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Full citation: 

Epstein, Julia & Kristina Straub (eds). 1991. Body Guards : The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.

Contents summary: 

Western interpretations of variant sexuality in Middle Eastern societies have often been filtered through stereotypes and Orientalism. There can be a fixation on certain key gender-related social differences, such as the harem and the veil. From an early date, Western commentaries have attributed to Islamic societies the acceptance or promotion of self-indulgence, licentiousness, and sexual deviance--views that often say more about Western attitudes than Islamic ones. This article examines certain aspects of the underlying historic reality of the cultural differences that gave rise to those stereotypes, especially as expressed in “lists of vices” in medieval Islamic literature.

Although legal and medical literature in Arabic also touches on sexual variance, these lists and discussions come from a more literary genre, which gives us  better insight into everyday attitudes, at least of their literate, urban, elite, male audiences. The texts are generally encyclopedic works that include stories, proverbs, discussions of literary tropes, and other genres. Not all such works cover sexuality, but in those that do, the structure and organization of the text sheds much light on how their societies viewed gender and sexuality, especially when they strayed into irregular behavior.

The content of the volumes cannot always be assumed to reflect precisely contemporary attitudes, as material that entered the genre, for example, in the 9th century, remained in use unchanged in subsequent collections for the next millennium. New material is added over time, which can provide clues to changes in attitude, but the continuity of material is itself illuminating.

The material covered in this article falls generally under the topic of “profligacy”, that is, behavior that was considered outside societal norms. The literary texts imply a fairly indulgent attitude toward such transgressions, but this cannot be taken literally as indicating indulgence in everyday life. Furthermore, although the author of one of these works may tell stories of profligacy on himself, it can’t be assumed automatically to reflect his actual behavior. But the genre certainly gives evidence for attitudes, especially the humorous material which relies of certain social assumptions and attitudes for its “punchline”.

The humorous anecdotes give evidence for the relative importance of sexual behavior, choice of sexual object, and gender stereotyping. As humor, it pokes fun at those who deviate from approved modes, but without necessarily applying moral judgment. Inappropriate sex was funny but not necessarily immoral. As a literary genre (as opposed to a factual account), the humor could be mitigated by a contrast of desire and action. One might admit personally to inappropriate desires but retain one’s dignity by not admitting to indulging in them. When the humor was directed externally rather than internally, it was more likely to reflect an underlying hostility to the behavior.

As an illustrative example, the author reviews the contents of the 11th century work by al-Jurjānī The Book of Metonymic Expressions of the Litterateurs and Allusive Phrases of the Eloquent, an instruction manual for speaking of indecent or ill-omened topics obliquely. Nine chapters cover sexual matters, in a hierarchical fashion going from the least negative topics to the most negative. The ways that the topics are grouped within these chapters, as well as the hierarchy, give insight into underlying cultural assumptions--in particular, they point up the contrast in Western sexual assumptions with the structures implicit in this text.

The primary focus is on identifying sexually illicit topics, while there is also a cultural assumption that the book’s audience (and therefore the book’s viewpoint) is an adult male whose sexual identity is as someone who takes the active part in penetrative sex. [Note: Although only a small part of the text is relevant to the topic of women having sex with women, it’s useful to have a brief tour of the larger structure.]

The first chapter concerns fornication--that is, a man having penetrative sex with a woman he does not have legal access to. This is followed by three chapters covering other deviations from “normative” sex: failure of the sex act due to male impotence, sex with a virgin, and anal sex with a woman. The next chapter completes the possibilities for illicit penetrative sex: sex with a boy. The book then moves on to non-penetrative sexual activities with a set of topics that might otherwise seem a random collection: inter-crural sex, male masturbation, and sex between women. The common factor, however, is the absence of a penetrative sex act. (Penetration was not considered a typical part of sexual activity between women.) Moving on to less acceptable sexual modes, there is a chapter on an adult man who is the passive recipient of penetrative sex. The last two chapters cover the social context of sex: the question of sexual jealousy (and lack thereof), and the act of pandering (procuring a sex partner for a third party).

For the rest of the article, I’m only going to summarize the section of the one chapter that includes sex between women.

The usual term for sex between women was saḥq literally “rubbing, pounding.” But the metaphoric euphemisms in al-Jurjānī’s work are all male-centered and disapproving (being intended for the use of male poets): “a war in which there is no spear-thrusting”, “a shield with a shield”, “a seashell whose edges close over another seashell”. But at the same time, anecdotes are given that indicate the existence of such relationships. And other euphemisms are given that appear more neutral, such as saying that someone “eats figs” to imply sex between women. [Note: I'm going to guess that this is a image metaphor of a ripe fig that has split open, to display the pink flesh inside, and is specifically a reference to oral sex.]

Another author, al-Rāghib (The Colloquies of the Litterateurs, also 11th century?) has a few more details on the possibilities of sex between women, including the use of dildoes (though this specific element is placed in the chapter on penetrative sex, again showint the hierarchy of concerns--the point isn't the type of partner, but the act of penetration). Al-Rāghib includes an anecdote in which a woman expresses a preference for saḥq over heterosexual sex, but outweighs it with several in which sex between women is presented as a dispreferred option. There is also a general failure to distinguish between female masturbation and sex between women. In general, saḥq is framed as a rejection of men (and typically of penetration in general) and he cites a legendary origin of the practice in pre-Islamic times in a love affair between an Arab noblewoman and the wife of a Christian Arab.

Although sex between men in Arabic sources sometimes involves feminization of the passive partner, there is no indication that sex between women was associated with women taking on masculine traits or dress. Nor is there any reference to an active-passive distinction between women (where such a distinction is critical to the acceptability of male-male relations). There are literary references to women adopting masculine behaviors: wearing male clothing, carrying swords, riding horseback, etc. (more in the 7-8th centuries when the practice of seclusion was less rigorous) but this was not associated in the popular mind with sexual irregularity. One class of ritualized female cross-dressing was the ghulāmīyāt--slave entertainers who dressed like pubescent boys or young men (complete with painted mustaches in some cases)--which were popular in 9th century Baghdad. However this form of cross-dressing was associated with providing pleasure to men who enjoyed sex with boys, not to an adoption of a male role in reference to a female sexual partner. [Note: I have another article coming up in the queue that goes into this topic in more detail.]

Contents summary: 

[Note: the use of the word “hermaphrodite” and its definitions in this article and the texts it examines is in reference to a historic concept--one that reflected a specific social construction. It is acknowledged and emphasized that “hermaphrodite” can be an offensive term in modern language in the context of gender, sexuality, or physiology.]

During the Renaissance, the concept of the “hermaphrodite” became a site of significant anxiety and analysis in European medical and legal discourse. Analysis of this phenomenon has tended to come from two angles. In the first, the hermaphrodite is seen as a definitional problem, an irritant that drives the production and stabilization of a concept of binary gender. In the second, the figure of the hermaphrodite represents the dissolution of absolute binary gender categories. Both approaches assume a pre-existing concept of gender as a known quantity that is destabilized. This article takes a contrary point of view: that the concept of the hermaphrodite was a primary driver in the production of binary gender concepts in the Renaissance.

Although concepts of gender and gender hierarchies are omnipresent in pre-Renaissance thought (even being extended to inanimate objects such as rocks, to explain certain physical propreties), there was no established and definitive means by which male and female gender could be distinguished.

Natural philosophy embraced the possibility of gender fluidity (as for the hyena, which was thought to alternate genders) and assumed a “single gender” system in which male and female were simply polar ends of a gender continuum, with females being “less developed” males. This was the Galenic view of gender, which held that what distinguished male and female (within the humoral system) was a difference of “heat” and that a shift in the internal nature of an individual could cause latent internal female organs to externalize as male organs, resulting in a functional change of gender.

Every child was considered to have hermaphroditic potential, with the gender as expressed being a product of competition between the male and female seed that produced it, as well as the location in the womb where it grew. That is, expressed gender was considered entirely a product of nurture, not of nature. Hermaphrodites were those who fell within the middle range of that continuum such that they expressed an intermediate gender, though potentially falling more to one side than the other. This framing may explain why medical treatises of the Renaissance often placed discussions of hermaphrodites alongside those of “monstrous” births.

Ambroise Paré’s treatise on hermaphrodites recognizes those with some intermediate sexual characteristics (as with women who have facial hair and low voices), though to some extent he conflates “effeminate men” (whose characteristics are presumably innate) with eunuchs (whose characteristics are due to physical alteration). In the middle of the scale  were those who “seem to participate of both male and female.” Paré viewed any gender distinction as erasable: “Certainely women have so many and like parts lying in their wombe, as men have hanging forth; onely a strong and lively heat seems to be wanting, which may drive forth that which lyes hid within.” That is, women have the potential to become men at any time via a shift in humoral balance. The only thing preventing men similarly from becoming women was because “nature alwaies intends and goes from the imperfect to the more perfect,” that is, because men were more evolved than women, it was against nature for them to “degenerate” from that state spontaneously.

Case histories were a common feature in discussions of hermaphroditism. In George Sandys’ translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 1632, he provides examples of reported real-life gender transformations that parallel that seen in Ovid’s tale of Iphis and Ianthe. For example, a 16th century report by Pontanus of a fisherman’s wife who had been married for 14 years and then spontaneously became a man.

Montaigne reports a man named German in Vitry, France, who had been a woman until the age of 22 but then had male parts emerge during physical exertion and now in older age wore a beard. The young women of her town made up a humorous song about how girls shouldn’t engage in physical sports lest the same thing happen.

Sandys notes that all these cases were of change from female to male, seeing it as confirmation of a natural law. This concept echoes an earlier position in both myth and religious philosophy that the difference between the genders is not one of kind, but of more perfect and less perfect instances of a single kind. Several Biblical quotations and commentaries are cited, such as the Gospel of Thomas, “For every woman who has become male will enter into the kindom of heaven.” or St. Jerome’s endorsement, “As long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul. But if she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called a man.”

Such a position not only undermined the notion that women were inherently different from and inferior to men, but also established the potential for any man to become “womanish” if he failed to uphold the state of maleness sufficiently. This precariousness of the gender divide led physicians to prescribe strict regimens to prevent the shift of humors in women that might make them more man-like, noting that women who are “robust and of a manly constitution” must be “reduced to a womanly state...that they may become fit for generation.”

Whereas medical theory by the 18th century emphasized an obvious and innate difference between male and female, the earlier Galenic position implied that hermaphroditism was the default state--that the distinction between the genders must be actively produced and maintained.

If physiology could not be relied on to categorize by gender in the Renaissance, how did the law deal with ambiguous cases? The answer seems to have been “with difficulty and inconsistently.” This is illustrated by a French case in 1601. A person named Marie had been sharing her bed (and presumably having a sexual relationship) with a 32 year old widow named Jeane. Marie publicly announced a male identity with a name change to Marin, and declared his intention to marry Jeane. Marin was arrested and sentenced to death. Evidently there were medical examinations of Marin to determine gender that concluded Marin was female, but an additional examination identified a “small concealed penis.” This did not, however, result in a legal judgement that Marin was male. Rather it only resulted in a nullification of the death sentence, on the condition that Marin live as a woman, in female clothing, until the age of 25. The death sentence was on the female Marie, for committing sodomy (with Jeane) and for cross-dressing. But the final outcome was neither a clear judgement that Marie/Marin was male (given the conditional requirements), nor a clear judgement that Marie/Marin was female (which one might expect would have upheld the original penalty). [Note: while the artice doesn't spell this out precisely, if Marie/Marin was legally treated as a hermaphrodite, then sexual realations with a woman was not "sodomy", but as Marie/Marin had originally been presenting as a woman, that was considered to be their official "performative" legal status and the crime was trying to change that status. The time-limit on the requirement to live as a woman is perhaps baffling, but may simply be the time limit on when the court would monitor the situation.]

Neither of the legal charges in Marie/Marin’s case were relevant under English law. Cross-gender dressing was not a legal offence (though it was considered a moral offence), only cross-class dressing fell under the purview of the law. This is not to say that English law couldn’t find a statute under which to prosecute persons who transgressed gender boundaries. The former Mary Hamilton, as Dr. Charles Hamilton, married a woman named Mary Price. A few months later, Price announced that Hamilton was a woman. (The case was semi-fictionalized by Henry Fielding in The Female Husband.) What Hamilton was eventually charged, convicted, and sentenced for was vagrancy, with circumstances of fraud. Despite the sexual context of the Hamilton/Price relationship, neither sexual acts nor even cross-dressing figured in the prosecution. Thus we see that different legal traditions produced radically different definitions and understandings of gender.

In France, the concept of the hermaphrodite began to be subsumed under the category of “sexually deviant woman” in the context of the “rediscovery” of the clitoris, and the development of a model of the tribade as a woman whith an enlarged clitoris (either as cause or effect of her sexual activities). This shift was not complete and immediate, though. Throughout the early part of the 17th century, people classified as “hermaphrodites” continued to be allowed to choose a gender expression and marry, but only within a heteronormative framework and only as long as the choice was not revoked or changed. Under a 1603 case in Paris, a person identified as a hermaphrodite was executed because after assuming the role of a man, they engaged in sex with a man “as a woman”. The offence was not the status of being a hermaphrodite but of refusing to stick to a single permanent gender presentation, expressed according to social norms.

There was an interesting contrast between hermaphrodites and eunuchs, which pointed up the key understanding that the purpose of marriage was understood as procreation. A hermaphrodite (regardless of gender expression) was assumed to be capable of either engendering or bearing a child, and therefore was allowed to engage in marriage. Whereas a eunuch was assumed to be incapable procreation and therefore was not allowed to marry. [I believe the article is still talking about French law here. Note that this presumption of fertility was still rooted in the theory that all bodies had hermaphroditic potential that included the ability to function biologically as male or female.]

Renaissance understandings of the nature of gender can also be extracted from fantastic (or satiric) travelers’ tales involving supposed hermaphroditic individuals or societies displaced from the here-and-now, even when those societies are overtly presented as satires on familiar cultures. A mid-16th century satire on French court life and a ca. 1600 English satire framed as a traveler's tale come at the question of gender blurring from different angles. Thomas Artus is primarily targeting King Henri III’s court favorites, who are presented as engaging in a fashion “arms race” that is framed as essentially feminine, and presented within the text as legally required to be bisexual. This bisexual license is framed as being socially driven rather than innate and, although Artus clearly intends the “mignons du roi” to be understood as a product of a corrupt culture, the in-story result is an expansion of the possibilities for pleasure.

Joseph Hall’s English satire targets women who take on masculine attributes and clothing as inhabiting “Shee-land”, where women dominate men politically and sexually. But offshore from that land is “Double-sex Isle” or “Skrat or Hermaphrodite Island” where people are born with a doubled sexual capacity “just as they have two eyes, two nostrils, and two legs.” The in-story argument is that the hermaphrodites are more perfect human beings because of this additional symmetry, although the author clearly intends to mock this position.

George Sandys, in his commentaries on Ovid, tackles the myth of the creation of Hermaphroditus with an incoherent assortment of interpretations and legend, resulting in no clear understanding or opinion. But he does include citations of reported “hermaphrodites,” jumbling together those with ambiguous physiology and those who practiced bisexuality, as in the case of a person in Burges who had legally elected to live as female but “secretly exercised the male,” presumably in sexual encounters.

The way the Ovidian myth of Hermaphroditus is framed by Renaissance writers uncovers some of the surrounding anxieties: that when the nymph Salmacis was joined bodily with Hermaphroditus to form the mythical half-man/half-woman embodiment, the female component (Salmacis) was erased in identity while the male component (Hermaphroditus) is described as “losing masculinity” rather than gaining femininity. This was reinforced by the myth that any man bathing in Salmacis’ pool would be similarly transformed and become “a half man”. [Note that the classical depiction of Hermaphroditus often involved a bilateral division into a male half and a female half, rather than a blending of characteristics.]

Classical takes on the myth were more likely to associate Hermaphroditus with (heterosexual) marriage and a positive synergy of combining male and female. And this symbol of combining unlike components into a positive whole was sometimes used metaphorically in Renaissance literature, for example in John Donne’s interpretation of religious ministers as being a type of hermaphrodite in joining the “male” perfection of heaven with the “female” imperfection of earthly things. Via this sort of positive allegory, there was a space for Renaissance monarchs to use the image of the hermaphrodite as a positive symbol of perfection.

These abstract philosophical concepts did not impinge much on the popular culture use of the hermaphrodite as a symbol of gender transgression, and especially of women who took on male garments and usurped “male” privileges, as in the polemical pamphlet Hic Mulier (titled with a linguistically hermaphroditic phrase combining masculine hic or “this” with feminine mulier “woman”). In general, though, the male privileges these women were claiming did not involve sexual relations with other women, but rather a masculine approach to sexual assertiveness as well as claiming the right to freely enjoy a public life rather than being limited to the domestic sphere. Some actual women who were considered to embody this hermaphroditic transgression include Long Meg of Westminster and Moll Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse), who both turned their resulting celebrity into professional performance. Such gender transgression was associated in the English mind with sexual transgression, but in the form of accusations of prostitution. [Note: in early modern England, "prostitute" or "whore" could be used to label any woman who engaged in sex outside of marriage, not strictly professional sex workers.]

The accusation of “hermaphroditism” as a slur was thrown at women who dared to enter any sphere presumed to be masculine, not only for gender performance. The French poet Louise Labé was accused by a rival of crossdressing as a man to engage in (heterosexual) orgies. The English poet Mary Wroth satirized a rival’s violent treatment of his daughter by featuring him as a character in a play, which inspired him to attack her in various publications as a hermaphrodite and monster, using an ad feminam attack to try to distract from the original charges against him.  (She responded with a parody of his own vituperative poem, attacking him in return.)

Another English example provides a rare (at this time) association of gender transgression with lesbianism, in Ben Jonson’s attack on poet Cecelia Bulstrode (in response to her criticism of him), framing her entry into the masculine sphere of poetry as lesbian rape: “though with Tribade lust she force a Muse, And in an Epicoene fury can write newes...” The traditional image of the poetic muse as female is here used to claim poetry as an inherently masculine endeavor, as any woman engaging in it is then by definition entering into a homosexual relationship.

Thus, the image of the hermaphrodite is employed generally as a weapon to enforce gender boundaries: against women perceived as infringing on male prerogatives, and against men perceived as insufficiently upholding standards of masculinity. One of the things that made gender boundaries so crucial was the ways in which legal and political power were grounded in gender difference, from inheritance to differential application of legal penalties. The stability of society required persons with ambiguous gender to make a choice and stick to it. Legal theorists such as Edward Coke laid out the necessity of this choice “according to that sexe which prevaileth” but could offer no clear framework for how that decision shoud be made. As seen in some of the French legal cases, even medical professionals could differ in specific cases. More than anything else, the Renaissance fixation on the “problem” of the hermaphrodite and the pressure to resolve individuals into a binary framework only emphasizes that arbitrary nature of gender identity and perforemance. In a sense, the author argues, this crisis of categorization created the modern concept of fixed biological gender and providing a philosophical watershed between an earlier view of gender as inherently unstable and mutable.

Contents summary: 

[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article. I’d also like to acknowledge that articles such as this that treat historic individuals in a cross-gender or gender-ambiguous context will necessarily trade sensitivity for clarity when discussing both beliefs and realities about the relationship of bodies, identities, perceived identities, and orientations. I will usually try to rephrase an article’s language to something more neutral, but as we are not dealing with persons who can clarify their own preferences, the results will not always be satisfactory.]

Trumbach looks at shifts in the cultural understanding of gender and sexuality that appear in northwestern Europe around the beginning of the 18th century and that he sums up in the title of this article “from three sexes to four genders.” The modern western model of two biological sexes (man and woman) and two genders (male and female) does not hold through all cultures and has not been universal throughout western history. He associates the shift under consideration with the beginnings of an ideal of equality between the two “legitimate” genders and the rise of a recognition of a third “illegitimate” gender: the “adult passive transvestite effeminate male” who had an exclusive sexual orientation toward men, known in England as a “molly”.

[Note that this is not quite the same as a concept of a general homosexual orientation as it still focused exclusively on the “passive” partner who was assumed to have sexual encounters with “normal” men. Also note that "gender" is being used in this article to discuss a concept that combines features that we would today distinguish as gender presentation and sexual orientation. I believe the point that Trumbach is making with the use of the word "gender here is that 18th century English culture conflated gender presentation and sexual orientation in exactly this way.]

By the end of the 18th century, a parallel female role of the mannish woman-desiring “tommy” was becoming recognized. Trumbach asserts that at this time “sapphist” and “tommy” were used as the high and low culture terms for women with homoerotic interests just as “sodomite” and “molly” were high and low culture terms for men. Trumbach’s claim is that this “other female gender” was not completely recognized until the late 19th or early 20th century as women’s gender classification was driven more by their participation in sex with men than by their attitude toward sex with women.

[Note: There are certainly pre-19th century references to women who desire women constituting a “third gender” so I’m not sure exactly what Trumbach’s basis is for pushing the concept toward the end of the 19th century. I get the impression that--like many male historians--he’s treating the male experience as the default and evaluating women’s history in relation to how closely it matches that male experience. In this case, the phenomenon he's focusing on is the conflation of cross-gender presentation and same-sex desire as a combined social category, that is, the development of a female category directly equivalent to the "molly". In doing so, he filters out historical concepts and behaviors that don't participate in that combined category. So keep that in mind as I summarize this article.]

By this point (i.e., ca. 1900) western society had developed a system divided into four roles: man, woman, homosexual man, lesbian woman--roles that presumed only two biological sexes, that rejected a biological basis for homosexual behavior, and that no longer framed homosexuals within a transsexual structure (i.e., that one’s “true” gender was determined in contrast to the object of desire).

The 17th century paradigm--which was applied to both men and women--recognized two genders (male and female) but three biological sexes (man, woman, and hermaphrodite). Under this system, all persons were considered capable of desiring both genders, but “legitimate” sexual activity and desire occurred between male and female genders, and hermaphrodites were required to choose (and stick to) either male or female gender. Violation of this male-female requirement was stigmatized as sodomy, but sodomites were not considered a distinct gender based on their sexual relations. Further, acts of sodomy only violated the accepted gender system if they went against a gendered framework for penetration. As long as older, dominant adult men had penetrative sex with adolescent boys, and women had non-penetrative sex with each other, the gender system was maintained even during same-sex erotics. Persons who acted against this system (e.g., adult biological men who were penetrated or biological women who penetrated women) were not considered to be a distinct social class (gender) but rather were considered to be motivated by belonging to a distinct biological class (hermaphrodites). In the case of women, there was a persistent expectation that this biological class was identifiable by an enlarged clitoris. [Note: The failure of medical examination to uphold this concept in the case of women doesn’t ever seem to have disrupted the standing assumption.]

In the early 18th century, this system as applied to men underwent two shifts: from a 2 gender/3 sex system to a 3 gender/2 sex system, and from an expectation that sexual relations between men would involve an active adult man and a passive adolescent boy, to a system where some adult men who desired men took on “feminine” aspects of dress and behavior as part of engaging in those relationships.

This article focuses on what was going on with women in regard to these categorization shifts during this same period (the 18th century) particularly in London. Trumbach focuses on three topics: the concept of women as hermaphrodites, the understanding of cross-dressing by women, and the scope of “what male contemporaries would have considered to be actual sexual relations between women.” [Note: I use the precise quotation here to highlight that this analysis is assuming a male gaze for this shift in categories. I presume that to some extent this approach is due to the larger amount of male-authored material used as evidence. But I’d be happier if Trumbach seemed more self-aware of the problematic aspects. In the next section I’m going to quote Trumbach’s hedges for his assertions, because I think it’s important to recognize the degree of not-entirely-acknowledged personal speculation involved.]

Trumbach dates the emergence of the “sapphist” gender role to the latter half of the 18th century, emerging clearly only in the last quarter. In the earlier part of the century, women’s behavior was “likely” to be bisexual and their sexual activities with women focus on manual stimulation and avoided penetration. “Men speculated” that women engaging in penetrative sex with women were assumed either to have an enlarged clitoris or to use an artificial penis. “It is likely” that some female husbands who dressed as men and married women did use artificial penises, but “it is likely” that most passing women did not have sexual relations with women, and this is “probably true” even if they married.

[Note: that’s a lot of “likely”s and “probably”s. This entire section of the article strikes me as someone working hard to fit the evidence into his existing conclusions.]

Open cross-dressing, as on the stage, was aimed at appealing to men, not women, relying on the overt knowledge that the performers were women, while covert cross-dressing was intended to conceal the bodily sex. Only toward the end of the 18th century is there evidence of women using cross-gender appearance to appeal sexually to women. It is these women that Trumbach identifies as “London’s first sapphists of the modern kind”, in the sense that they were considered to be expressing a fixed, minority sexual orientation, rather than indulging in a more general possibility of same-sex desire that any woman could experience.

The “hermaphrodite” category was sometimes applied to men who took both an active and passive role in same-sex activity, but it was treated as more of a symbolic label than it was for women, for whom it indicated an expectation of anatomical anomaly. And as the 18th century progressed, the male category increasingly used “molly” instead.

For women, “hermaphrodite” could also be used in a metaphorical rather than anatomical sense, especially when attached to clothing that was felt to be too “masculine” in design, such as tailored riding habits. Here it is the clothing--not its wearers--that is considered to partake of male and female traits, and at least in the early century there seems to be no implication that women wearing “mannish” styles associated that fashion with desire for women. [Note: The early 18th century Memoirs of the Count de Grammont implies a relationship between Mrs. Hobart's "mannish" attributes and clothing and her predatory sexual interest in young women, but it's true that the association isn't as strong as it later became. And I think Trumbach has an unstated distinction between descriptions of "mannish" clothing being part of a stereotype of women's sexual deviancy, and the deliberate use of "mannish" clothing to express personal identity/orientation. Did the existence of the stereotype inspire homoerotically-inclined women to adopt masculine-coded clothing? Or was the stereotype an outgrowth of the earlier gender/orientation model that viewed female same-sex desire as a symptom of an essential "masculine" identity that also inspired cross-gender dressing? I think there's a lot more to investigate here, though it's questionable whether the data exists to be successful.]

The association of the concept of the physiological “hermaphrodite” rather specifically with women (as opposed to both women and men) is emphasized in the coverage of medical treatises on the phenomenon, such as Edmund Curll’s 1718 work, which focus entirely on physiologically female bodies that featured enlarged clitorises. He considered that hermaphrodites were inherently predisposed to transgressive sex and that sex with women was simply an extension of this. He also takes an exoticizing view of same-sex desire, considering hermaphrodites to be more common in hot climates, such as Italy and France. Unlike writers later in the century, he considered hermaphroditism to represent a distinct physiological (yet still female) sex that resulted in same-sex desires.

But hermaphroditism was not a stable category. A woman could become one as a result of masturbation, which was believed to enlarge the clitoris. Several “case studies” are adduced from the sensational tract Onania (which seems to have been a combination of anti-masturbation polemic and porno magazine letter column). Under this understanding of the relationship of physiology and sexual category, individuals can move between sexes by means of changes in their genitalia, whether spontaneously or as a result of stimulation.

The Onania also reflected the next stage of thought, citing writers who considered that so-called hermaphrodites were simply mis-categorized as to sex due to ambiguous genitalia. Thus, a girl with a large clitoris might be assigned as male (as in a case study related by surgeon John Douglas) and only later in life be re-assigned as female. In the case study this re-assignment was due to pregnancy. John Parsons, repeating the report in 1741, notes that in earlier ages the case would most likely have been reported as a change of sex, rather than an initial miscategorization.

It was mutability, rather than anomaly, that incited disapproval. Another physician, writing in 1771, noted a “hermaphrodite” who had lived as a man for at least 12 years, marrying a woman and living with her until her death; but after the wife’s death, the person began living as a woman and had married a man.

While earlier legal policy had recognized the possibility of change of physiological sex, it had required everyone to choose a single behavioral gender and stick to it. This emerging view of physiology in the 18th century held that actual sex change was not possible, and therefore to avoid sodomy it was necessary to correctly identify which sex a person was and require them to perform the corresponding gender. Another case study is offered: Thomasine Hall was christened as a girl but then at age 22 joined the army as a man and went to America . In that country, Thomasine again lived as a woman, but when examined was found to have male genitalia. (Trumbach suggests the likely explanation that Thomasine had an intersex condition in which male genitalia developed in late adolescence. But in general as Trumbach is interested in subjective social categorization, he doesn’t touch much on intersex conditions as a factor in the data.) The American court took the rather unusual approach of sentencing Thomasine to dress partly male and partly female, which would seem to contradict the requirement to “pick one and stick to it.” [Note: for those who would like to follow up on this case and its unusual legal context, see Wikipedia as a starting place.]

John Parsons briefly acknowledges the possibility of such mis-assignments of male individuals, but in general treats all hermaphrodites as basically female. As women, he argued, there was no point in requiring them to choose a gender--they had one. But this position combined with the expectation of heterosexual desire to argue that the category of “hermaphrodite as tribade” was non-sensical. Even women with enlarged clitorises were women and therefore should naturally desire only men.

What this meant was that rather than using hermaphroditism as a reason and excuse for apparently-female persons desiring women, desire between women was now considered to have no biological basis and therefore must be viewed as simple moral deviance. [Note: This is, of course, not a new and previously unknown understanding, but to some extent a return to an earlier position. As seen in other research, the fascination with the idea of the “macroclitoride hermaphrodite” was a Renaissance invention and superseded a previous model of same-sex desire as potentially available to all persons but morally deviant.]

As the category of hermaphrodite was receding as a framework for women who desired women, there was not yet an equivalent to the masculine “molly”, i.e., women who were socially (rather than biologically) disposed toward desire for other women. Such a category would become necessary, and was filled with the concept of the sapphist/tommy, representing women whose desires had been corrupted toward an inappropriate object.

The next section of the article specifically looks at the association (or lack thereof) between women who cross-dressed or passed as men, and women who desired women. John Cleland, in his translation of the life of Catherine Vizzani, suggested that cross-dressing women were predisposed to same-sex desire, but this suggestion doesn’t seem to hold for most 18th century cross-dressing women in London. (Keep in mind that Catherine Vizzani was one of those “hot blooded” Italians.) Trumbach asserts that for most of the 18th century, there was no specific association between female cross-dressing and lesbianism, in contrast to mollies (men cross-dressing as women specifically in the context of same-sex relationships and activity).

[Note: in order for this particular conclusion of Trumbach’s to be demonstrated, it is necessary for him to re-categorize a significant number of “female husbands” or to deny that their relationships had any relation to sexual desire. While it's true that documented motivations for "passing women" in this era are diverse, Trumbach goes out of his way to downplay the possible role of same-sex desire. I’m going to do a lot of critique interwoven into this next set of data.]

Trumbach notes that although there were women who courted and married other women in 18th century London and “may have tried” to have sexual relations using a dildo (as documented for Mary Hamilton and for Catherine Vizzani), this specific sexual act cannot be proven. [Note: Trumbach seems to ignore the issue that England had no laws against performing a sex act with a dildo, unlike a number of continental cultures where trial records document such sex acts clearly and in detail during this period and earlier. This seems to me to greatly weaken his conclusion that 18th century English cross-dressers were not engaging in penetrative lesbian sex simply because there’s no mention of it in the record.]

“Female husbands” in 18th century London were normally charged with fraud rather than with a sexual crime [there being no sexual crime on the books they could be charged with]. Examples of fraud charges include:

  • Sarah Ketson who courted Ann Hutchinson in 1720 as “John”
  • Constantine Boone who was convicted of a fraudulent marriage to a woman in 1719 (and later was identified as a hermaphrodite)
  • In 1773 a younger woman (presumably passing as a man) married an older woman for the sake of £100
  • In 1777 a woman (presumably passing as a man) convicted for marrying 3 different women

Other cases suggest that whatever the initial understanding may have been, the relationship was still found acceptable to both parties once the gender disguise was known. Sarah Paul was abducted by a man for sexual purposes at age 13 and dressed as a boy (Samuel Bundy) to conceal her identity. She escaped him and went to sea as a man, then returned to work as a painter, at which time she courted and married Mary Parlour. Mary soon discovered her “husband’s” physiological sex and took no action at first. Some ambivalence entered their relationship, for Mary later had “Samuel” arrested for fraud, but then refused to appear in court to support the charges and kept her husband company while in prison. The only outcome was that the magistrate burned Sarah Paul’s male clothing and ordered her never to appear as a man again.

Such relationships were sometimes successful enough to last until death. John Chivy was married to a woman for nearly 20 years and was not discovered to be physiologically female until after death. Mary East was the husband of a couple married for 36 years, running a public house and holding parish offices, and only discovered to be physiologically female after her wife’s death in 1766. Trumbach notes that there is no direct evidence whether their relationship was also sexual, though he notes that East’s susceptibility to a blackmail attempt suggests the possibility of more than simple gender disguise--or at least that the suggestion of such was a threat. In some cases involving simple gender disguise without marriage, the woman testified directly to an economic motivation, citing the better employment opportunities for men.

Simple economic gender disguise was treated inconsistently by the law, with many examples coming from military contexts. Some women, on discovery, received punishments including whipping or hard labor, while others were turned into folk-heroes and granted celebrity status, such as Hannah Snell and others. The popular media showed a certain prurient interest in the details of behavioral disguise, e.g., the use of instruments to allow male-style urination, or the need to perform the expected flirtatious interest in women. But the startling observation is how many of these known passing women in the military were not arrested in connection with their discovery.

Given the expected gender segregation of society, another motivation for women cross-dressing was to facilitate illicit interactions with men, whether sexual or merely social. Sally Salisbury dressed as a man for drunken and violent sprees with a group of young aristocratic men. A woman who served as coachman to Lady Ann Harvey cross-dressed in order to conceal her illicit marriage to another servant in the household, was only discovered due to pregnancy. Catherine Meadwell developed a male persona to better facilitate an adulterous (heterosexual) affair.

Trumbach spends a fair amount of time discussing the life and autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke, but although he notes the “complications” of interpreting her motives, he sets out his default position by stating that she “probably” began cross-dressing to facilitate her second, secret marriage (to a man). In contrast, her travels with a female friend as “Mr. and Mrs. Brown” are attributed merely to safety. Charke’s cross-dressed courtship of several women, her flirtations with prostitutes, and her stated discomfort with traditionally female occupations are considered to be balanced by the fact that she bore a child within marriage. [I can't help but hearken back to Trumbach's statement that women's erotic identity during this period was defined by whether they had any relations with men, not by the existence of relations with women. It's hard to find any clear distinction between Trumbach's own categorization strategy and his reporting of historic categorization strategies.] Trumbach sensibly points out that Charke’s hostile satirization of an effeminate male homosexual cannot be interpreted as a general hostility to same-sex relations as the two situations were not considered in any way equivalent at the time. But he concludes by noting that there is no proof that she ever engaged in “what would have seemed to her to be sexual intercourse with another woman.” [Note: this leaves aside the question of what she engaged in that would not have been categorized as "sexual intercourse." But there's a consistent through-line in the historic western treatment of female same-sex erotics that "it isn't sex unless it closely mimics heterosexual penetrative intercourse." In some eras, this interpretation left a lot of latitude for "acceptable" female same-sex erotic activity. But when this same definition is echoed by modern historians--in combination with a definition that "woman cannot be classified as lesbians unless they engage in sex," you get a lot of erasure where perhaps the majority of women with same-sex erotic interests are defined out of the category of "possible lesbians."]

Trumbach then sums up his not-entirely-proven conclusion that the majority of cross-dressing women in this era did it for economic reasons or for safety, but that a minority were motivated by a sexual attraction to women. Also his counter-position that the majority of women who had same-sex relations (whom he labels “libertine”) did not cross-dress or take on masculine behaviors. [Note: I’m not saying that I think his conclusions are necessarily false, only that they feel decidedly under-proven.]

Moving on to the specific topic of sexual relations between women, Trumbach reiterates one of the key factors in the English historic record: there was no law against it. Under English law, sodomy was illegal, but it was defined narrowly as either bestiality or anal intercourse. This leaves no scope for evidence of sex between women to be found in the legal record, abandoning the field largely to literature and gossip.

The imagined sexual activities of women in fictional accounts are largely written by men (most often in pornographic contexts), with one exception being by Delariviere Manley. The accounts may involve women of all life situations--young unmarried girls, married women, prostitutes. Somewhat obviously, the latter two groups are depicted as also enjoying sex with men, even in cases where they prefer women.

Manley’s satirical work The New Atalantis stands out in content. It features a “new cabal” of aristocratic women who have affectionate and romantic relationships with each other, though lip service is given to considering actual sexual relationships to be “going too far.” The characters in the narrative also acknowledge the difficulty of entirely avoiding marriage to men, even when they reserve their romantic love for their female friends. A few women are described in the work as being mannish in affect, though not in dress. And one is depicted as cross-dressing in order to visit prostitutes in company with her female lover. Overall, the depiction is of a group of women who have primary romantic attachments for other women, sometimes including sexual relationships, but who accept that marriage to, and sexual relations with men are also an unavoidable part of life. [Note: Trumbach seems to assume that the reader knows that Manley’s work was a thinly veiled roman à clef, with most of the fictional characters being easily connected with her real-life social circle. This makes the fictional nature of the relationships less of an argument for discounting them.]

More common in literature are male depictions of sex between women as an adjunct to sex with men, as in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, in which lesbian seduction is used to “train up” a new prostitute. An interest in sex with women is presented as an “arbitrary taste” to be enjoyed when available but not pursued exclusively.

Gossip among the fashionable classes of London was another source of  evidence for women’s same-sex relations, although perhaps not any more reliable in the details than literature. The nature of Manley’s novel provoked speculations. It was commented on that one married woman traveled with a female companion because she bore “affection to her own sex.” Sexual puns were made to comment on the public affection shown by one woman to another. And women who pursued amours with other women were reported with an implied expectation of sexual activity. The state of marriage was irrelevant in this context. Being married was neither a guarantee of disinterest in women, nor a bar to acting on that interest. Conversely, the possibility that affairs between women might disrupt heterosexual marriages was a spur to the sharpness of the gossip, but not an assumed consequence.

The flavor of this gossip was parallel to that seen in the late 17th and early 18th centuries regarding sodomy between men, prior to the development of the molly role. Male rakes were expected to sexually pursue both women and boys. It was immoral but not scandalous. Similarly, these 18th century women generally had sexual relations with both men and women. There were economic pressures for the former that can’t entirely be discounted, but in general bisexuality was the expectation for “libertine” women. They were the subject of gossip for unchastity, but not for the nature of their partners. The suggestion of deviance was reserved for the rare examples of women who combined same-sex desire with masculine behavior (as for a few characters in Manley’s novel).

The use of dildoes for sex between women is another topic where fact can be difficult to extract from the available literature, which betrays a male-centered fixation on penetrative sex as being qualitatively different from other options. Thus, in Henry Fielding’s fictional account of Mary Hamilton, she is depicted as despairing of enacting her marriages to women without the use of an artificial penis (the discovery of which led to her exposure).Cleland’s translation of Catherine Vizzani’s memoirs also fixates on her use of an artificial penis in her affairs with women (while also addressing the previous era’s expectation that such desires were driven by anatomy  in the form of an enlarged clitoris). In fact Cleland’s writings straddle various tropes. His Vizzani text expresses some surprise that Catherine did not have the expected anatomical cause, while highlighting her use of penetrative sex with an instrument, inspired by “some error in nature”, but then his Woman of Pleasure embraces the new framing of lesbian desire being “infectious” as it were, potentially stimulated in any woman via “corruption” by an experienced practitioner and not involving a pseudo-male partner. For Cleland, Vizzani’s cross-dressing was not a cause of her sexual interest, but rather a more serious transgression that took same-sex interest too far. In Cleland and some of his contemporaries, we can see these first hints at a female parallel to the molly: a minority of women who removed themselves from the category of “female” entirely and into a new category that would become labeled as “tommies” or “sapphists”.

[Note: While I've always been aware that Cleland's translation of the Vizzani text revised several sections relating to her sexual relations, I wasn't aware of some deeper and more questionable motives in his revisions that are explored in Donato 2006, which is among the articles I have lined up to cover in the next few months. Cleland very much cannot be viewed as a neutral observer of women's sexuality, in case there was any question.]

Another triangulation on the emergence of this new category comes from the gossipy diaries of Hester Thrale-Piozzi. Thrale had something of a fixation on identifying and recording male homosexuals (she considered herself to have a special ability to detect such inclinations even when concealed) with near-universal condemnation. She also commented on (real or imagined) sexual relations between women, particularly in Bath and London, but was less consistent in her reactions. She repeated an accusation that the French Queen Marie Antoinette had been the head of a Sapphic sect. She initially praised poems honoring the friendship of Miss Weston and Miss Powell, then later speculated salaciously on why Miss Weston had been averse to marriage and had made a fuss about another young woman. In 1795 Thrale went so far as to say that “whenever two ladies live too much together” they were suspected of “what has a Greek name now and is called Sapphism.” But at the same time she had difficulty imagining what such women could actually be doing together. She was one of a number of people who made crude jokes about the sexual reputation of Anne Damer, as well as noting that Damer had also adopted various men’s dress accessories.

Thrale’s inconsistency also shows in her attitude toward famous passionate friends Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The majority of Thrale’s commentary on the “Ladies of Llangollen” is positive and she engaged in friendly correspondence with them, despite how well they fit Thrale’s criteria for being “unclean birds” as she puts it elsewhere. [Note: Trumbach states that Thrale “never made any negative judgment of them” but Donoghue cites a lesser known diary entry in which Thrale did refer to the two as “damned sapphists.”] Other contemporaries of Butler and Ponsonby were less hesitant to comment on their relationship and Butler considered a lawsuit against a newspaper article that suggested some irregularity to their relationship by describing her as “tall and masculine--always wears a riding habit” while describing Ponsonby in more conventionally feminine terms. In context we see a suggestion of the stereotype of “mannish” lesbian, and Ponsonby certainly reacted as if they description implied something unacceptable.

Trumbach suggests there was a distinction that Butler and Ponsonby did not “project [their relationship] as sexual” while Anne Damer, enacting a similar gender transgression in her dress and a liking for pretty younger women, “clearly projected her affection for women as sexual.” [Note: the evidence in both cases for this “projection” seems to come from how their contemporaries reacted to them.] “It is likely” Trumbach says, that this difference in projection derives from whether the women themselves identified their feelings as sexual in nature.

Even after the concept of a female “tommy” role developed, it was not as heavily stigmatized as the “molly” role. Women, in general, did not engage in their sexuality publicly and there is no evidence of a female subculture in taverns or public spaces equivalent to the molly houses. [Note: Other authors such as Donoghue have identified references to some evidence of public culture of this type.] Trumbach identifies several other general shifts that occur in the late 18th century with the rise of the “tommy” role: a falling off of interest in female actors taking on male roles on stage [but note various 19th century actresses famous for their “trouser roles” such as Charlotte Cushman], a greater difficulty for women passing as men and less interest in their stories, and the near-disappearance of the motif of an enlarged clitoris being used to explain same-sex desire. By 1800, Trumbach asserts, this new configuration had settled into a system of two types of bodies (male and female) and four genders, two “legitimate” heterosexual ones, and two stigmatized homosexual ones.

Contents summary: 

In late 17th century England, the practice of boys playing female roles on stage became outmoded and even perhaps unacceptable to audiences. This was, of course, only made possible by women entering the acting profession to play those characters. But the growing unacceptability of male cross-gender performance did not translate to a similar rejecting of female cross-gender performance on the stage. In fact, women playing male roles became fashionable, though the nature of the practice changed during the course of the century.

By the early 18th century, men playing female parts was only acceptable as an obvious parody of femininity. The parallel expectation for women in male roles only arose in the later part of the 18th century.  In the mid-18th century, the ambiguity regarding women cross-dressing was considered part of the appeal. But toward the end of the 18th century, there was more condemnation unless the depiction left gender boundaries clear and unquestioned.

Theories about the appeal of cross-dressed actresses have tended to focus on the male gaze and how the roles objectified female bodies, but Straub suggests that the appeal was more complicated. She argues that evidence such as the autobiography of actress Charlotte Charke contradict an easy fit of this phenomenon into a traditional expectation of “the subjugation of a feminine spectable to the dominance of the male gaze and the exclusive definition of feminine sexual desire in terms of its relation to masculine heterosexual desire.”

The appearance of women on stage beginning in the 17th century did serve the obvious function of using conventionally attractive feminine bodies to sell tickets, as many commentaries will attest. But the variety of responses indicate that an equal attraction came from sexual ambiguity, and that female audiences were just as attracted to the performance as men were. A 1766 memoir notes, with regard to this topic, “It was a most nice point to decide between the gentlemen and the ladies, whether [the actress] was the finest woman or the prettiest fellow.”

This “double pleasure” on the stage was more problematic when it moved off-stage. Popular culture tended to contain the transgression of actresses who continued to cross-dress in ordinary life by assigning them unambiguously heterosexual desires. Susanna Maria Cibber was reported to cross-dress when off the stage to facilitate a heterosexual affair. Susanna Centlivre similarly cross-dressed to pose as her lover’s “cousin Jack” in order to live with him when he was at Oxford. Sarah Siddons was accused of taking on the role of Hamlet for an opportunity to seduce her married fencing instructor. Even same-sex attraction off-stage was framed with conventional motivations: Margaret Wolffington was said to have set out to win the affections of another woman, but only to distract that woman from the man they were competing for.

[Note: this catalog of stories doesn’t touch on the question of who is gate-keeping the recording and transmission of these responses. All the "was said"s and "was reporteds" raise the question of who is doing the talking and what topics they are not talking about.]

By the mid 18th century, there is significant pressure for cross-dressed actresses to confine their appeal to “acceptable” contexts, revealing the underlying anxiety about their roles. These anxieties were several. The appeal of cross-dressed women as men challenged traditional notions of masculinity. And secondly, they represented a challenge to the idea that women should be limited to the private, domestic sphere.

By the early 19th century, discussion of cross-dressed actresses became increasingly condemnatory. [Note: As for Trumbach’s article in this same collection, it’s hard to square this assertion with the mid-19th century popularity of actresses such as American Charlotte Cushman, who enjoyed major success on English stages in "trouser roles".] The suggestion was that it was “improper” for women to play these roles, appealing to shifting models of femininity. Wearing breeches on stage for broadly comic purposes was possibly acceptable, but still not entirely proper. This exception still allowed cross-dressed classics such as Shakespeare’s comedies, as long as the masquerade was obvious. Flying in the face of the evidence, critics of the practice denied the possibility that an actress could believably play a male role, much less one that is desirable by female spectators. The vehemence of these criticisms imply the success of cross-dressed actresses in challenging the stabiilty of masculine sexuality. In particular, they highlight the anxiety that a masculinized performance by a woman might attract unapproved sexual desires by the female audience.

Charlotte Charke’s 1746 autobiography illustrates the real basis of these anxieties as she took her cross-gender behavior off the stage and into everyday life in ways that challenged heterosexual norms. The work is a textual performance, in parallel with her stage performances, and part of a varied set of gender-fracturing enterprises by which she worked to support herself and her daughter. A number of those enterprises involved taking on male occupations (such as valet) in male garb. [Charke’s early experiences with cross-dressing, whether as performance or personal expression, suggest to the modern reader a transgender framing, and there are a number of publications that examine Charke's life in that context, but I have followed the author’s lead in consistently gendering her as female in this summary.]

Straub suggests some interesting potential motivations for the prominence of cross-dressing in Charke’s life story. In particular, she suggests a through-line of critiquing her father’s submissive subservience to his artistocratic male patrons. Various historians see in her performance a challenge to concepts of masculinity that, in her era, were increasingly driven by contrast to a female “other”. The masculine woman refused to be “other” and so undermined the concept of a distinctive masculine identity. The major threat to “masculinity” was being seen as womanish or feminized, as represented by the “feminine” male homosexual. This was the image of “failed masculinity” that Straub suggests that Charke is implicitly critiquing in her father.

There does not appear to be any unambiguous evidence that Charke engaged in sexual activity with women, in disguise or otherwise, but many of her early “adventures” involve inspiring the desire of a woman while in male guise and only narrowly escaping situations in which she would need to confront that desire.

Historians, in considering Charke’s life and writings, are often frustrated by her resistance to being read either clearly as heterosexual or lesbian. Straub discusses the context of the “female husband” narrative and the ways in which Charke contradicts it--a contradiction that can just as easily be read as a refusal to fit female same-sex desire into a heterosexual mould, instead of as a refutation of same-sex desires. Henry Fielding’s fictionalized account of “female husband” Mary Hamilton is discussed, focusing on the motif of Hamilton’s use of an artificial penis as part of her disguise. [Note: I think there’s a significant difference in that Hamilton is not telling her own story or intending it as a performed spectacle. Whereas Charke was clearly performing even when not on stage.]

Charke plays with the idea that she might return the desire of the women who engage with her male presentation, always regretfully finding a reason to escape. But her protestations such as that she was “greived it was not in my power to make a suitable return” (of affections) leave open the possibility of genuine regret, not simply feigned excuse. Regarding the reason for her cross-dressing, she toys with her readers, saying that “the original motive proceeded from a particular cause” but then protesting that “I am bound, as I before hinted, by all the vows of truth and honour everlastingly to conceal [it].”

In contradiction of the potential for same-sex desire, Straub fastens on to Charke’s novel The History of Henry Dumont, which includes a vicious portrayal of a male homosexual character, as implying a general position of homophobia (to use the modern term) and a distancing of her own experience. [Note: I think that Straub overlooks the problem that male and female same-sex desire were not seen as parallel and equivalent in this era--or, indeed, in most eras before the 20th century. Hostility by Charke to male homosexuality doesn’t strike me as automatically ruling out the possibility that she felt same-sex desire for women and possibly even acted on it.] Straub concludes by noting the continuing difficulty of interpreting Charke’s biography when colored by modern concepts of gender and identity.