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Friday, October 18, 2019

Charlotte Cushman's Love With No Name

Language is slippery.
Take Charlotte Cushman, for example. Born in Boston in 1816, Cushman started a career in the opera to support her family after her father’s death. When her talent for singing and dramatic acting was recognized, she started touring with theater companies, performing Shakespeare around the United States and Europe. Her deep contralto voice allowed her to play both male and female parts onstage and she became best known for some of her male roles, including her performance as Romeo opposite her sister as Juliet. By mid-century, Cushman had become a household name, and she was easily one of the 19th century’s most famous actresses.
Miss Charlotte Cushman, undated. Warshaw Collection of Business Americana,
Theater series, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Today, we might also look back on Charlotte Cushman’s life and call her the 19th century’s most famous lesbian actress. She sustained numerous monogamous relationships with women, including artist Rosalie Sully and actress Matilda Hays. She also garnered a large female following. Shortly before her death in 1876, she gave a farewell performance in New York City, which was followed by a massive parade and fireworks celebration attended by thousands of people, many of them female. These female fans, some of them also in same-sex relationships, wrote Cushman passionate fan mail, seemingly transfixed by her stage performances and public persona.

But in Cushman's day there was no such thing as a "lesbian," at least not in the way we think of the term or community today. Same-sex relationships were a behavior that one might engage in, with varying degrees of judgment projected onto that behavior, but they were not part of someone's identity.  
This was not because relationships between women were especially rare; they were actually surprisingly visible. Women in “Boston marriages” might live together, share a bed, caress one another, and speak of each other with affection in private and public like any other couple. Yet these relationships were seen as lacking the sexual and romantic desire of a heterosexual relationship, so they posed no threat to heterosexual society. “Romantic friendships” between women were therefore perfectly acceptable, even favorable in some cases. Presumably, these women would one day graduate from their Boston marriages to more serious unions with men.
But this idea that women did not have sexual desire did not apply to all women equally. Women in theater, which was still considered a lower tier art form, were branded as sexually promiscuous. With this in mind, the fact that Cushman exclusively pursued “romantic friendships” with women actually bolstered her career. Her disinterest in men and, to a certain extent, her masculine presentation on and offstage, established her reputation as a virtuous woman and lent a new kind of respectability to the role of women in theater.
Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet, undated. Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, 
Theater series, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Even if the term "lesbian" had existed during Cushman's day, the concept would likely have been foreign to her. Then again, maybe not. Charlotte Cushman was notoriously careful about who saw her personal correspondence, asking many of her lovers to hide or burn her letters, sometimes even writing over her own diary entries to make them less legible to a stranger. Perhaps this was because Cushman and her partners had devised their own lexicon to describe their desire, even in the absence of the language we have today. We'll never know for certain how she might or might not have named her desire, such is the nature of the historical record. But that doesn't mean we should pretend it never existed.
Cushman as Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew, undated. Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, 
Theater series, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Charlotte Cushman lived and died decades before the term “lesbian” would come into popular use, and still decades more before gay women would claim that word for themselves and wear it proudly as a sign of personal identity and community. The language we use, the communities we keep, the ways we understand our identities all may have changed dramatically from Cushman’s world. But in her day, Charlotte Cushman’s public defiance of gender and sexual norms represented something electric and inspiring to other women, especially women in same-sex relationships. Today, to a more defined community of lesbian women, she represents a woman who refused to give in to the pressures of a heterosexual society that did not even acknowledge the love she felt. We have no way of knowing how these concepts of gender presentation and sexual identity will change in the future – the only thing that seems certain is that they will continue to change.

And so, even almost 150 years after her death, I cannot say what Cushman's legacy will be. It's always changing. But for now, I can look to these archival images to illuminate Charlotte Cushman's legacy as I see it: a woman who loved women living as boldly as she could in a time before her love had a name. 
For more on Charlotte Cushman’s life, career, and relationships with women, check out Lisa Merrill’s When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators (University of Michigan: 1999).
For more on the Smithsonian’s collection of items related to Charlotte Cushman and LGBT history, watch Beyond Stonewall from The Smithsonian Time Capsule!

Erin Walsh, Intern
National Museum of American History, Archives Center

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