In 1852, Elizabeth Barrett Browning met the expatriate American actress Charlotte Cushman (famous for her trouser roles) and her companion Matilda Hays, a writer and feminist. They had 'made vows of celibacy and of eternal attachment to each other - they live together, dress alike,' Barrett Browning wrote to her sister. 'It is a female marriage.' She added that she had remarked, after the meeting, to a female acquaintance, 'Well, I never heard of such a thing before,' and received the reply: 'Haven't you? Oh, it is by no means uncommon.' Barrett Browning noted, also, that 'Miss Cushman has an unimpeachable character.' Cushman not only had a public partnership with Hays and, after her, with the sculptor Emma Stebbins, but a long secret affair with a young woman who married her adopted son, thus becoming her daughter-in-law. This 'matrilineal, incestuous, adulterous, polygamous, homosexual household', as Sharon Marcus describes it in Between Women, was not, however, 'branded as deviant'. Cushman was indeed 'unimpeachable'. Female marriages like hers, in which couples called each other 'sposa', 'wedded wife' and 'hubbie', and whose members might also be, or have been, married to men, were seen as socially acceptable 'variations on legal marriage' long before 'the sexological idea of inversion' was formulated at the end of the century. This - the 1830s to the 1890s - was an era 'when lesbianism was neither avowed as a sexual identity nor stigmatised as a deviant sexuality'.
LRB 24 May 2007 | PDF Download