Two Interesting Cases of Female Cross-Dressing in History

Most of the time, one hears about male cross-dressers; one runs across female cross-dressers primarily in Shakespeare plays. But lately, I’ve run across two interesting cases of women dressing up as men, that seem worth sharing:

First is Mary Hamilton, who was the subject of a pamphlet by Henry Fielding titled The Female Husband in 1746. (Okay, it was really titled The Surprising Adventures of a FEMALE HUSBAND containing the whimsical Amours, curious Incidents, and Diabolical Tricks. Okay, actually, it was… well, the “title” wasn’t really a title but an attention-grabbing page of text, so it seems to vary depending where you look, so look here instead…


Posing as either a Charles (according to Wikipedia) or George (as the lengthy title of the Fielding text claims) she duped a lot of women–fourteen of them–into marriage. Her fate was unhappy, as the Newgate Calendar recorded it, though interestingly, the legal violation was bigamy, not feale same-sex marriage (which legally had never been considered):

A Woman who was imprisoned and whipped for marrying Fourteen Women, 1746

POLYGAMY, or a man marrying two or more wives — and, vice versa, a woman marrying two or more husbands — is a crime frequently committed; but a woman marrying a woman according to the rites of the Established Church is something strange and unnatural. Yet did this woman, under the outward garb of a man, marry fourteen of her own sex!

At the Quarter Sessions held at Taunton, in Somersetshire, this woman was brought before the Court; but under what specific charge, or upon what penal statute she was indicted, we can neither trace by the mention of the circumstance, nor could we frame an indictment to meet the gross offence, because the law never contemplated a marriage among women. She was, however, tried, whether or not her case might have been cognisable, and Mary Price, the fourteenth wife, appeared in evidence (in such a case as this we must be pardoned for ambiguity) against her female husband.

She swore that she was lawfully married to the prisoner, and that they bedded and lived together as man and wife for more than a quarter of a year; during all which time, so well did the impostor assume the character of man, she still actually believed she had married a fellow-creature of the right and proper sex.

The learned quorum of justices thus delivered their verdict: “That the he or she prisoner at the bar is an uncommon, notorious cheat, and we, the Court, do sentence her, or him, whichever he or she may be, to be imprisoned six months, and during that time to be whipped in the towns of Taunton, Glastonbury, Wells and Shepton Mallet, and to find security for good behaviour as long as they, the learned justices aforesaid, shall or may, in their wisdom and judgment, require.” And Mary, the monopoliser of her own sex, was imprisoned and whipped accordingly, in the severity of the winter of the year 1746.

Diabolical tricks indeed. Poor woman… one imagines Mary Hamilton would probably be seeking sex-reassignment surgery were she living in our time.

Not so the second case, which is the subject of a novel titled Revolutionary, by Alex Myers, and concerns the case of Deborah Samson, a distant relative of the author. Samson apparently dressed as a man in order to participate as a soldier in the Revolutionary War in America, which makes for fascinating stuff, I think. (It certainly made me think of the novel I recently reviewed, Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child.)


The idea of cross-dressing for the purposes of military service seems to have some enduring cultural resonance: one thinks not only of Disney’s Mulan (ugh) and of Joan of Arc, but also, cultural ephemera like this World War II recruitment poster:


Myers is, at least in the interview I found, billed as a “transgender novelist,” which to me usually feels like billing novelists by race or sex: “lady novelist,” or “gay novelist,” or “African-American novelist” or “Asian-American novelist,” all distinctions I think work against those authors’ work being accepted in the mainstream.

And also, all distinctions I think help pigeonhole those authors into roles writing about a narrow set of “issues” pertinent to their identity. That is to say, it sounds to me like the fascism of imposing identity politics on art or the marketing of art, something authors like N.K. Jemisin and Bill Cheng resist by writing outside the pigeonholes other ssometimes try to impose on them. Cheng discusses that here, and Jemisin here and here. For every author like Amy Tan who benefits from it, there is at least one author, like Minsoo Kang, who seems to find the burden of this pigeonholing–and its effect on literary range–frustrating: for more on Kang’s pitch-perfect rant, see my review of Kyung-sook Shin’s execrable Please Take Care of Mom. Oh, and Elif Shafak has talked about this issue too:

The money quote of Shafak’s talk, though not uncontroversial, is this:

When  identity politics tries to put labels on us [as writers], it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger.

(Which reminds me, I really do want to read some of Shafak’s work sometime… so many books in the world, and so little time…)

Still, the specification is actually somewhat pertinent in Myers’ case, since the subject was a cross-dressing woman and the author is a trans-man… but the pertinence to the author was in part for reasons other than you might think assume, as Myers explains in this interview:

A few of passages in the novel have Deborah debating whether she wants to continue to live as a man after the war is over. Did you find yourself turning to your personal life to fill in those passages?

In those specific passages I actually had to keep myself distanced from Deborah’s story. If I had been her, I would not have gone back home, married and had children, and started to live as a woman again. I would have gone to Ohio and continued to live as a man. But she didn’t do that. That was a place where I had to remove myself from imposing my desires, my understanding, on her story.

If you ask me, the most unfathomable part of that “I would have” is the bit about going to Ohio. (Ohio!)

But the 18th century was a very different world from ours… and is also much different from how we like to remember it. This moment in the interview is tantalizing:

Coincidentally, one of the leading historians of gender in the revolutionary era, Thomas Foster, has a new book coming out in February titled Sex Lives of the Founding Fathers. Foster partly argues that we tend to view 18th century society as more prudish than it actually was. This misperception makes books like yours seem more shocking than the tale may have actually been. Does your book capitalize on popular misconceptions of 18th century attitudes towards sex?

The issue of 18th century attitudes toward sex came to me in an interesting way. When I was researching Deborah’s life, I found out that after the war, she married a man and had a child with him. But the child was born five or six months after she was married, so she must have conceived the child before marriage. But the records called that an “early baby,” which suggests that there was a well-known, canonical term for out-of-wedlock sex, even though the act was officially disproved of. I remember reading that and thinking: I believe that a later period, a Victorian era, that read back onto the Founders a repressed sexual life, or a non-existent sexual life, to make them seem more “pure.” As for Deborah, there was certainly a puritanical strain in society, but she was a Baptist. And the Baptists then were not like the ones now: They were radicals, they were egalitarians; they were edgy. So, for a variety of reasons, I think we often read onto past figures sexual attitudes that are probably not accurate. But I hope that part of my readers know otherwise.

That Victorian re-imagination of history is something any historical novelist needs to think seriously about. Same with the modern re-envisioning of specific groups (like the Baptists Myers mentions) as being linearly like their descendants in terms of social attitudes, values, and so on.

It’s definitely pertinent to the writing project I’m immersed in, which is set during the 18th century Gin Craze, but it’s also just pertinent to how we talk about history. For that matter, it’s not just Victorian reenvisionings of the past that are fantasized. Anything outside of lived historical memory–which these days, basically includes the 1920s and 1930s, for most of us–is reimagined as far different from how it was. Actually reading about history, you encounter a much more bizarre set of circumstances than our simplified TV history conception allows. For me, Joshua Zeitz’s Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern and Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book were phenomenal in terms of that: the excavations of the 1920s and 1930s, respectively, were extremely educational for me. Another great book in this vein, but related to science and popular notions of illness back in the mid-1800s, was Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World (which I discussed here).

But I could mention dozens of other books, too. Hell, we also are guilty of re-imagining the world incorrectly today, and lots of books are useful for clearing away those cobwebs. So much to know, to learn about, to try and understand.

5 thoughts on “Two Interesting Cases of Female Cross-Dressing in History

    1. It sure sounds like it was, from that Wikipedia article. Now that I think about it, if she lived in nun’s cloisters all her childhood, that’s about as close as you could get to a feminist separatist commune, really. (Aside from mass, which obviously would have a priest running the show, I guess?) I wonder to what degree it just seemed obvious to her, moving from a female-defaulted setting to the public, that it would be advantageous to her to just adopt the public “default” (i.e. male self-presentation). I’d love to see the 1987 film…

      Oh, is this the text you read, by the way? It seems to be a free digital edition!

      I must confess, the biggest surprise to me was this:

      Catalina went to Rome and toured Italy, where she eventually achieved such a level of fame that she was granted a special dispensation by Pope Urban VIII to wear men’s clothing.

      I didn’t know that the Church ever officially banned cross-dressing, not that it particularly surprises me. Once you set up a meta-government that only men can really participate in, you kind of have to make sure no woman can pass for a man to maintain that same grip on power. (Sort of the same anxiety as mixed-race people passing for white in the US and all over the Caribbean, and all the rules and laws imposed on the mixed-race people in those societies, I guess?)

  1. It may be I read that version you linked to. If I remember correctly it was more introduction than the actual text. Also when you read that, she very quickly adopts masculine dress once she’s outside of the convent. As if she had given more thought to escaping than she admits.

    1. Yeah, probably an academic intro thing. Wish that was part of this text online…

      As for the premeditation, that’s interesting. Can’t say that I blame her, either: I wouldn’t have want to live my life being hit by Mother Superior either.

      It sort of reminds me of how weird it felt to encounter a whole different set of costuming (ie. uniform) practices in Korea, like, for example, in a job like yogurt lady:

      Ha, speaking of shocking costuming, I just saw “American Hustle” the other night… I’m not sure how to follow up that announcement except, it’s funny how distant the 1970s seem in so many ways. I feel like maybe our nostalgia for the 70s these days is a bit like our nostalgia for the Middle Ages: it’s really all about what we dislike or regret in our own time (edit: and, I mean, a lot of fantasy glopped onto the stuff we would prefer not to remember). Apparently, we regret the re-conservativization of women’s fashion? (And the–unfortunate?–subsidence of the cravat, an article of fashion my father staunchly upheld all his life.)

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