Ellen Coit Brown: "Scandal" at Cornell University, 1879-1882

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"A woman dressed up in a man's suit"

by Jonathan Ned Katz. Copyright (c) by Jonathan Ned Katz. All rights reserved.

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Ellen Coit Brown entered Cornell University in 1879, earned her B.S. in 1882, and wrote about her college days some time before her death in 1957. In recalling the character of the relations between the sexes in her college days, Brown says she "cannot remember one instance of philandering or sweethearting among us. Those young people did not slip oft into the woods in couples.... We were on trial and we knew it, on trial before the world and before our own public, and discretion sat upon us, men and women alike." In a tantalizingly brief, though suggestive, account, Ellen Coit Brown recalls an event which shook the staid Cornell campus, illustrating the shock that female cross-dressing could provoke.

We had only one scandal while I was there. but it was terrific. At a concert in town one evening a handsome girl student was observed to have with her as an escort a young gentleman not immediately identifiable, rather small and slight in appearance. Before the evening was over some snoop-minded person had realized that the escort was really a woman dressed up in a man's suit. Next day, the story was all over town. The university expelled the handsome girl, but not the mouselike companion who was her intimate-I suppose the university felt that this was too utterly utter and they must take note of it. When I came up to the campus the next morning and joined a friend ahead of me on the path, she told me, very soberly what had happened. She felt the tragedy, as we all did.

For several days the women of Cornell went about in a mood of chastened gloom, feeling and acknowledging disgrace. No one will ever know from me the name of that handsome girl-and I suppose everybody else is dead; but I want to add that later on she beat on the closed doors of the university so persistently that they let her in again. She graduated successfully and lived a long and exemplary life, thereafter, employing her brilliant talent in fruitful ways suitable to the virtuous, and to Cornell women. Her mouselike companion who wore the man's suit never appeared at college again but faded into anonymity.[1]


  1. Ellen Coit Brown, "Yesterday," Cornell Alumni News (Ithaca, N.Y.), Feb. 1973. p. 27-29. I wish to thank Robert Joyce, Jr. for informing me of this document. Other examples of passing women of this period are reported by Dr. James G. Kiernan: "The elopement of a married woman of Brandon, Wisconsin, with a young girl in 1883, led to a discovery of a similar case {involving a female-female couple]. The couple were 'married' by a minister and set up in life for themselves. A recent incarceration of a burglar in the Madison, Iowa, penitentiary, led to the revelation of a like case. The allegations which so often appear in divorce cases that a certain woman has alienated the wife's affections are an indication that cases of this type are far from infrequent" ("Sexual Perversion and the Whitechapel Murders," Medical Standard [Chicago], vol. 4, no. 4 [Dec. 1888]. p. 171). Dr. Kiernan also reports a case "which occurred in Belvidere, III., in 1883 ..." A woman "deserted her husband (with whom sexual incompatibility existed) and abandoned her children. She donned masculine attire and obtained masculine work. While thus employed she won the affections of a young girl whom she married with the consent of her parents. Six months later the woman's husband discovered that his wife and her 'wife' were living in Waupun, Wis., in the apparent enjoyment of 'matrimonial felicity,' The husband separated his wife from her 'wife'. The sexual pervert had an enlarged clitoris two and one-half inches when erect. The girl's parents took her back but she frequently visited her late matrimonial companion, apparently with the full consent of the husband" ("Responsibility in Sexual Perversion," Chicago Medical Recorder, vol. 3 [May 1892], p. 208-09). Gordon Rattray Taylor reports that the autobiography of Charlotte Clark (Mrs. C. O. Van Cleve) entitled Three-score Years and Ten (Minneapolis: Harrison and Smith, 1888) records how on various occasions she dressed as a man. This theme of female transvestism, says Taylor, was popular in the novels of the .period ("Historical and Mythological Aspects of Homosexuality," in Judd Marmor, ed., Sexual Inversion; The Multiple Roots of Homosexuality [N.Y.: Basic Books, 1965] p. 161, 163).


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