Charity and Sylvia: A Story for Women’s History Month

by Annaka Koster

Weybridge Hill Cemetery is a triangular lot of grass and weeds wedged between two country roads in the middle of western Vermont. A couple lies buried there under a single, unassuming headstone. Its raised letters, embossed at the extra expense of the interreds’ relatives, spell out all the usual details included on a 19th-century gravestone: the names of the dead, their dates of death, the ages at which they died, and even the names of their fathers. The two died seventeen years apart--the first in 1851 and the second in 1868--but spent the majority of their adult lives living and working under the same roof. Their names were Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, and they had been, in their own understanding and the understanding of their community, married since 1807.

Rachel Cleves’ 2014 book seeks to shed light on the lives of these two New England women.

Rachel Cleves’ 2014 book seeks to shed light on the lives of these two New England women.

Charity Bryant was born in North Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in the midst of the American Revolution. Throughout her early years, the Bryant family felt the war’s financial burdens as well as its physical ones. Their youngest daughter, Charity was an intelligent woman and disinterested in traditional marriage, remaining single well into her twenties. That aversion to marriage, as well as her proclivity towards intimate friendships with other women, caused her to be dogged by gossip and accusations against her character. She moved constantly and quickly left areas as soon as the rumors grew too much to bear. It wasn’t until 1807 that she finally ended up in Weybridge, Vermont, where she would spend the rest of her life. Well-educated and an excellent seamstress, Charity brought class and much-needed skills to the frontier town, but it wasn’t financial or social opportunities that convinced her to stay.

Sylvia Drake was born in 1784 to a poor but healthy family in Massachusetts. While the Revolutionary War and its aftermath took a financial toll on the Drake family, all of its members survived the conflict. Like Charity, Sylvia spent her early years indifferent towards traditional marriage. As women were outnumbered in frontier towns, there were plenty of prospects for Sylvia, but she seemed contentedly averse to marriage, a condition her family eventually accepted. Sylvia, it seemed, was destined to remain single. That was, of course, before Charity Bryant came to town.

In 1807, Sylvia “consented to be my help-meet and came to be my companion,” Charity wrote in 1844. It might seem like a simple sentence to our twenty-first century ears, but it implied so much more. For much of human history, mutual “consent” was all that was needed to cement a marriage. Even more telling than that word is the presence of the phrase “help-meet,” a common early American synonym for “wife.” Charity and Sylvia shared a home, a business, and were respected members of their small community, a community that recognized them as a couple. In his memoirs, a local community member would write, “Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other.”

“The past is a foreign country,” novelist L.P. Hartley wrote in 1953. “They do things differently there.” It’s one of the first things budding historians--professional and amateur alike--need to learn. We love to draw lessons and morals from the past; it’s one of the main justifications many use for the importance of history instruction in schools. History repeats itself, or so we like to say. Whether it does or not, the past is a foreign country, even when that past takes place in our own nation. What was and worked in the past cannot be universally applied to our lives today. Charity and Sylvia’s story is important, but we need to be careful how we apply any “lessons” from their story to our modern world.

So what can we learn from these two frontier women? Charity and Sylvia’s story is only now coming to light because of a 2014 book by historian and University of Victoria professor Rachel Cleves. As some have noted, Cleves’s book is a lot like early works of feminist history; it’s more reclamation than interpretation. Charity was especially cautious when it came to her personal documents, probably a holdover from the unspoken accusations she experienced as a young woman. It’s only through some impressive historical Sherlocking that we have their stories at all.

Charity and Sylvia’s headstone in Weybridge Hill Cemetery, Weybridge, Massachusetts.

Charity and Sylvia’s headstone in Weybridge Hill Cemetery, Weybridge, Massachusetts.

In a 2014 interview with The Boston Globe, Cleves gives two important implications that Charity and Sylvia’s relationship has for the modern LGBT community specifically and for modern people in general. First, it’s an important counterpoint to the notion that gay marriage is a radically new idea in the modern Western world. While stories like Charity and Sylvia’s were uncommon, they did exist. In other words, LGBT people and same-sex marriages existed in the past. It’s an obvious point to make, but one that is nevertheless important and often forgotten.

Second, Charity and Sylvia’s relationship showcases the importance of continuing the struggle for equal rights. The two were able to make a life for themselves in Weybridge; they were even recognized as being married by the members of their community. Their marriage, however, was not a legal one. It was a fragile arrangement that was entirely dependant on the good opinion of their neighbors. They were able to maintain their relationship only through conscientious effort and constant community service. Without legal protections, any turn of bad luck could destroy their reputations--and their union--forever.

The legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 was obviously an enormous step for the LGBT community, but it’s also not the end of the fight. Perhaps the last thing we can take from Charity and Sylvia’s story, then, is the importance of remembering. People are important. Ordinary people are important. It’s not just the Oscar Wildes and the Virginia Woolfes that deserve remembrance; it’s the ordinary LGBT people who lived and worked and struggled throughout history, people like Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake.

 

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Annaka Koster is currently a student at Calvin College, where she studies the dead things and books. She also likes video games, board games, sushi, bragging about her semester abroad at Oxford University, writing things, reading things, and talking about herself in the third person. On alternative days, she is obsessed with/hates puns.


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