A Loving, Same-Sex Marriage In 19th-Century Vermont

Nov 11, 2014

Long before legislators in the Vermont Statehouse grappled with civil unions or same-sex marriage, two women in Weybridge lived together as a married couple for 44 years.

Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake were together from 1807 through 1851. Charity & Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage In Early America, by Rachel Hope Cleves, reveals the extraordinary marriage of these two women, and the ways in which their relationship impacted their community.

Both women were born in Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War era, and moved to Vermont at a relatively young age. Sylvia moved north as an adolescent after her family went bankrupt during the Revolution. At the time, Weybridge was a frontier area open to new settlers.

Charity came to Vermont several years later, when she was in her twenties. She had been working in Massachusetts as a teacher and seamstress, but had difficulty finding a place for herself. Charity had several relationships with young women, that generated gossip and animosity in the towns in which she lived.

Finally, in 1807, she arrived in Weybridge to visit a friend, and to escape the persecution that she had experienced in Massachusetts.

“It was just happenstance that she met Sylvia on that trip, and decided never to leave Weybridge,” Cleves said.

Soon after Charity arrived in the town, she began working as a tailor, where her specialized skills were in high demand. Sylvia became a helpful stitching apprentice.

According to Cleves, “I think that over the first couple of months that Charity spent in Weybridge, the two women fell in love as they spent time sewing together. ”

At that time, there was "a lot of ambiguity" surrounding same-sex relationships.

At the time, society tended to "look askance" at intimacies between women or between men when they seemed to interfere with young people getting married.

“Most of these relationships happened within the context of what historians call 'romantic friendship.'

"Intimate relations between people of the same sex were strongly encouraged, since they were seen as positive aspects of society. Through these friendships, young women could develop their religious or literary sensibilities, or even find spouses, while young men found companionship in their close friendships with each other.

“As historians, we understand that some of these intimacies…were platonic, and some of these intimacies were probably erotic,” Cleves said.

“Of course, [homosexuality] was taboo at the time. People mostly turned a blind eye as to what people might do in private, as long as it didn’t interfere with the ordinary, conventional pace of life.”

But society tended to “look askance” at intimacies between women or between men when they seemed to interfere with young people getting married. This is why Charity, who had pledged to her family by age 23 that she would never marry, faced such opposition in many of the communities in which she lived.

“I think it probably worried the parents of her friends and people in the towns where she spent time that the intensity of her relations were preventing other young women from getting married,” Cleves said.

Things felt different in Weybridge, however. Although Sylvia and Charity faced a lot of rejection from the town, and especially from within Sylvia’s family, there were also factors that led to the women’s eventual acceptance.

For one thing, Charity brought badly-needed skills (like her ability to sew) to the community. She was also able to offer employment to the women of the town, and participated in the town’s economy.

Both women also became the “stalwarts” of the local Congregational church. Charity and Sylvia led Sunday School classes, cleaned and maintained the church, and sustained relationships with the ministers.

“Because it was a frontier community, ministers often moved in and out of the ministry, and in Weybridge, this happened rather rapidly,” Cleves said. “[Charity and Sylvia] provided stability for the religious congregation which in other ways was absent.

“I think that Weybridge ended up being a sort of ‘Goldilocks’ place for Charity and Sylvia. It was just far enough out of the reach of Charity’s family [where] she could live her life outside of their control. ”

Charity, who came from a literary family, was also a well-respected poet and writer.

"Younger generations came to understand, as they grew up, that their aunts' marriage was atypical, but they grew up accepting and loving their aunts, who were generous and devoted and remarkable individuals." - Rachel Hope Cleves

“She brought that touch of class to Weybridge at a time when it was a very rough and rural community. The people of Weybridge were willing to accept Charity because she brought a certain class to the town.”

The two women were also valuable as aunts to their more than 100 nephews and nieces, for whom resources were scarce.

“The women contributed money toward the education of both women’s nephews and nieces; they trained some of their nieces in sewing; they housed them, they fed them, they cared for them.”

Even Sylvia’s family, many of whom had rejected the women’s relationship at the beginning, came to accept them over time. Sylvia’s mother, who was widowed, spent many years living in the women’s house toward the end of her life.

“Younger generations came to understand, as they grew up, that their aunts’ marriage was atypical, but they grew up accepting and loving their aunts, who were generous and devoted and remarkable individuals."

Over the course of their lives, the women came to be venerated within their community. This is reflected in the treatment of their memories after their death. After Sylvia passed away, her family buried her in the same grave as Charity.

Although the two women were never formally wed, Cleves maintains that their relationship was a marriage. The marriage laws of the early 19th century looked differently than they look today—at that time, common-law marriage was common practice.

“You could be married legally in the early 19th century simply by co-habitating and being known in your community as being married. Did Charity and Sylvia fit that definition? That, I think, is a really tricky question that we can’t have an absolute answer to.”