Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3
Chapter 6: The Activists
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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.