James Allen was working for a London shipwright when he was killed by a falling piece of timber in 1829. He had been married to his wife, Abigail, for more than twenty years. The medical students who performed the autopsy declared Allen’s body anatomically female, but the coroner continued to call the deceased ‘he’ because ‘I considered it impossible for him to be a woman, as he had a wife.’ The marriage certificate convinced the coroner to ignore Allen’s anatomy: social gender trumped biological gender. The rest of the community agreed. Allen wore trousers, worked as a manual labourer, had a wife and was called James. He was ‘sober, steady, strong and active’. Of course he was a man. Only after Allen’s death, as news of the autopsy spread, did some people begin to express different opinions: they’d always noticed his lack of facial hair, they said, and oddly high voice. But, even then, for every person who feminised Allen in retrospect, another insisted on his masculine traits – a face roughened by a life spent outdoors, large hands hardened by decades of work as a groom and sawyer.
As Jen Manion’s Female Husbands and Rachel Mesch’s Before Trans show, a considerable number of people assigned female at birth lived as men, between genders, and outside gender during the 18th and 19th centuries – long before the rise of endocrinology and gender affirmation surgery. The people documented in these books were rich and poor, rural and urban, fixed and itinerant, literate and illiterate, French, British and American. Some had sex with men, some with women, some with both, some with no one at all. Almost all were white and, Manion shows, on the rare occasions when journalists and police did interact with trans people of colour, they focused on race. Femininity was so bound up with whiteness that a black woman who passed as a man was not seen to be making as great a gender leap as a white woman who did so. And because blackness was associated with enslavement, what white people noticed most about a black female sailor, say, was not that a woman had taken on a man’s role but that an African American had exercised an unusual degree of freedom.
As the title Before Trans suggests, Mesch doesn’t use ‘trans’ to refer to her book’s three French gender-nonconformists, although they sometimes used masculine titles and pronouns. Mesch refers to them as ‘she’ throughout, arguing that none fully renounced the use of female pronouns, even as they sought to defy the rules imposed by the obsessively gendered French language. ‘They’, now widely adopted as a singular pronoun by individuals who combine or move between genders, seems to me the more appropriate choice for these figures. Because Manion’s female husbands chose to live as men, I refer to them using male pronouns.
Mesch’s first subject, Jane Dieulafoy (b. 1851), was a French patriot, a Catholic, an archaeologist and a sharpshooter in the Franco-Prussian War. They were married to the engineer and archaeologist Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy and together the couple undertook a number of expeditions to Persia. Their ‘common dress’ reflected their common interests (one journalist wrote that Dieulafoy’s male attire enabled ‘man and wife’ to enjoy ‘unbroken companionship’). Joan of Arc served as inspiration and precedent, legitimising the expansion of ‘femininity’ to include defending the nation, but Dieulafoy’s activities included the modest as well as the epic: writing novels about women warriors and designing gender-neutral costumes for amateur theatrics.
The novelist Rachilde, born Marguerite Eymery in 1860, also made use of an external authority to gain a degree of gender autonomy. Aged sixteen, they claimed to be possessed by the spirit of Rachilde, a 17th-century Swedish count, and soon afterwards began to wear men’s clothes and ordered calling cards printed with ‘Man of Letters’. Rachilde, Mesch writes, was ‘never entirely sure’ of their identity, but ‘had long been sure’ they were not a woman. Raoule, the protagonist of Monsieur Vénus (1884), Rachilde’s most famous novel, alternates between male and female dress and becomes a female husband to an effeminate young man. Asked to account for the book by the Paris police, Rachilde described it as a tale about a woman who sexually penetrates men, ‘noting that anything was possible with the help of technology’. They stopped wearing trousers after marrying Alfred Vallette in 1889, but continued to respond to both ‘Monsieur’ and ‘Madame’.
Mesch’s third subject, the art critic Marc de Montifaud (1845-1912), born Marie-Amélie Chartroule de Montifaud, rejected gender categories altogether, insisting on a radical individualism: not ‘he’ or ‘she’ but ‘I am me.’ Montifaud used both male and female pronouns and took male and female lovers; after they married, both partners went by ‘Monsieur Montifaud’. Montifaud’s salacious short stories weren’t safe from French obscenity laws, however, and resulted in prison sentences, confinement in asylums and temporary flights into exile.
Mesch’s gender renegades were wealthy and educated, so records of their inner lives survive. They wrote memoirs, letters and novels, commissioned portraits and compiled scrapbooks. By contrast, Manion’s working-class British and American subjects rarely had much control over the way they were represented by journalists and balladeers. Most female husbands made the news only after something went wrong in their lives. Some were blackmailed while others were exposed after falling ill or getting arrested.
Female husbands expressed their masculinity through their choice of clothing, names, behaviours and, above all, their labour and their marriage status. As tavern keepers, soldiers, sailors, mountebanks, builders and itinerant tinkers, they rejected the belief that those born female couldn’t do men’s work. Husbands were not born, but made. Because most people believed that marriage could exist only between a man and woman, having a wife was just as convincing a proof of manhood as physical strength, a long stride and a tendency to drink too much and get into fights.
Some female husbands remained in stable unions for decades. Others, revealed to have been born female, moved to new places and continued to live as men, or were forced to dissolve their marriages, in some cases resuming female attire. The way women responded to their female husbands varied with the state of their relationships. Some wives pressed charges. In 1838, Henry Stoake, an oven builder from Manchester who had lived as a man since his late teens, was exposed by his wife of 22 years. Angry that he was holding back her housekeeping allowance, she sought a legal separation and tried to secure a claim to his assets by telling her lawyer that Stoake had been born female. (In fact, her revelation cast doubt on whether she was legally married at all.) Other wives stood by female husbands who ended up on the wrong side of the law. When George Wilson was arrested for vagrancy after fainting in a New York street in 1836 (there wasn’t yet a crime of dressing as the other sex to charge him with), Elisabeth, his wife of fifteen years, fetched him from the police station to the house the couple shared with her father. Samuel Bundy, born Sarah Paul, a sailor, was jailed in 1760 on a charge of fraud for marrying a woman (his initial defence was that a shark had eaten his penis). Bundy was reportedly visited in prison by a dozen women to whom he had paid court; his wife refused to press charges and eventually he was released. Nine months later, living as a woman, Bundy married a man.
Female husbands troubled their communities because they proved it wasn’t always straightforward to tell men and women apart, despite the notion of ‘opposite sexes’. The consequences of this unease could be severe. In 1746, Charles Hamilton, an itinerant quack doctor in the southwest of England, was reported to the authorities by his wife of two months for ‘pretending herself a man’. He was publicly whipped in four different towns, then sentenced to six months’ hard labour. (By the time Hamilton’s story surfaced in a Boston newspaper, he was reported to have had fourteen wives.) But many female husbands were supported by their communities, and press coverage could be sympathetic. James Howe began to live as a man in 1732, aged sixteen, and had been married for thirty years before his desperation at being blackmailed by a childhood acquaintance led him to reveal his secret. After his friends and neighbours learned that Howe had been born female, they took the news in their stride. The blackmailer was sentenced to four years in prison for extortion. A widely circulated account of the trial, Manion notes, portrayed Howe as ‘a person of integrity – despite their gender ambiguity’.
Female husbands had varied relationships to masculinity. Some transitioned to maleness early in adolescence, others much later; some lived as men for most of their lives, some only briefly and others moved between genders. In 1852, 17-year-old Mary Robins met the 32-year-old Mrs Panton, who claimed to be an illegitimate royal – born male but forced to disguise himself as female to avoid scandal. Mrs Panton dropped that disguise to wed Mary Robins as Albert Guelph. During the honeymoon, Mary learned that Albert was the mother of three children, and the marriage was annulled. Guelph resurfaced four years later in Syracuse, New York, when the father of his next bride reported him to the authorities, this time against his daughter’s wishes.
In both these books, gender has more to do with habit than biology. According to Manion, female husbands knew that ‘what makes a man is not the sex they are assigned at birth but the life they live.’ In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued for a form of knowledge he called practical: one learns to become a swimmer by swimming. One might say that a person becomes a man by living as a man. Mesch proposes that gender isn’t a label so much as a story, although judging by these accounts, it’s not just one story but many. The stories trans people told about themselves often collided with the way others understood them. Family members, neighbours, employers, spouses, lovers, police officers and doctors could make or unmake the tale and the teller.
Trans people encounter resistance not only because they challenge widely held notions about gender but also because they threaten society’s conformist tendencies. Dieulafoy, for example, found much more acceptance than Rachilde, because Dieulafoy’s masculinity served the French imperial state. The press lauded them as an ‘intrepid explorer’ whose Persian expeditions added treasures to the Louvre. The same holds true for some of Manion’s female husbands. Robert Shurtliff, an American soldier in the War of Independence, also known as Deborah Sampson, was celebrated for acting out of the ‘purest patriotism’ and without ‘any selfish motives’. When the British soldier James Gray revealed that he had once been Hannah Snell, he was treated as a hero. By contrast, the deliberately perverse Rachilde, determined ‘to be strange or nothing at all’, was denounced, censored and pathologised. When a judge found Albert Guelph guilty of vagrancy in 1856, he claimed that he had ‘harmed the entire community’.
As society’s ideas about gender changed, so too did attitudes towards female husbands. After the rise of feminism in the 1840s, female husbands became associated with the growing numbers of women eager to vote, go to college and work in jobs formerly reserved for men. The press began to fret that a once eccentric phenomenon might soon become widespread. In 1883, the New York Times announced that ‘many women … if they had the opportunity, would select other women as husbands rather than marry men.’ Although reports of female husbands remained rare, agitation about gender-crossing intensified. With the rise of sexology in the 1880s, doctors and journalists began to see female husbands as lesbians, that is, as more female than husband. Sex, now considered a fixed biological essence, began to trump gender: no longer a person successfully living as a man, the female husband was a deviant woman.
Then as now, conservatives feared that the many would follow the few. In 1837, a religious conservative in Boston warned that what Manion calls ‘transing’ might ‘become universal’. In the 1860s, US states and cities began to enact laws that made it a crime for women to dress as men and men as women. If there was no widespread hysteria about trans people using public toilets, it was only because there were so few public toilets. Those that did exist were indeed sites of gender trouble. In 1870, for example, Fanny (née Frederick) Park and Stella (née Thomas) Boulton were arrested for disturbing the peace, then charged with conspiracy to commit sodomy, after using the Ladies’ Retiring Room in a London theatre.
Mesch and Manion correctly point out that feminist and lesbian scholars long disregarded or downplayed the self-definitions of people who had spent their lives insisting they were not women. Mesch cites Rachilde’s assertion that they were ‘not a feminist’ because they were ‘not a woman’. But the zeal with which Mesch and Manion take those scholars to task suggests that they believe lesbians and feminists to be especially hostile to trans existence. This is a view shared by many young people, who associate the term ‘lesbian’ with transphobic ideas about who is and is not a woman. It is far more common, however, for feminist organisations and individuals to support transgender rights. In 2019, more than seventy self-identified UK women’s rights advocates signed a letter distancing themselves from trans exclusionary activists. All the major feminist organisations in Iceland supported a 2019 law that allows people to legally change their gender without a medical diagnosis and created an option for a third gender on all official documents. The tensions among some lesbians, feminists, trans people and their supporters are real. But these groups also have common enemies and shared goals, beginning with liberating us all from the relentless gender policing that begins before birth.