Marian West: "Women Who Have Passed As Men," 1901

From OutHistory
Jump to navigationJump to search

"A Curious Phase of the Problem of Sex"

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

PROTECTED ENTRY: This entry by a named creator or site administrator can be changed only by that creator and site administrators, so they are responsible for its accuracy, coverage, evidence, and clarity. Please do use this entry's Comment section at the bottom of the page to suggest improvements. Thanks.

In 1901, following the Murray Hall revelations, Marian West authored an article in Munzey's Magazine, published in New York. Titled "women Who Have Passed As Men," it is subtitled "A Curious Phase of the Problem of Sex-Historical Instances of Women Who Have Fought Their Way Through the World In Masculine Disguise." Although the majority of historical examples cited are not American, West's article is interesting as an indication of her attitude toward female transvestism.

Speaking of the recently deceased Murray Hall, West says:

As to Hall's motives for the deception, one can only conjecture that she preferred the freedom of a, man as well as masculine opportunities, and quickly took what she wanted.[1]

West’s article goes on to describe other historical examples of transvestite women: first, British army surgeon Dr. James Barry,' who died on July 15, 1865. Although West in 1901 does not specify this, overt lesbianism is suggested by her comment:

Barry always made herself agreeable to women, but snubbed men unmercifully. More than once she got herself into difficulties by the compromising attentions which she paid to married women. At mess she would tell outrageous stories of her own exploits as a Don Juan.

Marian West then discusses the social reasons for a decline in women's attempts to dress, work, and live as men.

Notwithstanding these and other known instances, women seem to have become less adventurous with every generation. Those of the present day do a great many things that were undreamed of by their grandmothers, but dressing up in men's clothes and going out into the world to seek their fortunes is not one of them. There are obstacles to such an enterprise nowadays which once did not exist, such as the telegraph, which prevents many a person who desires temporary seclusion from getting it. ...

Today, moreover, many active careers are open to women, and in these they can work off the superfluous life and energy that makes an uneventful domestic life unendurable, and that used to effervesce and spill over for lack of a proper outlet. Another reason lies in the fact that we have so much more refinement, so much less openness of speech, among us that a decent woman-and some of our adventuresses have been decent women-would find it hard to accustom herself to mingle on equal terms with men.[2]

West next cites the example of Hannah Snell who, being deserted by her husband for another woman,• dressed herself as a mole and set out in the world to find and take vengeance on her unfaithful spouse. In 1745, she joined the British army, and later the British marines. There is the hint of overt lesbianism in West's recounting that Snell's

lack of a manly beard was certainly a real trial to her, for the sailors, contemptuous, would "damn her in their familiar way, and stigmatize her with the disagreeable title of Miss Molly Gray." She met this odious title with "a smile and an oath," but resented it so bitterly that she resolved to live it down at any cost. In consequence, when the ship put in at Lisbon, she flung herself head first into a series of adventures whose nature was anything but doubtful. The result was all she could have wished. As her loyal historian tells us, "Our heroine, by thus affecting a gaiety of heart that was not sincere, and by acting such parts as in secret gave her the utmost disgust, gave a new turn to her character, and her title to manhood was no more suspected."

West does not comment on the complex irony of a female dressed as a male resenting being called the contemporary equivalent of “fag" and proving her "manhood" (actually her lesbianism) by pursuing erotic relations with other women.

Lesbianism seems indicated in West's comments that Snell, hearing that her unfaithful husband had been executed,

arrived at Portsmouth a hilarious widow, who bunked and drank jovially with her sailor companions, made outrageous advances to a widow of less guile, then slipped off to London to avoid being led to the altar.

West relates that Snell, in an "unquotable scene," eventually revealed her true sex to her sailor companions. Snell then capitalized on the ensuing publicity by going on the stage. She is said to have refused an offer of marriage from one of her former male companions, and to be

planning to spend the rest of her days, still in her masculine attire, having lately purchased "a new suit of decent men's apparel as an incontestable proof of her aversion to the present fashionable hoop. "[3]

The autobiography of an Irish woman, Christian Davis, born in 1667, West says, presents that woman's story without "the whitewash brush" and, adds West suggestively, "Davis comes out of her adventures none too well, from a modern standpoint. …" Davis's husband having been forcibly "impressed" into military service, this woman is said to have "disposed of her children in various ways," put on her husband's clothes, and set out in search of him, experiencing a year of high adventure. The second winter, West quotes Davis as saying:

"I was in Gorkham, where my grief for my husband being drowned in the hopes of finding him, I indulged in the natural gaiety of my temper, and lived very merrily." One of her diversions she found in laying siege to the heart of a good and sweet young girl, and winning it with ease. A duel and a wound followed, and presently Mrs. Davis drifted back to Dublin again, to find her family wanting "neither health nor the necessaries of life. I found means to converse with them, but I was so much altered by my dress, and the fatigues I had undergone, that not one of them knew me, which I was not sorry for. ... I resolved to remain incog[nito].”[4]

The rest of Davis's interesting story, in West's account, seems thoroughly heterosexual.


Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

Katz, Jonathan Ned.

Online Sources:


  1. West, p. 273.
  2. West, p. 274.
  3. West, p. 274-76.
  4. West, p. 277-79. West refers throughout to "Christian Davis." The correct spelling is Davies. The autobiographies of Davies, Mary Anne Talbot, Hannah Snell, and Loreta Janeta Velasquez are reprinted in Women Adventurers, ed. by Menie Muriel Dowie (London: Unwin, 1893).