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When Female Husbands Became Obsolete

Monday, August 23, 2021 - 07:00

After what seems like entirely too long a period of covering a single book, we come to the end. Female Husbands: A Trans History has some interesting strengths and weaknesses as a historic study. The greatest strength (and my favorite aspect, given that I like the puzzle-solving parts of historic research) is Manion's willingness to dig through obscure public records to fill in the details of these people's lives. The original publicity around the story of James Howe/Mary East and their wife never mentioned the wife's name. (Which is entirely in keeping with historic misogyny and the erasure of women's identities and--from one angle--could be seen as validation of Howe's masculinity. Since Howe was considered worthy of having a name of their own to be identified by.) But Manion succeeded in finding Howe's marriage record, which provided the name Mary Snapes. In various other cases, Manion has dug deeply to connect the dots and answer the question of "what happened to these people after the spotlight of notoriety moved on?"

But I think the most obvious weakness of the book is the attempt to organize it by chronological themes, when no such chronology existed in the biographical data. Individual biogrpahies are  shoehorned into the chapter theme and sometimes tied to it by the most tenuous of connections. I could see how a book that was simply a catalog of biographies might be less readable. But the result of this approach--as well as the occasional digressions on social issues and movements of the times--makes the organization feel a bit patchy and haphazard.

Returning to strengths, I am always grateful to a book that gives me the tools to think about gender/sexuality in new and different ways, and Manion has added a significant tool to my box. In discussing "transing gender" as an action, rather than a state, it becomes easier to view female masculinity (to use Halberstam's phrase) not only as a continuum, but as a continual rather than a continuuous process. That is, transing gender is something one can do a little or a lot, periodically or all the time, permanently or temporarily. This approach makes it easier (for me, at least) to let go a little of the notion that cis and trans are distinct binary states. When considering people in history, it isn't simply that "we can never know for certain" (in that annoyingly prevalent phrasing), but that their placement on a cis-trans continuum depends not only on their motivations, experiences, and performance, but on where one chooses to draw the dividing line.

Female Husbands is a book that speaks equally strongly to several aspects of queer and gender history. For anyone who wants more aspects of the topic within the setting of western Anglophone society (which is a definite limitation of scope), I highly recommend it.

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Full citation: 

Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3

Chapter 8: The End of a Category & Conclusion

Manion identifies the end of the 19th century as a period when the meanings of gender and the various ways in which women pushed back against the restrictions of gender expanded enough that the category of female husband became less coherent. Transing gender had been an individual solution to the various social restrictions of gender roles, but feminism and other societal shifts were now offering systemic solutions to some of the same problems. Same-sex relationships between people presenting as female became more visible and included a range of gender expressions. Persons assigned female who adopted various degrees of masculine dress offered rational arguments for acceptability. Feminism laid claim to the right of women to enter male-dominated fields and spheres without needing to present as male to do so. At the same time, the hostility of men toward women’s invasion of their prerogatives and spaces also increased the hostility turned towards those who transed gender. Reactions that previously had centered around social gender roles now focused more strongly on sexual possibilities.

Several case studies are offered of people who were put into the category of “female husband” by public and press reaction. But in some cases the ways in which they failed to fit that archetype point out the growing incoherence of the category. Public discourse around Frank Dubois, who had a fairly standard female-husband story, points out some of the shifts in anxiety about those who transed gender. Dubois' story provoked a fair amount of discussion, both serious and satirical, that if women had an option of marrying women, then men might become irrelevant. But another aspect of the discussion focused on the performative nature of gender, in that many of the proofs that Dubois offered for their male status had to do with stereotypical male behaviors and gender performance, rather than physical characteristics.

There is a brief discussion of John Coulter, whom Manion identifies as the “last British female husband,” but the story offers no particularly new angles on the topic.

Samuel Pollard’s story reads much like some previous ones in that shortly after they married, their wife complained that her husband was actually a woman. As the matter tried to sort itself out in the court (having difficulty in finding the appropriate statute be considered) Pollard’s wife had a reconciliation and in the end the matter was dropped. The marriage was later dissolved, but Pollard continued to live as a man in the community despite their gender assignment being known to others due to the earlier controversy.

The next two cases show how the female husband paradigm was applied even in cases where it failed to fit the facts. Annie Hindle was an actress who performed male roles on stage, and wore male clothing to their wedding with Annie Ryan. However there was never any serious attempt to disguise their assigned gender. The minister who married them did not raise any questions of gender although it is likely that he was aware that there were questions to be raised. Hindle and their wife remained together until Ryan died. There was a flurry of publicity around the concept of “the widow of a woman”, but in general it was sympathetic and positive with regard to the couple. Hindle appears to have worn male clothing at least on a sometime basis after retiring from the stage, but did not attempt to pass as a man except in the very specific context of the marriage ceremony. But by applying the female husband model, Hindle’s marriage created a conceptual bridge to the idea of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.

Leroy Williams was a disabled veteran of the Civil War and in late middle-age married the widow Matilda Smith. Smith soon became unhappy with the marriage, citing various types of misrepresentation regarding income and housing that Williams had made during the courtship. But Smith also claimed that Williams had misrepresented their sex, saying “he was no man but a woman.” This would be a familiar story in the discussion of female husbands except that--based on all available evidence, including that of census records from Williams’ childhood--Williams does appear to have been assigned male. William successfully argued that their experiences in the army would have made an underlying female sex obvious, and no medical examination was made in the context of the marriage challenge. So why would Smith raise this accusation in the context of requesting a marriage annulment? Evidently the concept of female husbands was current enough in the culture to be a believable charge, even when easily falsified.

Manion explores the role of scandal sheets and crime-focused newspapers in recording and spreading stories of female husbands and similar gender transgression. But increasingly there were female identified people who openly wore male garments for a variety of reasons, whether practicality, career, or personal taste. Similarly, the end of the 19th century saw a number of types of female same-sex partnerships that were entered into openly and received varying amounts of social approval. (This was the era of the "Boston marriage" and of many couples formed among the faculty of women's colleges.) With these shifts, some of the motivations for female husbands begin to fall away from the central model and the term became less useful to describe a specific phenomenon. What remained as a motivation was an internal sense of gender identity. But marrying a woman was no longer seen as proof or validation for that masculine identity.

In the end of the chapter Manion summarizes many of the themes covered in this book and reiterates the reasoning for the particular approach to gender reference that she uses. There is also an epilogue discussing the first medically reassigned female to male transsexual (Manion’s wording) and the changes in approaches and attitudes to transing gender that came in the 20th century.

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historical