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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #44b - Dugaw 1989 Warrior Women and Popular Balladry 1650-1850 (ch 5-8)

Full citation: 

Dugaw, Dianne. 1989. Warrior Women and Popular Balladry 1650-1850. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-16916-2

Publication summary: 

By popular demand, we return to the topic of cross-dressing and passing women with a study of ballads featuring a woman joining the military in disguise (typically with a romance-related motivation). All of the ballads involve, at heart, a heterosexual romance, however several play at the implications of attraction and desire in cross-gender contexts. And the building-block motifs of gender disguise, claiming cross-gender roles in society, and the ability to take action outside restrictive female spaces are all clearly relevant to creating historic lesbian characters.

Due to length, the entries for this book will be split up into two or three postings (it depends on how many advance postings I have in queue by Wednesday since I won't have time to work on the project this coming weekend).

Chapter 5-8

The second half of Dugaw examines how the Female Warrior ballads and their popularity reflect society of the time. Were real life women with similar experiences? How do the ballads display concerns about heroism and gender? I'd been planning to cover this part across multiple posts, but I have enough material in queue to finish the book today. Friday I'll have an out-of-order post from a recently-acquired collection of primary sources on homosexuality in early modern France, then we'll be back to cross-dressing/passing next week with Dekker & van de Pol.

* * *

Chapter 5

Rather than arising from male fantasies as some suggest, the ballads are rooted in actual working class experience. Three features are key contributors to the context in which they arose. There was a general expectation of physical strength and toughness from working-class women. There was a context of near constant warfare and the routine participation of women in military contexts, as well as a somewhat less rigid and regimented structure to the military. And there was a general preoccupation with disguise and cross-dressing.

In addition to women’s routine participation in hard physical labor, 18th century accounts are rife with examples of women participating in “male” sports and activites including boxing and duelling, as well as somewhat more conventional active sports such as riding and rowing. The book offers the text of several advertisements of women in dueling exhibitions.

The presence at women (not in disguise) in military contexts is copiously documented where, in addition to the motivation of accompanying husbands and lovers, they provided support services, not only of a domestic kind but including carrying powder for the guns. This occurred on ships as well as in land-based forces. And real-life cases of women serving disguised as men occur regularly. Recruiting practices that indiscriminately pressed boys as young as thirteen make it plausible that a recruiting officer might not look too carefully at a volunteer who presented as a beardless youth.

In the ballads, the act of disguise is presented as matter-of-fact and unquestioned. English society of the 18th century had a preoccupation with masquerades and disguises, and in particular cross-gender disguises and fashions. Women had been appropriating male fashions -- especially for active pursuits -- since the 17th century. Some wore breeches for riding, and there are comments (especially from foreigners) of mistaking the gender of women so dressed. Gender disguise was used by men to escape identification, e.g., during riots, and by women to travel more easily and safely when escaping parents or husbansd. But masquerades were also popular entertainments, including cross-gender masquerades, both among the upper and lower classes. Although this masquing may have had its origins in the more limited escapades of carnival, it had become far more pervasive in 18th century practice.

Of the three factors considered here -- the pervasiveness and loose organization of military life, the expectation of women's physical robustness, and the focus on masquerades -- the first two have clear and identifiable shifts that correlate with the declining popularity of the Female Warrior motif. The organization and regularisation of the military happened all across Europe dong the 19th century. Similarly, the image of women as delicate and frail was generalized from the upper class to lower class women as part of a clear social policy during that same general period. Less clearly deliberate was a shift from participatory masquerading to theatrical performance that divided performers and audience. All three shifts contributed to the loss of popularity of the Female Warrior motif.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6 considers how the women in the Female Warrior ballads use gender signifiers as a code and exploit them to perform a blended role of military hero and romantic heroine. I disagree somewhat with the author where she considers an inherent/biological basis for gender difference to be “modern” in contrast with the appropriatable gender of the ballads -- but I disagree only in considering this a progressive change as opposed to an attitude that has regularly varied over time and culture. [See, e.g., the debate between “nature” and “nurture” in the medieval romance of Silence.] But certainly the Victorian age swung more to the “innate” notion of gender, which made the Female Warrior character less plausible.

The notion that gender (especially male gender) can be “put on” with the appropriate clothing underlies the sexual ambiguity and resulting homoerotic implications of the women’s disguise. But it is the asymmetry of social attitudes towards men and women that allows the disguised woman to be admired and considered heroic, where cross-dressed male characters are more often seen a humorous. The ballad heroines command admiration for their “masculine” virtues of boldness -- both in battle and in taking control of their own lives -- while remaining anchored in female identity via the romatic arc of the ballads and their eventual return to a “feminine” gender presentation.

Balancing the “masculine” characteristics of the Female Warrior, the male characters in the ballad (and especially the lovers) are “feminized” in many ways, being more passive in their wooing and frequently the object of rescue and comfort by their female counterparts.

Chapter 7

This chapter considers the Female Warrior ballads in the larger context of a literature of gender controversy in the 17th century, often shorthanded as “Hic Mulier”. (The phrase comes from the title of a pamphlet decrying “masculine women” -- using the Latin masculine demonstrative article “hic” paired with the feminine noun “mulier”, i.e., “woman”. In response, another pamphlet used the title “haec vir” with the femine article and the masculine noun for “man”.) The chapter reviews the principle concerns of this controversy, which focused on the appropriation by both genders of garments and accessories previously considered to be associated with the other gender.

The 16-17th centuries also saw a preoccupation with warrior women of legend and history (the two being less clearly distinguished at the time), such as the amazon knights of Spencer’s Faerie Queen and Sidney’s Arcadia as well as those of classical myth. “Trouser roles” on stage were popular throughout the 17th century, and played by women for most of the period (in contrast to Shakespeare’s women-in-disguise who would have been played by boys). The text provides a vast number of specific titles of works with this general motif, too numerous to review in detail.

Chapter 8

The final chapter looks at the “heroic ideal” as presented in the ballads. The ballads present heroism as male-gendered -- but therefore by the appropriatable nature of gender, available to women as well. The Female Warrior combines both Mars (warrior) and Venus (romantic heroine) to challenge the notion of gender-essentialism. The remainder of the chapter largely examines John Gay’s Polly (sequel to his Beggar’s Opera) as the ultimate satirical deconstruction of these intersecting motifs.

Time period: 

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