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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 17a - On the Shelf for December 2017

Saturday, December 2, 2017 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 30 (previously 17a) - On the Shelf for December 2017 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2017/12/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2017.

Usually this podcast comes to you from my living room in California, but this time I’ve been out visiting my girlfriend Lauri in New York City, and we’re recording together from a hotel room where we’ve just finished attending Chessiecon, a Baltimore area science fiction convention. Say hi to the listeners, Lauri!

Lauri: Greetings all!

I’ve invited Lauri to choose this month’s Ask Sappho question and she picked a fun topic that we can discuss together.

Call for Submissions

First I’d like to talk about the call for submissions for the fiction segment of the podcast. I’d like to remind listeners that in January this podcast will be open for fiction submissions for short stories with a pre-1900 historic setting. Look for the call for submissions on the website for full details. You still have lots of time to find inspiration and start writing. We’ll be buying at least two stories for audio production on this podcast. I’m both nervous and excited about my first foray into being a fiction publisher! And it was interesting that Lauri had a similar experience recently soliciting papers for an academic conference.

Lauri: Yes, indeed. The conference is called “Inside Out.” It is about dress and fashion in the middle ages, at Fordham University this coming March. And after we sent out the call for papers, I agonized for weeks. We ultimately got an absolutely wonderful response, but it was kind of heart-stopping for a while there, before the first few came in, and then the deluge followed. So I hope that will happen with your call for submissions, Heather.

Yeah. I won’t know until January when we open the floodgates and see if it’s an actual flood or a trickle.

Publications on the Blog

Now for the blog we’ve been getting into some deep subjects. In November, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog presented an excerpt from a medieval English chronicle about a group of women showing up at a tournament in men’s clothing and creating quite a stir. That was to tie in with October’s essay on female knights in shining armor. I also slipped in an article on two women in 15th century England who were memorialized together in an unusual burial that portrayed them in the same way a married couple would have been portrayed. This ties in with the topic of this month’s essay coming up in a few weeks, where I’ll be discussing grave memorials through the ages that jointly commemorated two unrelated women. While never a common practice, there are examples dating from classical Roman times onward.

After that, the blog started wading into some very dense publications that involve a lot of analysis of historical theory. I find this sort of thing almost as fascinating as the history itself, though I’ll quite understand if not all my readers do! The adventure started with Valerie Traub’s book Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns that explores the question of how we do research into sexual topics in history, and what it means to know that a piece of historic evidence is sexual in nature.

Following that, I’ve just started a collection of papers titled The Lesbian Premodern that examines the problems not only of researching lesbian-like topics in history, but also of how those topics and questions are treated by various historical theories. What does it mean to study “lesbian history”? And how does approaching the topic through that lens affect what questions are asked and what sort of evidence is brought to light? This collection has 18 articles, which ordinarily would last for over four months at my usual rate of blogging. But I’ve decided to double up and finish in two months. So first I’ve covered the introductory articles that lay out the problems and define some of the terms, as well as briefly introducing the rest of the contents of the book. The December entries look at how lesbian history has been approached in the past and discusses questions of terminology and the problem of looking for identification with the past. Is it a benefit or a hazard for a historian to be passionately engaged with their topic of study? Just who is it that we’re studying when we study lesbian history, and how does that differ from studying queer history? What categories of women have resonances with the concept of the lesbian and how wide a net does it make sense to cast when developing a concept of lesbian history?

The articles shift to examining specific people and texts, such as the 17th century English fictionalized family history Upon Appleton House that combines anti-Catholic and anti-lesbian sentiments, or a set of letters of the 7th century between two nuns in France and how we are to interpret the personal and professional bonds they suggest. Who was the audience for a set of illuminated manuscripts that present the biographies of early ascetic saints, but include images of elegant and fashionable women depicted positively, not just as temptresses? And what is the context for an Indian legend about the river goddess Ganga that depicts the two widows of a dead king as giving him an heir when their same-sex passion results in pregnancy?

So despite the book’s interest in historiographic theory, there are a lot of interesting stories it turns up.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be T. T. Thomas, who was one of the participants in the discussion that led me to set up the interview series. She talks about her inspirations and her research and how the historic figure of Ann Lister gave her ideas for what sorts of historic stories could be told. I really appreciate all the authors who have agreed to be guests on the show, enabling my expanded weekly schedule.

Ask Sappho

For this month’s Ask Sappho segment, I invited Lauri to provide the question and join me in discussing it. Lauri did her PhD research on medieval fashion history, involving concepts like the relationship between dress and social identity. She was curious about the topic of cross-dressing and passing women, and the question of whether there were changes over time in how cross-dressing was perceived and how successful it was. And how that affected the trope of women falling in love with a woman who was cross-dressing as a man.

Lauri, maybe you can elaborate on that question a little.

Lauri: Well, as you know one of my great interests as a historian is in sumptuary laws, which are laws which purport to control what people can and can’t wear. They are ineffective for the most part, but they were very popular in the middle ages. They got passed over and over. And one of the reasons is that it was more common in the middle ages for people to believe that your outward appearance generally reflected--and should reflect--your true inner self. Whereas more today we tend to believe the exact opposite: that truth is inner, and you can vary your outer appearance as you like. We don’t put much trust in your outward appearance as a real signifier of your inner truth.

So in a time when your outward appearance is supposed to reflect your inner truth, I was curious as to--in both life and in literature--how successful cross-dressing women were in passing as men. It seems to me that in most of the medieval literature with which I am familiar, the cross-dressing women are pretty successful.

Yes, it’s interesting, and hard to tell sometimes whether it’s a literary motif, or whether it reflected reality, because I can’t think of any specific examples before the 15th century of real life women cross-dressing--i.e., passing as men--that is, if you treat, for example, the early saints’ lives about transvestite saints as being literary or mythic rather than being real life, which I think is a safe thing to do. But it’s true that the actual effectiveness of the disguise seems to be taken for granted. For the early saints’ lives there’s sometimes a nod given to the idea that, because society still included a fairly regular appearance of eunuchs, that it was easier for a woman to present herself as a eunuch--a male eunuch--and not have people question her appearance as long as the clothing was right. But even that doesn’t seem to be the whole story.

In the romances, for example in the story of Yde and Olive, or the story of Tristan de Nanteuil, the act of putting on male clothing is the disguise. It is fully successful and never questioned, and the revelation of the person’s physical gender is done verbally. It is done through communication rather than perception.

Lauri: It makes me think of a subject that came up on one of the panels at the convention that we’re at, which is Joan of Arc, who is one of the few actual cross-dressers that we know of in the middle ages. Now I don’t believe that she was, in fact, trying to pass herself off as a man.

No, I don’t think so, because there was never a break in her story where the woman disappeared and the man appeared.

Lauri: Yeah.

She was always known to be a woman wearing male clothing.

Lauri: Which she wore for a specific purpose, but which is one of the things that was held so much against her ultimately, was that she wore men’s clothing and she would not give it up. She did give it up temporarily, but ultimately she went back to it because she felt she had to. And I’ve never stopped to think about why that was, except that she was leading men in battle. She was not, indeed, pretending to be a man, but perhaps putting on the clothing of a man gave her some sort of inner warrior strength. I don’t know.

And although it’s not examples of actual passing, there are regulations--not so much regulations but commentary--on the idea of cross-dressing in some monastic literature. I believe Hildegard of Bingen is one of the people who discussed situations in which it was ok for women to pass as men: to preserve their chastity, for safety during travel. But that there were other circumstances where it would be sinful, because it was done for frivolous reasons. I don’t know if she specifically addresses the issue of dressing as a man in order to gain male privilege. Not that she would have put it that way!

But in the romances, there’s very definitely that transition of state that is the core of the sumptuary law question. Where putting on the clothing not only gives the character a male place in society, but also gives her the abilities of a knight. When Yde puts on male clothing, she is now a competent male fighter in society, with all of the attributes and experiences that she needs for that. And that’s not a universal feature of cross-dressing romances. In the romance of Silence, there’s an episode where it explains, “And she was trained in all of the skills she needed to know to be a knight.” But there is a sense very often that to put on the clothes is to become a functional male in society.

Lauri: Do you see this changing over time, as reflected in literature? Or as in individual cases that you know of in life where it becomes less clear that passing is automatically successful?

Where it starts to show up is especially in the 16th century. Possibly earlier, but there’s not a lot of data to work with. The 16th century is when we start getting more examples of cross-dressing in literature where it is treated more transgressively. The medieval romances...for a woman to put on the clothing of a man and become a man socially, is to ennoble herself, to become a higher being, which--misogyny! Hello! But that’s how it is, whereas especially in drama of the 16th century and 17th century, now you have that motif alongside the motif of a woman cross-dressing to pass as a man for deceptive purposes. To trick somebody. There are examples where the woman is passing as a man to seduce a woman who is a rival of hers for some other person’s affections. Or to trick somebody.

And this comes along with a general 16th century anxiety, an increasing anxiety about gender boundaries, and about people blurring gender boundaries, especially in dress. There are polemic tracts that talk about how horrible it is that women are wearing male fashions like doublets and tall hats. And that men are wearing feminine fashions. I don’t remember specific examples, but I think you know like laces and ribbons and things. And that this becomes part of the public conversation about dress, that: Oh my gosh! The gender boundaries are becoming blurred! This is awful! We can’t tell the girls from the boys!

So I suspect that in that climate, you had the possibility of people being given more scrutiny. That a passing woman might be more likely to be discovered because somebody was looking more closely, as opposed to assuming that the clothes make the man, as it were.

Lauri: Of course this is also a time when women were forbidden to appear on stage, at least in England. So in the dramas that you’re talking about--and Twelfth Night is a wonderful example--


Lauri: --you have a male actor playing a woman disguising herself as a man. Which just adds yet another layer of trickiness to the entire thing.

That sort of dramatic trope did continue on into Restoration theater when we did have women on the stage, yes, I’m sure that in its origins, the incredible gender-bending aspect of the male actors was a big part of, say, the titillation going on. But there also seems to have been just a general fashion for playing with gender on the stage, even once you had actresses portraying the parts.

Lauri: It interests me that--and I don’t have an answer to this question, but this is all kind of tied up together--that there is a very specific point in the middle ages, roughly around the 1330s, where clothing which has been relatively unisex for centuries--two hundred years at least--where you have both men and women wearing very similar long, flowing ensembles, with various layers which completely conceal the legs and are differentiated primarily by length more than anything else, the women’s clothes being longer than the men’s--are superseded very suddenly by very sharply gender-differentiated clothing. Where the women are still wearing long, flowing clothes, and the men are suddenly wearing very short, very tight doublets that expose their legs, which are in tights so you can see them. And the gender difference is very sharply underlined by this. And you have to wonder what exactly is going on. And as I said, I don’t have an answer to this, but’re making me think about it when you talk about a time when there’s a lot of anxiety about gender boundaries and how they are displayed in dress.

Yes, and the simple fact is: we don’t have enough concrete examples of passing women in that era to know how it might have made a difference. One of the fascinating types of evidence we do have from especially around the 16th-17th century--and a lot of this data comes from the Low Countries, because people have combed through all the legal records there to turn it up--is that especially when mobility became much easier, and especially with the rise of the professional army, where you could reinvent yourself by joining the army, and moving...going with the army somewhere else, and never seeing anybody that knew you. And that this was a context where a number of women would change their clothes--you know, take on male clothing--join the army, follow the army somewhere, and became men for all practical purposes. And very often it’s clearly an economic decision. Sometimes there are also romantic relationships with women involved.

It is essentially impossible to distinguish whether these people would have considered themselves to be women using this as a mechanism for economic and romantic purposes, or whether these are people who would have...would today consider themselves trans men. That’s always a very tricky question and maybe one that doesn’t have an answer at all.

But that the economic circumstances of being able to make that break with the old life--it may be that we see more examples then, not simply because suddenly we’re keeping different types of records, but because this was a new opportunity to succeed at passing. And one of the fascinating things tracing these case histories is that generally clothing was not how they were discovered. That, although acquiring the clothing was often the hardest part of beginning the disguise, because very often we’re dealing with the poorer classes. These are people who only owned one set of clothing. And to acquire a set of men’s clothing is a major economic investment. And therefore sometimes involved theft rather than purchase. But that the defects in the clothing presentation were almost never the reason that they were uncovered, if they were uncovered.

But rather it was encountering somebody who had known them before they started passing. So, running into somebody from back home, who said, “Wait a minute! I recognize you! You’re--you’re Marie, not Jans!” And in some cases this happened to a woman, you know, several times. She would be discovered, she would say, “Oh, mea culpa, I will never do it again.” She’d be exiled from her city as a punishment. And then she’d get in financial difficulty and put on men’s clothing again, join the army again, and start it all over again.

But there still seemed to be a practical application of “clothes make the man.” That to wear men’s clothing was sufficient disguise, and that there was not sufficient physical distinction in the abilities--the physical abilities--of different genders that that would be a giveaway.

Lauri: That’s an interesting thought. Because I would say that that is not the case any longer, wouldn’t you? Whether it’s because women have been trained to not use all their strength or not show all their abilities. But it’s hard to imagine men and women having--in a broad spectrum--having equal physical abilities.

Well, one thing that is pointed out in some of the literature on this is that, because of the visual presentation, that women would often pass themselves off as an adolescent boy, even well into, say, their twenties. And that therefore the physical abilities of a woman in her twenties were comparable enough to what was expected of, say, a fifteen year old boy that this would not be a giveaway. But also, these are working-class women, they’ve been farm wives, they’ve been laundresses, they’ve been whatever. And they’ve been doing hard physical labor, and so in terms of strength and stamina that that was not a clear distinction between the genders.

Lauri: That’s very interesting. Do you see a difference across time in literature in terms of how cross-dressing women are presented or received or discovered?

Definitely, as time goes on, beginning as I say in the 16th century, and increasingly so as time goes on, the literary cross-dressing woman is no longer a positive figure. That it’s no longer that she’s becoming this more noble person by becoming male. But that she is a deceptive figure. She is often a predatory figure. And that the positive implications start falling away, and that more and more that the cross-dressing woman in literature is seen negatively.

Lauri: I’m thinking about--and I would have to look up the name--there was a 20th century jazz musician who, if I remember correctly--

Is it Billy Tipton maybe?

Lauri: I think you are correct. Who was not revealed until after he died to have actually been a cross-dressing woman--

--or at least physiologically female--

Lauri: --physiologically female, yes, living as a man. Dressing and living as a man. I think he was married to a woman.


Lauri: --and pulled this off quite successfully.

And that is a regular recurring theme throughout the modern period, where there are examples of persons who--having been identified as women earlier in life, have lived as men, and only been discovered after death. And very often have been married, and have just lived ordinary lives. That seems to have always been an option as long as you were able to leave behind anyone who knew you. And that was always the tricky part.

Today, in modern society, you know we don’t think anything of  “Oh, I’ll just move across the country and shed all of my former acquaintances and reinvent myself.” But I think a lot of modern people forget, or simply aren’t away of how difficult that was. What an enormous break it was, to move somewhere where you didn’t know anyone and no one could vouch for you. You were a stranger; strangers were suspect. You had to re-create your life entirely from scratch. And therefore, to some extent, it was successful because it was not a trivial thing to do.

Lauri: You had to take it seriously. You had to do it seriously and devotedly.

And in a lot of the case histories of passing women where they were discovered, it was essentially an intimate betrayal. It was a personal relationship that went badly. Or it was initiating a relationship with someone who was not as cool with the whole idea as you thought they were going to be. And that then this would come to the attention of the authorities and would get into the legal records. There might be some sort of civic punishment.

Lauri: Was it, in fact, against the law? And was that always true? Or did that change over time?

That is a very complex question and, in fact, I covered it in a previous Ask Sappho segment. The one on “When was it illegal to be a lesbian?” The short version is that the act of cross-dressing was, in some times and places, illegal because it was viewed as a deception. It was viewed as fraud. And if there were another factor involved--for instance, if you married a woman who then claimed that she was not aware of the disguise--that this would be prosecuted as fraud, especially if there were money involved. And then there’s the question of if you were having sex involving “instruments” as they say--

Lauri: Yes, penetrative sex--

--that certain countries that was...came under the aegis of the Inquisition, for example. But generally it was the middle ages, church law addressed cross-dressing because there were Biblical prohibitions against it. But when the church stopped being quite as interested in that, and it fell under civic law, the simple fact of cross-dressing was not generally illegal. On the other hand, they could probably find something else to cite you for. And so it was a question of: were you a person that the law felt able to persecute? Or were you somebody who could laugh it off and say it was a joke, and go back to dressing in women’s clothing, and not experience any penalty.

And sometimes there was a great deal of sympathy for women who cross-dressed for economic purposes, or to escape an abusive husband, or various other reasons. So it was incredibly variable and hard to predict. There were executions, and there were people who were lionized and made much of as celebrities. And it didn’t necessarily correlate with particular regions. Sometimes it was individual circumstance.

Lauri: I have the impression--and this may just be from reading too many young adult adventure novels--but I have the impression that women who had joined the army as men were sometimes discovered for medical reasons. They got wounded or whatever. And is that actually true?

That is one way that cross-dressing women in the military were discovered. And there are cases of individuals who were wounded and then died of their wounds because they refused treatment. But yeah, that is definitely not merely a literary trope but something that we find in the actual records, yes.

So this has been a fascinating discussion! I’m really glad to get the input from clothing history side. That really adds to the analysis here. Thank you, Lauri.

Lauri: You’ve given me a lot to think about, so thank you.

Show Notes

Your monthly update on what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been doing.

In this episode we talk about:

  • Recent and upcoming publications covered on the blog
    • Knighton’s Chronicle
    • A joint grave memorial for two 15th century English women
    • Thinking Sex with the Premoderns by Valerie Traub
    • The Lesbian Premodern
  • Announcing this month’s author guest, T. T. Thomas
  • New and forthcoming fiction
    • I really will be starting this segment soon.
  • Ask Sappho: Lauri Wilson asks about the literary and real-life motif of cross-dressing women and how it changed over time. (And joins the show to talk about it.)
  • Call for submissions for the new LHMP audio short story segment. See here for details.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: