It’s all more complicated than people think.
It’s a long story, but then all stories about people are long, because they keep getting retold. If I told this story ten years from now (well, I won’t be around, but had it been the case that I were) I’d tell it differently. I don’t know how differently I would have told it ten years ago. I didn’t have the sexualized political categories we have now. So the question of whether she was or wasn’t or whether I was or wasn’t wouldn’t have arisen because we wouldn’t have been able to say whether we were or not.
Sexual categorization seems to have swept the field. People are either this, that or the other, and if they won’t admit what they are, they’re just not admitting it. So I just want to present my relationship with Mary Lou as an example in point
I don’t know exactly how old I was when we met, but I think I was still in primary school, the Lab School, or walking home. Anyway; we lived in the same neighborhood. We went to college together, so to speak. We had already been close friends for years. When we went to Swarthmore, we went together, and they roomed us together, so we were definitely a couple. But in those days we thought of ourselves and were thought of by Swarthmore College and other bodies, as a couple of friends, and we were a couple of friends, but nowadays we would have been slotted into a totally different category.
I really think that it’s a quite different system of categorization, now. Maybe it’s not totally different, but it’s different enough to make a difference. For one thing, it never occurred to me, or, I think, to Marylou, to see ourselves as part of some lesbian category. We thought of ourselves as long-term, very deeply bonded, friends. Friendship was a known, and it was a category you could use. I don’t know what we would have done now, but I think the experience would have been quite different.
I was trying to think about how the modern system, which is very sexualized, would have treated it, and here is the only example I can think of: I can remember somebody telling me, because I wasn’t there, that when they were going to elect somebody to be the head of the student union, while Mary Lou was out of the room, and they made that point, because it made a difference, this person, whoever it was, I don’t know who or what gender it was, said “Do we really want one of those to be representing us?” But they voted her the job.
It’s certainly true that I had general principles or preferences which we would now describe as lesbian. That is, mostly I thought that women, not women but girls, were the people who were frilly. I had no respect for them! I thought of my opinions not so much as preferences as judgments. I liked intellectual people who weren’t into all that frilly stuff, and I think that was different then than it is now.
I’m trying to think what other people I cared about when I was a kid. I did have a male friend I valued a lot. His family, who also were in the university circle, had a house out on the dunes, and he was fascinated by mosses and bryophytes, and liked to photograph them. It was his sort of intellectual drive that I found attractive. He was the only male that I remember from that period, and I was very close to him, too.
But Mary Lou, as I say, I had known her the longest, but also, I just really did love her. I don’t know whether she loved me, but it didn’t matter, we had all this history. It was like a sister. It was a long-term, deep intellectually-based relationship. It was a marvelous friendship.
I think that now we would have had to redefine it. I don’t know what it would have been like. The only experience I have that comes to mind in trying to answer that question is that when feminists really hit their stride, there was a big push to have the university recognize feminist roles. And the feminists, who of course were all women, (there may have been a man in there, but I never noticed one) they became very urgent that I should go for their goals, and respect women’s claims to get better promotion, and stuff like that. I was very irked by this, because my feeling was that here I’d been slogging along doing my thing all these years, and all of a sudden these people much younger than I was, and without half the experience, were coming around and telling me how I should feel about things. It irked the hell out of me.
It didn’t hold us up in any way, we both got married, and it didn’t appear to be a problem, I just don’t know what difference it makes to have the modern nomenclature, which sounds much more physical. The “Boston marriage” was not a physical category It was exactly like those ladies that I never gave any term to, that I lived in the same building with. I don’t know what their feelings were about each other – no way to ask now. I know that nobody ever pointed them out, nobody described them as being lesbians. No, in fact I know that there was a term in use: “a Boston marriage”, which was a long-term relationship of two women. It seemed particularly Bostonian, sort of stiff and upright.
You might say that it’s a gain in freedom, that sexuality becomes a matter of choice, and so on and so on, but also it means that all kinds of relationships, all of which were in some way sexualized no doubt, the human being being what it is, they all become re-slotted into that set of categories.
If I was a biological lesbian, it would have been built around the notion of intellect as the central defining thing, and of women being continually frittering their time away doing their hair, and things like that, I don’t want to be one of them.
It wasn’t women in general, it was Mary Lou, but hey, she was my best friend, she was my best friend from sixth grade, or whenever it was. Of the people I’ve known in my life, she’s still one I have enormous respect for. Smart, workmanlike, ……. When she went into politics, people said that they couldn’t get anyone to run against her – it would be death to run against Mary Lou. So what she did was to expand and go into environmental issues. She became the point person for environmental stuff. I followed the point of view, but I didn’t work with her or anything. I had kids to look after – she had kids too. It was just a very solid friendship. It lasted for years, and it was so clear that when we went to Swarthmore, they didn’t even ask if we should room together, they just sort of assumed we would.
I think that we also benefited by the primitive nature of political thinking in those days, that nobody ever imagined that marriage would be competitive. Her marrying Ray wasn’t competitive, it was just a very special relationship which was very intellectual. I wasn’t competitive with Ray, or vice versa.
Friendship! Who thinks about friendship any more – it’s out of style.
There is not a good science of human sentiment in any case; we say it’s not about sex, it’s about sentiment, but what is sentiment? Who knows where they come from?
Anyway, I get along perfectly well without Mary Lou, but I could say I miss her to this day.