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LHMP #231 Lucas 1988 ’Hic Mulier’: The Female Transvestite in Early Modern England

Full citation: 

Lucas, R. Valerie. 1988. “’Hic Mulier’: The Female Transvestite in Early Modern England” in Renaissance and Reformation 12:1 pp.65-84

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This article looks at the fascination with cross-dressing women in popular culture in 16-17th century England. “Cross-dressing” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean serious gender disguise, but includes ritualized cross-dressing in the contexts of celebrations, as well as partial cross-dressing where the use of specific male-coded garments was viewed as transgressive.

Among the literary figures cited are Mary Frith, Long Meg of Westminster, and Frederick of Jennen, whose celebrated (although mostly fictionalized) adventures are co-opted to defend women’s chastity and promote traditional concepts of marriage.

Festival cross-dressing is more familiar from traditions in which men take on female roles, as with Maid Marian in Robin Hood plays. But an example is cited of a Welsh tradition, given in an early 19th century book on folk customs around marriage and courtship, where a bride would be concealed in men’s clothing on the eve of the wedding and there would be a ritual “search” by the groom’s friends to discover her before they all settled down to party. Also mentioned are Christmas mumming and various gender role reversals that were part of carnival celebrations.

Outside of festival license, women’s cross-dressing was often treated as part of a pattern of “ungovernable” behavior, indicating insufficient control by husbands or fathers. Even when done in jest, this might be addressed in criminal court, as for Susan Bastwick who, in 1578, came to her father “in a merriment...on horseback in a cloak disguised and demanded of him if he had any good ale.” Or a female servant in 1585 who “did wear man’s apparel disorderly in her master’s house.”

Wearing male garments was associated with sexual misconduct, as when a woman was accused of unchastity with a man not her husband in 1592 and part of the testimony was that she wore “young men’s garters” and challenged an unspecified person to try to take them from her. Another married woman in 1585 “put on man’s apparel and went forth from one house to another...with other naughtiness of words.”

These are specific anecdotes that provide context for polemical tracts and satires that condemned female transvestites, asserting that by wearing male clothes, such women wanted to transform themselves into men. John Calvin took up the argument that God had ordained gender-specific clothing, and Philip Stubbes, in The Anatomie of Abuses (1583) argues that an essential function of clothing was as “a sign distinctive to discern betwixt” the two sexes. Preacher John Williams in 1619 sermonized against women who distracted men in church by wearing such masculine accessories as points (ties that attached one piece of clothing to another), feathered hats, daggers, and having short hair. Some unspecified set of such attributes, described only as “man’s apparel” was worn in church by Joan Towler in 1596, resulting in charges.

One underlying theme in the objections has to do with transgressing categories, “none being content with their own estates and conditions,” and was also leveled against men wearing “effeminate” garments. It was not the specific garments themselves, but they way they contradicted category membership. A feathered hat becomes “ruffianly” and “wanton” only if worn by a woman in Hic Mulier (1620). Nor was it necessarily the wearing of breeches (and exposing the shape of the legs) that was being criticized as such women might be described as wearing a male doublet or male accessories in combination with a skirt.

The association of cross-dressing with loose sexual morals was taken up as a signifier in the theater, where characters depicting prostitutes are often put in situations where male disguise is called for.

A regular theme is that women who wear male garments want to change themselves into men, though reading through the accusation, we see an anxiety by the (invariably male) writers that women bold enough to cross-dress will claim authority over their own lives (as with a character who cross-dresses in order to run away with her male lover) and further will tyrannize over men. Cross-dressing characters on the stage were depicted as man-beaters and brawlers.

To the modern eye, the distinction between approved feminine garments and prohibited masculine ones may be difficult to understand. As an example, many tracts specifically mention the doublet as an inherently male garment: “manlike doubltes”, “the loose, lascivious open embracement of a French doublet, being all unbuttoned to entice”. But the doublet is, to all intents and purposes, simply a sleeved jacket, buttoned up the front, and with a higher neckline than most feminine bodices boasted. The offence was not in the objective nature of the garment, but its assigned gender.

Gender disguise to defend chastity is a regular literary motif, appearing in several early medieval stories of transvestite saints. It still appears in the early modern period, as in the 1560 tale of Frederick of Jennen where a woman falsely accused of infidelity disguises herself as a man in order to investigate and prove her virtue. (This motif appears in a number of earlier stories as well--I think there's a version in the Decameron?) Heroines of this group are admirable as the purpose of the cross-dressing is to restore honor within marriage.

This type of cross-dressing figure may also be portrayed as admirable if she acts to protect other women’s honor and chastity, as in the case of the carnival figures of Long Meg of Westminster, or one of the theatrical incarnations of Moll Cutpurse. These women represent the feared anti-male tyrant but with her aggressiveness soften by the purpose she puts it to. Men are still beaten and humiliated, but only those who deserve it for doing wrong to women.

Even within these motifs, a strain of misogyny asserts itself. Acceptable femininity is defined in terms of a lack of masculine virtues, and the transvestite warrior women too often punish their male victims by forcing them to take on feminized roles or tasks.

The play Love’s Cure, or, The Martial Maid (by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, 1606) demonstrates this view with a pair of siblings each raised as the opposite gender. There is some exploration of whether gender performance is inherent or socially conditioned and initially the second position seems to be supported, until each falls in love with a member of the opposite sex and then instantly embraces traditional gender performance.

The article concludes that female transvestism in early modern England was socially significant because it challenged existing sexual hierarchies--an act that might be permitted in a carnival atmosphere to “blow off steam” but must be suppressed and renounced in everyday life in order to maintain the sexual status quo.

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