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Full citation: 

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

Contents summary: 

This book looks at 18th century English depictions of female cross-dressing (i.e., assigned-female persons who are being read as male) and the relationship that has to ideas about female same-sex intimacy.

[Note: I have used the book's wording "cross-dressing women" to reflect how the author is framing the topic. The author emphasizes that she considers setting the framings "cross-dressing sapphic women vs. trans men" to be a false binary, and that her position is that all cross-dressing, regardless of context or motivation is inherently trans, as well as inherently queer. Furthermore, she is primarily examining the material as a literary genre, with consideration of its reception by contemporaries. And in the 18th century context, that contemporary audience would overwhelmingly understand the subject as "women disguised as men". However I will note for my readers that, because of these considerations and purposes, the wording and framing of the book may come across as erasive of trans possibiities, even though it does overtly recognize them on a regular basis. Read this work as a book about how trans narratives create an awareness of sapphic possibilities, rather than as claiming that the people being discussed--historic and fictional--were cis women in disguise as opposed to trans men living their authentic lives.]

18th century narratives of cross-dressing women were common. In many contexts, the focus is on how to manage the female body, and why that body appeals to female observers. Cross-dressing narratives became central to defining and negotiating gender and sexual categories in the long 18th century.

These texts “teach” readers how to recognize embodied sapphic possibilities. Klein’s analysis shows how the various genres and classes of texts bring together queer desire and trans categories, as well as disrupting the concept of heterosexuality by blurring sex and gender categories. The book is not concerned with questions of whether women who were attracted to cross-dressing women recognized them as such, whether sexual activity was involved, or whether cross-dressing women genuinely desired their female partners. Rather it examines how bodies are represented and perceived.

This analysis detaches masculinity from male bodies and considers the representation of specific body parts as they participate in cross-dressing gender performance. The illustrative body parts that Klein focuses on are: the beard, the breast, the penis, and the legs. The symbolic function of these with regard to gender relate to other categories such as race, nation, and disability.

This analysis is not a chronology of examples, rather it represents the blurring and confusion of the binary representation of gender difference. [Note: This book has lots of theory jargon, which I’m trying to present a bit more directly.]

The introduction continues with a literature review and a consideration of why the author focuses on the word sapphic for this topic. The author points out that regardless of individual gender identity, cross-dressing is always by definition a trans act that inherently challenges gender categories and boundaries. Klein considers that putting “trans” and” lesbian” in binary opposition in discussions of this sort is a trap. It is not her intent to create such an opposition even though her focus is on how cross-dressing speaks to sapphic concepts.

There is a conflict created between how cross-dressing bodies work to be sufficiently masculine versus being perceived as too feminine. And in some ways cis female desire for cross-dressing women is more queer than the cross-dressing performance itself. The introduction concludes with an overview that summarizes the structure of the book.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

The breast is an elusive gender signifier. An opening example from Hannah Snell’s biography tells how a combination of posture, breast size, and viewing angle prevented the presence of breasts from giving away her sex when she was stripped to the waist for a whipping in the army.

Working class cross-dressing narratives establish the breast not only as a sign of femaleness but as a site of erotic connection with the women who desire her. The chapter primarily examines cross-dressing in military and sea-going contexts, but also touches on Maria Edgeworth’s novel Belinda.

Regularly throughout the texts, the breast functions not so much to reinforce normative gender expectations, but to draw attention to female centered relationships. Alongside that function, breasts reflect racial and national stereotypes and reveal how themes of gender and desire are linked to whiteness.

During the 18th century, medical and political discourse around the breast shifted from an erotic, to a maternal symbol. And as with facial hair, we see a taxonomy of civilization reflected in breast characteristics.

In cross-dressing narratives such as that of the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, exposure of the breast is linked to being read as female, but often the revelation is deliberate and strategic, not accidental or involuntary. Deliberate exposure of the breast by a cross dressing woman to establish her sex may be done for a female audience, creating sapphic possibilities. In Belinda, Lady Delacourt’s exposure of her damaged breast creates the context for bringing the women of the novel together.

[Note: one text that Klein doesn’t mention but that plays up the themes of this chapter is The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, in which the cross-dressing main character reveals her sex to the woman she has a crush on (who has sworn off relations with men) by opening her clothing to reveal her breasts.]

The presence of the breast functions similarly to the absence of facial hair in being a gender marker, but an ambiguous and elusive one. It must be hidden to maintain the disguise, but it’s surprisingly easy to conceal.

Breasts have a long and contradictory history of being used to represent various perceptions of female identity, both positive and negative. The ambiguity of the breast is furthered by the multiple meanings that words such as “breast” and “bosom” can have, drawing in metonymic references to emotions. The 18th century saw a rising focus on the symbolic nature of the breast, and of maternal breast-feeding as a feature of female identity. (As contrasted with hiring a wet-nurse.) Some scholars trace a shift from the “erotic breast” of the renaissance to the new political symbolism of the breast in the 18th century, though this is not a universal view. The chapter has a fascinating discussion of the range of breast-meaning theories, but it’s too detailed to really summarize here.

The idealized breast in 18th century western culture was small and rounded, representing a young, pre-lactating body. Colonialist writing evaluated non-western societies using a sort of “breast phrenology” to equate pendulous breasts with a lack of civilization. In western contexts, large breasts were associated with aggressiveness.

When breasts are mentioned in cross-dressing narratives, it is usually to note them as small (and thus easier to disguise) but also as aligned with racialized images of superiority and whiteness. In cross-dressing narratives, women focus first on concealing the breast, and then on strategic deployment of them--in both cases as a gender marker.

The chapter dives into a detailed analysis of these themes in several texts, specifically: the history of pirates Read and Bonny, the military narratives of Hannah Snell and Christian Davies, and the novel Belinda, which adds another layer to the symbolism of breast and cross dressing. In Belinda the “wounded breast” of the cross-dresser embodies the punishment for her gender transgression as well as providing the stimulus for female bonding over the intimate nature of sharing the knowledge of the wound.

I’m skipping over a lot of the details of this very close reading of the texts.

Contents summary: 

How do cross-dressing women work around the “missing penis,” both in sexual and everyday contexts? Biographical narratives often show a fascination for the mechanical details, such as Christian Davies’ urination device, or the artificial penises used for sex by Mary Hamilton and Catherine Vizzani. While such a descriptions may take a condemnatory tone, they also advertise the erotic possibilities between women that these devices signal. There is a voyeuristic tone in which the scenes of dildo-mediated sex are produced by men for men, and yet cannot entirely escape the implication that men may be irrelevant to women’s sexual pleasure, regardless of whether one woman is playing a male role.

At the same time, narratives involving the adoption of an artificial penis can have the strongest resonances with trans narratives. Klein discusses how the narratives work awkwardly around this topic, alternating pronouns by context. The historic authors consistently presented their subjects as women, some of whom had lesbian desires, but modern historians have explored their context within a gender continuum where the reference points of “butch lesbian” and “trans man” do not have hard boundaries.

Within this fluid landscape, Klein focuses in this chapter on the dual themes of how female cross-dressers may use a prosthetic as part of their presentation, which in turn becomes a material focus for the (male) authors to imagine same-sex desires.

Earlier in the 18th century, the dildo appears in a genre of comic or satirical literature that is more focused around solitary use, but again suggests the potential irrelevance of men to women’s pleasure. The phallus becomes separated, not only from male bodies, but from the context of masculinity entirely.

The penis was considered not simply a piece of anatomy but the sign of male status. It is the usurpation of that status that constitutes the central offense committed by cross-dressing women. But anatomy was also considered to control or generate desire, such that women with female same-sex desires were assumed or suspected of having masculinized anatomy—either a large clitoris or an intersex body. The genre of spontaneous sex-change stories, in which assigned female persons first developed sexual desires for women and then developed male appearing genitals, legitimized this theory and delegitimized the femaleness of all women who desired women.

But in narratives that emphasize the female nature of cross-dressing women—that exclude a physiological framing for the desire—this focus on the penis as the driver of desire for women is destabilized. Thus cross-dressing narratives become a key space for negotiating the shift from the galenic one-sex two-gender model, to the two-sex model, regardless of whether cross-dressing women are then assigned to a third gender. Medical and scientific literature in this era was obsessed with cataloging and labeling, to which cross-dressing women were a challenge. Where previous eras might have resolved the conflict with a narrative of physiological transformation, 18th century narratives instead emphasized the femaleness of cross-dressers, resulting in a preoccupation with potential sites and contexts of exposure: the bathroom and the bedroom, as it were.

The use of a dildo by cross dressing women placed her in the most heavily condemned group, even in places like England where the condemnation was social rather than legal. But 18th century literature was full of dildos, whether in solitary use, or with two femme women pleasuring each other. Multiple examples are given.

Dildos are generally played for humor or titillation, sometimes bringing in an element of xenophobia in being depicted as a “foreign visitor.” In general, the dildo is depicted as an independent male presence within women’s erotic space. Only occasionally, when appropriated more overtly as attachable masculinity (when one woman straps it on to engage in sex with another) do the texts veer into unease. That unease becomes overt anxiety when the dildo serves as part of a more complete masculine presentation. Dildos destabilize masculinity from two angles: the ability to appropriate it, and the ability to render it irrelevant.

In general, 18th century clothing obscured the question of anatomy, and clothing itself was the most powerful gender marker. Most cross-dressing narratives don’t touch on concealment strategies around washing, dressing, and urination. But a few treat the question as a point of curiosity. One re-printed edition of the Christian Davies biography adds a note about the use of a “urinary instrument,” though this detail may have been added by an editor rather than being part of Davies’ own story. In this added anecdote, the “little silver tube” was the inspiration for Davies’ cross dressing, when she found it abandoned in haste in the bed of a cross-dressing a female soldier. This creates an image of a literal “inheritance” of a cross-dressing tradition.

The pop culture familiarity with dildos makes it impossible to ignore the sexual implications of the flirtations that cross-dressing women engaged in with other women, even when such flirtations are framed in the text as being only part of the disguise—a way to act male among other men.

Although the dildo, in one sense, emphasizes a phallocentric understanding of sex, it blurs the concept of sexual difference. Rather than people being divided into those who do, or do not, have a penis, the penis becomes an optional accessory. It contradicts the image of a “natural” body and becomes one more tool with which a constructed masculinity can be assembled.

In some continental legal cases, the use of a dildo when cross-dressing seems to have been the boundary that, if crossed, could warrant the death penalty. But even this was rare (and nonexistent in England), and no such executions are known after the mid 18th century. Rather, in narratives such as Mary Hamilton, Catherine Vizzani, etc. the use of a dildo was characterized and sometimes prosecuted as fraud and imposture.

There is a brief discussion of the extensive documentary evidence for “female husbands” in the 18th century, though this isn’t connected directly to dildo use. There is a discussion of Henry Fielding’s contradictory satirical purposes in writing The Female Husband, his fictionalized biography of Mary Hamilton. When Fielding’s Hamilton tells one of her lovers that marriage to her would provide “all the pleasures of marriage without the inconveniences” (that is, pregnancy) it sums up male fears about the possibility of their irrelevance. These fears are both embodied and softened by the use of oblique and coded language about dildo sex, referring to it as “to indecent to speak of.” Modesty, supposedly an attribute of women, is instead ascribed to the male author and audience, to protect them from facing an explicit description of the artificial nature of masculinity.

There is a discussion of how the preceding themes play out in the narrative of Catherine Vizzani, and then a discussion of the use and symbolism of the dildo in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill), where the instrument is primarily a sex toy rather than used for masculine presentation.

Contents summary: 

Legs, as a feature of cross-dressing, are legible primarily in the context of actresses playing male roles. The clothing of the day meant that women’s legs were normally concealed. That meant that, on stage, women’s exposed legs both represented masculinity and were potentially a powerful erotic stimulus. The dramatic fiction that cross-dressing actresses were “men” in their roles gave license for women to find them desirable, as well as for others to deny the same-sex aspect of that desire.

Even more than other contexts, cross-gender roles on the stage emphasized the performative nature of gender. The boundary-crossing of actresses like Charlotte Charke (who took cross-dressing off stage to a greater degree than many others) was used as an excuse for condemning the profession, even as it was a major draw for viewers.

If the visible legs of actresses were framed by contemporaries and historians as primarily being intended for consumption by the male gaze, the actresses’ male performance was also available as a way to solicit or signal (or engender) same-sex desires in other women, whether indirectly in the audience or via general public awareness.

When those actresses in their male roles courted or seduced women on the stage it became difficult to ignore the sapphic erotic possibilities for women off stage. Furthermore, the social and physical freedom the trouser-clad legs represented created an association between that freedom and independence and sapphic desires.

This chapter lays out those dynamics by reviewing 18th century discourse around gender fluidity, mobility, and sexuality, especially through biographical writings on actresses Charlotte Charke and Margaret Woffington. Then it covers the themes of how legs function both as markers of femaleness and as representing female desire and independence in the novels Belinda and A Simple Story.

In the 18th century, a well-shaped leg was the provenance of men as a sex symbol. Not only did breeches acknowledge the existence of legs, but the close-fitting stockings featured below the knee-length breeches of the era drew attention to a well-defined calf muscle, further enhanced by tall heeled shoes, even as we see in women’s fashions today.

Respectable women might have license in a carnival atmosphere to wear men’s clothes (as men did women’s) and cross-dressing actresses were accepted, but under ordinary circumstances it was scandalous for a woman to reveal even a portion of her lower legs to a man’s gaze. Gowns were long and voluminous and came with multiple layers of skirts, normally keeping even the feet hidden. “Skirts” or “petticoats” became metonymic for the state of being female, and for female genitalia specifically.

With the rise of women on the stage in England in the late 17th century. [Note: Actresses were common in earlier eras elsewhere, but England had some odd notions around the topic, hence the phenomenon of boys playing all the female roles in Elizabethan theater.]  No sooner had the profession opened to women in England than turnabout created the “breeches part,” with women playing male roles. One function of “breeches roles” in Restoration theater was to put female bodies on display by some means other than being undressed, but women wearing breeches were not simply passive objects of the male gaze.

Trousers allowed greater physical mobility in many situations, and some working class women had always worn trousers for practical reasons. [Note: There are some flaws in this argument. Most working-class women doing heavy manual labor still wore skirts. And not all skirts were voluminous, encumbering court costumes. Just as with some modern misguided attitudes toward stays and corsets, we need to beware of reflexively viewing all female-coded garments as essentially disabling.]

Overt trouser wearing by women was associated with deprecated professions: stage performers, manual labor, and sex work. [Note: Though Klein doesn’t touch on it, there seems to be a significant association of cross dressing being assumed to signal sex work in the 16th and 17th century England. See e.g., Bennett and McSheffrey 2014 [ Whether this was true or simply attributed needs further study.] In any event, cross-dressing and especially trouser-wearing was associated with loose sexual morals, regardless of the women’s motivations or circumstances. But even as a sex object, the woman in breeches is an object of desire for both men and women: men, because her genitals are foregrounded by metonymy; women, because the masculine performance gives them license to feel desire.

Female mobility, both physical and social, undermines patriarchal control, whether we consider control of the woman herself or control of the narrative about her. When women experience desire for a cross-dressed actress, they escape gendered control over their desires via a public fiction—the stage role. But within fictional cross-dressing narratives, when a woman experiences desire for a covertly cross-dressing woman, it is the reader who is licensed to understand that desire as sapphic.

The association of masculinity with mobility and independence also intersects with disability and the ways in which it was not simply the visible male leg that was a sex symbol, but the shapely well-muscled athletic leg in particular. The erotic qualities of the female leg lay in how the legs framed and stood in for the genitals. Women’s legs were stereotyped at the time as thick and less shapely than men’s (as we see in satirical drawings). Thus the erotic visibility of cross-dressing actresses’ legs—in being praised for their shapeliness—are viewed in terms of masculine attractiveness, as well as being a symbol of sexual independence, even as their visibility as female legs signalled wantonness and sexual availability.

The mutability of gender in stage roles had been present in the early modern period not only via boys playing female roles, but in how female characters, in turn, took on cross-dressing male roles (as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). As female actors became accepted on the English stage in the second half of the 17th century, this turned around, with nearly one-third of all plays performed including roles in which actresses wore male clothes. This meant that the sight and idea of women in men’s clothing was established in the popular imagination, even if taboo off stage.

Breeches roles did attract criticism from moralists, but it wasn’t until the end of the 18th century when that criticism began to be heeded. [Note: See discussion of the “sex panic” around 1800 that affected British sexual and gender culture in complex ways.]

The remainder of the chapter takes a detailed look at two famously cross dressing actresses: Charlotte Charke and Margaret Woffington. Charke left a somewhat fictionalized autobiography, which also addresses her cross-dressing and gender-passing off stage. Woffington is known only from secondhand sources. Both were known for attracting and accepting the erotic desire of both men and women (though the latter is less certain in the case of Woffington).

There is also a discussion of the symbolism of legs in the novels Belinda and A Simple Story, in which the cross-dressing characters are depicted as unfeminine and are punished for the transgression, and yet underneath the moralizing, each includes themes of sapphic eroticism and female bonds motivated by attraction.

I’m going to skip over the detailed discussion, though it’s quite interesting.


In summing up some of the themes of the book, Klein surveys various intersections of race and nationality with gender symbolism.