Historicist: A 'System of Partnership' That Lasted a Lifetime

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Historicist: A ‘System of Partnership’ That Lasted a Lifetime

The lives, love, and letters of Dr. Frieda Fraser and Dr. Edith Bickerton "Bud" Williams.

Photo taken on a trip Dr. Frieda Fraser and Edith Bickerton Williams took with several other women to Wabitongushi Lake in 1936. Although their faces are partially obscured, the two women in the photo appear to be Edith and Frieda. Photo from the University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 009P.

Photo taken on a trip Dr. Frieda Fraser and Edith Bickerton Williams took with several other women to Wabitongushi Lake in 1936. Although their faces are partially obscured, the two women in the photo appear to be Edith and Frieda. Both appear to be smoking cigarettes. Photo from the University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 009P.

“Isn’t it funny that we are attached to each other? Damned nice for me, I must say!” So wrote Frieda Fraser, on September 30, 1925, to Edith Bickerton Williams. Edith had recently left Toronto to spend several years in England, while Frieda, having completed her medical degree at the University of Toronto, was continuing her medical training in the United States. “Dear, I’m getting much too sleepy to write,” Fraser wrote near the end of the same letter, “but I did want to send you my love in case it might be acceptable—I see no likelihood at the moment of its diminishing. Awkward, isn’t it?”

While separated in the mid-1920s, Frieda and Edith, who had begun what they sometimes called their “system of partnership” while undergraduates at the University of Toronto, wrote to each other daily. Years later, after both had died, the Fraser family donated Frieda and Edith’s extensive correspondence—along with hundreds of photographs and other personal and professional records—to the University of Toronto Archives, where the collection now provides a rare glimpse into the lives of two women who pursued their own careers, discussed their thoughts on a variety of cultural issues of their time, and, above all, shared a touching and enduring relationship.

Frieda Fraser and Edith Bickerton Williams were both born into middle-class Toronto families in 1899. Frieda studied biology and physics at University College, where she and Edith are believed to have met around 1918. Williams dropped out of the program, but Fraser graduated in 1922 and then enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine, receiving her medical degree in 1925. Next to her graduation photo, the university yearbook notes that Fraser enjoyed “a lively interest in athletics” and played on the Faculty of Medicine’s women’s hockey team. She was also involved in “Daffydil Night,” a Faculty of Medicine revue described in the yearbook as “a two night performance of colour, sarcasm, and humour, depicting situations and events that might amuse the morbid mind of the future medico.”

Frieda Fraser, upon graduating from the Faculty of Medicine.  Torontonensis, 1925.

Frieda Fraser, upon graduating from the Faculty of Medicine. From Torontonensis, 1925.

After completing her medical degree, Fraser relocated to New York City to further her medical education. Williams, at the encouragement of her family who felt that she and Fraser had become abnormally close, moved to England, where she took a job in a bank. Over the next few years, Frieda and Edith wrote regularly (sometimes sending more than one letter a day), referring to each other affectionately as “dearest” and “lamb,” and discussed ideas, their friends and families, their careers, and their feelings for one another.

Fraser and Williams never referred to their relationship specifically as “lesbian” in these letters, but it is clear that they saw it as something as more than just being close friends. In one undated letter, Edith, whom both regularly referred to in their correspondence as “Bud,” wrote, “I found a nice dedication in a book today: ‘To those who believe that life was made for friendship.’ But according to our friends we are not in that class, are we? Wouldn’t we be counted as too abandoned?” Frieda, writing to Bud in the summer of 1925, observed “[Ours] is a most extraordinary system of partnership. I suppose it shows the adaptability of the human organism.”

Undated photo of a young Edith Bickerton Williams.   University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 015P.

Undated photo of a young Edith Bickerton Williams. Photo from the University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 015P.

In his 2006 essay, “‘Two Middle-Aged and Very Good Looking Females That Spend All Their Week-Ends Together’: Female Professors and Same-Sex Relationships in Canada, 1910-1950,” historian Cameron Duder, who has analyzed their correspondence in several publications, notes that some of Frieda and Bud’s language is reminiscent of “romantic friendship,” a type of relationship more common and accepted in earlier eras. Duder describes romantic friendships as “intensely emotional…typified by an emphasis on spirituality, a language of devotion and loyalty, and an association with training in the values thought proper for marriage…[typically] regarded as being non-physical.” Duder notes, however, that Frieda and Edith’s relationship clearly had a physical component; they talk about their appearances, compliment each other and express a desire to look attractive for the other, and discuss missing physical contact and sharing a bed.

By the 1920s, societal attitudes toward same-sex attraction were undoubtedly changing. Members of the medical community including Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud had begun developing a framework for studying and understanding sex, including theories concerning homosexuality. As their medical ideas began entering the social consciousness, close same-sex relationships which would have been viewed more innocently in the 19th century were increasingly viewed in the early 20th century with suspicion.

Undated photo of Frieda Fraser.  University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 003P, File 14.

Undated photo of Frieda Fraser. Photo from the University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 003P, File 14.

Members of both Frieda and Edith’s families saw their closeness as “abnormal” and “unnatural,” and recurring themes in the letters include the nature of their relationship, what others think about them, and speculation as to what their detractors found objectionable. “Our not being popular is probably due to two things,” wrote Frieda in 1926. “a) people feel left out, b) it is against nature.” “Do you think we’ll get over liking each other in time?” asked Edith in one letter. “It might be simpler in heaps of ways, but I couldn’t conceive a worse calamity than to stop loving you.”

While some of these letters are understandably more serious in tone, others are of a lighter nature, and mix expressions of love with humour. Both were excellent writers, and their personalities are clearly apparent in their letters. Bud comes across as more outgoing and mischievous, and she often wrote of struggling to contain her bubbling excitement at the mere thought of seeing Frieda again, whereas Frieda often punctuated her letters with a dry wit, or with drawings and caricatures of themselves, or of other people she encountered.

On one occasion Fraser, who took a particular interest in the subject of birth control, wrote to Williams, saying “There was a swell discussion at a staff meeting about birth control. Did I tell you? I felt awfully ignorant. I didn’t seem to know the first thing about what every—I was going to say woman in the street but realized that it isn’t the homologue of man in the street which is what I wanted.”

Photo taken on a trip Dr. Frieda Fraser and Edith Bickerton Williams took with several other women to Wabitongushi Lake in 1936.  These two women appear to be Bud and Frieda, but one as their faces are partially obscured, this may actually be two of their friends.  University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 009P.

Photo taken on a trip Dr. Frieda Fraser and Edith Bickerton Williams took with several other women to Wabitongushi Lake in 1936. These two women appear to be Bud and Frieda, but one as their faces are partially obscured, this may actually be two of their friends. Photo from University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 009P.

Frieda and Bud also wrote about various other women they met who seemed to be, in their own words, “devoted to each other.” While travelling on a cruise ship in Europe, Bud told Frieda that she met “the nicest women from the hospital on board—two nurses, Miss Brown and Miss Scadding. They are head nurses at T.G.H. [possibly Toronto General Hospital] and quite old—about 45!!—They are very devoted to each other which is enough to make me interested in them…[T]hey said that they had known each other for years and had always planned this trip, and had only managed it this year, and you could tell by the way they looked at each other, just how thrilled they were.” Bud appears to have had more of a knack than Frieda for getting such women to confide in her. In 1927, Frieda wrote to Bud, saying “Miss Lawter had dinner with me today. I am simply bursting to ask whether her partnership with Miss Cook is disapproved of. If I were you I would know all about it by now.”

Frieda and Bud were reunited in Toronto in 1928, although they were still frequently separated for another decade. Recognizing that there were limited opportunities at this time for a woman, however qualified, to open a private medical practice, Fraser became one of the founding faculty members of the new University of Toronto School of Hygiene (an institution dedicated to the advancement of public health), while also doing research at the school’s associated Connaught Laboratories. A microbiologist, Fraser appears to have worked on a variety of research projects over her career, including work on scarlet fever and tuberculosis.

The University of Toronto School of Hygiene building, April 29, 1927.  City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 10360.

The University of Toronto School of Hygiene building, April 29, 1927. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 10360.

Williams moved to Aurora, where she raised poultry on a farm until the late 1930s when she enrolled in the Ontario Veterinary College. When she graduated in 1941, she became only the second Canadian woman to be a qualified veterinarian. “There were a few obstacles, possibly the greatest being the prejudice which men already in the field held against women,” she told the Globe and Mail in 1946, when featured as part of a “Careers for Women” column. “But both the faculty and the students in my year were very fine about the whole thing, and the teachers went out of their way to be helpful.”

In their 1920s correspondence they had made references to the likely uproar in their families should they ever attempt to live together. Now in their 40s, they finally moved in together, sharing a farmhouse in Burlington for the remainder of their lives together. Although there are photographs from their later years, there was little need for them to exchange letters once they lived together, and the correspondence effectively ends at this time. As such, they did not leave a record as to how differently, if at all, they may have viewed their relationship in later years.

Edith Bickerton Williams’ graduation photo from the Ontario Veterinary College, 1941.   University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 015P.

Edith Bickerton Williams’ graduation photo from the Ontario Veterinary College, 1941. Photo from the University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 015P.

Both commuted into Toronto from Burlington. Fraser continued to work at the School of Hygiene, eventually becoming a full professor of microbiology, a career track which was likely slowed on account of her being a woman. Williams established a private veterinary practice on St. Clair Avenue West, in the Hillcrest neighbourhood.

Despite both being city-raised, Frieda and Edith clearly had a love of animals and the outdoors. Amongst their records are many photos from joint excursions to northern Ontario, often as part of a larger group of women, showing scenic views, campsites, canoe trips, and various animals they encountered. Later photos, likely taken at their home in Burlington, show some of their dogs; in the Globe and Mail piece on Williams’s career, it mentions that she owned eight at the time that she had enrolled in the Veterinary College.

Dr. Edith Bickerton Williams expressing a preference for dogs.  The Globe and Mail, June 14, 1946.

Dr. Edith Bickerton Williams expressing a preference for dogs. From the Globe and Mail, June 14, 1946.

Edith’s interest in outdoor adventuring was also profiled in a 1962 article in the Toronto Star. Then in her early 60s, Edith was one of several women featured in an article with the headline “Their Other Life is Mountaineering,” profiling some local women who had taken up mountain-climbing as a hobby. “I first started climbing when I was in my 40’s,” Edith says in the article. “I’m still afraid to look straight down. And I always think to myself, if I ever get down this mountain, I’ll never climb again. But the next day I’m up on another peak.”

They both retired in the mid-1960s, and spent their remaining years in Burlington. Williams suffered a series of strokes in later years, and died in 1979. Fraser died in 1994, at which point members of her family discovered their letters, photos, and other records, and donated them to the University of Toronto Archives.

The significance of Frieda and Bud’s correspondence was soon recognized by academic researchers. Many women in similar, long-term, same-sex relationships in early 20th century Canada would have lived close to one another and would have not have needed to write so many detailed letters. Other letters may have been found by relatives but deliberately (or unwittingly) destroyed. “There isn’t a volume of correspondence on gay issues like this anywhere in Canada that has survived,” notes archivist Harold Averill in a 1996 article in the University of Toronto Bulletin. “To have these letters endure after all this time is an amazingly useful reference tool.” The letters between Frieda and Bud are believed to be the largest such collection of their era in Canada.

Edith and Frieda in later years.  University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 015P.

Edith and Frieda in later years. Photo from the University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Records B1995-0044, sous-fonds 2, Box 015P.

Contemplating her family’s vocal disapproval of her relationship with Frieda in 1926, Bud wrote, “It can’t be any worse than it has been, can it? Perhaps in time—20 yrs. or so—people will get tired of it and leave us in peace…However, it hasn’t made any difference really…It is such a delightfully secure feeling to think that various people have been awfully down on it and done their best to spoil it—and they were the ones who could bring more pressure to bear than anyone else—and yet it is still there more than ever. My lamb, aren’t you proud of us?”


Additional material from: P.A. Bator with A.J. Rhodes, Within Reach of Everyone: A History of the University of Toronto School of Hygiene and the Connaught Laboratories, Volume I, 1927 to 1955 (Canadian Public Health Association, 1990: Ottawa); Cameron Duder, Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900–65 (UBC Press, 2010: Vancouver); Cameron Duder, “‘Two Middle-Aged and Very Good Looking Females That Spend All Their Week-Ends Together’: Female Professors and Same-Sex Relationships in Canada, 1910–1950” in Historical Identities: The Professoriate in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2006); Karen Duder, “‘That Repulsive Abnormal Creature I Heard of in That Book’: Lesbians and Families in Ontario, 1920–1965” in Ontario Since Confederation: A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 2000); Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (Columbia University Press, 1991: New York); Danny Glenwright, “Mom Didn’t Approve,” Daily Xtra (June 10, 2014); Globe (and Mail) (June 5, 1935; August 26, 1937; June 14, 1946; October 22, 1949; May 2, 1951; August 5, 1975); Elisa Kukla, “Love at the Sorority,” Daily Xtra (February 21, 2001); Katherine Perdue, “Passion and Profession, Doctors in Skirts: The Letters of Doctors Frieda Fraser and Edith Bickerton Williams” in Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Vo. 92, No. 2 (2005); The Toronto Star (October 18, 1946; June 4, 1952; September 8, 1962; January 4, 1963); University of Toronto Archives, Fraser Family Fonds, B1995-0044, including description prepared by Harold Averill, June 1996; University of Toronto Bulletin (November 25, 1996).


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