Cross-dressing is a common theme in f/f historical fiction, but the fictional genre has tended to develop its own tropes and assumptions about the relationship between cross-dressing and sexuality that don't always match the historical reality. Furthermore, cross-dressing had different motivations, contexts, and meanings in different eras and cultures. If you're planning to write a story with a cross-dressing heroine, it can be a good idea to dig deeply into the specific context she would be operating in. Lois Schwich provides an example of one such model.
Hindmarch-Watson, Katie. 2008. "Lois Schwich, the Female Errand Boy: Narratives of Female Cross-Dressing in Late-Victorian London" in GLQ 14:1, 69-98.
Contrary to the suggestion in Dekker & Van de Pol, “passing women” did not fade out of sight after the 18th century, but perhaps their contexts shifted. This article examines a case in late 19th century London that was well-documented in the papers, due to the criminal aspects. In fact, the nature and variation of that newspaper coverage is itself of interest in exploring Victorian understandings of the phenomenon.
In 1886 Lois Schwich was tried and sentenced in London for stealing expensive clothing from her employer. But the bare facts of the crime were not what attracted extensive media attention. Schwich had done this while passing herself off as a fifteen-year-old boy, and had done so for several years. Her case illustrates the various narratives around crossdressing in Victorian England as well as the intersections of gender, criminality, sex work, and competing images of masculinity.
We have almost nothing of Schwich’s own voice regarding her story, but Hindmarch-Watson has attempted to reconstruct as much as she can. Schwich started crossdressing at 17 and took odd jobs doing errands and deliveries, eventually specializing in working for clothiers. Across several jobs she began stealing and re-selling clothing from her employers, usually deflecting the crimes (when detected) by accusing others before she could be accused. There is clear evidence that Schwich’s mother not only knew about her crossdressing but supported her by providing references for her “son”. And part of Schwich’s explanation for her actions in general was that her work was needed to help support her family. But access to employment was not the only male prerogative Schwich claimed, and during the trial her habits of smoking, drinking and participating in other male-coded leisure activities were woven into the charges against her.
The author considers whether Schwich could reasonably be identified as transgender and is hesitant to do so, at least as the concept of transgender is defined today, and in the same sense that it is ahistorical to use the concepts of “gay” or “lesbian” to identify historic figures. [Note: which is to say that the whole discussion is problematic on many levels, including the assertion that one must use modern identity concepts as the benchmark for evaluating historic identities.]
Historic “passing women” are traditionally divided between those who had erotic relations with women who are then appropriated by lesbian history, and those who have erotic relations with men who are assumed to be cross-dressing purely for pragmatic reasons. Historically, passing women typically had working-class backgrounds. Alhough the male-coded professions they entered were spread across the social ranks, the majority tended to remain working-class. That history of cross-dressing women was invoked in Schwich’s trial.
Like many other cross-dressing women, Schwich had a disdain for the law, but this stereotype is skewed by the problem that our evidence for (known) passing women tends to come from criminal records. Those legal conflicts were not always due to a criminal profession, but might arise out of acts of passion, anger, or desperation. Perhaps a few cross-dressing women did adopt disguise specifically to pursue a criminal career, but that doesn’t appear to be the case for Schwich. There are hints--including the age at which she began--that for her cross-dressing may have been a way of claiming sexual agency (or perhaps more precisely, agency in avoiding becoming sexualized). The article examines the context of Victorian sex work and how it offered it’s own sort of sexual agency, as well as noting some social parallels in the image and opportunities of sex workers and passing women.
One notable aspect of Schwich’s career is the obvious support from her family, especially her mother, but from other community members as well. Her mother clearly accepted her cross-dressing and provided references for Schwich’s male persona. There are other examples from the same era of cross-dressing women either asserting family support, or reporting that the presentation had originally been a mother’s idea. This may shed a different light on theories (by e.g., Dekker and van de Pol) that female cross-dressing more or less disappeared in the early 19th century. What if, instead, it simply became less visible due to community acceptance and support? [Note: Another possibility is that cross-dressing shifted into modes and contexts that were different enough from previous modes that they were not recognized as the same phenomenon.] Since the majority of the hard evidence for passing women comes from criminal records, perhaps a larger proportion avoided activities viewed as criminal. Regardless of speculations concerning causes, there are plentiful anecdotal examples of passing women in the Victorian era.
Another factor that became relevant in Schwich’s trial was the particular style of masculinity that she adopted: not a “respectable” upwardly-mobile presentation but that of the more flamboyant “swell” characterized by working-class hypermasculinity. She may have been negatively influenced by the stylings of theatrical “male impersonators” who adopted specific styles and mannerisms that advertised their underlying gender as feminine. Due to the nature of the evidence, it’s difficult to assess whether Schwich’s male presentation reflected some degree of male self-identity.
But heart of this article is an evaluation of how Schwich was treated in three different categories of the press that illustrate the complexity of how women were both admired and condemned for passing as male. Press treatments of her are regularly contradictory but cluster according to the audience and purposes of the publication.
Proto-feminist presses initially championed Schwich as a hero for women’s rights, emphasizing that cross-dressing had provided entry to a livable wage (shared with her family). She was used as a poster child for providing wider employment opportunities for women. They also viewed her cross-dressing as a means of resisting sex work, and therefore a symbol of chaste feminine virtue. This set of narratives faded away as Schwich’s self-confessed stealing and false accusations came out, as well as being undermined by her habits of drinking and smoking.
The latter were emphasized by politically conservative papers, which played up her criminality and anti-social behavior. These, too, dropped interest in the story once the basic facts had been established.
The sensational police tabloids, which presented Schwich as a spectacle, form the majority of the coverage. Her attempts to claim male privileges and status were treated as a matter of amusement and mockery, sometimes colored with respect. That mockery extended to other aspects of the trial, in which regular jokes were made about witnesses or jurors being unable to distinguish male and female, as all identities were called into question. Interestingly, these sensational papers never raised a comparison with theatrical male impersonators, possibly because it would tarnish people's ability to enjoy the latter.
The sensational tabloids were the ones who connected Schwich with a historic tradition of cross-dressing--not of everyday working-class passing women, but of prominent fictional or high-culture “heroines” such as Shakespeare’s Rosalind, Mademoiselle de Maupin (the fictional one created by Gautier, not the historic one), the Chevalier d’Eon, and James Barry.
But the tabloids also made a different connection, suggesting that Shwich’s male disguise was not as sexually innocent as it might seem. That, rather than having the purpose of avoiding male sexual attention as a woman, it might have been intended to solicit male homosexual attention. This is insinuated in various articles, though not stated outright. This framing follows a long tradition in England of associating female gender-crossing with sexual licentiousness in general. Upper-class Victorian attitudes toward working-class sexuality saw it as dangerously uncontrolled and degenerate, in contrast to the myths about upper-class sexuality.
One element that is nearly entirely absent from the coverage of Schwich’s trial is a medicalized sexological take on her identity and presentation. Although sexological theories were prevalent on the continent already, they had not yet taken root in the popular understanding of sexuality in England. Only a few decades later, a woman’s predilection for wearing male attire and smoking would be taken as solid evidence of deviant psychology and lesbian tendencies.