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Expository Essay about Friendship

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In the 19th century, the practice of romantic friendships was commonplace between both men and women. It was a different time which Leila J. Rupp details in her book, A Desired Past. Rupp explains, “Marriage might represent the union of two unlike halves, but intense, passionate relationships between two similar souls thrived in addition to and, for women, alongside marriage (Rupp, 43). I will seek to show that romantic friendships were very important in the lives of both men and women in the 19th century. In addition, I will show that the historical context at the time allowed for these friendships to develop and thrive.

First, I wanted to begin with a definition of a romantic friendship. A romantic friendship is characterized as a passionate, intense, loving, physically affectionate but not sexual relationship. These relationships could last from childhood through adolescence and through old age (Rupp, 1999, p. 38). Although it was not characterized as being sexual there were instances in which it could become so in romantic friendships involving both men and women.

The root of romantic friendships and their acceptance can be traced back to the industrialization of the 19th century. As Rupp states, there were key forces that led to romantic friendships the first being that the family became less central as an economic unit (Rupp, 1999, p. 40). This led to people having fewer children and the utilization of contraception and abortion. This made it harder for “guardians of sexual morality” to say that reproduction was the sole purpose of sexuality and removed an argument against nonreproductive sex acts engaged in by same-sex partners (Rupp, 1999, p. 40). This opened the door for the acceptance of romantic friendships between the same sexes.

Also fueling romantic friendships was economic and social separation. Men were working in the factories while most women stayed home doing things such as weaving and spinning. This served to foster an ideology regarding women and men with regard to their sexuality. Men were considered very sexual which was not a new concept. But a paradigm shift came about when it came to female sexuality. As Rupp states, “The double standard was nothing new, but traditionally women in Western society had been viewed as just as sexual as men-or even more so” (Rupp, 1999, p. 41). This view shifted in the 19th century as the conception that women were basically passionless and asexual become a widely held belief. This view along with the separation of economic and social activities encouraged the forming of same-sex romantic friendships and relationships.

When looking at these friendships between women they grew often out of “… female-controlled rituals” (Rupp, 1999, p. 45). These include birth and marriage and meetings in boarding school and college. These friendships at times became referred to as “Boston Marriages” in which two female friends decided against marriage and moved in together to start a life together As referenced before, romantic friendships between women came about in part due to the changing view of women’s nature. Instead of being seen as being just as sexual as men they were seen as emotional and essentially asexual. This allowed romantic friendships between women to thrive even though at a different point in time, say in modern times, it may have been viewed as a lesbian relationship.

Men also had romantic friendships but there were some noticeable differences within these relationships. Rupp explains that, unlike women who could live together in “Boston Marriages” and could sustain relationships into old age, there were different expectations for men. “…Society expected their friendship to change with adulthood and marriage because success in the middle-class male professional and business worlds called for competitive spirit quite at odds with such youthful devotion” (Rupp, 1999, p. 47). This indicates a different standard was set between women and men when it came to relations with the same sex.

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Looking further into romantic friendships between men we can see that the bonds that formed between these men were different but just as deep as the ones formed between women. Rupp describes the story of Albert Dodd and Anthony Halsey who were in love and slept in the same bed (Rupp, 1999, p. 46). Albert referred to Anthony as his “adored Anthony,” “my most beloved of all,” and “so handsome” (Rupp, 1999, p. 46). Romantic friendships between men even appeared in print in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. These instances indicated that romantic friendships between men and women were flourishing during this time. A time in which the term such as homosexual had not been coined yet to what in our current society may have been labeled.

Continuing the discussion regarding romantic friendships between men, these relationships could include kissing, hugging and even sharing a bed. Rupp states, that these actions “…could be done openly, with no self-consciousness, because these were expressions of emotional intimacy and not sexuality” (Rupp, 1999, p. 48). Even President Abraham Lincoln had engaged in a romantic friendship as he shared a bed with a man named Joshua Speed for 4 years. This has caused many in modern times to label the president as “gay.” But in the historical context of the 19th century, this would not be correct as male intimacy was understood in such as different way (Rupp, 1999, p. 48). We can not compare different eras but instead must understand them in the context of their times.

When it comes to further context regarding romantic friendships there were other factors at play. Not only that such romantic friendships were accepted by society, but they also had class undertones. According to Rupp, “The extended youth of middle-class men and the leisure of middle-class women played a central role in shaping romantic friendships, while the association of sexuality with working-class preserved the presumed asexuality of these relations” (Rupp, 1999, p. 50). So, two factors were at play here. First asexuality was afforded to these relationships due to sexuality being equated to the working class and not the middle class. This indicates a class divide in the understanding of sexuality. In addition, the extension of the youth of young men which they did not marry and the leisure of women who spent most of their time at home or in the company of women, contributed to the acceptance of these romantic friendships in the 19th century.

Romantic friendships were also multi-faceted in the aspect that at times they did include sexual aspects at time. Rupp details this in the re-telling of the romantic friendship between Thomas Jefferson Withers to James H. Hammond in letters in 1826. These letters included “forthright eroticism” in which Withers wrote, “and whether you yet have the extravagant delight of poking and punching a writhing Bedfellow with your long freshen pole-the exquisite touches of which I have often had the honor of feeling” (Rupp, 1999, p. 50). In this letter, Rupp states, “In any case, the Withers-Hammond letters throw into question the innocence of male love in the nineteenth century” (Rupp, 1999, p. 51). This indicated that romantic friendship was multi-faceted in many aspects. Although socially acceptable at the time as non-sexual friendships there were instances that blurred the line between friendship and relationship. This goes to the very core of the complicated nature of human sexuality.

This complicated nature of romantic friendships also applied to female friendships. As Rupp explains it was no surprise that there could be sexual aspects to these romantic friendships of men, as men were seen as inherently more sexual (Rupp, 1999, p. 51). But there were also documented instances where female romantic friendships also had a sexual component to them. A case of that was between two African american women, Addie Brown, and Rebecca Primus in the 1860s. Brown was a freeborn domestic servant while Primus was a schoolteacher, and they were able to form a relationship “…across the chasm of class” (Rupp, 1999, p. 51). This was notable as most romantic friendships of the time were between middle-class women with other middle-class women. But nonetheless, the two were able to form a deep bond of romantic friendship that had aspects that could be sexually construed. There was evidence of at least touching of breasts revealed by correspondence between the two (Rupp, 1999, p. 51). Addie also said she preferred Rebecca’s kisses to those of the African American head of the household where she worked (Rupp, 1999, p. 52). Addie longed to live with Rebecca but sadly it would never be as Addie reluctantly married and stopped her correspondence with Rebecca (Rupp, 1999, p. 53).

These past records of romantic friendships give the indication that romantic friendships were a very important part of many women's and men’s life during the early 19th century. This was before the era when the word homosexual had been coined and the terms invert had become a concept. There was more freedom for men and women to pursue these friendships than in modern times and even later in the 19th century would have been a homosexual relationship. Absent of that, men and women were able to be in these friendships and form deep bonds between members of the same sex. These bonds were long-lasting, lasting until the span of life for many.

As we can see many factors shaped the phenomenon of romantic friendships in the 19th century. Increasingly industrialization, separation by class and economics, and leisure of middle-class women were all part of the historical contexts that led to romantic friendship development. Societies' view of women as asexual emotionally also led to society’s acceptance of these relationships along with the extended youth of middle-class men. These relationships held great importance in the lives of many men and women in the 19th century and at their essence showed the ability for men and women to form deep bonds of affection and friendship with those of the same sex.

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