeptically, by searching for supporting evidence on the nature of Henry and Lilian’s relationship. Although I have found some supporting evidence, this search was only partly successful, therefore, I have not been able to arrive at a conclusive theory about the closeness of their relationship.
My interpretation of Charlotte Whitton’s biography, another source that is integral to my research, has been informed by my study of Nick Salvatore’s “Biography and Social History: and Intimate Relationship.” In this article, Salvatore argues that a good biography, “if done well, sheds light far beyond any individual, even if it does not always reach into every corner of social life.”[3] This is what I hoped to achieve with my research paper by studying a variety of examples of women’s cohabitation, and connecting it to larger trends in my period’s social life. Although sometimes there was not a strong connection between my research on romantic friendship and Boston marriage with my research on female cohabitation, I wanted to show that the less common aspects of early twentieth century social life were still reflective of larger social norms. Because I was aware of this discrepancy, I reflected on the importance that studying a Boston marriage had in the study of history generally. My conclusion is that although the concept of the Boston marriage was a social aberration, people’s reaction to it reflects the ideals of society. Since romantic friendships and Boston marriages were largely accepted until the 1920s, we can better understand the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s social opinion on female sexuality and friendship. Like Lois W. Banner defends in her article “Biography as History,” biography, “individuals influence historical development,”[4] then so too, does an small social phenomenon. Just as the study of one person’s life can inform about history beyond that individual, so can the study of a small group of people. Even though those who engaged in Boston marriages were not a part of the dominant social ideal, their presence points to social prejudices nonetheless.
Finally, to all aspects of my research I have tried to bring an awareness of my desire to create a depoliticized narrative. Alexander Freund’s article “Under Storytelling’s Spell? Oral History in a Neoliberal Age” highlights the way stories are told currently: in a depoliticized, and widely consumable format. Because of this article, I am more aware of my likelihood to be not only attracted to the “confessional story”, but also my likelihood to present myself (on my eportfolio), or my research in a similarly individualistic and depoliticized manner undercutting the “epistemological, methodological, ethical and political aims of oral history,”[5] Reading this article was an “aha” moment for me as it is so relevant to the stories that I hear in my day to day life, which have a strong impact on me. This article reminded me to analyse what larger social elements were responsible for the trends that I was studying in women’s cohabitation, and it reminded me to always place them within the larger context. Although Boston marriages were a fascinating social phenomenon, they were not terribly deviant from dominant social conventions.


[1] Paul Ricoeur, “The Reality of the Past,” Time and Narrative (Volume 3), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988: 142-156.

[2] Lynn Abrams, “Memory,” in Oral History Theory, (New York: Routeledge, 2010), 78-195.

[3] Nick Salvatore, “Biography and Social History: An Intimate Relationship,” Labour History, no. 87 (2004): 187-192. 10.2307/27516005

[4] Lois W. Banner, “Biography as History,” American Historical Review, vol. 133, no 4 (2009): 582.

[5] Alexander Freund, “Under Storytelling’s Spell?: Oral History in a Neoliberal Age,” Oral History Review, 42, no. 1(2015): 96-132, doi: 10.1093/ohr/ohv002.


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