Vintage Lesbians Week: Jane Addams & Mary Rozet Smith

Jane Addams was the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize, as the Peace Prize laureate in 1931. She was also a woman who saw herself as married - not just 'as good as' - to another woman.  In fact, she wrote as much - clear as day. In 1902. Meet Mary Rozet Smith, Jane's partner of more than 40 years.

They met in 1890, after the founding of Hull House, and by 1893, Mary held so primary and so vital a place in Jane's life that she was writing letters from the pair of them, as opposed to just from herself, and expressing their partnership openly to friends, donors, and Hull House residents alike. Mary stayed at Hull House for extended visits and then 'reciprocated' by inviting Jane along for family vacations. Mary turned away suitors in favor of her 'friendship' with Jane so that by 1904, not only were they exclusive, but proud co-homeowners of a house. When not at Hull House, they lived at Mary's family's mansion in Chicago - because Mary's parents liked her and admired her work. It was Mary who accompanied Jane on her many travels across the country and to Europe, often serving as a gracious kind of mediatory spirit, for social ease was something that came as good as naturally to a woman of Mary's class and upbringing.

When someone is so famous that they belong more to history than to themselves, they exist first as a legend. There is, therefore, a story of Jane Addams's life in which she was a spinster dedicated to her work, keeping the company of very dear friends, but never marrying. And then there is the Jane Addams who exists in her letters, who writes movingly of her love for her partner and the life they built together. This Jane Addams wrote effusively not only to Mary, but to others about Mary, speaking candidly about what the young woman meant to her.

She is so good to me that I would find life a different thing without her.
— Jane Addams to her sister, Alice Hademan (February, 1893)

Mary wasn't Jane's only long-term relationship with a woman. While Mary was Jane's primary partner for most of Jane's life until her death (Mary died a little over a year before Jane), Jane's relationship with Hull House co-founder Ellen Starr can also be described as a Boston marriage or romantic friendship. Ellen and Jane lived and worked alongside each other for nearly two decades. It was at the close of their relationship and just after the founding of Hull House in 1890 that Jane met Mary Rozet Smith, a young woman in her early twenties, and struck up a friendship. While Ellen was first involved - the wealthy Miss Smith was, at least at first, primarily interested in Hull House as a means of using her wealth and her time wisely - the correspondence between Jane and Mary transitioned to being more personal and exclusive, and eventually, thought not just because of Mary's appearance in Jane's life, Ellen and Jane parted ways.

Unlike with Ellen, Jane's relationship with the Chicago heiress was primarily romantic and didn't really incorporate the professional dynamic that was essential the Hull House founding duo - for all that Mary was fabulously wealthy (which she was), Hull House benefited from lots of generous donors. Her money was helpful, but her donations were not singular. Their relationship was completely a love match; for Jane, Mary offered constant emotional support, and it was within the safe space of their relationship that she could be less of a saint and more of herself. Mary's letters are equally filled with effusive warmth and gentle humor, and it is apparent, both from her own comments and from those of Hull House residents, that she blossomed at Hull House, it being a place where her generous spirit found room to grow.

You must know, dear, how I long for you all the time…There is reason in the habit of married folk keeping together.
— Jane Addams to Mary Rozet Smith

So why doesn't Mary feature in the prevailing narratives of Jane's life? I'm an editor; I can imagine fairly easily the kind of logic used to err on the side of 'caution.' But we can't know what she actually meant by 'marriage,' they would say. Women wrote of their platonic love for their female friends in romantic language. Words didn't mean the same thing now as they did then. And so, Mary becomes, once again, Jane's dear friend. This amounts to the erasure of lesbian and bisexual women in loving relationships with other women from the life stories of some of our country's most notable ladies. In her book To Believe in Women, which is rigorous but very readable, Lillian Faderman describes the way in which what what is essentially internalized homophobia manifests among biographers of these women: 'It has been very difficult for them [biographers of Jane Addams] to discuss [their relationship] as lesbian since, as Blanche Cook has pointed out, a 'conventional lady with pearls' has generally not been thought of in terms that the twentieth century has associated with perversion.'

Married folk, Jane wrote to Mary. Speaking of pearls, excuse me while I find a strand to clutch.

Because here's the thing: some words have an unequivocal meaning. "Marriage" is one of those words - or so we heard, last Tuesday, at the Supreme Court. After all, that's why the Supreme Court is debating the issue: marriage equality is a question of civil rights for American citizens - no one on the Court disputes that. It's simply factual that a legal state is currently denied to lesbian & gay couples solely because of sexual orientation. What they're questioning is whether 'marriage' can encompass lesbian and gay couples. This week, as we said on Monday, is all about proving that 'marriage' has included queer couples for a whole lot longer than 14 years. These two compared themselves to married heterosexual couples in 1902.

You see, I don't believe for a second that Jane Addams was unaware of the implications of her sentence.  I think she chose her words deliberately. She was a smart, educated woman more than capable of writing a letter that expressed her meaning. To suggest that all women in Boston Marriages like that of Addams and Smith did so out of a naive appreciation for flowery language and a need to fill the role of intimate companion in an absence of male suitors is incredibly sexist. Jane Addams was not giggly over writing 'marriage;' nor did she see Mary as substituting for anything. The point of her sentence is that Mary wasn't a substitute person for anyone. She was necessary; they were necessary to each other. You know, like all married folk.

You can never know what it is to me to have had you and to have you now.
— Mary Rozet Smith to Jane Addams, March 1896.

References & further reading: To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America (Lillian Faderman); Feminist Interpretations of Jane Addams (Maurice Hamington, Ed.)

Images via Elisa's Reviews & Ramblings and Chicago, respectively.

This essay is part of an ongoing series focusing on historical women who loved other women, which we have aptly shortened to Vintage Married Lesbians Week. It's an effort to situate marriage equality within a broad historical context, since 'changing the long-held view of marriage' is something that seems to really bother the Supreme Court.

First in the series: A Short History of American Lesbians Who Were As Good As Married