City built up on a river

Pandemic Parenting and the Lessons of Nineteenth-Century Romantic Friendship

When Mathilde Franziska Anneke and Mary Booth found their lives crumbling in 1860, they packed up their three youngest children and moved from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Zürich, Switzerland.[1] Mathilde and Mary were unusual. It was not common for two women to raise children together and leave a record of their intense affection for one another. But nineteenth-century Americans generally accepted the propriety of “romantic friendships,” a form of relationship that defies today’s categories of lesbian or straight, sexual or platonic.[2] I was finishing up a book on Mathilde and Mary with Viktorija Bilic when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit. Scrambling to teach online with a seven-year-old stuck at home, I was open to anything I could learn from nineteenth-century romantic friendship.

It was perhaps inevitable I would identify with Mathilde. In 1860, she was the same age I am now, forty-two. Like me, she was a privileged white newcomer to Milwaukee who built a career around writing and teaching. She took parenting as seriously as I do – less the twenty-first-century angst.

It is fanciful, of course, to identify with a nineteenth-century revolutionary, feminist, and abolitionist. Mathilde began writing in support of women’s rights after extracting herself from a violent marriage in her early twenties. During the unsuccessful German Revolutions of 1848–1849, she edited a dissenting newspaper and joined her second husband fighting in Baden, just weeks after giving birth. When Mary met her in the late 1850s, she compared Mathilde to Joan of Arc. Later in life, Mathilde would serve as a founding vice president of the US National Woman Suffrage Association (1869) and help form an all-female section of the International Workers Association (1876).[3] Let’s be clear, I’m no Mathilde.

Mathilde Franziska Anneke on a horse
Mathilde Franziska Anneke, pictured here participating in the fight for a German republic in 1849, enjoyed an intense, cohabiting relationship with Mary Booth between 1859 and 1865. (Courtesy of Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg)

Mathilde and Mary also faced obstacles I will never encounter. Over the course of the 1850s, Mathilde fled Europe for the United States, lost four children to disease, saw her feminist newspaper fold, and grew apart from her new husband. Being middle-class insulated her somewhat, but being a woman was a distinct disadvantage. Mathilde wrote prolifically, but editors did not always pay her for her work, apparently because of her gender. Mary, for her part, became convinced that her famous abolitionist husband, Sherman Booth, was guilty of raping a fourteen-year-old girl. As she endured his public trial for “seduction,” Mary was experiencing symptoms of tuberculosis and other ailments.

I’ve never been forced into exile or lost a child. My husband is not a rapist. I do shoulder more than half of the childcare responsibilities, and supervising virtual second grade while working remotely sometimes pushed me to the edge. We already have evidence that tenured female professors have lost ground to male peers during the pandemic. More ominously, many adjunct faculty, a majority female group, have lost their livelihoods. Women, especially women of color, have borne the brunt of all pandemic layoffs, which compound the continuing toll of unequal economic opportunity and sexual harassment and assault. The pandemic has driven home the fact that women and children suffer disproportionately in a precarious system without adequate safety nets or health care provisions.

Mathilde and Mary’s answer to precarity was to turn to each other. Although mid-nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans are known for venerating the heterosexual nuclear family, the conventions of friendship encouraged effusive and physically close relationships, especially between women. To twenty-first-century ears, “romantic friendship” sounds like an oxymoron. “Romance” clashes with “just friends.” But that is exactly the paradox that we need to appreciate to reimagine our relationships.

Living before the crystallization of categories of sexual attraction, Mathilde and Mary did not identify as lesbian or straight. They didn’t have to. They could bask in each other’s admiration and experiment with family structure while still legally married to men. Lesbians should certainly claim such queer relationships as their own, but as a straight woman, I find inspiration in them too.

The two women put their passion on paper. Within a few months of meeting Mary, Mathilde told her, “I dedicate my life to you. … And my true love for you is eternal.” Mary wrote Mathilde a poem for Christmas in 1862, which concluded with the offer of herself as a gift. About the same time, she assured Mathilde that “you are the morning-star of my soul” and the “reality of my dreams.”[4]

Mathilde and Mary also expressed their love in their actions. When they were still in Milwaukee, Mathilde moved into Mary’s home, staying up nights to nurse her. Mathilde managed Sherman Booth’s lawyers and shielded Mary from the proceedings of the “seduction” trial. In Switzerland, the two women initially lived with Mathilde’s husband, but when he left, they pooled their resources and ran a household together. They cared for each other’s children, instructing them in German and English, celebrating birthdays and holidays, and taking excursions around Zürich.

During 2020, I was taken by the practical benefits of such an arrangement. When the new school year started, I took advantage of my flexible work schedule and teamed up with a friend and her family to share childcare. We divided the supervision of two children among four parents and managed to preserve a vestige of equilibrium.

What initially seemed a rather contractual arrangement became quite intimate. Someone else’s child read books in my bed and asked me tough questions about religion when we walked through the local cemetery. Someone else nurtured my child through occasional outbursts. It’s a testament to my pod partner that the shame I can feel when my kid acts like a kid started to fall away. Coming and going from each other’s houses and relying on one another, we built up extraordinary trust. It could still be miserable to coax the kids into their Zoom meetings when one had hurt the other’s feelings, but the partnership meant there was companionship and joy too.

My relationship with my pod partner was not passionate, physical, or emotionally exclusive. I doubt I’ll ever have a relationship that could compete with Mathilde and Mary’s in intensity. But their example still taught me to value the energy and excitement that can come with what we inadequately call friendship. I realized that we construct a solid line between platonic and sexually charged relationships and then use it to devalue “just friendship.” I know I’m late to this lesson, lagging behind young, queer people in particular. It took the example of a couple in the 1860s to open this middle-aged woman to the possibility of new paths to thrill and frisson.

As powerful as it was, Mathilde and Mary’s relationship could not overcome the barriers in their way, another message for our times. Like many Americans today, they came up against the realities of unequal pay, unequal caretaking responsibilities, and inadequate provision for the ill. Despite publishing constantly, Mathilde and Mary were poor. They employed a maid in Zürich, but were in debt to friends, doctors, schools, grocers, and clothiers. They were lucky to be extended credit – not all were – but Sherman Booth did not provide any child support, while Fritz Anneke sent only sporadic contributions. Nineteenth-century medicine could do little for Mathilde’s frequently debilitating ill health, and Mary’s tuberculosis would cut their love story tragically short.

Attuned to the shortcomings of the communities in which she lived, Mathilde never saw her relationship with Mary as an alternative to fighting for equal opportunities and social support. She drew energy from her relationships to fuel her activism. Mathilde believed intense human interactions brought personal fulfillment, and they must also support wider change.

Notes

  1. The details of the relationship appear in Alison Clark Efford and Viktorija Bilic, eds., Radical Relationships: The Civil War–Era Correspondence of Mathilde Franziska Anneke, trans. Viktorija Bilic (University of Georgia Press, 2021).
  2. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1 (1975): 1–29; Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (William Morrow and Co., 1981); and Dáša Frančíková, “Romantic Friendship: Exploring Modern Categories of Sexuality, Love, and Desire between Women,” in Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, eds. Leila J. Rupp and Susan K. Freeman, 2nd ed. (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), 143–52.
  3. Alison Clark Efford, German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 207.
  4. Efford and Viktorija Bilic, Radical Relationships, 93, 154.

About the Author

Share your Thoughts