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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.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

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.)

Contents summary: 

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).