• Elizabeth Simpson

She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not: A Brief Look at the History of Female Companionship

Female companionship is something that has always existed but has shifted slightly depending on

changing societal attitudes. These companionships could be either romantic or platonic, but it can be

difficult to tell the difference especially when looking at them from a different time period. The idea

of female “romantic friendships” was first made popular by American lesbian scholar Lillian

Faderman, Faderman wrote about female relationships in the 16 th to 19 th centuries, specifically

focusing on women who belonged to the middle and upper classes of western society. These

“romantic friendships” came from the idea that women were engaged in non-sexual but devoted

female friendships and coexisted in the same home; this came to be known as “Boston Marriages” in

America. Whether these relationships were sexual has been argued by different lesbian scholars, some

concluding that they were not and others stating that they were. Scholar Carroll Smith-Rosenburg is

one example. At first Rosenburg did not claim that these women were sexually involved, but later

decided that some of these women were in fact engaged in sexual relationships. These relationships

however go far beyond the topic of sexual involvement. They were important and meaningful

connections that women had with each other. This in turn was a way for women to support both

themselves and other women in a time when they did not receive that same kind of support from men.

Female companionship was also convenient for women who did not wish to financially rely on a man

to provide for them. An example is Captain Mary A. Geddes whose family lost money after the great

depression. A friend of Mary’s named Wilhemina Keller helped to support the family financially and

provide for them.



Captain Mary A Geddes, commandant of Papakura Military Camp WAACs during the second world war.
Image: obtained from The Charlotte Museum Trust collection.

Women co-existing has always been faced with judgement. It can be quite difficult when looking at

historical writings or accounts of women co-existing to figure out if they were close friends, lovers, or

both. Unfortunately, many lesbian relationships would have been deliberately concealed due to

societal attitudes, and the women who were in lesbian relationships would have, for the most part,

kept this fact hidden away due to fear of discovery and the punishments that would have befallen

them. Even when women wanted to make their relationship known, this information would have been

censored. Some lesbian historians believe that, for a relationship between two women to be

considered a lesbian partnership, sex is not a defining factor. If they had domestic partnerships, were

buried together, purchased land, or willed their property to one another they are often considered to be

lesbian.


Many lesbian and gay scholars have argued that the idea of particular sexual identities was not

developed in European societies until the late nineteenth century. However, many scholars argue that

female relationships at the time were very similar in nature to what would be classified as lesbian

relationships today. In 1988 Māori elders told the Royal Commission on Social Policy that

homosexuality among women was accepted in Māori culture. It is claimed that in pre – European

times both male and female homosexuality was not uncommon and was more accepted. Most scholars

agree that societies earlier than the 20 th century did not have the same kind of places to gather, or even

the same kind of lesbian individuals and the way that women were able to meet and viewed

relationships has changed quite dramatically since then. With more freedom and rights for women,

relationship and friendship dynamics have shifted, and the establishing of lesbian communities in the

past would have been far more difficult for logistical reasons. Friendship circles are considered to be

the earliest forms of a lesbian community. They were either formed within occupations such as groups

of nurses or were formed more independently with women who had various different jobs and

hobbies.


There are many examples of female companionship in New Zealand history. One example is the

friendship between two women who met at Napier Girls’ High School. These women were Anna

Spencer and Amy Large Hutchinson. From 1901 to 1909 Spencer taught and was headmistress of the

school and Large was matron of the boarding hostel where Spencer and Large lived together. In 1907

Amy Large married a family friend by the name of Frank Hutchinson. When Spencer retired from her

job at the High School she moved with the married couple to a home in Rissington. Frank Hutchinson

died in 1940 and the women continued to live together and retired together in Napier. Their

companionship lasted for over 65 years. This is an example of how some married women at the time

would co-exist with their companions. Again, it is unclear whether these two women were simply two

good friends or something more, but either way they obviously had an important connection. Another

example is Francis Hodgkins and Dorothy Kate Richmond, who adopted male personae, and wrote

letters to each other flirting and talking affectionately. It remains a mystery, however, whether their

relationship was actually a romantic one, as there is no solid evidence to suggest it was more than two

friends and their platonic love.



A black and white image of a woman looking sideways at the camera
Image: Francis Hodgkins - provided by The Charlotte Museum Trust.


Being anything that existed outside of the heteronormative social structure was difficult for women, especially during a time when they were expected to get married to a man and fill a specific role. It wasn’t that long ago that women weren’t able to mention their love, and even more concerning, not even that long ago since women were placed in asylums for simply loving other women. Places like The Charlotte Museum Trust are important in terms of preserving the voices and stories of these women and is an important part of tackling the, unfortunately, ongoing stigma that still surrounds the LGBTQ+ communities. These women and their connections are important both in terms of lesbian history and women’s history, whether they were friends or lovers. In some cases, there is written evidence suggesting that some of these couples were indeed romantically involved. However, all female connections, romantic or platonic, are important and one should not assume, especially in different times, that these connections were more than close friendships.


This piece is, of course, a rather brief look at the history of female companionship in New Zealand. For a more in depth look at some of these women and their lives, check out The Charlotte Museum Trust, who have interesting stories and photographs of many of these amazing women.


Most of the information used in this piece was obtained from The Charlotte Museum Trust.

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