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Charlotte Charke

18th century English actress who specilized in “breeches roles” and cross-dressed regularly in ordinary life as well. She had at least one long-term relationship with a woman that is strongly implied to be sexual. Charke occasionally lived as a man for limited periods, raising the possibility of a transgender identity.

LHMP entry

In this chapter, Faderman reviews the historic and literary perception of women cross-dressing as men during the 16-18th centuries. She notes that women passing as men [or transgender men, although this framing was not typically used at the time the book was published] were considered a more serious issue than lesbian sex, as long as that sex was between “feminine” women. One difference was that sexual encounters could be framed as a transient amusement whereas passing women were engaged in a long-term transgression.

Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.

Jelinek has collected information about a surprisingly large number of gender-masquerade autobiographies, covering the 17-20th centuries and focused on the English-speaking world (likely due to the reseracher’s own interests). The bibliography at the end lists 18 publications, covering 17 different individuals, of whom 13 are discussed in detail in the article. As a context for the material, Jelinek notes motifs of women disguised as men in literature , including several works by William Shakespeare and Margaret Cavendish.

Male and anonymous authors continue to focus on lesbians in male-gaze pornography and crude sexual satire. The female authors in this group are instead writing of their own lives, whether the continuing poems on the theme of intensely romantic friendship, or the somewhat banal diaries of the most famous female romantic couple of the age, or the somewhat more transgressive (and likely sensationalized) memoirs of the cross-dressing/genderqueer Charlotte Charke.

This article looks at the 1744 novel The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, concerning a cross-dressing lesbian heroine who goes about Europe having adventures. Woodward examines this text in the context at other 18th c novels with similar themes that veer off from the lesbian resolution. She also considers the problem of the work’s authorship. It purports to be a translation into English by a man of a French original, written by a woman, but there are reasons to doubt several aspects of that framing.

In this chapter Donoghue examines texts, both fictional and biographical that examine close and long-term friendships between women. The selection here is focuses on the complexity and difficulties of real lives rather than those that idealize friendship.

There was a theatrical counterpart to the real life cross-dressing women discussed in the previous chapter. It had become the fashion for women to play certain types of male roles on stage, under the cover term “breeches parts”. This was part of the contradictory acceptance/rejection of women in male disguise. Acceptability was not related to how well the disguise was pulled off: “masculine” clothing among fashionable women (such as riding habits) might be mocked while women discovered after passing completely as soldiers might be lauded.

The 18th century saw a polarization in attitudes, both in popular culture and in real life, between the "safe" de-sexualized romantic friendship (associated with educated and upper class women) and the "dangerous" sexual, gender-transgressing lesbian (associated with lower-class or socially marginalized women). Gonda looks at two women who--although their lives and careers show striking parallels--could be considered prototypes of these poles.

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