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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #46b - Dekker & van de Pol 1989 The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (ch 3-4)

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 3-4

Today we continue with this densely informative book on cross-dressing and passing women (and possibly some trans-men) in 16-18th century Holland and surroundings. While the simple facts of these women's lives (as best we can determine them) provide a wealth of inspiration for creating fictional lesbian characters, there is even more value in the glimpses we get of their motivations -- especially in cases where they had romantic, sexual, and sometimes even marital relationships with other women. There is peril in trying to understand their self-identity in modern terms, but I confess I feel that the authors lean too far towards postulating that they had no models for, and so were incapable of conceiving of, sexual desire between two women as women. While it's true that a great deal of historic evidence in this field views such relationships in a heteronormative framework, there is plentiful evidence (as seen elsewhere in this project) for women of that era and earlier engaging in activity and expressing sentiments that do not simply reflect male-female relations.

I'll finish up with the last two chapters of this book on Friday and then may dive into some of my newer acquisitions.

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Chapter 3: Motives

The motives of the individual women included in the study are not always easy to identify. The public record may emphasize the more acceptable reasons, such as patriotism or accompanying a husband, rather than less acceptable ones such as the desire to have a sexual relationship with a woman. Maria van Antwerpen records a wide variety of reasons for her actions, from nature (she was expected to be born a boy) to virtue (avoiding the need to become a prostitute out of poverty) to altruism (in order to marry a female friend who was pregnant out of wedlock). She also stressed patriotic motives when in a military court.

Passing as a man for safety and convenience when traveling seems to have inspired some women to continue doing so for the freedom it provided. Romantic motivations came in several types. Service in the East Indies could last for years and as there was no provision for bringing wives or girlfriends, passing for a sailor was one way for a woman to avoid a long separation from a loved one. In some cases, a woman traveling to the Indies alone may have given an intended romantic / family reunion as an acceptable excuse in place of an unknown true motivation. Although romantic accompaniment of a soldier-sweetheart was a popular motif in story and ballad, it seems to have been less common in life, if only due to less need, as armies accommodated camp followers in ways that ships did not. There were also cases where disguise and enlistment were for the purpose of escaping rather than joining a male lover. Motivations involving female lovers are covered separately in chapter 4.

Wartime provided both a reason and a cover for women joining the military in disguise. It also provided a context in which discovery might be greeted with admiration rather than condemnation.

Simple poverty was another reason frequently cited. Women had fewer economic opportunities than men and received lower wages for the ones available. Military service was almost always an option for men. In theory, non-military careers were also an option for passing women, though they appear less frequently in the records. Maritgen Jans barely earned a living as a female silk-thrower. After a failed attempt to enlist as David Jans, she returned to silk-throwing as a man at a much higher wage and was soon promoted to foreman.

Gender disguise could also be a component of criminal activity, either as a way to escape apprehension or simply because some types of crime were male-coded and the women were “dressing for the job”. Criminals may be over-represented in the data, given that it derives from court records and this group of women entered the legal system primarily for their crimes. (That is, the identification of them as cross-gender may have been incidental to their prosecution for an unrelated crime.)

Whatever their personal motives, the key trigger for cross-dressing was often external: another individual suggesting or even enabling the change. This – as well as the extensive body of song and story using the motif – is the basis for identifying this practice as a “tradition”. The women themselves were aware of being part of a larger context. Catharina Lincken, on trial for passing as a man in Halberstadt Germany in 1721 offered in her defense that “other women had done this.” In addition to the Dutch examples that form the core of this book, the authors note examples from England, France, and Germany. (Indeed, many of the women recorded in Dutch court records were German in origin.)

The final part of this chapter covers an anthropological survey of recognized cross-gender social roles (into which this data does not fall), and the historic context of cross-dressing female saints (which has been covered in other publications).

Chapter 4: Sexuality

The chapter begins with a discussion of the difficulty of researching historic sexual practices, particularly of the lower classes, and a general consideration of the variety of sexual practices in use and related evidence such as typical age at marriage and rates of unwed pregnancy. After this we get a discussion of how the data-set under consideration sheds light on questions of intersexuality, transvestism, homosexuality, and transsexuality.

While legal inquiries into cross-dressing women frequently take a great interest in determining the true biological sex of the individual (and the social context clearly recognized the concept and reality of intersex individuals), the data only includes one case where the testimony and outcome of the trial indicates that the individual was intersex and, after having been raised as a woman, was legally determined to be a man and ordered (or allowed, as it seems to have been the defendent's desire) to live as a man. Several other individuals were given nicknames that suggested hermaphroditism, but give no other evidence for this conclusion. In one case, an individual claimed to be intersex and “more man than woman” in order to marry a woman, but was determined on medical examination to be female. In another similar case, the medical opinion was less certain but the legal conclusion was that the individual was female and so was condemned for having had sexual relations with women. The legal and social interest in this question is out of proportion to the likely statistical prevalence of intersex persons, however it ties in closely with the assumption that sexual desire for a woman implied (and could only be excused by) some degree of masculinity.

There were a very few cases where short-term cross-dressing seems to have been done for the purpose of sexual arousal but in general a psychological desire for transvestism does not appear to have figured in women’s motivations in this data-set and the examples appear to fall more in the category of "performance for a client" than personal satisfaction.

The question of homosexuality as a motivation for passing as a man is complicated by the difficulty in untangling whether it was being done for a logistical purpose (in order to present the appearance of a heterosexual couple to the world) or for a psychological purpose (because the woman herself could not conceptualize desire for a woman except in terms of being male). This is further confounded by the tendency of the law to interfere in women’s sexual relationships primarily when some other offense against the public order -- such as cross-dressing -- was involved. There were cases (I presume Dutch but it is not specifically noted) of indictments for “tribadie” against women living as women, but it was more common for such charges to be made when one of the women was passing as a man. The authors claim that “no lesbian networks or subculture existed [at the time]” and that therefore most women would not have a model for understanding desire between women, however this view is contradicted by the evidence of other researchers included elsewhere in the current project. It is likely, though, that many of the cross-dressing women in the data-set who had sexual relationships with women were influenced by rigid notions of gender roles. In this context, the distinction between masculine role-playing within a relationship and transsexual identity is difficult to make given the lack of contextual details.

The following are some examples of same-sex marriage found in the data-set. Hendrickje Lamberts and Trijntje Barents began an affair as women, but at some point Hendrickje began dressing as a man, which evidently had a postive effect on their sex life, according to testimony. Elisabeth Wijngraaff was imprisoned in a women’s prison but after entering into a relationship with a fellow female prisoner, she promised her marriage and then claimed (unsuccessfully) to be “more man than woman” in a bid to be recognized as male to fulfill the promise. Maeyken Joosten was married (to a man) and had four children when she fell in love with a girl named Bertelmina Wale, to whom she sent love-letters using a male name. But in a rather confused story, after first meeting with Bertelmina and revealing that the letters and promises of marriage had been made by her, a woman, and after they began a sexual relationship, Maeyken then left town and returned to Bertelmina in male clothing claiming that she had been rechristened Abraham Joosten and been given church permission to marry her. A similar story is found for Cornelia Gerrits van Breugel (separated from her husband) and Elisabeth Boleyn (unmarried) who initiated a relationship while both living as women, after which Cornelia took on male disguise in order to marry her. They were discovered because Cornelia returned to women’s clothing while they continued to live as a married couple. In other cases, the passing woman successfully concealed her biological sex from the woman she courted and, in some cases, married, In some cases, the initiation of a sexual relationship revealed the secret, in others the absence of a sexual relationship led to suspicion. [Although not included in the examples here, there are also cases of this type where the disguise was maintained in the context of a successful sexual relationship, perhaps aided by a certain degree of sexual ignorance on the part of the bride.]

At least one case -- that of Maria van Antwerpen which opened the book -- may possibly be categorized as transsexual, as Maria offered in defense of her actions that she was “by nature and character a man”, however the immediate trigger for Maria’s two episodes of passing always involved economic hardship, so the evidence on this question is inconclusive.

The authors postulate that it wasn’t until ca. 1800 that one begins to see Dutch cases of women conceiving of, and entering into, a sexual relationship as women, rather than with one acting a man’s part. However their conclusions that this represented a societal shift in what was considered possible, and that prior to that time women were not capable of understanding or participating in sex outside a heteronormative model, strikes me as overlooking considerable earlier evidence. (It’s worth noting the publication date of 1989 is at the very beginning of the current wave of lesbian historic studies, so their argument from an absence of evidence must be understood in this light.)

Time period: 

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