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Married to a "Female Husband"

Monday, July 26, 2021 - 07:00

One of the themes that emerges from the individiaul biographies in this book is that the "female husband" phenomenon was primarily associated with working class people. (There are a few exceptions, such as Mary Diana Dods, as well as those who transed gender without marrying, which includes a few more examples of professional-class people.) On the one hand, the types of occupations these "female husbands" had challenged myths about gendered abilities even more strongly than middle-class professions would have. Myths that rarely took into account the physicality of many female-coded professions in pre-industrial times. But the social context also came with attitudes and prejudices common to working class communities.

The husband held social--as well as legal--power over the wife, and systems were designed to support that power. Husbands who employed financial, emotional, or physical abuse within the home were rarely held to account, as long as they didn't "go too far." A willingness to disrupt gender expectations on a personal basis didn't mean that someone held progressive ideas about gender equality on a more general level. And to the extent that performance of gender expectations may have been essential to their success, they may have had incentives to embrace male sterotypes.

Their wives, as Manion notes, were in a contradictory position. Assuming that they were aware of their husband's assigned gender, they held a unique power in the relationship. The wife was the "normal" one, not the transgressive one. She could present herself as naive, or as tricked, but there were no legal consequences looming over her. Except, of course, the consequences of suddenly becoming an unmarried woman--indeed, perhaps treated as a never-married woman--in a society that disadvantaged unmarried women. And, of course, there was love. Again assuming that she went into the relationship with full knowledge, there must have been some degree of affection or camraderie that made the marriage attractive, despite the hazards of discovery. That, too, might make her hesitant to use the power of her knowledge, regardless of provocation.

But overall, these stories point out the variety and ordinariness of the people involved in "female husband" marriages. If some of them behaved badly (on either side), others lived the quiet, ordinary lives that their friends and neighbors described to sensation-seeking journalists after the fact. For every "female husband" whose story ended up in the news, we can know that there were many who never had the misfortune of public exposure. We see glimpses of them between the lines, as in Henry Stoak's second marriage where evidently the community was well aware that someone once known as Harriet, and once outed in the context of a divorce, was living among them as a happily married man--and nobody thought it was their business to do anything about it. Now there's a story prompt.

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Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3

Chapter 4: The Wives

This chapter looks at the experiences of the people fulfill like the role of wife to a female husband. The first case is that of James Allen who was killed in an industrial accident in 1829. Allen’s wife Abigail then had to deal with the fact not only of her husband’s death, but of public knowledge that her husband was a person assigned female. They had been married for 21 years.

There is discussion of the circumstances of the autopsy and the coroner’s attitude toward this discovery. Although Allen’s assigned gender was made public knowledge by an assistant and medical students observing the autopsy, the coroner systematically referred to Allen with male pronouns and justified this on the basis that it was impossible for Allen to be a woman as he had a wife, after all. He had seen the actual marriage certificate. The coroner refused to support further inquiries into Allen’s identity, arguing that the only purpose of the autopsy was to determine the cause of death and that further inquiry was not within the scope of his job. Whether this may have been a rationale to protect Abigail’s privacy or whether the coroner genuinely couldn’t cope with the cognitive dissonance of a person acting in society as a man and yet with female anatomy is up for question. In any event, the coroner prevented further examination of Allen’s body and ensured that they were buried in a secure location, safe from the curious or from body snatchers.

Nonetheless there was public curiosity about the story, with former coworkers of the deceased being interviewed about their impressions of Allen’s gender presentation. Abigail insisted that she had never had reason to question her husband’s gender. There is no indication that the marriage was for ulterior purposes. The two had worked together in service in the same household for three years before their marriage. In order to establish themselves independently, like the Hows, they pooled their savings and went into business running a public house. However they met with misfortune due to a robbery and abandoned that line of work. Allen took up the trade of ship-building while Abigail worked in the bonnet-making trade.

After Allen’s death, Abigail was assailed by public accusations, due to the nature of her marriage. She was bullied and harassed and rumors were spread that her own gender might be up for question. It was vitally important for her good name as a respectable woman to establish that she was not a knowing participant in a same-sex marriage. Abigail needed the insurance money for Allen’s death and already had to deal with insurers who tried to reject the claim on the principle that Allen had committed fraud via gender disguise.

In the end Abigail succeeded in being granted the life insurance she was due as a widow. But her continued assertions that she was ignorant of the nature of her marriage may have been essential for that success. Public opinion came around to that position as well. It must have been easier for people to except that Abigail had not knowingly married a woman disguised as a man there by maintaining the gender status quo rather than believing that a woman was capable of entering deliberately into a same-sex marriage.

The second case presented in this chapter is that of Henry Stoake, who was a bricklayer in the 1830s in England but aspired to make their way up in the world by apprenticing to a master builder. By the end of the decade stock at earned enough at the trade that they claimed they no longer needed to work and could live off their earnings.

Stoake ‘s wife Ann had been the accountant and bookkeeper for the bricklaying business and played a crucial role in Stoake’s success, but legally all the wealth of the household belonged only to the husband, and Ann became concerned about maintaining her property rights. Ann sought the advice of a lawyer in seeking a legal separation that would ensure her financial stability. Ann’s concerns appear to have been valid, as Stoake had regularly refused to recognize her value in the business and would punish her by withholding money for housekeeping expenses. Ann also alleged that Stoake was physically abusive to her when drunk. She wanted a divorce and her attorney pressured Stoake to grant her the house and furnishings as a start.

It was not an obvious strategy to use Stoake’s assigned gender as leverage in the divorce settlement, as the risks to Ann’s reputation and standing as a wife eligible for a divorce settlement were equally at risk.

The two had been legally married in 1817 but once Stoake’s assigned gender was revealed the very status of the marriage, as well as questions of appropriate measures for legal separation, came under question. Conversely the reluctance that Ann brought to revealing the truth of the marriage argues that initially she had entered into it willingly and knowingly. This was not a decision to separate due to a sudden revelation. They had been married for 21 years.

In the end, it was something of a split decision: she received public support in her claims to leave the marriage with a proper share of the couple’s property, however she was stigmatized for what was believed to be her stupidity or ignorance at having married someone who turned out not to be male after all.

Similarly to the somewhat less conflict-driven case of Abigail Allen, the public was eager to believe that a woman could be naïve enough to go through two decades of marriage without realizing that her spouse was a woman, rather than believing that a woman would knowingly enter into such a relationship. In the case of neither Stoake nor Allen did any information come out that soundly established a reason for the initial gender-crossing.

Interestingly, after the Stoake divorce, Henry Stoake was not required to take up a female presentation. And although they were the target of some public hostility, they continued living in the same general region and eventually married another wife. After their death by drowning, some 21 years after the divorce case, a witness at the inquest testified that they were aware of Stoake’s original assigned gender and birth name. This suggests that this knowledge may have been available to Stoake’s second wife when she entered the marriage.

The chapter concludes with a consideration of the concepts of a third gender and of intersex bodies and how those concepts might be raised in certain cases of female husbands. There was a public willingness to believe that living a male profession and life could cause a person assigned female to become more physically masculine--a belief that reflects earlier medieval attitudes to some extent. The question of homoeroticism, as such, was rarely an overt part of public concern in these cases. The public was interested in how a female-bodied person could physically and socially perform masculinity successfully, but romantic attraction to a woman was not really part of the equation that people constructed for these cases. But after the fact, people might express (or discover) suspicions about a person’s gender in terms of “possibly belonging to a third sex”, by which they generally meant some type of intersex condition. What is interesting is that—until confronted by proof of the gender-crossing—these co-workers and neighbors were evidently mostly content to keep their suspicions to themselves. Mostly.

By the 19th century, intersex anatomy (labeled “hermaphroditism” at the time) was going out of fashion as an explanation or signifier of cross-gender behavior. But intersex conditions might raise questions about a person’s alignment with their assigned gender, as in the case of Pennsylvania stagecoach driver James Carey whose gender was questioned due to observations by the woman who prepared their body for burial. In this case, the autopsy board included an artist who illustrated the board’s findings and collected additional community information about Carey’s life. Although these findings supported a conclusion that Carey’s physiology was ambiguous (in general, not only with respect to genitals), the community testimony was positive and accepting, with a distinct lack of judgment regarding contradictory features. (Carey falls outside the core category of “female husband” in not having a partner, as well as not being clearly assignable as female.)

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