Despite my title, no, this entry is not about being a woman in academia. Instead, it is about the topic of my dissertation: eighteenth-century female cross-dressers.
If that sounds like a confusing mouthful, let me break it down a little. First of all, literary studies of the eighteenth century focus on a time period slightly longer than the actual seventeen hundreds. The Long Eighteenth Century can encompass nearly 150 years, anywhere from 1660 to 1837, with the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne. My own dissertation takes the Restoration into account, but most of the texts I analyze were written and published roughly between 1700 and 1801—more true to the idea of the eighteenth century I suppose. It may also be useful to mention here that my focus is on British literature almost exclusively, despite the fact that there were women dressing in men’s clothes all over Europe and North America at this time. Probably in the rest of the world, too.
But I digress, as usual. Specifically, I am looking at literary representations of women who wore men’s clothes, whether they are actresses (who were finally allowed onto the English stage starting in 1660), novel characters (usually ladies who dress in men’s clothes out of necessity or pleasure), female soldiers (women who passed themselves off as men in order to join the army or navy—these are historical figures), female husbands (women who passed themselves off as men in order to seduce other women—usually their stories are elaborations on facts), or female pirates (pretty self-explanatory). Their stories were highly popular in the eighteenth century, and some of the real life passing women were quite famous. Female soldier Hannah Snell returned from duty, collected her pension, declared she was a woman, and eventually performed military drills on stage in her uniform. You could even buy a printed engraving of her to hang up on your wall if you so fancied. Female soldiers like Snell were often considered heroes who virtuously protected their female bodies from the sexual advances of men, showed considerable bravery in the field, and were often thought of as even more valorous than the men they fought alongside.
|Hannah Snell! Don't you just want her pic on your wall?|
Female husbands, on the other hand, were considered wicked cheats who pulled the wool over innocent women’s eyes, stole their money, and maybe even indulged in unnatural pleasures with the help of a dildo (not lying! It’s true!). These women were often castigated and, if caught, were publicly whipped and/or put in prison for deception. Similarly, female pirates Mary Reade and Ann Bonny cross-dressed in order to pillage and destroy as pirates, and to have affairs with the dashing pirates they met (women were often not allowed aboard ships for superstitions reasons. Also, being the only woman aboard a ship full of sex-starved men was not a good idea either). These women were also considered hussies and criminals.
|Female Pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Reade.|
Novel depictions of cross-dressing were similarly ambiguous. Moll Flanders cross-dresses in order to steal; she doesn’t like the disguise, though eventually it saves her life because no one can identify her after a job goes wrong. Her male disguise is only one of many, however, and we don’t get the sense that Defoe thinks that dressing as a man is any worse than passing herself off as a lady. By the time Elizabeth Inchbald pens A Simple Story in 1791, Miss Millner’s ambiguously-gendered masquerade costume causes a stir over its unseemly show of leg while illustrating her ambiguous moral standards. (Showing leg was taboo for most eighteenth-century women, especially ladies.)
|Showing leg was often associated with prostitution for women, as in this James Gillray print from the late 1700s.|
In my dissertation, I consider these representations as part of a continuum. When I read more closely, I began to see a pattern in the way that the cross-dresser’s body appeared in the texts. Eighteenth-century narrative can be remarkably coy about people’s bodies; the cross-dresser’s body, which would seem to be at the forefront of her story and how she manages her male costume, only ever appears in fragments. The narratives I explore bring up certain appendages or body parts only when there is a question about the cross-dresser’s gender. In each chapter I explore a different appendage in order to further establish how gender functions in the eighteenth century.
What has made my dissertation so much fun is exploring precisely how eighteenth-century Brits felt about beards, breasts, penises, dildos and legs, and then comparing those attitudes and cultural representations to the representations in literature. Upon inspection, it becomes clear that although many writers, physicians, moralists, newspaper writers, and the general public felt that beards and penises denoted maleness and breasts denoted femaleness, these assignments were not always so clear. Although both men and women have legs, the texts I explore suggest that they only signify sexually on women—even as their exposure comes primarily when women don breeches.
|Actress Peg Woffington was famous for her "breeches parts" on stage. She often dressed in men's clothes to recite epilogues to plays, such as this one "The Female Volunteer." Sexy, eh?|
Ultimately, these appendages lose their ability to signify one gender or another. The texts try to maintain gender dichotomies, but cannot. Instead, their ambiguity becomes the way through which the cross-dresser appeals to other women. Her body is at times exposed, at times hidden, but either way, she is very attractive to other women. These relationships between the cross-dresser and the women she comes into contact with form the second half of my analysis. I argue that although not all the relationships between the cross-dresser and her accomplices are sexual, there is always a little bit of sexual tension—just enough that we, as readers, learn how to read for these nuances. Call it eighteenth-century gaydar, if you will. The cross-dresser’s gender-ambiguous body is attractive to and attracts other women. Whether they know she is a woman or not doesn’t matter; the reader always knows.
Whether she was on the stage, on a ship, or in another lady’s bed, the female cross-dresser is an intriguing figure in the eighteenth-century. In a time when readership is growing and women are increasingly picking up paper and quill, the figure of the female cross-dresser comes to represent the freedoms and restraints that women of the time faced. This is not to say that there weren’t other kinds of women who tested the boundaries of social norms, or other kinds of women who engaged in Sapphic practices…it’s just to say that our understanding of women’s lives and desires, and their representations in literature, are incomplete until we look a little more closely at the female cross-dresser.
|Female Husband Mary Hamilton from Fielding's The Female Husband gets whipped in punishment for her crimes.|