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Frank Dubois: The last female husband?

Monday, September 6, 2021 - 16:00

I continue to see parallels between Jen Manion's book and Emily Skidmore's, especially in how they both use a small set of individual biographies to focus attention on the larger topic. The slight temporal overlap between the two studies means it's unsurprising that Skidmore starts off with a look at two cases that Manion also covered in detail -- just in case you're having a sense of deja vu. (Manion's book came out three years after Skidmore's, but given publishing timelines it's unlikely she had access to the latter while writing, unless they ran in the same academic circles.)

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Skidmore, Emily. 2017. True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-4798-7063-9

Chapter 1: The Last Female Husband

This chapter focuses on an individual who story is relevant to a transitional period in US history with regard to trans identities. In 1883 a man named Samuel Hudson showed up in the small town of Waupun with two children, and claimed that Frank Dubois, who had recently married Gertrude Fuller, was actually his wife and the mother of the children. It’s a tribute to the speed of communications and the extensive network of local newspapers that the story broke simultaneously, not only in the local paper, but throughout the US. The range of reactions to the DuBois case that appeared in various locations illustrate the many different attitudes towards trans men in the late 19th century. There was no one coherent narrative to explain the phenomenon. Some viewed Frank Dubois as a harmless eccentric, others viewed him as a runaway wife. Some tried to create a context for understanding his story that drew in the stories of other trans individuals such as Joseph Lobdell.

Information about Dubois’s background, motivations, and later life are missing from the narrative, but the date places his story at an interesting juxtaposition. Dubois’s story may have been the last context in which newspapers regularly used the phrase female husband. And Lobdell’s story--which was cited as a parallel case--was the first known context in which a US publication used the word lesbian in a sexual sense. This juxtaposition should not be taken as indicating a sharp, clear divide in attitudes and reactions in the 1880s. The sexological theories that were applied to Lobdell’s case took quite some time to become part of popular understanding of sexuality.

If the personal details of Dubois’s case were mysteriously absent from the newspaper stories, his identity provided a context for discussing all manner of issues around gender roles and sexuality in general. These included the topic of same-sex marriage, the question of female sexual desire, and the subject of how sharp the practical divide was between male and female abilities and characteristics.

This chapter also provides context for why certain issues were prominent in the national debate, particularly those around the rise of the “new woman” as well as racial conflicts in the wake of reconstruction.

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