Courtesy of Cornell

October 31, 2021

And They Were Roommates? Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer

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A few weeks ago, while eating dinner on West Campus with some friends, I began to look up the people whose names graced the buildings we all lived in, people whose names have been reduced to proper nouns: “I live in Keeton,” “Let’s get dinner at Becker.” (They are all esteemed Cornell professors if you were wondering). On the Wikipedia page for Flora Rose, I learned that she had been hired by Cornell to establish the home economics department (now the School of Human Ecology) with Martha Van Rensselaer, another name adorning the side of a well-known Cornell building. What especially caught my attention was the next sentence: “She and Martha Van Rensselaer were often “collectively referred to as Miss Van Rose,” and they lived together from 1908 until 1932 when Van Rensselaer died; “they were equal partners in their work, taking an academic, scholarly approach to the matters of personal and family life.”

Immediately intrigued, I returned home from dinner, intent on finding out more about these two Cornell scholars in the early twentieth century, a time certainly not known for publicly gay relationships. After some digging, I found a few online sources which explicitly talk about Rose and Van Rensselaer in romantic terms, and a few others conspicuously lacking a mention of anything beyond platonics. In an article from 2006, Megan Elias wrote of the women that “Their relationship was treated by friends as both a model for and representative of other same-sex relationships within the home economics movement.” A 1925 speech about Van Rensselaer includes the quote: “She it is, with the partner she came to love and who came to love her.” This admission seemed surprisingly frank and accepting, but I quickly learned the seeming brazenness of their relationship was not unique.

During this time period, it was not uncommon for women in higher education to live together in domestic partnerships, sometimes called “Boston marriages.” Although these relationships were not all romantic or sexual, many were; no matter the circumstances, they allowed women to live outside the traditional confines of hetero marriage and live independently to pursue academic goals. It seems this was especially common within women teaching and studying home economics at Cornell, a department that fostered women’s independence, achievement and ostensibly, allowed them to explore their sexuality. 

However, a 1957 biography about Van Rensselaer (with a foreword by Rose nonetheless) excludes any mention of any romantic or sexual connection between the two, instead using “friendship and partnership” to describe their relationship. To most readers, it is easy to read between the lines and one might look no further than Rose’s description of Van Rensselaer: “About five feet, six inches tall, with brown hair, warm brown eyes, well-shaped, strong eyebrows, a beautiful skin, and in her earlier years, a brilliant complexion. She had a strong, straight figure; well-shaped, expressive, capable hands; a deep, resonant voice, which often sounded cold to strangers; and great dignity of bearing,” to conclude the probable nature of their relationship. 

The two women owned homes together, hosted friends at their mountain house and even opened a hotel in Ithaca. They were pioneers in the home economics department, an area of study which sought to turn traditionally lowbrow women’s duties into a scientific and respected craft. Their teachings at Cornell included nutrition, cooking, child-rearing, textile design and management. Rose and Van Rensselaer spoke before the New York state legislature to advocate for the study of home economics and successfully convinced the male legislators to fund a building for the department. Van Rensselaer found encouragement and support, both personally and politically, in Eleanor Roosevelt (who was also commonly suspected to have had relationships with women). 

An article in The Ithaca Voice from last spring about renovations on Martha Van Rensselaer Hall neglects to mention the complex relationship between the two home economics founders, instead referring to Van Rensselaer “and her colleague and housemate Flora Rose.” 

Why this exclusion? It’s easy to place historical figures in a box constrained to a different era. The relationship between Rose and Van Rensselaer was not renounced or considered unusual in the time and place in which they resided. Instead, it was acknowledged, respected and admired. What may be merely an academic building, a dorm or a dining hall to us is a dedication to the lives of former Cornellians. Yes, they were smart and innovative, but they also had rich lives and relationships. We may never know the true dynamics of the relationships between Rose and Van Renssalaer, but their steadfast passion for their work and affection for each other is clear. 

Next time you read a name off the side of a building (and yes, there are some left that haven’t been bought with seven-figure donations), I urge you to look a little into the past and find out who these people were — how they lived, what they taught and who they loved.

Eliza Salamon is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].