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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #46c - Dekker & van de Pol 1989 The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (ch 5-6)

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.

Part 3

This entry finishes up Dekker & van de Pol with a look at the popular reaction to these women on discovery. And that reaction is all over the map, although there are trends, as always. Next week I think I'll start working through several more of my recent acquisitions, probably Donoghue's look at desire between women in literature over the ages. While looking for subtext in gender transgression is certainly fun, I'm in the mood for something a little more direct, positive, and main-textual.

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Chapter 5: Condemnation and Praise

Two extremes show the range of reactions to women passing as male soldiers who were discovered only after death. Aal the Dragoon was handed over for medical uses (a fate reserved for serious criminals) and ended as a taxidermy display. Trijntje Simons (serving as Simon Poort) was buried with full military honors with both military and civic dignitaries in attendance.

The context of discovery and attendant circumstances explain some of the differences in reaction. The court system might condemn or release but could not praise. Military commanders might praise, but could not overlook an exposed woman. But neither were they likely to offer punishment beyond dismissal. Lower-class reactions tended to be more negative while praise and comparisons to legendary heroines tended to come from the upper classes. The sense of being deceived could provoke immediate negative responses, and appropriation of other male prerogatives such as relationships with women were treated harshly. But there was an underlying sense that, in "becoming men" the women were aspiring to higher status. Most of the recorded reactions are from men. A girl's diary entry about her thoughts on seeing an unmasked woman in disguise who had been taken prisoner suggest that women’s reactions could be complex and sympathetic, at least covertly.

The legal case against cross-dressing derived from Biblical prohibitions but this did not translate into clear penalties in civic law. Prosecutions usually involved some aggravating factor such as drunkenness, criminality, fraud, or other gender transgression. But although law codes prescribed harsh penalties--up to execution--for lesbianism, the authors found no cases in Holland before the late 18th century where lesbianism (between individuals presenting as women) was the sole offense. And although the death penalty was discussed in the cases of more complex transgression (where sexual activity was admitted) no cases are mentioned where it was carried out.

Women who were unmasked during military service were usually treated well and paid full wages when dismissed. The sort of acclaim and toleration often recorded in ballads has little place in the legal records, but when information on the women's later lives is available we sometimes see it. There are a few records of women openly wearing men's clothing habitually for an extended period, often in the context of performing a male-coded profession. There are other cases where it's clear that a circle of close friends or family members were aware at the woman's sex and helped conceal it. And there are some cases where The women became local folk heroes after returning to women's clothing, But mockery and physical abuse were more typical responses to discovery.

These stories, sometimes in exaggerated fictional form, were sometimes immortalized in song or story and the tone could be anything from heroic to bawdy. The discussion of the evolution of this ballad type in the present text is similar to that found in Dugaw. Middle and upper class reactions were mixed and often positive, comparing soldier-women to classical amazons or cataloging the deeds of valiant women in battle. Those writing from a religious perspective were condemnatory, but sometimes with praise mixed in for the women's bravery. In the 17-18th century there were at least 25 fictional autobiographies about cross-dressing women, some of which are clearly pure invention. Female cross-dressing was also a popular theatrical motif.

Chapter 6: Conclusions

This chapter summarizes the main points of the book: that the pattern and prevalence of these women’s stories indicates a well-known and familiar “tradition” that the women were following, but that the individual life histories reflected a wide variety of motivations, contexts, expressions, and consequences. The chapter presents no new data (as is right and proper for a conclusion).

Time period: 

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