In this chapter, Manion touches on--but doesn't fully explore--a couple of key differences between the trans-masculine experience in England and in America. English social structures around marriage, employment, charitable support, and rights to residence were deeply embedded in an assumption of static location. The parish you were born into was obliged to support you if you were indigent, which meant other parishes could be hostile to if they felt you might be (or become) a burden. Marriage laws were in a state of flux, but relied on communal familiarity with the couple's history to validate their status (reading the banns). But in America, everyone was on the move and many were very recent arrivals to the continent, to say nothing of a particular community. Changing one's presented identity in any respect was easier. And if people were not always automatically taken at face value when they showed up in a community, the residents were often willing to let their deeds and work speak for them. You were what you could do, whether it was a specific occupation or a gender. Americans also seemed a bit more willing to shrug and accept the situation when it turned out someone had a different background than originally believed. But in contrast to all that, the increasing professionalization of the police force, and social suspicion of "others", whether along class, nationality, race, or religious boundaries, meant that official scrutiny was often turned on the details of someone's life if they were morally suspect, not simply if they were legally suspect. This legal interest in controling gender presentation would increase across the 19th century and well into the 20th.
Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3
Part Two: US Husbands, 1830-1910 - Chapter 5: The Workers
While the first half of Manion's book focuses primarily on female husbands in England, the second half moves across the ocean to the United States. People who transed gender in 19th century America for economic reasons operated not only within the binary of male and female, but within a racial context that largely categorized work along racial lines. The white male worker had the best economic opportunities, but the frequency with which people assigned female could trans gender to access those opportunities undermined the theory of a clear gender divide, and highlighted the opportunities for those who were willing to trade female gender presentation for economic access.
One of the greatest contrasts with the situation in England was easy geographic mobility. Mobility made transing gender easier, and economic motivations tended to be taken at face value at discovery, especially in contrast to the usual alternative of sex work.
The one context in which transing gender as part of identity change was looked askance was for Black workers who were suspected of using gender change as a disguise when escaping slavery. Black mobility was more constrained even in the North or after Emancipation, so several of the advantages to white gender-crossers were eliminated.
This chapter also focuses on the increasing importance of a professional police force to the identification, pursuit, and management of gender transgression.
The first focus biography in this chapter is George Wilson, a factory worker who was accosted by the New York City police in 1836 for apparent public intoxication, in the course of which Wilson’s assigned gender was identified. Wilson presented a life history that was significantly fabricated and designed to elicit sympathy, but which was undermined somewhat when Wilson’s wife Elizabeth turned up at the station, willing to provide further details.
The couple were both from working class Scottish families and had likely met in Glasgow when Wilson was working in the same factory as Elizabeth’s father. They married in 1821 and emigrated to North America, settling first in Canada where they were joined by Elizabeth’s father, and then the whole family moved to New Jersey where father and son-in-law again worked in the same factory. When that factory went out of business, they moved to NYC where Wilson worked in a hat factory. Manion speculates that Elizabeth may have been a factory worker as well, though no specific evidence is given.
At the police station, Elizabeth’s goal was to gain Wilson’s freedom, as his continued employment was essential for the family’s financial security. The magistrate’s goal was to satisfy his curiosity about Wilson’s personal history. Elizabeth stated that she hadn’t known her husband’s assigned gender before the wedding, but Wilson told her afterward while they were in the middle of the voyage to America—a context that would have reduced her options for response. She reported that she accepted the situation and was content to continue as husband and wife. And certainly, after they were joined by her father, her options would have been somewhat wider if she had objected.
Several versions of Wilson’s history prior to the marriage were offered, but all revolved around the desire to leave an undesirable family situation around age 12 and taking up life as a boy in the context of leaving home.
The consideration of George and Elizabeth Wilson's fate leaves off without any resolution and the thread picks up with other examples of transing gender, particularly as sailors (which Wilson was originally thought to be by the arresting officer). Accounts of “female sailors” were common in American newspapers of the time, even as they were growing less common in British accounts. Their stories were popular tabloid fare and some related that it was other such accounts, or biographies like Deborah Sampson’s, that inspired them to take up the profession.
Although nautical jobs were more open to Black workers than many other professions, the treatment of Charles Wilson in the press shows that the journalistic category “female sailor” was inherently categorized as white. Charles Wilson was variously described as Black or colored, but was never offered the label of “female sailor”. After serving in the navy, Wilson was convicted of stealing pigs in New York City and their assigned gender was identified when they were forced to change into prison clothing.
Several other examples from nautical contexts are discussed, including George (Ann) Johnson who signed on with a whaling vessel after being abandoned by a lover. (Abandonment by a lover or fiance was a common motivation offered in trans biographies. The motif was guaranteed to elicit sympathy and may not always have been rooted in truth.) When Johnson's assigned gender was discovered while at sea, the captain decided to enforce gender norms by requiring Johnson to return to a female presentation, to cease working as a sailor (against Johnson’s wishes), and to be confined to a private cabin until they could be returned to land. But having gotten a taste for a different life, after returning to New York, Johnson again took up working as a man in a whip-making factory, with occasional ventures into working on a riverboat or setting up a confectionary shop. When an accident once more revealed Johnson’s assigned gender, their friends and coworkers had only positive reports of them and although it is suggested they were no longer able to continue in their profession(s), no one could find any complaint to press legally.
Manion concludes the chapter with a consideration of the sexuality of these 19th century laborers. Most of their stories don’t involve intimate relationships. (Manion calls them “asexual” but a more accurate description might be either celibate are unpartnered.) Manion suggests that within the American context, masculinity could be established purely by laboring at male-coded jobs, and the establishment of a marriage was less relevant as evidence than it had been in the Old World. (Note that George Wilson’s marriage was established before emigrating.)
By the usual calendar schedule, given that this is a 5th Saturday, there should have been a fiction podcast today. I've gotten behind on the podcast activities that involve reaching out to set things up with other people, and that includes lining up my narrators. Be assured that all the planned stories will be podcast, but perhaps not on the planned schedule. I'd rather put out a great episode than be chained to a specific format.
A short (novella?) historic romance between an impoverished middle-class woman trying to eke out a living on the fringes of the propertied class, and her childhood friend of that class who is struggling to find a way to be himself without losing everything. A Christmas masquerade ball provides the context for the masks to start slipping as our heroine connects the dashing man she meets at the ball with the eccentric young woman she thought she knew. A delightful happily-ever-after trans love story that threads the hazards of historic plausibility very neatly.
One of the themes that emerges from the individiaul biographies in this book is that the "female husband" phenomenon was primarily associated with working class people. (There are a few exceptions, such as Mary Diana Dods, as well as those who transed gender without marrying, which includes a few more examples of professional-class people.) On the one hand, the types of occupations these "female husbands" had challenged myths about gendered abilities even more strongly than middle-class professions would have. Myths that rarely took into account the physicality of many female-coded professions in pre-industrial times. But the social context also came with attitudes and prejudices common to working class communities.
The husband held social--as well as legal--power over the wife, and systems were designed to support that power. Husbands who employed financial, emotional, or physical abuse within the home were rarely held to account, as long as they didn't "go too far." A willingness to disrupt gender expectations on a personal basis didn't mean that someone held progressive ideas about gender equality on a more general level. And to the extent that performance of gender expectations may have been essential to their success, they may have had incentives to embrace male sterotypes.
Their wives, as Manion notes, were in a contradictory position. Assuming that they were aware of their husband's assigned gender, they held a unique power in the relationship. The wife was the "normal" one, not the transgressive one. She could present herself as naive, or as tricked, but there were no legal consequences looming over her. Except, of course, the consequences of suddenly becoming an unmarried woman--indeed, perhaps treated as a never-married woman--in a society that disadvantaged unmarried women. And, of course, there was love. Again assuming that she went into the relationship with full knowledge, there must have been some degree of affection or camraderie that made the marriage attractive, despite the hazards of discovery. That, too, might make her hesitant to use the power of her knowledge, regardless of provocation.
But overall, these stories point out the variety and ordinariness of the people involved in "female husband" marriages. If some of them behaved badly (on either side), others lived the quiet, ordinary lives that their friends and neighbors described to sensation-seeking journalists after the fact. For every "female husband" whose story ended up in the news, we can know that there were many who never had the misfortune of public exposure. We see glimpses of them between the lines, as in Henry Stoak's second marriage where evidently the community was well aware that someone once known as Harriet, and once outed in the context of a divorce, was living among them as a happily married man--and nobody thought it was their business to do anything about it. Now there's a story prompt.
Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3
Chapter 4: The Wives
This chapter looks at the experiences of the people fulfill like the role of wife to a female husband. The first case is that of James Allen who was killed in an industrial accident in 1829. Allen’s wife Abigail then had to deal with the fact not only of her husband’s death, but of public knowledge that her husband was a person assigned female. They had been married for 21 years.
There is discussion of the circumstances of the autopsy and the coroner’s attitude toward this discovery. Although Allen’s assigned gender was made public knowledge by an assistant and medical students observing the autopsy, the coroner systematically referred to Allen with male pronouns and justified this on the basis that it was impossible for Allen to be a woman as he had a wife, after all. He had seen the actual marriage certificate. The coroner refused to support further inquiries into Allen’s identity, arguing that the only purpose of the autopsy was to determine the cause of death and that further inquiry was not within the scope of his job. Whether this may have been a rationale to protect Abigail’s privacy or whether the coroner genuinely couldn’t cope with the cognitive dissonance of a person acting in society as a man and yet with female anatomy is up for question. In any event, the coroner prevented further examination of Allen’s body and ensured that they were buried in a secure location, safe from the curious or from body snatchers.
Nonetheless there was public curiosity about the story, with former coworkers of the deceased being interviewed about their impressions of Allen’s gender presentation. Abigail insisted that she had never had reason to question her husband’s gender. There is no indication that the marriage was for ulterior purposes. The two had worked together in service in the same household for three years before their marriage. In order to establish themselves independently, like the Hows, they pooled their savings and went into business running a public house. However they met with misfortune due to a robbery and abandoned that line of work. Allen took up the trade of ship-building while Abigail worked in the bonnet-making trade.
After Allen’s death, Abigail was assailed by public accusations, due to the nature of her marriage. She was bullied and harassed and rumors were spread that her own gender might be up for question. It was vitally important for her good name as a respectable woman to establish that she was not a knowing participant in a same-sex marriage. Abigail needed the insurance money for Allen’s death and already had to deal with insurers who tried to reject the claim on the principle that Allen had committed fraud via gender disguise.
In the end Abigail succeeded in being granted the life insurance she was due as a widow. But her continued assertions that she was ignorant of the nature of her marriage may have been essential for that success. Public opinion came around to that position as well. It must have been easier for people to except that Abigail had not knowingly married a woman disguised as a man there by maintaining the gender status quo rather than believing that a woman was capable of entering deliberately into a same-sex marriage.
The second case presented in this chapter is that of Henry Stoake, who was a bricklayer in the 1830s in England but aspired to make their way up in the world by apprenticing to a master builder. By the end of the decade stock at earned enough at the trade that they claimed they no longer needed to work and could live off their earnings.
Stoake ‘s wife Ann had been the accountant and bookkeeper for the bricklaying business and played a crucial role in Stoake’s success, but legally all the wealth of the household belonged only to the husband, and Ann became concerned about maintaining her property rights. Ann sought the advice of a lawyer in seeking a legal separation that would ensure her financial stability. Ann’s concerns appear to have been valid, as Stoake had regularly refused to recognize her value in the business and would punish her by withholding money for housekeeping expenses. Ann also alleged that Stoake was physically abusive to her when drunk. She wanted a divorce and her attorney pressured Stoake to grant her the house and furnishings as a start.
It was not an obvious strategy to use Stoake’s assigned gender as leverage in the divorce settlement, as the risks to Ann’s reputation and standing as a wife eligible for a divorce settlement were equally at risk.
The two had been legally married in 1817 but once Stoake’s assigned gender was revealed the very status of the marriage, as well as questions of appropriate measures for legal separation, came under question. Conversely the reluctance that Ann brought to revealing the truth of the marriage argues that initially she had entered into it willingly and knowingly. This was not a decision to separate due to a sudden revelation. They had been married for 21 years.
In the end, it was something of a split decision: she received public support in her claims to leave the marriage with a proper share of the couple’s property, however she was stigmatized for what was believed to be her stupidity or ignorance at having married someone who turned out not to be male after all.
Similarly to the somewhat less conflict-driven case of Abigail Allen, the public was eager to believe that a woman could be naïve enough to go through two decades of marriage without realizing that her spouse was a woman, rather than believing that a woman would knowingly enter into such a relationship. In the case of neither Stoake nor Allen did any information come out that soundly established a reason for the initial gender-crossing.
Interestingly, after the Stoake divorce, Henry Stoake was not required to take up a female presentation. And although they were the target of some public hostility, they continued living in the same general region and eventually married another wife. After their death by drowning, some 21 years after the divorce case, a witness at the inquest testified that they were aware of Stoake’s original assigned gender and birth name. This suggests that this knowledge may have been available to Stoake’s second wife when she entered the marriage.
The chapter concludes with a consideration of the concepts of a third gender and of intersex bodies and how those concepts might be raised in certain cases of female husbands. There was a public willingness to believe that living a male profession and life could cause a person assigned female to become more physically masculine--a belief that reflects earlier medieval attitudes to some extent. The question of homoeroticism, as such, was rarely an overt part of public concern in these cases. The public was interested in how a female-bodied person could physically and socially perform masculinity successfully, but romantic attraction to a woman was not really part of the equation that people constructed for these cases. But after the fact, people might express (or discover) suspicions about a person’s gender in terms of “possibly belonging to a third sex”, by which they generally meant some type of intersex condition. What is interesting is that—until confronted by proof of the gender-crossing—these co-workers and neighbors were evidently mostly content to keep their suspicions to themselves. Mostly.
By the 19th century, intersex anatomy (labeled “hermaphroditism” at the time) was going out of fashion as an explanation or signifier of cross-gender behavior. But intersex conditions might raise questions about a person’s alignment with their assigned gender, as in the case of Pennsylvania stagecoach driver James Carey whose gender was questioned due to observations by the woman who prepared their body for burial. In this case, the autopsy board included an artist who illustrated the board’s findings and collected additional community information about Carey’s life. Although these findings supported a conclusion that Carey’s physiology was ambiguous (in general, not only with respect to genitals), the community testimony was positive and accepting, with a distinct lack of judgment regarding contradictory features. (Carey falls outside the core category of “female husband” in not having a partner, as well as not being clearly assignable as female.)
If you've found your way here from the GCLS panel on historical fiction, let me give you a quick tour. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has an introductory page here, or you can just browse the bibliography of works we've covered so far. The best place to start with the podcast is with our chronological index. It has links to both the audio versions and the transcripts. For my own historical fiction (as well as my fantasy publications) check out the publications tab. And if you want to follow me on social media, your best bet is Twitter, where I have a personal account as well as an account focused on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project.
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I’m never going to complain about the hints and beginnings of an openness in mainstream romance publishing to consider f/f historical romances. Hopefully we will eventually have so many that I don’t find myself pinning all my hopes on each individual title. Sebastian’s entry into the field branches off from an existing series, matching a lady’s companion with a haunted past and a maid with a suspicious present in something of a revenge caper. The romance worked for me, but there were a number of improbabilities in the depiction of the social context that kept throwing me out of the story. Including the resolution to the revenge-caper. So: enjoyable, but not quite up to what I always hope for.
All of the Dominion of the Fallen books have their harsh and horrifying moments, but this one feels like the darkest going in (though maybe not so dark coming out). If anyone with less skill than de Bodard were writing this series, I might have noped out after the first book, but she gets past my uneasiness around horror with gripping characters and masterful worldbuilding. The fallen angels, dragon kingdoms, and loose-cannon magical creatures of Paris are plunged into something close to all-out war. Each character finds themselves having to decide what and whom they would save, if they had the power, knowing they can’t save everything. If, like me, you reach the 90% mark and have no idea how the story will end in anything other than complete obliteration, I’ll just say: keep reading.
A free short story set in O’Dell’s “Janet Watson” series. Following the framing motif of journaling that features in the main series, this story takes the format of a diary of a teenage Janet Watson during the year that inspired her to pursue medicine. Something of a character sketch in form, we’re offered more background into the near-future worldbuilding that underpins the series. For those who love Janet, this shows the girl who will become the woman, already facing a dangerous and frightening future but without quite as many smashed dreams.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the character of Miranda is something of a cipher – a pawn who exists only in other people’s image of her and plans for her. Duckett’s novella images her after her father’s return to Italy, as she begins to shake free of being a silent pawn and ask some hard questions: like what actually happened to her mother and what is lurking in the tunnels beneath the castle? She makes an uneasy alliance (and finds the possibility of romance) with a serving woman who has her own reasons to distrust the power structures in Milan. There are elements of almost gothic-style horror as well as mystery and the romance sub-plot. The fantasy elements drive the plot, but also provide a positive resolution that would not have been available in a purely historic setting.
I read this book through an interesting lens, because I was reading it in parallel with a how-to book on writing romance plots. And while I loved 90% of Lady’s Guide, the parts that clunked for me were all plot elements that the how-to book insisted were absolutely necessary plot elements in a romance. While that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of Waite’s book, it did lessen my inclination to take writing advice from the how-to book. This is a well-grounded historical romance between two women with unusual avocations: astronomical calculation and fine embroidery. In between we get an “undermine the patriarchy” plot, a sexy romance, and a fun last-minute twist. The requisite roadblocks to the romance center mostly around the characters’ pre-existing emotional damage, with a touch of disparity of economic status. The one that didn’t work for me was the last-minute fight/misunderstanding at a point in the plot where I felt an external conflict would have worked just as well (or even better) to move the plot where it needed to be. But the characters are engaging and the history, as I said, is solid – including the social context for women’s same-sex romantic experiences. Definitely recommended.