LGBT History Month Poster: Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake

This double silhouette portrait is of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, two women who lived together in the small village of Weybridge, Vermont, USA, in the first half of the nineteenth century.  It is typical as a piece of sentimental, amateur art that, with its heart-twisted hairs, commemorates the devotion of a couple to one another.  The fact that both silhouettes portray women was less unusual than we might think.


Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, Wikimedia Commons

Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity and Sylvia’s biographer, explains how, living in a small village, surrounded by relatives and family-friends, the two women could live as a couple because it was an “open secret” that they were in a relationship.  Villagers were willing to abide by this “open secret” because the women were pillars of the church, economy, and society.  Training young people in tailoring and sewing, running Sunday schools, caring for their dozens of nieces and nephews, the women were celebrated for their devotion to each other.  A nephew, Cullen, who benefited from their tutoring wrote of “how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness”.

Source: Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity and Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Further reading: 

John D’Emilio & Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988)

Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women From the Renaissance to the Present (London: Junction Books, 1981)

Thomas Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon, 2006)

Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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