Gender-Crossing Women, 1782-1920
Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976) Copyright (c) by Jonathan Ned Katz 2008. All rights reserved.
Introduction by Jonathan Ned Katz (September 5, 2008)
In 2008, as we add these histories of "passing women" or "gender-crossing women" to OutHistory, the Introduction that I wrote for these documents in Gay American History has become a historical document itself, a product of a particular time and viewpoint that I no longer completely share. In 1976, I got caught up a bit in claiming the persons described here as "lesbians" and as "women" or "females."
Now, I think, inquisitive readers need to ask of the evidence presented how these persons identified themselves, in their own particular time and place. And how were these persons identified by others? What words and concepts were available to these persons to understand themselves? What terms and ideas were circulating in a particular society and time that enabled others to name these persons?
Introduction from Gay American History (1976)
The women whose lives are documented here worked and dressed and lived in what were customarily the occupations and styles of males. Most actually passed as men the evidence suggests they were also attracted to and had sexual and emotional relations with other women. They both passed as men and passed beyond the restricted traditional roles of women.
Since the old ways of viewing such women are confused and clouded by outmoded, limiting preconceptions, labels, and stereotypes, the reports of these lives should be read carefully and closely, with on open mind and a fresh eye for meaningful detail. The stereotyping of the lesbian as a tough, aggressive "butch" and the general stereotyping of "feminine" and "masculine" roles have recently been prime targets for lesbian liberationists and feminists. Examination of these passing women's lives exposes the historically relative character of "masculinity" and "femininity," helping to reveal the person behind the stereotype, the human actor behind the role, as well as the socially conditioned character of role and stereotype. Such stereotyping will only disappear when the social situation of women and men has been equalized, the traditional sexual division of labor and power revolutionized.
Despite their masculine masquerade, the females considered here can be understood not as imitation men, but as real women, women who refused to accept the traditional, socially assigned fate of their sex, women whose particular revolt took the form of passing as men. A basic feminine protest is a recurring theme in all these lives, appearing sometimes as a conscious, explicit feminism, other times as on inchoate, individual frustration, an only portly verbalized discontent, a yearning to break through the narrow bounds of the traditional female role-sometimes as a most pragmatic female survival tactic.
In a most radical way, the women whose lives ore recounted here rejected their socially assigned passive role; they affirmed themselves as self-determined, active, assertive, powerful-in the way they knew, the guise of men. These passing women can only be understood within the framework of a feminist analysis. Such an analysis immediately points to a basic contradiction at the heart of this early form of female revolt. While these women rejected the traditional feminine role, they embraced the traditional masculine one. Their society had defined power, initiative, and assertion as "masculine," and their act of "passing" implicitly confirmed this social definition. They found no legitimate alternative mode of life completely outside the customary "masculine-feminine" duality. The contradiction between their female gender and "masculine" pose often condemned them to a sense of false identity.
In personal terms, this inauthenticity might mean a life of fantasy, mental confusion and loss of reality possibly leading to madness. Their passing implied an inability to totally accept their own feelings and aspirations as those of women, which their physiological configuration always necessarily reminded them they were. In their hearts and consciences these women knew they were, at least in part, imitations, fakes, frauds. They knew their activity, especially any sexual activity with other women, was, if not legally, then morally condemned. Posing as men might not always help them personally overcome this negative social evaluation and the guilt it could evoke. Appearing to the world as men, they could not but sometimes appear to themselves as immoral impostors. They might convince the world they were men, but they had also to convince themselves of their legitimacy. The pressures engendered by their double identity might sometimes prove overwhelming, and be resolved by self-destructive means.
In a most dramatic way, these documents reveal with what absolute intellectual certainty and passionate emotional rigidity certain kinds of work, behavior, and costume were once considered either "masculine" or "feminine." Certain occupations or activities which in present-day America have become sex-neutral were earlier felt to be "male" or "female" in the some essential sense in which a vagina is female, a penis male, with a correspondingly strong negative response to any questioning of this sex typing. The lives of these women throw into social-historical perspective that "masculinity" and "femininity" customarily assumed as "natural" By locating such sex-role assumptions in a particular social and temporal context, by placing them in historical perspective, the study of these lives can help free us from our own still-prevalent preconceptions. For however much the development of labor-equalizing and highly industrialized means of production are at present breaking down the traditional sexual division of labor, the old, sexually polarized world view still commonly holds sway over our minds.
The categorization of these women as lesbian transvestites tends to narrow understanding rather than expand it. The terms transvestism and cross-dressing, focusing as they do on clothing, divert our attention from other equally important factors in these women's lives. While females or moles taking the clothes and roles of the "opposite" sex have long been described, the terms transvestism and cross-dressing are fairly recent historical inventions. German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld published a book; Die Transvestiten, in 1910, and English homosexual emancipation theorist Edward Carpenter, writing in an American journal, used the term cross-dressing in 1911. In 1913 and 1920, the terms D'Eonism, aesthetic, and sexo-aesthetic inversion were used by Havelock Ellis to categorize the same phenomena, but were either too clumsy or esoteric to become popular.
While the adoption of the costume of the "opposite" sex is certainly important in these passing women's lives, their adoption of the occupation, vocabulary, tone of voice, gesture, walk, sports, and aspirations of the "other" sex are equally significant. To appreciate the full complexity of these lives, the concept of transvestism or cross-dressing needs to be supplemented by such concepts as cross-working and cross-speaking. If such terms seem odd, it is because they emphasize what is ordinarily taken for granted as given and eternal-the historically and socially determined sexual division of labor and sex polarization of American society.
A number of documents here raise most complex questions about the sexual nature, psychical or physical, of the individuals involved. One report, for instance, definitely indicates, and others suggest, the existence of some physical abnormality. Such suggestions, however, cannot be taken at face value; they seem inextricably linked to prevailing notions of homosexuality as a congenital phenomenon, often displaying physical "stigmata." Even the actual presence of some physical, anomaly, although certainly important, does not by itself determine individuals' gender identification or the object and character of their sexual attraction, and only raises new questions. The testimony of the individual concerned cannot be taken as de facto evidence of even such an objective characteristic as physical gender. Lucy Ann Lobdell, in the 1800s, claims to have "peculiar organs that make me more like a man than a woman," but an examining doctor reports he cannot "discover any abnormality of the genitals, except for an enlarged clitoris..." What constitutes an "enlarged clitoris" is not defined, and other references indicate the existence of a popular medical mythology linking Lesbianism and clitoris size. Lobdell's own statement can be interpreted as arising from a desire to justify and explain her Lesbian sexual relations.
The exploration of these passing women's lives requires giving up the common labeling and limiting categorizations for a multifaceted descriptive study of each individual. Too often, academics act as if to name something is to know it; the order-loving mind may well be calmed by such pigeonholing, but the reality of these women's lives will remain elusive.
In trying to understand the character and meaning of these lives, we must note that the distinction between biologically determined gender and socially defined "masculinity" and "femininity" is basic. The concept of gender identity may also be useful, although difficult to apply, as it refers to both physical gender and socially conditioned psychological identification, and may, if carelessly used, convey all the traditional, politically loaded assumptions about "masculinity" and "femininity." ,It is also useful to distinguish analytically between sexual attraction, whatever its object, character, or origin, and the desire to dress, pass, and work as the "opposite" sex. The lives here are discussed and documented in a variety of sources: Lobdell's and Sheridan's autobiographies; biographies; Brown's college memoirs; Walker's medical treatise: a working-class newspaper of the 1860s; a Wisconsin newspaper of the 1890s; the New York Times of the early twentieth century; a medical journal essay: doctors' reports; insane asylum records; and early books defending homosexuality.
Many of these lives involve extraordinary adventure, rebellion, courage, and struggle, either detailed or hinted at by writers whose antique attitudes and language often impart what now seems a certain quaint charm to their reports. But to view these passing women as amusing curiosities, eccentrics or exotics, or, alternatively, as pitiable freaks, is not only to condescend and denigrate, it is also to close oneself to a sense of actual lives lived, of immense difficulties encountered, of joy and pain experienced-of individual human beings who, however different they moy be from the majority, share a common humanity.
The women whose stories are reported here include a Revolutionary War soldier, a hunter, an innkeeper, three Civil War soldiers, a student, an alleged thief, three doctors, a boilermaker's apprentice and union official, a Tammany Hall politician and bail bondsman, a sailor, an adventurer, a watercolor artist, a railroad cook, a confidential secretary to a foreign diplomat, a farmer, a typesetter, a society gentleman, a bellboy and later factory worker. They are working class and professional, middle and upper class. Although these women sometimes took on the less attractive and ignoble qualities of men, their unconventional and difficult lives seem to express a positive strength, vivacity, and incredible daring-a spirit of resistance to women's oppression, the very contradictions of which help raise them above the ordinary, lending them a certain heroic grandeur. These were certainly extraordinary women.
Index of Content for Gender-Crossing Women, 1782-1920