Dugaw, Dianne. 1989. Warrior Women and Popular Balladry 1650-1850. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-16916-2
By popular demand, we return to the topic of cross-dressing and passing women with a study of ballads featuring a woman joining the military in disguise (typically with a romance-related motivation). All of the ballads involve, at heart, a heterosexual romance, however several play at the implications of attraction and desire in cross-gender contexts. And the building-block motifs of gender disguise, claiming cross-gender roles in society, and the ability to take action outside restrictive female spaces are all clearly relevant to creating historic lesbian characters.
Due to length, the entries for this book will be split up into two or three postings (it depends on how many advance postings I have in queue by Wednesday since I won't have time to work on the project this coming weekend).
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Dugaw's book looks at the genre of gender-disguised women warriors in balladry (the genre also extends to cover the "saucy sailor boy" motif) examining both the historic roots of specific ballads and the treatment of gender and gender disguise in popular culture at the time. The first section examines the appearance and evolution of one specific ballad Mary Ambree as well as surveying the larger set of ballad types with this motifs and their variants over time. There is also a detailed structural analysis of several major groupings within this ballad type. This comprises the first half of the book and will be covered in the current blog entry. The rest of the book will be covered in the following entry.
Although the “Female Warrior” genre is always framed as a successful heterosexual quest, the disguise creates multiple homoerotic possibilities: from men who feel inexplicably attracted to the "boy" and from women who fall for the surface presentation.
Mary Ambree is only one of at least fifty ballads collected that have a Female Warrior in Disguise theme. Identification of this grouping has been hindered by traditional folklorists' tendency to categorize by other aspects of the songs, separating sailor ballads from disguised lover ballads from family opposition ballads and so forth. The ballad Mary Ambree is first noted around 1600 when the opening lines are quoted in an anonymous play: "When captain courageous whom death could not daunt..." A different gender disguise ballad is noted earlier (though Mary Ambree may will have been written first) a broadside about "the merchants daughter of Bristol" which was registered with the stationers in 1595. There are multiple references to Mary Ambree being re-registered in the 1620, and 1630s. The earliest surviving copy dates to c. 1640.
In summary: Mary's lover was killed in battle at the siege of Gaunt and she swore to avenge him, taking up arms and armor and fighting at the forefront of battle. She inspired the other English combatants and the enemy targeted her for capture, taking her for an important captain. Just when it seemed she would be taken, she boasted from the castle wall that It was a woman opposing them. One of the enemy leaders, the Prince of Parma, is so impressed he proposes marriage. She refuses in patriot scorn, but the enemy is still so impressed they allow her to return to England.
The “fridged” boyfriend is less common as a motivation elsewhere in the genre, where the women more often go to sea or take up arms in disguise either to seek out or accompany a lover. Mary is also somewhat more bloodthirsty than many of her ballad-sisters, killing one of her own men who betrayed her. The defusing of an unmasking event with a romantic resolution (or its satiric counterpart) is common although in other cases it results in a romantic pairing at the resolution rather than being a somewhat awkward means of showing respect.
The Female Warrior ballad flourished in the period from 1650-1800, in part because it addressed hot-button topics such as gender role reversal. The sub-types are many and the remainder of this summary catalogs some of the principal ones, in somewhat chronological order as the motif evolves. In The Valiant Commander, a woman, urged to escape from a besieged town by her soldier husband, instead takes up arms to fight at his side. A slightly facetious version of the same base story is seen in The Gallant She-Soldier, where the disguised woman is outed by her pregnancy. In Constance and Anthony she follows her love to sea but a shipwreck separates the two and Constance becomes servant to a Spanish merchant while Anthony is sent to the galleys, to be reunited at the ballad's end. The motif of Mary Ambree as more valiant than the men was used as a recruiting tactic in late 18th century performances by actresses in breeches, who added a coda to the effect of "Go enlist or I'll take up arms and put you to shame like the subject of my ballad." The intersection with theater also included real-life disguised soldier Hannah Snell (after she retired from the military) who would perform military exercises in uniform at the Sadler's Wells Theater.
The ballads often show lineages as one is adapted from another, as with the pair The Valiant Virgin and its much-condensed offspring The Constant Lovers. A father, unhappy with the lower class of his daughter's sweetheart, arranges to have him pressed into the navy. The girl follows him to sea disguised as a surgeon and takes ship on the same vessel without his knowledge. When he receives a wound, she heals him and the two become inseparable friends. When the war is over and they are released from service, the man states regarding his long-parted sweetheart that “if she be dead, I ne’er will wed, but stay with thee for ever, And we will love, like a dove, and we'll live and die together." (Remember: this is when he thinks the “surgeon” is a man!) At this, his sweetheart reveals herself to him and they return to her home. In one version, her cruel father has long since died of a broken heart at her disappearance. In the other he welcomes them home and approves the marriage.
By the mid 19th century the Female Warrior ballads were slipping into obscurity as curiosities and museum pieces rather than holding sway in popular performance. In part this was due to changes in the production and performance at popular song, but in part the social preoccupations the ballads expressed were changing. Increasingly, the sturdy robust heroines of the earlier ballads are described as frail and slight, being betrayed in their disguise by feminine weakness. But another strain that arises, rather than showing the woman as heroic, has the adventurous woman motivated by vengeance, e.g., following and killing a faithless lover or taking up a smugglers trade for profit, but perhaps winning the heart of the commodore who captures her after all (The Female Smuggler). The erotic confusion motif finds its satirical extreme in works like The Female Cabin Boy where the ship's captain learns of his cabin boy's true gender and begins an openly erotic relationship (one that the other sailors think is homosexual) until the "cabin boy's" pregnancy gives the secret away. For an extra twist, the captains wife is also on board and both of them are said to "enjoy" the cabin boy.