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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #46a - Dekker & van de Pol 1989 The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (ch 1-2)

Full citation: 

Dekker, Rudolf M. and van de Pol, Lotte C. 1989. The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe. Macmillan, London. ISBN 0-333-41253-2

Publication summary: 


This book looks at the phenomenon of women cross-dressing and passing as men during the 17-18th centuries, primarily in Holland, but also covering England and Germany. The core of the data consists of 119 documented cases in Holland. This summary will not cover all of them in detail, and those interested in the topic are strongly advised to go to the source for details.

Chapter 1-2

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Chapter 1: Introduction

We start with a type-case (although unusual in the level of detail given in the court records). Maria van Antwerpen dressed in men's clothing, took a male name, and enlisted as a soldier in 1761. For eight years she lived undetected, including courting and marrying a woman. When discovered, she was tried and condemned for fraud and for "mocking laws concerning marriage." It was discovered that she she had been tried for the same offenses in 1751. She was neither exceptional nor unusual.

Among the many motivations found for similar women were economic necessity, patriotic fervor, love for a woman, or a combination of these. In addition to the real-life examples, the motif appears in songs, novels, dramatic works, and art. For the real-life cases, we only know about those who were eventually unmasked. And given that many of those passed successfully for a long period--some being discovered only after death--the true number can be assumed to be much greater. These women were not the result of isolated, coincidental choices, but were aware of being part of an established tradition.

Here are more details of our introductory example: Marie was orphaned at 12 and worked as a servant until she disguised herself and enlisted at age 27. A year later she married a woman who evidently was not aware of her biological sex. She was discovered several years later when posted to her hometown and recognized. She became a media sensation and folk hero but was sentenced to exile and went to live in Gouda. A few years later she was persuaded to live as a man again by a woman who wished to marry her. And in that guise she again enlisted. Seven years later, she was again unmasked, once again because she returned to a place where she had previously lived as a woman. Her sentence was once again banishment from her town of residence. She lived for another dozen years and died at the age of 62.

Hers is perhaps the case documented in most detail (43 pages of testimony) but it provides a model for filling in the stories of other women.

Chapter 2: Living as Men

The fictionalized life of a soldier / sailor passing as "Hendrik van de Berg" in the 1660-70s, recounts how she met another woman who had recently, but briefly, fought in male dress, and persuaded her to join up again, after which they served as comrades.

Temporary cross-dressing was accepted during carnival, for safety while traveling, during riots, or for erotic purposes, but these were short-term and often overt and are not covered in this book. In some cases, though, such an occasion may have been the inspiration for a longer masquerade. The data begins suddenly at the end at the 16th century (other scholars disagree on this point) but is relatively consistent for the next two centuries. The examples disappear from the records in the early 19th century. Information about age, location, and occupation is known in many cases, but motivations are scarcer. The women’s professions were varied: 90% were sailors or soldiers at some point. It’s possible that these occupations (especially sailors) had more risk of discovery and are over-represented. Other known occupations include journeyman, silk-winder, pipe-maker, stable boy, valet, shoemaker, and stonemason, but beggars and thieves are also well represented. With regard to family origins: half were born outside Holland. Almost all were from the lower classes. Many were orphans, had an unhappy family life, or both. The vast majority were unmarried or functionally single, but some cross-dressed either to stay with or to escape from a husband.

Transformation: Most began cross-dressing between the ages of 16 and 25. Secrecy and anonymity were key. Obtaining men's clothing was often the most difficult part and might involve an accomplice. Many took a masculine form of their original name and kept their surname. The relatively young age of many men on entering the workforce made it easier to blend in. Maria van Antwerpen passed for 16 at 28 and for 23 at 42. Modesty issues could risk discovery. There are a couple of mentions of women using a tube for urination to avoid detection. When testimony is given about the ability of the women to perform physical aspects of their jobs, it is generally favorable.

The records--which of course involve examples of discovery--show that these masquerades could be quite successful if they survived the initial transition. Although a quarter of the women were discovered within a few days, a quarter lasted between one to six months. And half of the women were successful for more than six months, some as long as ten years, and more. Several women were noted as returning to male guise multiple times after discovery. In some cases a trusted companion knew about the disguise and helped maintain it. However accomplices could also be a source of betrayal. Wounds and disease were a common context for discovery. And, as previously noted, encounters with previous acquaintances could prove disastrous.

The women’s attitudes towards being unmasked are recorded in very few instances. There are a couple of instances of suicide after unmasking and social mockery was common as well as legal consequences.

Time period: 

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