Blackwell: Researching Women's History

Mar 23, 2015

Images of radical Islamists destroying ancient artifacts in Iraq should remind us that history is dependent upon recorded memory. When historian Gerda Lerner established the first graduate degree program in women’s history in 1972, she compiled Black Women in White America, a collection of documents proving that evidence existed to put all women - even minority women - back into the national story. Do we still need that kind of recovery work? Just ask historian Rachel Hope Cleves.

When Cleves visited the Sheldon Museum in Middlebury ten years ago, she had no idea that a small manuscript diary written by a Weybridge seamstress in the 1820s would hold one of the keys to documenting the lives of lesbian women.

Antiquarians had found the diary of Sylvia Drake interesting. But its deeper significance remained dormant until Cleves researched the life of Sylvia’s partner, Charity Bryant. Using knowledge of the history of sexuality and gender, Cleves was able to reconstruct their intimate relationship even though many of Charity’s papers had been destroyed.

Cleves’s book, Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America recounts how the two women became a couple. Born in Massachusetts during the Revolutionary period, they migrated separately to Weybridge. They agreed to marry on July 3, 1807. That was the day that Sylvia “ consented to be my help-meet, ” Charity recalled. The term was often used for a wife in early America, at a time when common-law marriages were recognized. Charity subsequently introduced Sylvia to her family, bought her a ring, and built a house where she set up a tailoring business with Sylvia as her assistant.

Charity and Sylvia supplied their neighbors with finely sewn garments, supported the church, nurtured young women and men, donated to benevolent causes, and became founding mothers of Weybridge. According to one contemporary account, local people assumed that “Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other,” but neighbors also practiced “manufactured ignorance,” a form of toleration for same-sex companionship that denied their intimacy. Privately, their marriage was anything but conventional, not only because of their sexual relationship, but also because they maintained equality with each other and independence as single women.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states, the story of Charity and Sylvia provides us with a relevant history that’s part of the social fabric of early Vermont and New England. Thankfully, Vermont archives have preserved women’s documents, ensuring that our historical memory will not be erased.