It is difficult to know to what extent 19th- and early 20th-century women’s relationships with one another were sexual. Close physical contact between women may be interpreted as affectionate and platonic by some but as sexual by others.
Some lesbian historians point out that it is not always possible to know whether and how often women had sex with one another and that anyway sex is not the only way of deciding if a relationship can be regarded as lesbian. They see women who had lifelong domestic partnerships, who purchased houses together, willed property to one another, socialised in networks of other committed female couples and were finally buried together, as leading lesbian lives.
Lesbian friendship circles were the earliest form of lesbian community. They existed within occupational networks, including teaching, nursing, the post office, telephone exchanges and the armed forces, while others included women from a range of occupations or recreational interests.
Where the heart is
In 1947 Elsie Andrews published a book of poetry. In a poem called ‘In days to come’ she referred to the home she shared with Muriel Kirton: ‘This rooftree dear / has brought such happiness to us / No other tenants has it known / The house, the land, they are both ours / The trees, the flowers / The title deeds are ours alone / and all the household goods to boot / Each table, picture, sofa, chair / Has been with care / Exactly placed our need to suit.’1
In the mid-20th century a circle of female couples in Eastbourne, near Wellington, included teacher Margaret Magill and her partner, accountant Mimie Wood, who lived together for over 40 years. Magill, principal of Thorndon Normal School, was the first woman president of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), and Wood was secretary, accountant and librarian of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Margaret’s sister Ada Magill, a shorthand typist, and her life-companion Molly Gore were also part of the circle.
Some married women had lesbian relationships.
Writer Katherine Mansfield had passionate relationships with women from a young age. Ida Baker was Mansfield’s close companion from 1903, and their relationship continued after Mansfield’s marriage and until her death in 1923.
A bit of excitement
Freda Stark, born in 1910, had affairs with married women. In later life she said that some women ‘live terrible lives with dreadful old uninteresting men … and they never get any excitement from them … We can whisk them away up to dizzy heights … It’s amazing, the ordinary women who turned out to be lesbians and nobody ever knew.’2
Anna (Bessie) Spencer, founder of the Country Women’s Institute (CWI), and Amy Large Hutchinson were friends and companions for over 65 years. They met at Napier Girls' High School, where Spencer taught and was headmistress from 1901 to 1909. Large was matron of the boarding hostel where they lived together.
In 1907 Large married a family friend, Frank Hutchinson. Spencer retired and lived with them at their estate at Rissington, north-west of Napier. Frank Hutchinson died in 1940 and the two women lived on at Rissington before retiring to Napier.