A History of Lesbian Crushes at Barnard College

George Chauncey
May 28, 2019

When you write about changes in sexual categories and the erotic and emotional universes that people live in when they have it to shape their identities and how much they’ve changed over the last 150 years, one of the ways you can see that is to look at Barnard around 1900, where what people called “crushes” were very prominent.

The typical pattern was for a freshman to fall in love with a junior or a sophomore with a senior. This was so institutionalized that there were student plays at Barnard in the early 20th century about crushes. They are mentioned in the student newspaper, they’re talked about in the student yearbook as just part of everyday life.

By the early 20th century most of these young women would go on to marry men. But, historically, only about half of the women who went to women’s colleges in the mid- to late-19th century married. They were educated and trained and they wanted to follow professional careers. Victorian marriage as it was then construed didn’t give women the freedom to do that kind of work. A lot of Barnard women went on to accomplish amazing things in social reform in New York City and elsewhere. Even though many of them did get married to men, this did not preclude them from having powerful emotional relationships with other women, which were widely noticed and discussed.

Some scholars who have written about such relationships at the more isolated women’s colleges in New England have said, ‘oh, it’s because there were only women there.’ But Barnard is across the street from Columbia. There were lots of eligible young men available, but these crushes still happened, even when Barnard was primarily a commuter school, unlike the New England colleges where all the women lived together.