Strategic Silences: Sophonisba Breckinridge, Edith Abbott, and Same-Sex Relationships in Early 20th-Century America

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM
Stevens C-6 (Hilton Chicago)
Anya Jabour, University of Montana
Strategic Silences: Sophonisba Breckinridge, Edith Abbott, and Same-Sex Relationships in Early Twentieth-Century America exposes that from 1908 until 1948, University of Chicago faculty members Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott shared their daily lives and their life work. They attended plays and dinner parties together, shared hotel rooms at conferences, and traveled and vacationed together, as well as sharing the daily responsibilities of teaching, research, and administration at the School of Social Service Administration. When they were apart, they exchanged passionate love letters filled with assurances of their mutual devotion.

Breckinridge and Abbott were fully integrated into one another’s families, sharing responsibility for caring for their younger relatives and corresponding with each others’ parents and siblings. The two also were key players in a powerful network of female reformers—many with female partners—who helped design and implement the American welfare state. After Breckinridge’s death, Abbott received a flood of condolence letters from friends, family members, former students, and fellow female politicos acknowledging the great loss she had sustained in losing her partner in life and love.

Although their contemporaries acknowledged and accepted Breckinridge and Abbott’s relationship, nobody—including them—ever named the relationship as lesbian or intimated that it might be sexual.

Ideas about female sexuality were in flux during these women’s lifetimes. Victorian beliefs in female “passionlessness” and widespread acceptance of a “female world of love and ritual” faded as “sexologists” promoted new theories of “sexual inversion” and fears of female independence fostered a cultural trope of “mannish” lesbianism, ultimately leading to widespread repression of gays and lesbians after World War Two.

Spanning these decades of shifting definitions of sexuality, Breckinridge and Abbott’s well-documented—but unnamed—relationship offers the opportunity for reflection on both the significance of same-sex relationships and the strategic silences surrounding them in early twentieth-century America.

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