Chapter 1: The First Female Husband
* * *
In 1746, in England, Charles Hamilton married Mary Price. While Hamilton was not the first person assigned female (PAF)[see note] to be called a “female husband” or to marry a woman, Hamilton’s case solidified the use of the label female husband, and in particular Henry Fielding’s fictionalization of Hamilton’s life established a number of the tropes that would be associated with the concept from then on.
[Note: PAF (Person(s) Assigned Female) is a usage I’ve only recently begun seeing in online conversations. The arguments used for preferring it to “AFAB” (assigned female at birth) generally center around it being “person-based language”. On a more practical level, since I’m normally using language of this type to talk about specific individuals or categories of individuals, it’s simply more direct and concise than “AFAB individuals” or the like. I don’t know how widespread this usage is, or whether it will increase in acceptance over time, so I’ll probably define it in use, at least for now. But given that use of PAF makes the text flow more smoothly, I’ll probably shift to using it unless I come across some reason to find it less acceptable.]
Mary Price, per her testimony, was not aware of Hamilton’s history and was not agreeable when she came to understand that Hamilton did not have male anatomy. This realization was delayed after the marriage, as they enjoyed sexual relations on multiple occasions which Price reported as having involved penetration. Initially, Price had no basis for believing there was anything unusual about her marriage.
The court case that Price brought to extricate herself from the marriage focused heavily on the sexual details. Price entered into the marriage willingly – even eagerly - and genuinely liked Hamilton. So it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that her realization of Hamilton’s anatomy would be a deal-breaker. Nor was it automatically something one might bring to trial - an expensive and uncertain proposition.
A number of aspects of the case were in flux in 18th century society. Ideas about sexual activity were only starting to shift from a more diffuse range of erotic practices to focus on penetrative sex. And legal cases were in the process of shifting from a victim-driven civil context to a state-driven, more formal code. That Price’s case was taken up pro bono by professional lawyers reflects the unexpected significance placed on it.
Social commentary around the case, and particularly the popular desire for severe punishment, point to public concern focusing not on Hamilton’s gender preference, per se, but on the marriage, and particularly its implied sexual nature. Hamiltons “crime” was the act of deceit, but specifically deceit in order to engage in a sexual relationship viewed as unnatural. The court, however, settled on a charge of vagrancy, a rather flexible charge often used to enforce order and manage undesirable people. The punishment was relatively severe - whipping and hard labor - and had an element of public messaging to warn off others who might engage in similar performances or relationships.
For unclear reasons, this publicity was far more successful than was typical for such cases. The story was taken up by the press, not only throughout England, but in America and Europe. Playwright and novelist Henry Fielding was responsible for bringing the phrase “female husband “to public attention, but both the phrase and the phenomenon of marriage of a PAF to a woman pre-dated him.
The first known recorded instance of the phrase “female husband” in English was in a 1682 ballad, telling the story of a PAF who had ambiguous genitals and was probably intersex. Trained as a midwife by the woman who adopted them at birth, the issue came to attention when they got a woman pregnant. The law ruled that this proved them to be male. They were legally reassigned as male and required to marry the child’s mother.
Somewhat in contrast is the 1680 marriage of James Howard and Arabella Hunt, in which the court tentatively suggested that Howard was intersex – a suggstion she denied and disapproved, claiming instead that the marriage was “a prank”. The fact that Howard was wealthy (and Hunt was popular in court circles) precluded a “vagrancy” charge. (Instead the charges was bigamy, due to Howard’s pre-existing marriage to a man.)
For a PAF to present as male and legally marry a woman was neither common nor rare in the 17th to 18th century. Fielding simply attached a fixed label to the concept via his fictionalized story of Hamilton’s life.
Use of the modifier “female” with male-coded categories was a trend in the Enlightenment, shaping and framing attitudes toward gender. This fixation on the stories of “female [male-coded-concept]” expanded the context for including women in popular culture, while still marking them as nondefault state.
Mid-18th century English culture included a number of gender-blurring and gender-crossing practices. Carnivals and masquerades gave license to both male and female cross-dressing. These contexts also licensed women’s participation in public culture without a male escort.
At the same time, scientific rhetoric was embracing the idea of sexual difference under the “two sex” model, which saw gender differences as qualitative, not simply quantitative. This reframed the “transing” of gender boundaries, not as a moral or social offense, but as being in conflict with biology and reason.
The chapter continues with a detailed discussion of Fielding’s text and its relationship to Hamilton’s facts. Fielding’s interpretation focused on two themes: feelings of sexual possessiveness and the sexual body. In Fielding’s version, Hamilton was living as a woman with a female lover when that lover engaged in a sexual relationship with a third-party (male). Hamilton became frantically jealous and determined that the only way to compete successfully for the love of a woman wants to become a man. So in Fielding’s view, sexuality (the object of desire) is fixed and innate, but gender is easily changeable to align with heteronormative requirements. [Note: the court case does not discuss any such relationship and indicates that Hamilton had been presenting as male since age 14.]
Fielding’s narrative largely, but inconsistently, changes pronouns to reflect the strength of the social establishment of Hamilton’s gender as-read - using female pronouns when read as female and early in transition, when Hamilton’s gender performance was more tenuous, and male pronouns as Hamilton’s male presentation became solidly established. When Hamilton’s wife became suspicious and then challenged Hamiltons identity, Fielding reverts to female pronouns.
Fielding also framed Hamilton as being unsuccessful at performing a male role in penetrative sex, whereas the historic Hamilton appears to have been successful, and Hamilton’s wife understood herself to have enjoyed penetrative sex as expected with a man. Fielding’s agenda was to reinforce the gender boundaries by depicting Hamilton as incapable of successfully crossing them. Manion notes that Fielding was friendly with actress Charlotte Charke, who engaged in a more irregular and playful form of gender-crossing and this may have shaped his understanding.
Hamilton’s story doesn’t end with Fieldings revisionist version. Several years after Hamilton’s trial and punishment, they traveled to the Colonies, aiming for Philadelphia but (due to a storm) landing in North Carolina and gradually making their way north, again practicing the profession of quack medicine. In Philadelphia, Hamilton came to the attention of authorities for being unqualified to practice medicine. Only in the course of this investigation was Hamilton’s trans identity determined, and accounts describing the case moved from male to female pronouns at that point, reflecting not Hamilton’s identity, but public perception of Hamilton’s status.
Unlike in England, the authorities could find no basis for changing or punishing Hamilton, although they took the step of detaining Hamilton to see if anyone would bring a complaint. The record is silent on further details. The very lack of those details suggest that Hamilton was released.
Ten years later there is a record in the same area of a Charles Hamilton being charged with horse theft, and from the description of person and profession it is likely the same Hamilton. But this time there is no reference to gender issues, perhaps because Hamilton was not apprehended for the alleged crime.
Hamilton became something of a trope in popular crime fiction with their deeds being revised and expanded in repetition.