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17th c

LHMP entry

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.

[Note: Content advisory for coerced physical examination to determine sexual category.]

In 1629, in a small settlement just across the river from Jamestown, Virginia, 22 years after the first settlement at that location, Thomas Hall was accused of fornication with a servant girl. This fairly ordinary offense became more complicated and interesting after the community took it on themselves to investigate exactly what had happened.

A comparison of the popular reactions in 18th century English literature to “sapphists” as contrasted with male homosexual institutions like molly houses gives the appearance of unconcern about women’s relationships, as does the absence of English laws against sex between women. When women in same-sex relationships ran afoul of the law, they were typically charged with fraud. Nor were women who cross-dressed as men treated with the same public scorn as effeminate men.

Krantz primarily focuses on the character of Moll Cutpurse in The Roaring Girl, with a secondary consideration of how that image relates to the historic Mary Frith. [Note: to keep the two clear with the least effort, in this summary I’ll use “Moll” for the dramatic character and “Frith” for the historic person.] She examines Moll’s ambiguous identity through three framings: prostitute, hermaphrodite, and bisexual ideal.

It was hard to escape two underlying themes in this article, neither of them speaking directly to the scholarship: the author appears to have something of a personal grudge against Elizabeth Spearing’s edition of Frith’s biography, and he seems determined to conclude that there was nothing particularly queer or transgressive about Frith’s life—she just thought dressing in men’s clothing was a useful career move.

This book is a study and edition of two 17th century “real life memoirs” of women who attracted mythologizing stories due to their unusual lives and criminal contexts. The label “counterfeit” women would seem to apply more obviously in the case of Mary Carleton, who passed herself off as a foreign noblewoman and used that image to acquire financial support and attract advantageous suitors. As there are no overt queer elements to her story, I won’t be discussing that part of the book in detail.

Throughout western history, the act of kissing--of touching the lips either to another person’s lips or to another part of their anatomy--has had a wide variety of meanings and messages, as well as being a physical experience on its own. The essential ambiguity of what a kiss means in any particular context has been a part of its powerful symbolism and its use as a social tool, for good or ill. The physical act of kissing is an inherently intimate gesture (not necessarily in the sexual sense of “intimate”) in a way that actions like a handshake are not.

Lanser opens her article with the bold hypothesis that “in or around 1650, female desire changed.” That there was a conceptual shift in gender relations reflected in literature, politics, religion, and individual behavior in which private intimate relationships between women became part of public life, and that this shift shaped women’s emergence as political subjects claiming equal rights.

The general topic of this article is the ways in which women who had sex with women in 17-18th century Britain were marginalized from the category of “women” via the imagined figure of the hermaphrodite, combining in the image of the tribade who was endowed with a penis-equivalent, either in the form of an enlarged clitoris or sometimes a prolapsed vagina capable of performing penetration. This article traces that image through various genres of literature, both popular and professional.

There are two passages in this book that are relevant to themes in the LHMP: the first concerning sex between women and the second concerning cross-dressing, including a same-sex encounter. The section also includes a 19th century reproduction of a woodcut from a 17th century broadside ballad showing two women together in bed, embracing.

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