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HIST/WFQS 260: Sex and Reproduction in Nineteenth Century America: Before Margaret Sanger

This guide is a companion to Ms. Edwards' group assignment, Sex at Early Vassar

Same Sex Relationships

The terms "smashing" and "crushes," in the context of women's behavior from the late 19th century to the early 20th, refers to a practice of same-sex courting of classmates. These terms were also used to describe particularly intimate or romantic relationships between two women. Smashing has been an especially elusive and cryptic topic for researchers. Below is a selection of secondary and primary sources that are helpful starting points for researching student and faculty same sex relationships at Vassar and women's colleges more broadly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  


Smashing, Student Culture, Student Relationships

Jabour, Anya. 2/14/23. In the Victorian Era, Valentine’s Day Was a Celebration of Same-Sex Romance. Atlas Obscura. (accessed 11/2/23)

Jabour, Anya. 2/13/22. The Gilded Age's Original "Galentine's Day." History News Network. (accessed 11/2/23)

Jabour, Anya. 2022. Out of the closet? Reconstructing the personal life of pioneering sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Volume 58, Issue 4.

Nettleton, Greta. 2013. The Quack's Daughter: A True Story about the Private Life of a Victorian College GirlUniversity of Iowa.

Newman, Sally. 2012. "The Freshman Malady": Rethinking the Ontology of the Crush. Rethinking History, 16 (June 2012).

Rouse, Wendy L. 2022. "A Very Crushable, Kissable Girl": Queer Love and the Invention of the Abnormal Girl Among College Women in the Gilded Age and Progressive EraThe Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Volume 21, Issue 3.

Sahli, Nancy. 1978. Smashing: Women's Relationships Before the Fall. Chrysalis, 8, 17-27.

Wilk, Rona M. 2004. "What's a Crush?" A Study of Crushes and Romantic Friendships at Barnard College, 1900-1920. OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 4:20-22.


"Boston Marriages," Faculty Culture, and Relationships

Elias, Megan. 2006. "Model Mamas": The Domestic Partnership of Home Economics Pioneers Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer. Journal of the History of Sexuality 15, no. 1:65-88. (examines relationship between two women faculty at Cornell University in the early 20th century)

Gaffney, M. L. (2018). The intimate collaborations of female faculty in select women's colleges, 1890-1930: Women's early efforts to create the closet. (Dissertation examining the relationships of Mary Emma Woolley and Jeannette Augustus Marks of Mount Holyoke College, and Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Ellis Coman of Wellesley College.)

Palmieri, Patricia A. 1995. In Adamless Eden: The Community of Women Faculty at Wellesley. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Schwarz, Judith. 1979.  "Yellow Clover": Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Coman.  Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 4, no. 1:59-67. (Bates and Coman were Wellesley faculty and were close friends of Lucy Maynard Salmon and Adelaide Underhill at Vassar.)


Interpreting and Contextualizing Relationships Between Women

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men : Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow.

Faderman, Lillian. 1999. To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America -- a History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (check for Vassar College in the index)

Freedman, Estelle B. 1998. "The Burning of Letters Continues": Elusive Identities and the Historical Construction of Sexuality. Journal of Women's History 9, no. 4:181. 

Lasser, Carol. 1988.  "Let Us Be Sisters Forever": The Sororal Model of Nineteenth-Century Female Friendship,” Signs, 14, no. 1:164- .

Newman, Sally. The Archival Traces of Desire: Vernon Lee's Failed Sexuality and the Interpretation of Letters in Lesbian History.  Journal of the History of Sexuality, 14, no. 1/2:51-75.

Vicinus, Martha.  1992. "They wonder to which sex I belong": The historical roots of the modern lesbian identity.  Feminist Studies 18, no. 3:467-497.

Vicinus, Martha. 2004.  Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Lesbian Representation in Popular Women's College Fiction

Inness, Sherrie A. 1994. Mashes, Smashes, Crushes, and Raves: Woman-to-Woman Relationships in Popular Women's College Fiction, 1895-1915. NWSA Journal 6, no. 1:48-68.

Lindgren, Gunilla. 2005. Higher Education for Girls in North American College Fiction, 1886-1912. (Special Collections PS374.W6 L562 2005)

Marchalonis, Shirley. College Girls: A Century in Fiction(Main PS374.U52 M37 1995)

Innes, Sherrie. Intimate Communities: Representation and Social Transformation in Women's College Fiction, 1895-1910. by Sherrie Inness. Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995. (Main PS374.U52 I56 1995)

CONTEMPORARY ARTICLES AND BOOKS (listed chronologically)

A Vassar Girl. "'Smashing' at Vassar", Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 September 1875 [via Proquest] ⇒ also reprinted in the Atlanta Constitution

Smith, L.R.  "Social Life at Vassar," Lippincott's Magazine, 39 (1889): 841-851 [pdf]

Ashmore, Ruth. "Your Own Familiar Friend," The Ladies’ Home Journal, Mar. 1894, 16. [via Proquest

Ellis, Havelock. Sexual Inversion (originally published in German in 1896). See in particular chapter 4, Sexual Inversion in Women and the appendix on "The School Friendships of Girls

Ashmore, Ruth. "The Intense Friendships of Girls," The Ladies Home Journal, Vol. 15, No. 8 (Jul 1898): 20. [via American Periodical Series]

Schwartz, Julia A. "Heroic Treatment," in Vassar Studies,1899.  [print copies

Hart, Lavinia. "A Girl’s College Life," Cosmopolitan Magazine, June 1901. [via Hathi Trust]

Walker, Emma E. "Crushes Among Girls, Ladies Home Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jan 1904): 21  [via American Periodical Series]

Thwing, Charles F. "Advice of a Father to a Daughter Entering College," The Independent (Aug 31, 1911): 473. [via American Periodical Series]

"My Friendships: What They Have Taught and Brought Me," Harper's Bazaar, Vol. 46, No. 11 (Nov 1912): 548. [via American Periodical Series]

"Your Daughter: What Are Her Friendships?", Harper's Bazaar, Oct 1913 [via Hathi Trust]

Ewing, Clara. "The Girl with a 'Crush'" in Leaders of Girls. New York: Abingdon Press, 1915. [via Hathi Trust]

Women's Magazine Archive

American Periodicals Series





Available in Special Collections Alumnae/i Authors Book Collection and/or the Hathi Trust

Mary Lapsley Caughey Guest (VC 1921). The Parable of the Virgins (New York: Richard R. Smith, 1931) print: 1921 Guest

Kathleen Millay (VC ex1921, sister of Edna St. Vincent Millay, VC 1917) Against the Wall (New York : Macaulay, 1929) print: 1921 Millay

Julia Schwartz (VC 1896). Elinor's College Career (Boston : Little, Brown, 1906) print: PS3537.C797 E4

Jean Webster (VC 1901). When Patty Went to College (New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c1903) print: PS3545.E365 W53

See also: Selection of college girl fiction in HathiTrust, compiled by Laura Streett

See also: the Smith College Archive's  "Selected College Fiction"

Collections of Student Letters in VC Special Collections and Archives

Make an appointment with Special Collections

Copeland, May VC 1891. Letters Home. (378.7V EC79 ) - Letters to her mother about life at Vassar. Beau named Genie. Included are transcripts of valentines she sent.

Lockwood, Helen VC 1912. Helen Drusilla Lockwood Papers, 1883-1971. (Finding Aid) (VC Encyclopedia entry for Helen Lockwood)