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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #100c Donoghue 1996 - Passions Between Women (Chapter 2)

Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4

Publication summary: 

A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.

Chapter 2: Female Husbands

The thing I like most about this chapter is the implication that 18th century England found marriage between two women to be interesting but not at all surprising and that the simple fact of the marriage was rarely treated as a crime or a major problem, as long as no other complicating factors intruded.

* * *

Donoghue’s second conceptual cluster in this analysis is the “female husband” motif. That is, not simply women passing as men, but doing so in a context where they courted and/or married other women. The chapter begins with a general note on the prevalence of this type of event and the wide variety of superficial motivations for passing. Previous studies are noted that have focused on passing in the context of the military (Wheelwright 1989) or in popular culture (Dugaw 1989) but notes that they downplay the sexual possibilities. But conversely, studying cases of “female husbands” in the context of lesbian history can be problematic due to themes of deception and the adoption of misogyny along with male clothing, as well as the (often prurient) focus on phallic sexual aids.

Donoghue mostly passes over possible transgender interpretations, other than explicitly disagreeing with Dekker & van de Pol’s interpretation of passing as being the only psychologically available model for an Early Modern woman who desired another woman. Donoghue points out (indeed, this whole book speaks to) the wide variety of popularly available models for desire between women that did not involve such an overtly heterosexual model. But the “female husband” approach provided a much stronger social protection for a relationship between two women than cohabitation without the appearance of marriage.

Historians have made a variety of arguments for the place (or lack thereof) of sexual desire in the motivations of female husbands. Donoghue points out that while economic opportunity might be sufficient motivation for passing in general, marriage would seem to call for some more specific motivation. Before moving on to the specific case studies, Donoghue notes that, by definition, we have evidence almost exclusively for those cases where the disguise failed at some point, and that the predominance of working class women in the data could be due to the lesser vulnerability to discovery of those of higher class.

The following cases appear with relatively little data in the historic record:

  • A 1678 account tells a “friend of a friend” story of a Spanish woman who escaped an abusive husband by cross-dressing and in that guise married another woman. The story indicates she was never “discovered” but told her history to a friend who passed it on to the author.
  • The 1744 travel accounts by Busbequius in Turkey have been mentioned in previous entries, providing an exoticized account of desire between women in Turkish bathhouses, including an attempt at marriage while disguised as a man.
  • A private letter of 1694 describes the legal case of a young woman passing as a man who married another young woman, but who was accused of fraud when then attempting to marry a second woman, allegedly for financial reasons, although the fraud aspect might be called into doubt by the love letters that were presented in evidence.
  • A 1720 prison record notes that a woman named Sarah Ketson tried to marry Ann Hutchinson, using the name John.
  • Marriage registers sometimes noted a clergyman’s suspicions about the couple requesting his services, as when in 1734 a clergyman refused to marry John Mountford and Mary Cooper with the notation “suspected 2 women”, or similarly in 1737 when John Smith and Elizabeth Huthall were married despite the annotation “I almost could prove them both women, the one was dress’d as a man: thin pale face & wrinkled chin.” And in 1747 after the marriage of John Ferren and Deborah Nolan it was noted “The supposed John Ferren was discovered…to be in person a woman” though there is no indication that the marriage was therefore voided.
  • Two even more curious records from 1707-8 in Cheshire list marriages between two persons recorded with feminine names: Hannah Wright and Anne Gaskill, and Ane Norton and Alice Pickford. No comment on gender is made at all.
  • A soldier being treated for a wound in 1759 was discovered to be a woman and it was noted that she had a wife who had kept her secret from the regiment.
  • In 1760, a newspaper account gave the story of a woman named Barbara Hill trying to enlist under the name John Brown who was recognized by a former acquaintance. She had held a variety of male jobs, including stonecutter and postchaise driver, and had married a woman “with whom she has lived very agreeably ever since.” The account further notes that after the discovery, her wife pled not to be separated from her, and the writer appears to be sympathetic to their position.
  • Two cases from the 1770s were characterized as for monetary fraud: a young woman passing as a man came close to marrying an older, richer woman with the implication that the “husband” would make off with her money after the marriage (which was foiled). Another passing woman succeeded in marrying three different women (presumably simultaneously) for their money.
  • There was an entire genre of broadsheet ballad telling stories of women discovering (typically due to sexual frustration) that their new husbands were really women.

Some cases of female husbands provide a more detailed record of the circumstances and history. In 1760, Samuel Bundy was discovered to be a woman (Sarah Paul) and convicted for defrauding a woman of money by marrying her, though the details of her story undermine the identification of the admitted economic difficulties as fraud. Sarah claimed to have been abducted at age 13 and forced to live as a boy, then after several years at sea began working as a painter and married Mary Parlour at age 19. It is implied that the marriage occurred at Mary’s instigation. Mary discovered Sarah’s sex shortly after the marriage but made no protest at that time. But after Sarah lost her job and the two were trying to survive only on Mary’s money (whether savings or income is unclear), the resulting strain on the relationship gave rise to the charge of fraud. Mary evidently had second thoughts about the charge, as the record notes that she joined her spouse in prison, motivated by “a strong love or friendship”. And in the end Mary declined to appear to press charges in court and the case was dropped, though Sarah’s masculine clothing was seized and she was warned not to cross-dress again.

A death report in 1764 records that the respectable farmer John Chivy was discovered after death to have been a woman. John had been married for 20 years but the couple had separated a few years before her death. (Many more details of the relationship are given.)

A very detailed story is reported in 1766 of Mary East who lived as husband and wife with another woman, keeping a public house together as Mr. and Mrs. How. The public version of the story given after the masquerade was discovered was that both had been jilted in love in their teens and had decided to shun the company of men for that reason and live together, using the appearance of marriage “to keep themselves safe from male advances.” The report takes pains to stave off the suspicion of unnatural passions, but the arrangement is difficult to understand unless some cover was needed for a marriage-like relationship. The arrangement worked successfully for many years until they fell victim to a blackmailer who recognized them from their youth, and the situation was further complicated by Mrs. How’s confession of the arrangement to her brother shortly before her death. Between the blackmail case being brought before the courts and the wife’s brother bringing a claim to inherit half the property, the entire history came out. The couple was as successful as they were, in part, by living a very isolated existence (despite keeping a public house), employing no servants and having no close friends.

Donoghue presents two even more detailed case studies in this group. The first is a fictionalized account of Mary Hamilton who was charged with “posing as a physician” (as Dr Charles or George Hamilton) and of marrying a woman named Mary Price, though neither item was sustained as a legal judgment. The original case was only briefly mentioned in newspaper accounts, but the novelist Henry Fielding fictionalized it as The Female Husband. In the fictional version, Mary is seduced by an older woman and leaves her mother’s house to join the woman’s household. The story swings between titillation and moralizing, and unambiguously indicates a sexual relationship between the two women. Mary’s seducer, however, abruptly abandons her to marry a man, at which point Mary begins living as a man and continues in romantic relationships with women, some merely courted, some married, though the author is careful in ensuring that the sexual aspect of the relationships, though enjoyable, is always portrayed as inadequate in the end.

The second case is perhaps less fictionalized, but still mediated through a fairly hostile informant: John Cleland’s An Historical and Physical Dissertation on the Case of Catherine Vizzani (1751). The account is clear about Catherine’s exclusive and passionate attachment to women. She was born around 1718, the daughter of a carpenter, who worked as a servant. By adolescence she is confirmed in her sexual attraction for women but in contrast to the medicalized model of the previous chapter, this is not attributed to anatomy, nor was there any claim that she was initially seduced by some other woman. Catherine pursues her attraction to a young woman named Margaret under cover of embroidery lessons and begins cross-dressing in order to have cover for wooing her at night under her bedroom window. The courtship continued for two years (the author takes the position that it was “a whimsical prank” and not consummated) before being put a stop to by Margaret’s father who evidently viewed the matter more seriously.

Catherine flees, still in male disguise, and makes her way through the world as a man, becoming somewhat notorious as a womanizer. She remains in contact with her parents who are aware of her disguise and romantic activities, and in fact provide cover for her disguise by obtaining job references for her male persona. She has a number of sexual relationships with women using a strap-on dildo (though it is unclear whether her lovers were deceived or simply content to go along with it). Catherine almost succeeds in marrying, but is foiled when her lover tells her sister of the planned elopement and in the resulting change of plans they are set upon by the girl’s family. Catherine is shot in the process and dies of her wounds at age 24, requesting (according to the account) that she be buried in women’s clothing.

Throughout the various English accounts, one notable feature is how unsensational most of them are presented as being. Although the details of fraud or discovery might be dwelt on, the fact of disguised women marrying other women seems to be taken utterly for granted in the 18th century. Donoghue notes that the falling off of reported cases of female husbands in the 19th century may be due in part to strengthened marriage laws in England, but perhaps also to a change in focus of what was being reported or how these arrangements were interpreted.

Time period: 

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