Today, women’s friendships are a big deal. There are websites dedicated to helping friends meet, books have been written on the subject, and blogs are filled with helpful how-tos.
They all say women need friendships in their lives, but that it’s hard in our modern, busy society for people to meet. They also point out that women often stop themselves from forming friendships because of fear or some other psychological defect that must be overcome.
While these arguments are valid, my observation is that friendships have always been more difficult for women than men.
Problems with Distance
In the 21st century, it is possible to have thousands of online friends with none in real life. Our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors didn’t have to worry about social media, but they did have other obstacles that made friendships difficult to build and maintain.
- Most women left school earlier than men, and most married women did not work, so there were fewer opportunities to meet new people.
- People came from larger extended families, so women relied on and more spent time with their sisters, cousins, aunts, mothers/grandmothers and in-laws than they did people outside the family.
- Women’s domain was the home. Many household goods, such as milk, were delivered, so women didn’t leave the house as often as men.
- Women had a large number of children that occupied their time.
- In rural areas, people often lived a considerable distance from the nearest neighbor.
- Social events such as sewing circles and formal balls gave women a chance to mingle and have conversation. But did these events happen often enough for deep friendships to build?
Like today, the women who found true friendship were blessed indeed.
A difference between modern and historic friendships is the varied types of friendships. Prior to the modern age, affection that we would deem as romantic was commonplace in friendships. Platonic friends would hold hands, embrace, even share a bed. These activities were not seen as unusual and the people involved were not labeled as homosexuals. The closeness of the friendship generally ended after one of the friends married.
This type of friendship became less common after the mid-19th century, but persisted to some extent. In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne is a “bosom friend” to Diana Barry. The pair hold hands, and later in life they “make love” to Anne’s young son. “Make love” did not have a sexual connotation, but meant to shower with affection.
Single women often formed what was called a Boston marriage, sharing a home. While some of these relationships may have been sexual, most were not and involved women who wanted to live independent of men.
Most scholars agree these women were doing what was necessary to ensure gender equality. They lived in a time when marriage would have meant giving up a career and ceding any personal wealth to a husband. By living with another like-minded woman, they were able to maintain financial independence that could not be achieved otherwise.
Updated: 22 October 2020
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