Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4
Chapter 1: 18th Century Female Cross-dressers and their Beards
Note: The content of this chapter was also published independently as:
Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2016. “Eighteenth-Century Female Cross-Dressers and Their Beards” in <em>Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies</em>, Vol. 16, No. 4, SPECIAL ISSUE: New Queer Readings: 119-143
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This chapter looks at the symbolic function of facial hair as a definitive sign of maleness and the ways a successful courtship of a woman can substitute for the lack of a beard. The “smooth beardless face” is noted in narratives as a giveaway. But beards were not fashionable in the 18th century. And the subject’s “feminine” features might be cited as being an attractive feature to women.
Women’s desire for feminine characteristics in a purportedly male body disrupts the expected gendering of desire. If women are only expected to desire men, then is the interest of a desiring woman a marker of successful maleness? The author notes the deliberate play on words in referring to a “beard” as the fake relationship that diverts attention from the unacceptable identity. This is only one of the ways in which gender can be manipulated via independent components.
At the same time, the desiring woman signals sapphic possibilities to the knowledgeable observer, in parallel with making trans identities legible. The question of knowledge is different between narratives of “real-life” and literary cross-dressers. The undeniably female body is typically foregrounded in literature, while the lack of knowledge about the underlying body is often a theme in supposedly real-life stories.
[Note: The main themes of the text get repeated a lot using a variety of gender studies terminology. I’ve tried to cover all the main themes, but may miss some nuances.]
The rest of the chapter looks at three examples centering around “beards” in both senses: the biography The Female Soldier (about real-life personality Hannah Snell), Sarah Scott’s A Journey through Every Stage of Life (specifically the story of Leonora and Louisa), and Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband (fictionalizing the real-life story of Mary Hamilton). There are briefer notes on the memoirs of military cross-dresser Christian Davies and the autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke.
Ballads and news reports of working class cross-dressers often focused on economic motivations, while novels of middle-class characters depicted cross-dressing as whimsical or sinister. But the audiences for these genres were not segregated, and press reports of real-life cross-dressers reference themes familiar from popular culture.
In the Renaissance, beards denoted masculinity and maturity, while beardlessness equaled youth and androgyny. But by the 18th century, the fashionable male face was clean-shaven. The text mainly talks about England but this fashion was more general. The ability to grow a beard still signaled masculinity, but shaving was framed as “civilized,” representing self-control.
These themes show up in race theory where a sparse beard signaled lack of virility and inferiority--this was also tied to women’s inferiority correlating with the inability to grow a beard. The possibility of bearded women was known, but this only meant that beards alone could not necessarily be proof of sex. Conversely, references to gender-transgressing women use the specter of a beard as a sign of crossing boundaries, saying that such women “might as well have a beard.” The connection between beardlessness and lack of virility was a also made in the context of castrato singers, effeminate fops, and the use of wigs by both sexes.
Attention drawn to the lack of a beard (or lack of evidence of having shaved) motivates cross-dressers to pursue relationships with women in order to supply proof of masculinity, even as their bodily androgyny or ambiguity is depicted as being attractive to women.
In The Female Soldier Hannah Snell is depicted as cross-dressing to search for her husband, therefore invoking no female same-sex motive. She fears male assault if discovered, and so used the attraction of women as a shield against suspicion. In Scott’s novel, Leonora and Louisa are two young women who run away to escape family pressure and abuse. As the taller of the two, Leonora cross-dresses and they pose as brother and sister. This isn’t enough to solidly establish Leonora’s maleness, so she works to attract female attention as a shield and succeeds in part because of her androgyny. In The Female Husband Mary Hamilton pursues women for economic and sexual reasons, but is also described as being attractive to women because of her androgyny, even as her apparent youth is shown as being a source of criticism. There are examples from other sources of cross-dressing women being viewed as being more successful at “being men” than men. Cross-dressing women knew how to please women, as well as being attractive to them because of their feminine characteristics. Within these narratives, a cross-dressing woman paired with a woman was not equivalent to a man with a woman.