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LHMP #126 Friedli 1987 “Passing Women: A Study of Gender Boundaries in the Eighteenth Century”

Full citation: 

Friedli, Lynne. 1987. “Passing Women: A Study of Gender Boundaries in the Eighteenth Century” in Rousseau, G. S. and Roy Porter (eds). Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment. Manchester University Press, Manchester. ISBN 0-8078-1782-1

In the initial discussion in this article, Friedli notes the significantly different experiences and motivations of women cross-dressing or passing as men, and men cross-dressing or passing as women. These are, of course, derived from the massively different social and legal positions of men and women at the time. But it is a reminder that research into homoerotic or transgender issues in history can never assume that the issues relevant to one gender will carry over to another. It might even be considered impossible to treat homosexuality as a unified concept, with concerns of equal relevance to men and women, prior to an increasing acceptance of gender-equality. (Which, of course, means that it still can't be treated as such today.)

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Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.

One of the most obvious benefits of passing was access to the greater social and economic opportunities available to men, as well as reducing certain physical risks experienced by women. Clearly, another attraction (or side benefit) for some was the opportunity to pursue romantic or sexual relationships with women under the cover of a heterosexual appearance. There was also a fascination with men cross-dressing during this period, but that was a social (and sometimes sexual) practice, as there were no economic or status advantages to be gained.

The most common source of information on passing women is not from the occasional medical case history or court record, but from newspapers. In general, passing women were not prosecuted unless there were a marriage (to a woman) involved, and the concern was typically categorized as “fraud”. However, the discovery of a “female husband” did not inevitably result in prosecution, or at least, there are news stories of women marrying each other that mention no legal action. In contrast to the treatment of male homoerotic activity, there is no evidence for legal concerns focused on women’s sexual activities, and none of the same overt public disapproval that effeminate men received. [Note that this article is looking specifically at England, and these statements do not necessarily hold true elsewhere at the time.]

Due to the anecdotal nature of the evidence, it is impossible to attempt quantitative studies of passing, and Friedli has also chosen not to consider it in the context of medical debates considering sexual difference. Instead, this article considers three contexts: changes in definitions of femininity and masculinity; medical interest in hermaphrodites and anxiety around gender boundaries; and the use of pornographic representations of transgression that also function to define the limits of acceptable behavior.

During the 18th century, the concept of “wife and mother” as a professional job description began to be defined and addressed in didactic and educational literature. [Although Friedli doesn’t note this explicitly, this discussion seems to focus on the middle class.] The notion of the “companionate marriage,” based on a supportive emotion bond, rather than being primarily an economic contract, contrasts with the negative image of marriage in 17th century intellectual culture. While the idealized mother described and prescribed in 18th century literature was scarcely an achievable ideal, it left little room for a public role for women outside of that framework. Women’s sexuality was not denied, but was circumscribed within the role of wife+mother.

The corresponding masculine role with respect to the family was supervisory: in charge but disengaged. Failures of child-rearing were thus inherently a maternal failure, and the rejection of a material role created doubts about a woman’s inherent femaleness as well as her femininity. It is in this context that passing women challenged the understanding of what it meant to be female.

The focus in prosecutions of passing women on the idea of “fraud” might be seen as an implicit admission of the performativity of gender roles, but must also be understood in the context of a concern with fraud in the fields of religion and medicine. Women were considered to be constitutionally more credulous, and thus more susceptible to religious extremism and medical quackery. But conversely, women were also considered to be inherently more deceptive, taking as examples the use of clothing and cosmetics to alter the appearance. [To clarify, these are characterizations in the literature of the time.] Comparing this last with satires of men for effeminate foppishness, we see that both men and women are criticized for  an excess of femininity. Masculinity is increasingly defined by ridicule of characteristics defined as feminine. In contrast to some eras and contexts when individual women’s appropriation of “masculine” characteristics was seen as aspirational, in the 18th century it was characterized as a rejection of the “natural” role of wife+mother and an assault on the clear boundary between male and female.

Friedli examines four case studies to explore these issues. Perhaps expectedly, these are not the more casual journalistic mentions of passing women, meant for sensation and amusement, but instead are individuals for whom significant evidence is available.

Mary Hamilton began passing as a man at 14, served an apprenticeship to a quack doctor, began practicing on her own under the name Charles Hamilton, married a woman named Mary Price in 1746, and in the same year was arrested when Mary Price brought a legal claim that Hamilton was a woman, not a man. The court case when led to her conviction and punishment focused on the matter of fraud, however the story was taken up by novelist Henry Fielding, whose fictionalized treatment, The Female Husband, focused more sensationally on the sexual aspects. (Mary Price testified that she had not at first realized that her husband was not a man, as they had enjoyed penetrative sex.) Fielding seems to have invented a backstory for Mary Hamilton involving being initiated in same-sex erotics by an older woman who is additionally stigmatized as being part of a circle of Methodist lesbians, entangling religious prejudice into the mix.

Friedli’s second example seems a bit marginal in the context of passing women. Charlotte Charke was an actress famous for playing “trouser roles” who also regularly cross-dressed in off-stage life. On some occasions this seems to have been for economic reasons (taking male jobs to make ends meet when not on the stage), in other cases by personal choice. Although Charke did not attempt an extended disguise, she regularly traveled with a female companion (who may or may not have been a romantic partner) as “Mr. and Mrs. Brown”. On a different occasion, her male persona was pursued romantically by a young woman who hoped for marriage but Charke revealed the disguise to defuse the situation.  Her autobiography (which was a very self-conscious work of public relations) gives no clear indication of her romantic inclinations, except to note that her brief marriage to the father of her daughter was an utter mistake.

Women passing as men to enlist in the military was a common motif in popular culture but had a solid basis in reality. The two examples of Deborah Sampson (in the American Revolution) and Hannah Snell (in the British army) are noted. Women discovered to be passing in military contexts seem to have been treated more kindly in the public press, though descriptions of them often emphasize their features and habits as masculine in character, possibly to reinforce the gender boundary. There is also a clear effort to assure the public regarding the absence of any sexual deviance in these military heroines, especially if a subsequent heterosexual marriage can be provided.

Friedli’s last example points out the ambiguous nature of the gender boundary, and the contortions given to particular stories in order to fit them to the prevailing narratives. The Chevalier D’Eon first came to public notice as a French nobleman in the 1750s, but in that same era began to appear publicly presenting as a woman. A story circulated that D’Eon was born female but raised as a boy for political reasons and was only now returning to femininity. Historians are unclear on the underlying political and personal motivations involved, but it is known that D’Eon collected newspaper clippings of references to cross-dressing and hermaphrodites. Public fascination with the case created pressure for an expert judgment to clarify D’Eon’s status. During a trial sparked by wagers about the issue, two doctors testified that D’Eon was physiologically female (and some newspaper columnists then held D’Eon up as a critique against cross-dressing women, who were admonished to return to their proper dress as D’Eon had). D’Eon continued living as a woman until death in 1810, at which time a medical examination made a determination of physiological maleness. [I’m sorry about the convoluted grammar here, but I’m trying to remain linguistically neutral.] Thus, although part of D’Eon’s public narrative was that of a former “passing woman”, the story appears to fall in the far smaller category of “passing man” (a small enough category that this doesn’t really exist as a standard term).

A medical fascination with the idea of hermaphrodites and their relation to both gender identity and sexual orientation dates as early as the 16th century. While the popular attitude toward the concept of hermaphroditism ranged from sensational interest to medical pathology, throughout the 16-18th centuries, the idea of the hermaphrodite was used to explore and define the nature of gender. The hermaphrodite motif was intertwined with the motif of an enlarged clitoris either causing or being the result of sexual activity between women. 18th century medical writers began advancing the theory that hermaphroditism had always been a fiction, perhaps originating in an unfamiliarity with the potential for clitoral size. Other writers accepted the existence of a range of hermaphroditic physiologies, but focused their attention on the means by which specific individuals with ambiguous genitalia could be “correctly” assigned to the gender binary.

The article concludes with examples of the lengths to which public narratives tried to exclude women’s transgressive gender performance from the definition of femaleness. The case history of Catherine Vizzani--who dressed as a man to romance a series of women and in the end was shot while eloping with one--was translated from the original Italian into English with a number of editorial changes by the translator who faulted the original author for not more clearly finding an assignable medical cause for Vizzani’s behavior. The question of Vizzani’s physiology was only raised after her death, and the examining doctor found “nothing unusual.” The French case of Anne Grand-Jean had more immediate consequences. Having confessed her sexual desire for women, Anne was told that she must therefore be a man and should dress accordingly. But although Anne received a medical diagnosis of hermaphroditism, this was accompanied by an order to live as a woman. The two cases suggest a drive to “rationalize abnormal behavior in terms of pathology.”

In contrasting the medical and legal reactions to passing women, there is a clear distinction between the medical desire to situate gender difference in the body, and the legal concern with deception, fraud, and policing masculine privilege. Conversely, the many cases of long-term gender disguise suggest that, in practice, the standard for “successful masculinity” was not high. Demographics may have played a large part, with half the male population under 16 --an age at which it was accepted for boys to be economically independent.

The article concludes with a return to the consideration of how policing of gender categories and boundaries was driven and enabled by shifting understandings of gender roles within the family, and the ways in which passing women and the image of the hermaphrodite challenged those roles by existing outside them.

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