Skip to content Skip to navigation

USA

Includes Colonial America in what would become the USA. May also be used generally for North America if sources were not specific. See also separate tag Native America for discussions of indigenous North American cultures.

LHMP entry

Somewhat similarly to Dugaw’s book on gender disguise in military contexts in the early modern period (both in life and literature), this book examines the phenomenon of persons born as women who took up military careers as men, whether out of patriotism, as one facet of a transgender identity, from some other desperate need, or a combination thereof. The book is copiously illustrated, including many photographs of the more modern subjects who are included.

Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.

Jelinek has collected information about a surprisingly large number of gender-masquerade autobiographies, covering the 17-20th centuries and focused on the English-speaking world (likely due to the reseracher’s own interests). The bibliography at the end lists 18 publications, covering 17 different individuals, of whom 13 are discussed in detail in the article. As a context for the material, Jelinek notes motifs of women disguised as men in literature , including several works by William Shakespeare and Margaret Cavendish.

The overall thesis of this paper seems to be that the combination of the peculiarly cosmopolitan nature of Philadelphia, and the lower emphasis on sexual sins that may be traced to the colony’s Quaker origins (as contrasted with the Puritan origins of some other colonial settlements) led to a tolerance (though certainly not an acceptance) of homoerotic behavior in 18th century Philadelphia, as evidenced in the scraps of documentation that have come down to us.

The main themes by male authors in this set of texts include original poems in the classical Greek style with a relatively neutral portrayal of lesbians, and the continuing depiction of decadent lesbian eroticism, with an additional subgroup involving the frustration of author-insertion characters who desire lesbians. We also get an example of the “queer tragic triangle” in which a man and woman compete for the affections of a woman (with the man, of course, winning).

In this set of works, women seem to have discovered the usefulness of fantastic and unusual imagery to disguise some rather intense eroticism in poetry. Subtle misdirection is also used in a novel to enable homoerotic scenarios. We also have a conventional work of romantic partnership. The male authors are largely sticking to sensational and decadent eroticism and misogynistic satire, with one set of poems lapsing to a more neutral, if voyeuristic, depiction.

Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy.

[Note: I think the first two paragraphs here actually belong with chapter 4, I lost my section marker somehow.]

In contrast to many of the “decency” laws that disproportionately targeted minorities (such as anti-prostitution laws), cross-dressing prosecutions tended to ignore members of racial minorities unless some other significant factor were involved. This falls naturally out of the framing of normative gender as an inherently “white” possession. Therefore transgression against normative gender can only be done by those who had access to it in the first place.

Pages

Subscribe to USA
historical