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.

By combing through a selection of Dutch archives of the 17th and 18th centuries, Dekker and van de Pol have unearthed 119 cases of women who tried to pass themselves off as men for periods of time ranging from a few days to upwards of a dozen years. They do not pretend that their search has been exhaustive, and their comparative figures for other countries, including the fifty or so instances they have found in Britain during the same period, are even more impressionistic. Still, they claim, they have assembled enough to show that the phenomenon was not a freak: enough to detect patterns that make generalisation possible. They are not, it should be stressed, dealing with temporary cross-dressing in the brothel, on the stage or at carnival, where no real deception was intended, but with women who genuinely tried to impersonate men.

What were these women up to? From the stories that Dekker and van de Pol tell – and they tell a great many, for their method is heavily anecdotal – we find, as we might expect, that their motives were many and varied. One kind of cross-dressing is familiar in romantic literature: women enlisting in the army or navy, sometimes out of a patriotic desire for excitement and self-assertion, sometimes in the hope of staying close to a husband or lover, sometimes simply because military or naval service offered a better living than was available in most women’s occupations. It might, for one thing, make it easier to get to the East Indies, where the opportunities for women were greater than in Holland. The hope of escaping from poverty was an obvious inducement. Maria van Antwerpen, according to her ghost-written autobiography, grew up in an impoverished family, lost both parents by the time she was 12, and eventually joined the army rather than be driven into prostitution. Even today, after generations of agitation for equal pay, women are a long way from getting it, and pay discrimination was even more flagrant in the Early Modern period. Maritgen Jans found the answer. In an Amsterdam silk-throwing workshop she earned barely enough for subsistence. So she went underground, reappeared in male disguise, and was paid a good deal more as a man for doing the same job.

Besides these relatively unproblematic cases the authors present a number of others in which the cross-dresser entered into a sexual, or at least a ‘marital’ relationship with another woman, living as a husband as well as a man. Here the evidence more often begins to falter. A few of the women may have been hermaphrodites, but the court depositions in their cases are not very explicit about this. Virtually none of them were transvestites in the modern sense of people who adopt the dress of the opposite sex for psychosexual reasons. Some were almost certainly lesbians, and here we arrive at one of the book’s main arguments. (The term ‘lesbian’, Dekker and van de Pol show, did not exist in the period they are discussing, but the phenomenon, under the name ‘tribady’ or ‘tribadism’, was certainly known.) In a culture in which sexuality was thought of exclusively in terms of the duality of (dominant) male and (subordinate) female, the notion of sexual relations between people of the same sex was generally abhorrent and defined as sodomy. As such they were subject to the death penalty in virtually all European countries – though in practice they were never taken as seriously for women as for men.

If tribadism was an inconceivable sin and a capital crime into the bargain, it made sense for the woman who loved another woman to transform herself and refashion her gender as a man. Gender being a cultural construct rather than a biological fact, it was usually enough for most people if the ‘man’ wore men’s clothes, had short hair, swore and smoked a pipe. The ‘wives’ of course were not fooled, though if their stories are to be believed, they sometimes took a surprisingly long time to find out the truth. Some women soldiers and sailors brilliantly maintained the deception in crowded shipboard conditions in which private space was even less available than it was for lower-class people on land. Maritgen Jans was a West India Company soldier for months before she was found out; she was then rapidly consigned to her proper place in the gender order by the Governor, who married her off to another member of the garrison.

Dekker and van de Pol argue that female cross-dressing was almost entirely a phenomenon of the 17th and 18th centuries, at least as far as Holland is concerned. Their starting-point of around 1600 sounds plausible, though it may be the result of an optical illusion created by the much greater availability of records after that date. Still, 1600 does roughly coincide with the surfacing of other, comparable anxieties about feminine behaviour. Male fears of ‘women on top’ have erupted intermittently throughout Western history, and one of the periods of greatest insecurity seems to have included the decades on either side of 1600.

In that period, all over Europe, we find a great preoccupation with witches and other kinds of assertive women, and frequent denunciations of effeminate dressing by men, and of masculine dressing by women. So the possibility that gender identities could be confused was already before the public. Outside the theatre that possibility was nearly always portrayed in negative terms, as part of the awful, satanic ‘world turned upside down’, the chaos into which all human affairs would fall if the proper boundaries between superior and inferior, man and woman, ruler and ruled, were not observed. But it is well-known that cultural codes can transmit ambiguous messages, and some of the real or imagined masculine women, like the folk-figure Long Meg, who appears in a number of popular 17th-century English ballads, could be read more positively. So it may well be that public discussion of the possibility of gender inversion may have made it actually available to women who might otherwise not have thought of it, at about this time.

The terminal date of 1800, after which Dekker and van de Pol argue female cross-dressing virtually came to an end, seems less convincing. It is true that after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution people no longer thought of a world turned upside down by satanic forces when they tried to explain misgovernment or misfortune: they put the blame where it belonged, on the shoulders of the monarchs, the rich, the priests and politicians. The Code Napoléon took away the death penalty for sodomy: homosexual relations, still of course generally disapproved of, could now be contemplated in a very different way. To take the initiative in a sexual relationship with another woman it was no longer necessary to pretend (to oneself or to her) that one was a man. If we accept this argument, female cross-dressing certainly ought to have ended soon after 1800. Unfortunately, as Julie Wheelwright’s recent Amazons and Military Maids makes clear, it didn’t, except possibly (if we are going to be generous to our authors) in the Netherlands. Perhaps in Holland opportunities for women became so much better during the 19th century that they did not need to be men, whether as lovers, soldiers or workers. But it seems unlikely.

A few other problems should be mentioned. The authors speak of female transvestism as a ‘tradition’. Well, we all know about the invention of tradition, but it may be pushing it a bit to elevate a few score examples over two centuries, backed by some literary interest in the subject, into one. They are also rather inclined to ‘tip-of-the iceberg’ theorising. The only cross-dressers we know about are the ones who got caught, so there must be many times that number who got away with it. This is always a difficult argument to make, by its very nature unprovable either way. We have at various times been told that there were far more heretics, conformists, political radicals, male homosexuals and so on than we had supposed just because they were so infrequently prosecuted, but we are likely to believe it only if we are already predisposed to. One wonders, too, about some of the evidence deployed.

The court and company records, for all their acknowledged difficulties, provide a reasonably solid core, and the authors are usually appropriately judicious in interpreting them. But some of the quasi-fictional, quasi-historical accounts like van Antwerpen’s autobiography sometimes receive less than the carefully sceptical treatment that might seem advisable – though, to be fair, the authors argue that whenever it can be checked, van Antwerpen’s story is usually corroborated. Perhaps this matters less nowadays, when we are being told that the only business of historians is the examination of narrative structures. But an old-fashioned believer in the integrity of historical evidence is bound to be uneasy, especially as Dekker and van de Pol assure us that they are studying ‘the reality rather than the image’.

In spite of these doubts, this is not a book to be dismissed as dealing with a trivial by-path of history; its sensitive historical application of theories of gender would alone make it worthwhile. And we should be grateful to Dekker and van de Pol for telling so many good stories that vividly present the lives of ordinary Dutch women during the 17th and 18th centuries. At the time most people, including (and perhaps especially) those of the lower classes, reacted to cross-dressers with hostility, or at best derision. But in the humble silk-throwers and the criminals and warriors (some of the latter belatedly decorated and rewarded) we encounter women trying to survive in a society that denied them opportunities for both personal and economic self-expression. Their history is well worth recovering.