Bosom Sex is the topic of this episode of The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast – Episode 37c with Heather Rose Jones
The lives and loves of two African-American women in the post Civil War era, as discovered in their correspondence.
Listen to this episode here
In this episode we talk about:
- Who were Addie Brown ad Rebecca Primus?
- What did their families and communities think about their relationship?
- The ways in which individual histories can surprise us.
- This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Addie Brown & Rebecca Primus
- A transcript of this podcast is available here.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Transcript of this episode
Please note, this transcript is made electronically and so some words may be incorrect
[Music] this is Heather Rose Jones with a lesbian historic motif podcast this weekly podcast looks at lesbian themes in history and literature and historic research into gender and sexuality we talk about current historical fiction with queer female characters including fantastic versions of the past and have interviews with authors who write those stories and in months when we have a fifth show we’re proud to present new original lesbian historical fiction for your enjoyment for scheduling reasons I wanted to filled this week’s show with a reprise of one of my early podcasts and when I thought about it the perfect choice was this show about two civil war-era black women that I mentioned during the interview with penny Michael burry last week if you’ve never listened to it before I hope you enjoy it and if you’ve been a follower of the podcast since those very first episodes I hope you’ll like it as much this time as you did the first time it’s rare to have access to the internal emotional lives of women in history personal correspondence can give us a glimpse of the complex and often contradictory thoughts of women whose lives diverged from expected paths but it’s not uncommon for such correspondence to be lost after their deaths letters may simply be discarded as trash or family members may destroy them in order to protect the reputations of the dead in American history there is a similar difficulty in finding the self told stories of the african-american community in its early years so the correspondence of Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus is doubly valuable for the story it tells Addie and Rebecca were black women both born in the mid 19th century as free women in Connecticut their correspondence comes from a time shortly after the end of the Civil War when Rebecca often spent time away it was Rebecca’s family who preserved the letters so the collection includes Addie’s letters to her and Rebecca’s letters to her family but the content of what Rebecca wrote back to Addie needs to be interpolated Rebecca’s family was solidly middle class and had lived in Connecticut for several generations she trained as a schoolteacher and because of that and her missionary enthusiasm she traveled to the south after the Civil War was over to help establish a school for ex-slaves she experienced and wrote home about serious racial hostility both because of her vocation and in response to her personal behavior because she saw no reason to automatically defer to white people if they didn’t respect her back daddy was an orphan without Rebecca’s extensive network of family ties and support her correspondence is less literate but full of enthusiasm passion and sensuality she was an avid reader had a forceful personality and tended to be judgmental of others she too lived in Connecticut which was probably where the two met she made a living in a number of different jobs as a seamstress as a domestic worker in various factory jobs shortly before her early death at age 29 she worked as a teamster driving wagons she was intolerant of racism and segregation and was unafraid to speak her mind to her white employers this might possibly have something to do with the number of times she changed jobs during the course of the correspondence the romantic relationship between addy and Rebecca appears in their letters in a number of ways there were regular protestations of love and devotion but they also spoke of passionate kisses and caressing each other’s breasts the letters also give clear indications that the relationship was felt to be in competition with potential heterosexual relationships the mid 19th century is typically thought of as a time of romantic friendships and Boston marriages and much of the language that Addie and Rebecca use is similar in flavor in fact they discussed the white literary depiction of romantic friendship in their letters comparing their devotion to that described in Grace Aguilar’s novel women’s friendships some historians such as Lily Anne Fadiman take the position that these relationships were romantic but not physically erotic women might kiss they might embrace they might even share a bed without it being considered sexually improper or incompatible with heterosexuality Eddie and Rebecca give us a closer look one that may have been a more silent part of other romantic friendships after all if we didn’t have these letters we wouldn’t know what was a part of theirs in one letter when addy mentions that she shares a bed with another woman she reassures Rebecca if you think that my bosom that captivated the girl that made her want to sleep with me she got sadly disappointed enjoying it for I had my back towards all night and my night dress was buttoned up so she could not get to my bosom and she continues with a protestation that her bosom is reserved for Rebecca Rebecca must have regularly expressed jealousy of women that Adi shared living space with Eddie writes that she has no desire to be kissed by anyone else saying no kisses is like yours she all says I am print several kisses upon your lips and give you a fond embrace and later I wish that I was going to sleep in your fond arms tonight interestingly Rebecca’s family and their community appeared to have recognized and supported the special nature of their relationship although sometimes with ambivalence on one occasion when Adi visited Rebecca’s family while Rebecca was away in the South she reports that Rebecca’s mother told another visitor that quote if either one of us was a gent we would marry and he was quite happy to hear that and he felt comfortable talking about her physical longing for Rebecca to friends and family and that she wished for her embrace in her return both women were also courted by men and that provides a chance to see how they thought of the parallels with their own relationship and he writes Oh Rebecca it seems I can see you now casting those loving eyes at me if he was a man what would things come to they would come to something very quick and later what a pleasure it would be for me to address you as my husband when Adi mentions a male suitor she notes that although she loves him it’s not passionately on other occasions when she mentions attractions to men she always compares her feelings to though she has for Rebecca at times these mentions seemed intended to provoke jealousy Adi seems to have had fewer occasions to experience jealousy of Rebecca’s other connections though she once writes that she dreamed of seeing Rebecca caress another woman and spoke of how bad it made her feel not to be the object of those caresses when Adi wrote more seriously about contemplating marriage to a man it was in the context of economic security on one occasion when asking Rebecca how she would feel about marriage for those reasons she says Rebecca if I could live with you or even be with you some parts of the day I would never marry but this was at a time when Rebecca was living elsewhere and the two were unlikely to be able to set up a household together over the course of their cars bondage the language gradually shifted to calling themselves sisters but even this is ambiguous Adi sometimes signed her name using Rebecca’s surname Eddie did marry a man eventually after flip-flopping several times but died of tuberculosis two years later at the age of 29 at some point after that Rebecca married she married one of her co-workers at the school where she was teaching in Maryland and she survived to the age of 95 I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the lesbian historic motif podcast if you want to follow up on anything we’ve covered see the show notes for links and to contact me with questions book announcements or topic suggestions if you enjoyed this podcast please read it and subscribe on itunes stitcher or pod bean and consider supporting our patreon and if you’re on facebook check out the lesbian talk show chat group [Music]