Jelinek, Estelle. 1987. “Disguise Autobiographies: ‘Women Masquerading as Men’” in Women’s Studies International Forum, 10, pp.53-62.
I’m experimenting with pre-scheduling this to post automatically. It should drop onto the blog on Monday 6/27 at 8am PDT. According to my website folks, there are complications to setting it up to auto post if I embed this in a blog-entry shell. Otherwise information like this would ordinarily be in that shell rather than in the LHMP entry itself. Thank you for your continuing patience with my experiments.
I regularly cover discussions of cross-dressing, gender disguise, and “passing women”, but typically from an external point of view. The women are identified in the context of court cases, scandals, or as the subject of popular literature. This article looks at an entire genre of self-reported cases of women passing as men. The “autobiographies” are quite self-conscious, generally either written for economic advantage, or sometimes for didactic purposes. In many cases, they are ghost-written, especially if the subject is not well educated. And despite the frequency with which marriage to women, or sexual relationships with women feature in court records of passing women, such themes are nearly absent here. This may be because these stories are being voluntarily told by women who want to be perceived in a positive light.
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Jelinek has collected information about a surprisingly large number of gender-masquerade autobiographies, covering the 17-20th centuries and focused on the English-speaking world (likely due to the reseracher’s own interests). The bibliography at the end lists 18 publications, covering 17 different individuals, of whom 13 are discussed in detail in the article. As a context for the material, Jelinek notes motifs of women disguised as men in literature , including several works by William Shakespeare and Margaret Cavendish. The motif was also popular in broadside ballads, such as The Female Highway Hector” and “The Woman Warrier” [sic], and the motif of dressing as a man to follow a (male) lover or husband to sea is echoed in some of the biographies. Also noted is the rise of women openly appropriating men’s garments, in part or in whole, in the 19-20th centuries. But the focus here is on disguise.
The following are the people/texts that are discussed, with only a very brief summary of the context and consequences. If I have been able to find a copy of the relevant autobiography in Google Books, I’ve included a link, although not all of them are available as ebooks.
Almira Paul (b.1790), the widow of a sailor in Nova Scotia, determined to support her children by taking up her late husband’s profession. She served on both British and American ships around the War of 1812. She reports having flirted with girls as “one of the boys” and even successfully proposed marriage to a woman “to test her disguise”. (https://books.google.com/books?id=Npw4AwEACAAJ)
Charlotte Cibber Charke (d. 1760) is briefly mentioned, though her cross-dressing was often done openly and may have been tolerated from an actress. But in her autobiography, she notes several occasions when she passed as a man to take on male professions in a pinch. (https://books.google.com/books?id=Bl5ZAAAAcAAJ)
Deborah Sampson (1760-1827) served in the Americal Revolutionary war as “Robert Shurtleff”. She did not write an autobiography but was the subject of a contemporary biography.
Ellen Craft (fl. 1848) used a combination of gender-disguise and her light skin to play the role of a white southern slave owner in order to enable her and her darker-skinned husband, William to escape slavery. Willian Craft describes the feat in his own autobiography.
Christian Davies (1667-1739) enlisted in an Irish regiment to search for her drafted husband, embodying one of the popular plots of gender-disguise ballads. She provides a detailed description of how she modified her clothing to disguise her anatomy. (https://books.google.com/books?id=IZ9CAAAAYAAJ)
Hannah Snell (1723-1792) may be one of the most famous women who enlisted in disguise. She, too, was looking for her husband, but in this case because he’d run off. Like many of the disgusied women who served, she had to fight for the right to her military pension. (https://books.google.com/books?id=9yEvHAAACAAJ)
Ellen Stephens (fl. 1840) similarly disguised herself to go after a cheating spouse. She worked on a Mississippi steamboat rather than joining the military and worked her way up and down the river trying to track down the child her husband had taken from her. (no book listing)
Madeline Moore (b. 1831) had neither economics nor desperation driving her, only romance. The 18-y.o. heiress accompanied her lover, enlisting in disguise (including false beard and whiskers) under the name Albert Harville, without his knowledge. They fought together at the battle of Cárdenas in Cuba and when he was wounded she nursed him back to health, still unrevealed. And people say the broadside ballads with this plot are implausible! (no book listing)
Loreta Janeta Velazquez (b. 1842) similarly accompanied a lover in battle in disguise and after his death continued serving the Confederacy as a spy. The Cuban-born Texan provides a detailed explaination of both her physical and behavioral disguise techniques. (https://books.google.com/books?id=a3Z3AAAAMAAJ)
Emma Cole’s motives were more purely economic. Orphaned at age 7 in the late 18th century, she went to sea in disguise at age 14 to avoid the alternative of prostitution. Her autobiography glosses over the practical details but tells of thrilling escapes from pirates and from hanging. (https://books.google.com/books?id=y_hLAQAAMAAJ)
Lucy Brewer (b. 1793) ran away from her well-to-do home when she became pregnant as a teen, and after a stint forced into prostitution, accepted a sailor friend’s offer of a spare uniform to escape and go to sea. The majority of her autobiography, however, is a polemic against prostitution. (https://books.google.com/books?id=Hym5nQEACAAJ)
Elizabeth Emmons (1817-1841) packed a lot into her apparently short life. A series of personal and familial calamities motivated her to disguise herself to work as a waiter on an Atlantic coast passenger ship. Later she spent a short time in the military in Florida but quit in disgust at the violence, then worked raising shipwrecks. (https://books.google.com/books?id=bYncGwAACAAJ)
Lucy Ann Lobdell (b. 1829) didn’t deliberately disguise herself as a man, though she was sometimes mistaken for one. She simply felt masculine clothing was more practical for her occupation-of-necessity deerhunting in New York. Her autobiography breaks off when she decides that she can make a better living genuinely passing as a man. (https://books.google.com/books?id=KTRFuAAACAAJ)