Women on top

David Underdown

  • The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe by Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol
    Macmillan, 128 pp, £27.50, February 1989, ISBN 0 333 41252 4

Sex, an eminent British historian observed a few years ago, is not an important subject for the historian. Plenty of historians had already proved him wrong, and they have continued to do so: Flandrin, Foucault, Laslett, Shorter, Stone – one could put together quite an impressive list. But most of their work has dealt primarily with sex as a set of relationships defined by the biological differences between men and women, rather than with gender, which involves the perception and social construction of those differences. And as Peter Burke points out in his foreword to this short but intriguing book, even historians of gender (and there are now a few of them around) have not made much of the subject of transvestism as it is explored by these two Dutch historians. Yet, as Burke also notes, we may be able to learn quite a lot about the history of a society from the way otherwise obscure people perceived and constructed, and sometimes even tried to change, their sexual identity.

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