Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3
Manion begins by introducing several of the historic figures who will feature in this book: Charles Hamilton in 18th century England, George Wilson in 19th century New York. These are just two of the many individuals collected under the category “female husbands,” who claimed a male role in society including the right to marry a woman.
This book follows the social category of female husband from its beginnings in the mid 18th century up through the era just before World War I when the phenomenon more or less disappeared. Although there were many individuals assigned as female who lived male-presenting lives for economic or personal reasons, the category of female husband is specifically defined as those that include marriage to a woman.
While the focus of female husband narratives is usually on the person read as male, the women who loved and married them are equally interesting. Sometimes they are depicted as ignorant victims of deception, but often they were active participants who are well aware of their husbands’ background.
Journalistic accounts typically framed the wives as ordinary women, drawn into an unusual relationship. However the female wives of female husbands held a great deal of power within the relationship in their role as secret keepers, and discovery sometimes came when a wife either was surprised to learn her husband’s past, or when the relationship went sour and she wanted leverage to obtain a divorce or a favorable settlement.
Up through the mid 19th century, female husbands were primarily viewed in terms of gender crossing. But around that time, reactions began to change and female husbands were interpreted more within the context of the women’s rights movement. Interpretations shifted rapidly in the late 19th century. In the US, female husbands were initially framed in class terms, associating the phenomenon with vagrancy and poverty, but this shifted to viewing them as precursors to same-sex relationships.
Rather than emphasizing the gender of the female husband, narratives now emphasized sex, with female husbands being viewed as actually being women and therefore not “husbands.”
Although authorities generally condemned the gender transgression of female husbands, they often had difficulty finding applicable laws. Was the underlying problem that someone assigned female was living as male, that is, a gender transgression? Or was the problem that a female couple were living as married, and therefore it was a sexual transgression? Regardless, when such arrangements came to the attention of authorities, they were consistant in claiming the right to define and decide on the fate of the participants.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the label female husband was losing its specific meaning. Accusations of masculinity were hurled in the context of women’s rights with satirical accusations that women wanted to take on all male roles including that of husband. In another context, when two women lived openly as a couple in a same-sex relationship, one was typically interpreted by society as being “the man” in the relationship and termed a female husband. All of these uses diluted the specificity of the original category.
The connection between gender non-conformity and homosexuality was a popular theme among sexologists at the beginning of the 20th century. It has been a long-time theme that gender expression marched in parallel with sexual orientation, with male effeminacy or female masculinity being interpreted as a sign of homosexuality. But as the century progressed, interpretations shifted to distinguishing between gender and sexual orientation.
In examining the roots of the female husband phenomenon, it is impossible to separate gender and sexuality issues from the economic and social power that one could claim by living a male life. Female husbands were sometimes treated sympathetically because, after all, who wouldn’t prefer to be a man than a woman?
Newspapers played a major role in disseminating information about female husbands in the 18th century, as stories of gender crossing were considered of general curiosity. Local examples were frequently repeated and shared outside the local community where the subjects lived. But by publicizing accounts of female husbands, the press normalized them and created a familiar model that others could relate to and find inspiration in.
Manion discusses how female husbands and their wives fit within the construction of lesbian history, which typically works backward from a framework of modern identities. The modern paradigm of sexual orientation focuses on sex and minimizes gender, but the fuzzy boundaries between transgender men and masculine lesbians have always been difficult to define, and it’s not possible to make generalizations about that distinction in historical contexts.
When female husbands came to public attention, by definition by having their histories revealed, they were no longer in control of the narrative of their lives. How we understand their identities is almost always filtered through other viewpoints. Accounts of female husbands regularly alternate the gender of descriptions and pronouns, regardless of the identity and internal understanding of the person involved.
Manion takes a very specific approach to describing the objects of her study. She takes the approach of considering trans not as a fixed category of identity, but as any degree of movement away from the gender assigned at birth, either in terms of identity or in terms of practice. For this reason, rather than arbitrarily applying an identity to her subjects in the language she uses to describe them, Manion has chosen to use gender neutral pronouns when describing female husbands in the third person, and to refer to them with the names they chose for themselves.
The book is divided into two sections. In the first section it traces the concept of the female husband in Great Britain following two major themes: one considering sexual desire and intimacy and the other focusing on the representation of masculinity and patriarchy. After the mid 19th century there were far fewer examples of female husbands noted in the British press, however this era marks the rise of female husbands in the United States, and US examples feature in the second part of the book, up through the early 20th century.
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.
James Howe née Mary East had a biography unusual in tracing financial and social success, a happily married life with a wife who not only knew about her female husband’s background but had partaken in establishing their identity, and in passing through the revelation of their assigned gender relatively unscathed, despite a fair amount of drama.
[Note: I included Howe’s story in a podcast on real life queer historical stories that would make a great non-tragic movies.]
Manion has dug through archives and legal records to turn up more details of Howe’s life and marriage then I’ve seen previously. As a very brief sketch -- and with the understanding that there are parts where Howe and other involved parties may have had reason to tell the version of the story that would present themselves in the best light –- here is the gist.
Around 1732, two young women of age 16 or so, Mary East and Mary Snapes, having determined not to marry men and being intimate friends, decided to “live together thereever after”. Recognizing that this would be easier if they were taken for a married couple, they flipped a coin for who would be the man, and thus Mary East became James Howe.
Manion questions whether this division of roles was truly as arbitrary as Howe’s story implies, and points out that the story seems tailored to avoid threatening existing gender structures. In any event, after they married, they moved away from their home – a necessary prerequisite for success – and set up as tavern-keepers. A combination of good business sense and at least one lucky accident enabled them to repeatedly upgrade their business, and they ended up fairly wealthy and as pillars of their community. Their one peculiarity was that they hired no servants and did all the work of their business themselves. Presumably for reasons of privacy.
We might know nothing about this fascinating couple except for two events. A woman named Bentley, who had known them as children, recognized Howe and begin extorting small sums of money for her silence. Then, just before Bentley’s demands went from manageable to outrageous, Mary Snapes died from an illness.
After a calculation of risks we can only guess at, Howe responded to the violent demands of the extortion by appealing to a neighbor for help and revealing their assigned gender. The neighbor colluded in trapping the extortionists who were sent to prison. Howe returned to living as Mary East and retired with a considerable fortune, though bereft of the company of their wife of 32 years.
Manion analyzes the role that a successful marriage played in establishing Howe’s credentials as a man. Indeed, except for Mrs. Bentley, whose knowledge was based on personal recognition, no one seems to have questioned Howe’s maleness. But Manion traces how contemporary accounts and later histories manipulated perception of Howe’s gender via whether and in what circumstances they were granted male pronouns.
Manion tackles the intersection between lives like Howe’s and 18th century feminism. One might expect feminists to embrace proof that those born female could demonstrate the ability to succeed in life in a life reserved for men, but there was an uneasiness among feminist thought around behavioral gender-crossing. The question of whether women’s equality could be based on the fundamental equivalence of men and women, or whether it needed to work around an understanding of men and women as fundamentally different, was hotly debated. Several examples are given of feminist opinions on either the general concept, or specific examples, of persons-assigned-female “transing” gender, either via male-coded pursuits or via gender-crossing lives.
The chapter concludes by tracing shifts and reframings of how the Howes’ story was understood through the 19th century, and the challenge such lives present us to embrace a multiplicity of forms of gender and sexuality, coexisting throughout history, rather than requiring all lives to fit neatly into a set of mutually exclusive categories.
PAF transing gender to join the military or go to sea were common both in life and popular culture, with a wide variety of motivations. In isolated cases those who performed well before being unmasked might be celebrated and even rewarded, such as James Gray, William Chandler, and Robert Shurtliff whose (somewhat fictionalized) autobiographies helped ensure their fame. Common knowledge of stories such as theirs kept trans possibilities in mind, although there were significant barriers to success. Their roles in popular culture were contradictory, both establishing trans possibilities but always framing them as women and therefore both “normal” and anomalous.
Within the male-dominated world of sailors and soldiers, the romantic or sexual pursuit of women could be an essential feature of gender crossing, as well as sometimes aligning with their own desires. But these stories often do not feature permanent partnerships in the way the previous examples of female husbands do. Rather they focus on flirtations that are framed specifically as a strategy or an unwilling necessity.
The chapter focuses on the three aforementioned people. James Gray (née Hannah Snell) served briefly in the army and then at sea, eventually being wounded in battle and was discharged with a pension. Only then did they deliberately announce their assigned sex. Gray then turned their experiences into a celebrity career, writing an autobiography. Manion discusses how the publicity around great focused strongly on the act of disguise and supposed near misses at being discovered, all of which emphasized their female body.
Samuel Bundy has a less typical story, alternately presenting as a man or a woman, and while they adopted a sailor’s outfit it isn’t clear that they served on a ship. Bundy entered into a marriage with Mary Parlour and when Bundy’s assigned sex was revealed, resulting in a charge of fraud, the charge was dropped because Mary declined to pursue it. This again points to the difficulty English law had with identifying an actual crime involved in marriage between two women. But the marriage was dissolved, Bundy returned to skirts, and sometime later married a man.
William Chandler preferred male coded activities from a young age and in 1759 at age 19--with no particular trigger for the decision--decided to leave home, change into male clothing, and make their way in the world as a man. Within a few days they had an offer to become a sailor. After some time at sea, the apprentice to a ship right in Portsmouth. After working in that trade for a time, Chandler returned to wearing female clothing, wrote an autobiography of their adventures, and eventually married a man they had first known as a fellow shipwright. Chandler’s autobiography follows tropes of the genre that are at odds with their actual experiences: fear of discovery, concerns about being physically weak, near-miss sexual encounters with women. Given this, some doubt the too-tidy resolution in heterosexual marriage, and there is ambiguous evidence regarding cohabitation with a woman named Elizabeth Slade. But Manion has turned up a marriage record to a Mr. Slade by one Mary Lacey, Chandler’s birth name. So Chandler’s story defies categorization in all manner of ways.
We cross the Atlantic to take up the story of Robert Shurtliff (née Deborah Sampson). Shurtliff’s proclaimed motivation in joining the Continental army in 1782 was simple patriotism. They served as a man for a year and a half. Later they returned to female dress and eventually married a man with whom they had three children. Many years later, Shurtliff was approached by a writer who wanted to tell their biography and the money was too good to refuse. Turning their experiences into performance art via a speaking tour, Shurtliff also had the opportunity to claim a government pension. (Cross-gender soldiers were often rebuffed and denied pensions solely due to their perceived sex, if discovered.) Shurtliff’s biography--like Chandler’s--is full of stock tropes, especially romantic and sexual encounters with women while being read as a man. These encounters are framed as harmless and even natural, given that the women took Shurtliff for a man.
But the story of simple patriotic fervor side-steps the fact that Shurtliff continued inhabiting a male role as a farmer after leaving the army and returning home, also continuing flirtations with women. And early stories about Shurtliff’s experiences were somewhat more condemnatory than the later attribution of patriotic motives, perhaps assigned in order to make their actions more palatable to 19th century images of womanhood.
The chapter concludes with a discussion of the overlap in themes of trans-masculinity and male effeminacy that could create a double-bind for those transing gender.
This chapter looks at the experiences of the people fulfill like the role of wife to a female husband. The first case is that of James Allen who was killed in an industrial accident in 1829. Allen’s wife Abigail then had to deal with the fact not only of her husband’s death, but of public knowledge that her husband was a person assigned female. They had been married for 21 years.
There is discussion of the circumstances of the autopsy and the coroner’s attitude toward this discovery. Although Allen’s assigned gender was made public knowledge by an assistant and medical students observing the autopsy, the coroner systematically referred to Allen with male pronouns and justified this on the basis that it was impossible for Allen to be a woman as he had a wife, after all. He had seen the actual marriage certificate. The coroner refused to support further inquiries into Allen’s identity, arguing that the only purpose of the autopsy was to determine the cause of death and that further inquiry was not within the scope of his job. Whether this may have been a rationale to protect Abigail’s privacy or whether the coroner genuinely couldn’t cope with the cognitive dissonance of a person acting in society as a man and yet with female anatomy is up for question. In any event, the coroner prevented further examination of Allen’s body and ensured that they were buried in a secure location, safe from the curious or from body snatchers.
Nonetheless there was public curiosity about the story, with former coworkers of the deceased being interviewed about their impressions of Allen’s gender presentation. Abigail insisted that she had never had reason to question her husband’s gender. There is no indication that the marriage was for ulterior purposes. The two had worked together in service in the same household for three years before their marriage. In order to establish themselves independently, like the Hows, they pooled their savings and went into business running a public house. However they met with misfortune due to a robbery and abandoned that line of work. Allen took up the trade of ship-building while Abigail worked in the bonnet-making trade.
After Allen’s death, Abigail was assailed by public accusations, due to the nature of her marriage. She was bullied and harassed and rumors were spread that her own gender might be up for question. It was vitally important for her good name as a respectable woman to establish that she was not a knowing participant in a same-sex marriage. Abigail needed the insurance money for Allen’s death and already had to deal with insurers who tried to reject the claim on the principle that Allen had committed fraud via gender disguise.
In the end Abigail succeeded in being granted the life insurance she was due as a widow. But her continued assertions that she was ignorant of the nature of her marriage may have been essential for that success. Public opinion came around to that position as well. It must have been easier for people to except that Abigail had not knowingly married a woman disguised as a man there by maintaining the gender status quo rather than believing that a woman was capable of entering deliberately into a same-sex marriage.
The second case presented in this chapter is that of Henry Stoake, who was a bricklayer in the 1830s in England but aspired to make their way up in the world by apprenticing to a master builder. By the end of the decade stock at earned enough at the trade that they claimed they no longer needed to work and could live off their earnings.
Stoake ‘s wife Ann had been the accountant and bookkeeper for the bricklaying business and played a crucial role in Stoake’s success, but legally all the wealth of the household belonged only to the husband, and Ann became concerned about maintaining her property rights. Ann sought the advice of a lawyer in seeking a legal separation that would ensure her financial stability. Ann’s concerns appear to have been valid, as Stoake had regularly refused to recognize her value in the business and would punish her by withholding money for housekeeping expenses. Ann also alleged that Stoake was physically abusive to her when drunk. She wanted a divorce and her attorney pressured Stoake to grant her the house and furnishings as a start.
It was not an obvious strategy to use Stoake’s assigned gender as leverage in the divorce settlement, as the risks to Ann’s reputation and standing as a wife eligible for a divorce settlement were equally at risk.
The two had been legally married in 1817 but once Stoake’s assigned gender was revealed the very status of the marriage, as well as questions of appropriate measures for legal separation, came under question. Conversely the reluctance that Ann brought to revealing the truth of the marriage argues that initially she had entered into it willingly and knowingly. This was not a decision to separate due to a sudden revelation. They had been married for 21 years.
In the end, it was something of a split decision: she received public support in her claims to leave the marriage with a proper share of the couple’s property, however she was stigmatized for what was believed to be her stupidity or ignorance at having married someone who turned out not to be male after all.
Similarly to the somewhat less conflict-driven case of Abigail Allen, the public was eager to believe that a woman could be naïve enough to go through two decades of marriage without realizing that her spouse was a woman, rather than believing that a woman would knowingly enter into such a relationship. In the case of neither Stoake nor Allen did any information come out that soundly established a reason for the initial gender-crossing.
Interestingly, after the Stoake divorce, Henry Stoake was not required to take up a female presentation. And although they were the target of some public hostility, they continued living in the same general region and eventually married another wife. After their death by drowning, some 21 years after the divorce case, a witness at the inquest testified that they were aware of Stoake’s original assigned gender and birth name. This suggests that this knowledge may have been available to Stoake’s second wife when she entered the marriage.
The chapter concludes with a consideration of the concepts of a third gender and of intersex bodies and how those concepts might be raised in certain cases of female husbands. There was a public willingness to believe that living a male profession and life could cause a person assigned female to become more physically masculine--a belief that reflects earlier medieval attitudes to some extent. The question of homoeroticism, as such, was rarely an overt part of public concern in these cases. The public was interested in how a female-bodied person could physically and socially perform masculinity successfully, but romantic attraction to a woman was not really part of the equation that people constructed for these cases. But after the fact, people might express (or discover) suspicions about a person’s gender in terms of “possibly belonging to a third sex”, by which they generally meant some type of intersex condition. What is interesting is that—until confronted by proof of the gender-crossing—these co-workers and neighbors were evidently mostly content to keep their suspicions to themselves. Mostly.
By the 19th century, intersex anatomy (labeled “hermaphroditism” at the time) was going out of fashion as an explanation or signifier of cross-gender behavior. But intersex conditions might raise questions about a person’s alignment with their assigned gender, as in the case of Pennsylvania stagecoach driver James Carey whose gender was questioned due to observations by the woman who prepared their body for burial. In this case, the autopsy board included an artist who illustrated the board’s findings and collected additional community information about Carey’s life. Although these findings supported a conclusion that Carey’s physiology was ambiguous (in general, not only with respect to genitals), the community testimony was positive and accepting, with a distinct lack of judgment regarding contradictory features. (Carey falls outside the core category of “female husband” in not having a partner, as well as not being clearly assignable as female.)
While the first half of Manion's book focuses primarily on female husbands in England, the second half moves across the ocean to the United States. People who transed gender in 19th century America for economic reasons operated not only within the binary of male and female, but within a racial context that largely categorized work along racial lines. The white male worker had the best economic opportunities, but the frequency with which people assigned female could trans gender to access those opportunities undermined the theory of a clear gender divide, and highlighted the opportunities for those who were willing to trade female gender presentation for economic access.
One of the greatest contrasts with the situation in England was easy geographic mobility. Mobility made transing gender easier, and economic motivations tended to be taken at face value at discovery, especially in contrast to the usual alternative of sex work.
The one context in which transing gender as part of identity change was looked askance was for Black workers who were suspected of using gender change as a disguise when escaping slavery. Black mobility was more constrained even in the North or after Emancipation, so several of the advantages to white gender-crossers were eliminated.
This chapter also focuses on the increasing importance of a professional police force to the identification, pursuit, and management of gender transgression.
The first focus biography in this chapter is George Wilson, a factory worker who was accosted by the New York City police in 1836 for apparent public intoxication, in the course of which Wilson’s assigned gender was identified. Wilson presented a life history that was significantly fabricated and designed to elicit sympathy, but which was undermined somewhat when Wilson’s wife Elizabeth turned up at the station, willing to provide further details.
The couple were both from working class Scottish families and had likely met in Glasgow when Wilson was working in the same factory as Elizabeth’s father. They married in 1821 and emigrated to North America, settling first in Canada where they were joined by Elizabeth’s father, and then the whole family moved to New Jersey where father and son-in-law again worked in the same factory. When that factory went out of business, they moved to NYC where Wilson worked in a hat factory. Manion speculates that Elizabeth may have been a factory worker as well, though no specific evidence is given.
At the police station, Elizabeth’s goal was to gain Wilson’s freedom, as his continued employment was essential for the family’s financial security. The magistrate’s goal was to satisfy his curiosity about Wilson’s personal history. Elizabeth stated that she hadn’t known her husband’s assigned gender before the wedding, but Wilson told her afterward while they were in the middle of the voyage to America—a context that would have reduced her options for response. She reported that she accepted the situation and was content to continue as husband and wife. And certainly, after they were joined by her father, her options would have been somewhat wider if she had objected.
Several versions of Wilson’s history prior to the marriage were offered, but all revolved around the desire to leave an undesirable family situation around age 12 and taking up life as a boy in the context of leaving home.
The consideration of George and Elizabeth Wilson's fate leaves off without any resolution and the thread picks up with other examples of transing gender, particularly as sailors (which Wilson was originally thought to be by the arresting officer). Accounts of “female sailors” were common in American newspapers of the time, even as they were growing less common in British accounts. Their stories were popular tabloid fare and some related that it was other such accounts, or biographies like Deborah Sampson’s, that inspired them to take up the profession.
Although nautical jobs were more open to Black workers than many other professions, the treatment of Charles Wilson in the press shows that the journalistic category “female sailor” was inherently categorized as white. Charles Wilson was variously described as Black or colored, but was never offered the label of “female sailor”. After serving in the navy, Wilson was convicted of stealing pigs in New York City and their assigned gender was identified when they were forced to change into prison clothing.
Several other examples from nautical contexts are discussed, including George (Ann) Johnson who signed on with a whaling vessel after being abandoned by a lover. (Abandonment by a lover or fiance was a common motivation offered in trans biographies. The motif was guaranteed to elicit sympathy and may not always have been rooted in truth.) When Johnson's assigned gender was discovered while at sea, the captain decided to enforce gender norms by requiring Johnson to return to a female presentation, to cease working as a sailor (against Johnson’s wishes), and to be confined to a private cabin until they could be returned to land. But having gotten a taste for a different life, after returning to New York, Johnson again took up working as a man in a whip-making factory, with occasional ventures into working on a riverboat or setting up a confectionary shop. When an accident once more revealed Johnson’s assigned gender, their friends and coworkers had only positive reports of them and although it is suggested they were no longer able to continue in their profession(s), no one could find any complaint to press legally.
Manion concludes the chapter with a consideration of the sexuality of these 19th century laborers. Most of their stories don’t involve intimate relationships. (Manion calls them “asexual” but a more accurate description might be either celibate are unpartnered.) Manion suggests that within the American context, masculinity could be established purely by laboring at male-coded jobs, and the establishment of a marriage was less relevant as evidence than it had been in the Old World. (Note that George Wilson’s marriage was established before emigrating.)
The feminist movement of the later 19th century tackled questions of the differences and similarities between the genders, however feminism had an uneasy relationship with transing gende, due to the use of gendered criticism of both feminist ideals and feminists themselves. It was a common tactic to accuse feminists of being masculine. Both for philosophical and practical reasons there was a sense that gender crossing undermined their arguments for the equality of women.
[Note: There are a number of historical intersections with themes that are currently showing up in TERF rhetoric, and it can be useful to understand the deep background of some of those themes and ideas. There’s also cross-over here with the “lavender menace” phenomenon, where the accusation that feminists were all lesbians led some parts of the feminist movement in the ‘70s to try to purge lesbians from the movement. Conversely, this chapter points out that while those who transed gender were implicitly critiquing gender norms and boundaries, that does’t mean they consciously challenged sexist social structures. In some ways, it feels like the bringing in feminism as a sub-theme in this chapter is another case of Manion shoehorning her biographical studies into an artificial chapter structure. But the topic is definitely worth exploring, whether or not it relates to the specific female husband biographies in this section.]
In general, female husbands were not understood or depicted as political actors or as gender activists. They were seen not as critiquing the institution of heterosexual marriage but as subverting it for individual benefit. Feminists, in contrast, agitated for the right to enjoy the freedom of dress, movement, and employment that men enjoyed, but as women, not by becoming men. Nonetheless, this chapter explores how the two groups were conflated in the popular imagination.
The first focus biography in this chapter is John Smith, a tinker in New York in the mid 19th century. Smith courted and married a widow named Mrs. Donnelly. We know essentially nothing about how they met or their personal life, although Manion is happy to speculate certain biographical details. Donnelly became unsatisfied with the marriage, evidently due to the lack of sexual intimacy. She appears to have expressed the suspicion that her husband was not a man to a male acquaintance who then challenged Smith on that basis and forcefully determined that Smith’s physiology was female. Unlike some other cases of female husbands in the US, the newspaper coverage was hostile and negative, though not very prominent. However although Smith was arrested on the basis of Donnelly’s charge, it was determined that there was no applicable law that prohibited cross dressing or transing gender. Furthermore, Smith could not be charged with the vague vagrancy laws due to being gainfully employed and part of the social fabric of the community.
New York state had no laws specifically against cross-dressing at that time, so an arrest on that basis might result in embarrassment and but unless some other charge were involved could not result in imprisonment. Some commenters on cross-dressing arrests offered sympathetic objections that women wearing male attire were accepted as ordinary in other communities and should not be prosecuted.
To some extent the rise of a visible feminist movement and the use of accusations of masculinity against them created a new hazard for those who transed gender, because it elevated the visvibility of gender issues in the popular imagination. Those who felt there should be legal barriers to the appropriation of masculine prerogatives that feminists called for set about creating the very laws the absence of which had protected gender crossers. The chapter spends several pages discussing the intersection of the feminist movement and abolitionism. This provided another topic on which feminists were considered dangerous, and were attacked as intruding into the male sphere. Femininity was used as a weapon to try to force feminists into silence and passivity.
The accusation that the support of feminism made women masculine resulted in a backlash of respectability politics within the feminist movement, where some felt the needed to emphasize that they did not want to become men. This undermined what might otherwise have been a natural alliance between feminists and trans men.
The next focus biography is of Albert Guelph, which begins in England. Guelph’s story is a peculiar one. They first came into contact with their future wife while presenting as a woman. After becoming friendly with the family, Guelph revealed a curious family history: that they were a secret descendent of King George IV and queen Caroline but had been hidden from the world and disguised as a girl from a young age, even though assigned male at birth. But Guelph asserted they were revealing this out of love for Mary Ann Robins. At that point Guelph transitioned into living as a man and married Miss Robins. Shortly after the marriage, Robins came to her mother complaining that she had discovered her husband was a woman. Her mother took the story to the police, who were understandably confused by the twists and turns. Guelph seems to have been fairly well off and always had plenty of money, which may have been part of the inducement to overlook the strangeness of their original story. At any rate after the matter came into the open, Guelph disappeared. But wait…!
Like many female husband stories, the press coverage was not confined to the location where the events occurred, and the US press picked it up only a month after it came out in England. This is relevant, because Albert Guelph moved to New York (evidently in company with their married sister and children, and at least one of Guelph’s only children). Guelph contracted yet another marriage. In this case it was the bride’s father who became suspicious of the nature of his son-in-law and--against the bride’s wishes--he confronted Guelph about their gender and elicited an admission of sorts that they were female.
Guelph was arrested and put in prison, where their wife visited with expressions of affection and protestations that the arrest had been a conspiracy by her father, who had disapproved of the marriage. In the trial Guelph refused to identify themselves by gender referring the question to the arresting officers, who they said could tell the judge the facts of the matter. Guelph was still appearing in male clothing for the trial. The charge was vagrancy, which is a bit confusing given that Guelph had a fixed residence (with his sister and sister’s family, who also offered a home to Guelph’s wife after the marriage). Guelph also clearly had money.
The family connections make Guelph’s case unusual, as does the fact that Guelph changed gender presentation regularly, depending on circumstances and this was well known by their family and local community. In fact, as with Guelph’s previous marriage in England, they first got to know their New York wife’s family while presenting as a woman and only later changed into male attire with the knowledge of that family. The same rationale seems to have been used to explain this: that Guelph was assigned male but was wearing women’s clothing as a disguise on occasion. This may go some distance to explaining why the bride’s father had certain objections to the marriage.
Guelph seems to have been comfortable in both gender presentations but used the male presentation as a context for sexual intimacy and love. Guelph’s wife’s acceptance and support after the arrest suggest strongly that she was well aware that Guelph was assigned female and that this was perfectly acceptable to her. The newspapers vacillated between two theories: that Guelph had tricked their wife into thinking that they were biologically male; alternately that this was a same-sex relationship that was disguised for public acceptance. There were jokes about women being so desperate for a husband that they took to marrying each other.
At the trial, Guelph’s lawyer argued on two points: that vagrancy carried a maximum sentence of 60 days which had already passed, and that there was no state law prohibiting cross dressing. The judge had invoked an existing law against disguise but the law had been clearly implemented to address political agitators who disguised themselves to avoid identification. After being acquitted Guelph continued to appear in the clothing of both genders, although public criticism of this was noted in the papers. And some used the case as a spur to arguing that there should be laws against gender cross-dressing.
Another thread in the question of wearing the clothing of a different gender came in the form of the bloomer movement. (We get back to the feminists here.) It could not be said that women wearing a bloomer costume were wearing “male clothing” as the style was one that no man would have worn. However due to the use of loose trousers as part of the outfit, bloomer wearers were accused of being masculine. And bloomers were strongly associated with the feminist movement, even though not all feminists embraced the concept. They were part of a general movement for dress reform that argued that women should not be required to wear physically restrictive clothing.
The chapter concludes with a discussion of conflicts between feminist activism and trans masculinity.
This chapter begins with a discussion of the social and legal systems that operated to police gender expression and identity. The post Civil War era involved an expansion of official police intervention with regard to moral and social crimes, not only crimes of violence and property. These systems operated overtly against the transing of gender in small everyday ways, not only those cases where complete gender crossing was involved. This postwar era also saw examples of individuals who crossed gender boundaries multiple times in multiple ways, not only those who made a one-way transition from one side of the binary to the other.
The chapter primarily focuses on one particular biography: that of Joseph Lobdell, born Lucy Ann Lobdell, and covers multiple different performances and perceptions of their life.
Lobdell was assigned female at birth and came to adopt male clothing in specific circumstances such as for horseback riding or hunting. Lobdell wrote a memoir at an early point in their life, discussing this gender crossing as a functional matter. But the memoir ends before they took up a life fully read as male. Their later experiences can be pieced together from the trail of news stories generated by various critical points in their life.
Lobdell grew up on a farm and early adopted habits and skills more typical for boys, such as hunting. After showing little interest in heterosexual courtship, Lobdell eventually became involved with a young man where Lobdell played a more stereotypically masculine role in the relationship, being more protective and dominant. Despite Lobdell’s continued reservations about the relationship, eventually they married. The marriage was short-lived, not so much due to Lobdell’s reservations but due to their husbands abusive behavior.
Lobdell return to living with their parents but soon took up the role of “man of the family” when their father became disabled. This included both hunting and farm chores.
Encouraged by an encounter with a traveler who took them for a man, and wishing to avoid a visit by their estranged husband, Lobdell decided to leave home and seek work presenting as a man and receiving a man’s wages. Previously Lobdell had been understood as “a woman in man’s clothing”, but in this new life they took on the name Joseph and spent 15 years moving through the world as a man, including pursuing romantic relationships with women.
The jobs they took at first were not necessarily the physical labor they had previously engaged in while transing gender. One early position was as a singing teacher, primarily teaching young women, one of whom they came close to marrying except at the last moment someone discovered “by accident” that Lobdell was assigned female. This resulted in a hasty departure from the town.
After that, Lobdell moved further west, away from familiar territory and took up more physical jobs. After some years, someone again raised the issue of Lobdell’s gender and made a charge before a court that Lobdell was impersonating a man. Unlike in previous eras, now there did exist laws against transing gender, particularly in the midwestern territories that were newly establishing law codes in a context of repressive religious movements. There is a brief digression of the topic of “blue laws,” which were moral-based law codes generally meant to enforce the principles of a particular dominant religion.
Lobdell’s lawyer appears to have successfully argued against the charges and an evidently sympathetic judge agreed and no verdict of guilty was found. But the experience was emotionally devastating to Lobdell, who decided to return to the family home after that.
From having been a productive member of society, Lobdell now became destitute, and after briefly returning to their birth family ended up in a poor house. It was in that institution that they met a woman who turned their life around one more time. Lobdell and Marie Louise Perry began cohabiting together in the house of Lobdell’s parents and remained together for almost 20 years.
The two were recorded as being considered an odd couple but clearly devoted to each other and bringing out the best in each other. Their financial situation, however, continued to be rocky. Returning to public attention due to being involved in public disturbances, Lobdell was written up in a newspaper article that focsed on their prior trans experiences, referring to “Joe Lobdell and wife” and describing Lobdell with male pronouns. At this time, Lobdell was perceived as a masculine-performing woman, not as a man.
Manion reviews the different ways in which Lobdell’s various presentations were received, depending on whether they were understood as being a masculine woman or as a gender crossing man. Lobdell’s wife, in contrast, was described as lady-like with upper class manners. She embodied the stereotypes of approved womanhood. Newspaper articles about the couple found their attraction inexplicable, and yet they were clearly inseparable. Lobdell was sometimes celebrated in news articles as an activist for women’s rights, though perhaps only the rights that they needed in order to act as a legal entity in society: signing contracts and owning property.
The property came as an unexpected legacy of their long departed husband Lobdell’s husband had enlisted during the Civil War and been killed, and it turned out that Lobdell was entitled to a widow’s pension with significant backpay. Lobdell’s brother John helped them retrieve the funds and purchase property. And then--for unclear reasons--John claimed that Lobdell was insane and had been so for 10 years and had them committed to an asylum, cutting all communication with Marie Louise Perry, Lobdell’s wife. Among the evidence presented by John and other neighbors for Lobdell’s insanity was dressing as a man, claiming to be a man, and claiming to be married to a woman. Whether John believed that his sibling was genuinely insane on the basis of gender transgression, or whether John simply wanted access to Lobdell’s property, is open for a question.
The last stage of Lobdell’s life overlapped with the rise of the medicalization of gender transgression and Lobdell became the subject of a doctor’s study, transforming what has been originally viewed as a legal or moral issue into one of psychological disturbance. As was not uncommon in such studies, the doctor interpreted much of Lobdell’s behavior and character through a lens of sexual desire.
The chapter concludes with a discussion of the sexologists’ theory of gender inversion that characterized lesbian desire as existing only within a pseudo-heterosexual framework. For some people who were transgender this framework may be apt, but plenty of examples demonstrate that it was not the only framework in which desire between two assigned female people existed.
Manion identifies the end of the 19th century as a period when the meanings of gender and the various ways in which women pushed back against the restrictions of gender expanded enough that the category of female husband became less coherent. Transing gender had been an individual solution to the various social restrictions of gender roles, but feminism and other societal shifts were now offering systemic solutions to some of the same problems. Same-sex relationships between people presenting as female became more visible and included a range of gender expressions. Persons assigned female who adopted various degrees of masculine dress offered rational arguments for acceptability. Feminism laid claim to the right of women to enter male-dominated fields and spheres without needing to present as male to do so. At the same time, the hostility of men toward women’s invasion of their prerogatives and spaces also increased the hostility turned towards those who transed gender. Reactions that previously had centered around social gender roles now focused more strongly on sexual possibilities.
Several case studies are offered of people who were put into the category of “female husband” by public and press reaction. But in some cases the ways in which they failed to fit that archetype point out the growing incoherence of the category. Public discourse around Frank Dubois, who had a fairly standard female-husband story, points out some of the shifts in anxiety about those who transed gender. Dubois' story provoked a fair amount of discussion, both serious and satirical, that if women had an option of marrying women, then men might become irrelevant. But another aspect of the discussion focused on the performative nature of gender, in that many of the proofs that Dubois offered for their male status had to do with stereotypical male behaviors and gender performance, rather than physical characteristics.
There is a brief discussion of John Coulter, whom Manion identifies as the “last British female husband,” but the story offers no particularly new angles on the topic.
Samuel Pollard’s story reads much like some previous ones in that shortly after they married, their wife complained that her husband was actually a woman. As the matter tried to sort itself out in the court (having difficulty in finding the appropriate statute be considered) Pollard’s wife had a reconciliation and in the end the matter was dropped. The marriage was later dissolved, but Pollard continued to live as a man in the community despite their gender assignment being known to others due to the earlier controversy.
The next two cases show how the female husband paradigm was applied even in cases where it failed to fit the facts. Annie Hindle was an actress who performed male roles on stage, and wore male clothing to their wedding with Annie Ryan. However there was never any serious attempt to disguise their assigned gender. The minister who married them did not raise any questions of gender although it is likely that he was aware that there were questions to be raised. Hindle and their wife remained together until Ryan died. There was a flurry of publicity around the concept of “the widow of a woman”, but in general it was sympathetic and positive with regard to the couple. Hindle appears to have worn male clothing at least on a sometime basis after retiring from the stage, but did not attempt to pass as a man except in the very specific context of the marriage ceremony. But by applying the female husband model, Hindle’s marriage created a conceptual bridge to the idea of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.
Leroy Williams was a disabled veteran of the Civil War and in late middle-age married the widow Matilda Smith. Smith soon became unhappy with the marriage, citing various types of misrepresentation regarding income and housing that Williams had made during the courtship. But Smith also claimed that Williams had misrepresented their sex, saying “he was no man but a woman.” This would be a familiar story in the discussion of female husbands except that--based on all available evidence, including that of census records from Williams’ childhood--Williams does appear to have been assigned male. William successfully argued that their experiences in the army would have made an underlying female sex obvious, and no medical examination was made in the context of the marriage challenge. So why would Smith raise this accusation in the context of requesting a marriage annulment? Evidently the concept of female husbands was current enough in the culture to be a believable charge, even when easily falsified.
Manion explores the role of scandal sheets and crime-focused newspapers in recording and spreading stories of female husbands and similar gender transgression. But increasingly there were female identified people who openly wore male garments for a variety of reasons, whether practicality, career, or personal taste. Similarly, the end of the 19th century saw a number of types of female same-sex partnerships that were entered into openly and received varying amounts of social approval. (This was the era of the "Boston marriage" and of many couples formed among the faculty of women's colleges.) With these shifts, some of the motivations for female husbands begin to fall away from the central model and the term became less useful to describe a specific phenomenon. What remained as a motivation was an internal sense of gender identity. But marrying a woman was no longer seen as proof or validation for that masculine identity.
In the end of the chapter Manion summarizes many of the themes covered in this book and reiterates the reasoning for the particular approach to gender reference that she uses. There is also an epilogue discussing the first medically reassigned female to male transsexual (Manion’s wording) and the changes in approaches and attitudes to transing gender that came in the 20th century.