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Cross dressing in the 18th and 19th century Europe and America

12 February 2021

5 mins

Author: Dr Catherine Armstrong

Our understanding of being transgender has evolved considerably in the last few decades. We now appreciate that the gender to which you were assigned at birth might be entirely different from your gender identity, which is different again to your gender expression. Although this terminology would have been alien in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in those eras many people would have nodded in understanding when presented with the concepts. In fact, the concept of the fixity of gender emerges in its most rigid form in the late Victorian era and it is then that anxiety comes to the fore around ‘passing’ concerning gender and race.

That is not to say that people from earlier eras were not sceptical about those who did not conform to society’s ideas of masculinity and femininity. Indeed, for those assigned female at birth, playing with gender presentation often formed part of their response to rigid ideas about a woman’s role in society.  Some women who were sexually and romantically attracted to other women, then as now, presented as more masculine, both for personal gratification and sometimes to be accepted by society. Anne Lister (or ‘Gentleman Jack’ – the subject of a recent TV series starring Suranne Jones) is a good example. In accordance with 19th century ideas of gender, Anne Lister would have been read by others of the time as masculine and it wasn’tin accordance with 19th century ideas of gender, Anne Lister would have been read by others of the time as masculine and it wasn’t until 1988 when the biographer Helena Whitbread uncoded her diaries that the true extent of her lesbian relationships and life was discovered until 1988 when the biographer Helena Whitbread uncoded her diaries that the true extent of her lesbian relationships and life was discovered.

Other women presented masculinely for reasons of career ambition, because they wished to make a life choices denied to the half of the population assigned female at birth. In the American Civil War, Franklin Thompson and Harry P. Bufort were widely praised soldiers who fought for and spied for the Confederate States. Both were women passing as men, or in the phrase of historian Matthew Teorey who has worked on their cases, women who ‘unsexed’ themselves. These soldiers through their war time records asserted their independence and bravery, attributes which their society denied that women could or should display. An earlier example of gender fluidity of a soldier, spy and diplomat was the eighteenth-century case of the Chevalier D’Eon, who worked for the French King as a spy in London before later claiming political exile in England. The Chevalier became a minor celebrity in London society and presented as a man and a woman at various points in their life, until aged about fifty they began to live permanently as a woman. They had their portrait painted by several famous artists and their gender presentation was a matter of fascination and gossip in the London newspapers.

Men also cross dressed for work purposes, for example in the molly houses of Georgian Britain. These were brothels and were an important part of the gay subculture of London. Many of the men there who entertained male clients adopted female names and presented with feminine attributes of the time, such as wearing women’s clothes and using fans. During this period (and indeed until 1967) while homosexuality was illegal, to be caught working in a molly house was incredibly dangerous. After the 1726 raid on the famous Mother Clap’s Molly House in Holborn, three men were convicted of sodomy and executed at Tyburn. A sobering reminder that however lively the subculture, or seemingly accepting of alternative lifestyles people in the past could be, persecution and violence were never far away.

“19th Century Fashion Plate: Godey’s Ladies Book 1843” 
by CharmaineZoe’s Marvelous Melange is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Further reading

18th Century Molly Houses – London’s Gay Sub-culture / Mary McKee (Blog post)

Finding out : an introduction to LGBT studies / Deborah T. Meem, Michelle A. Gibson, Jonathan F. Alexander.

I know my own heart : the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) / edited by Helena Whitbread.

Introduction to transgender studies / Ardel Haefele-Thomas; with the participation of Thatcher Combs.

The Life and Loves of Anne Lister / BBC (Website)

Mother Clap’s Molly House : the gay subculture in England 1700-1830 / Rictor Norton.

The Queer Contact Zone: Empire and Military Masculinity in the Memoirs of Hannah Snell and Mary Anne Talbot, 1750–1810 / Le Doux, Ellen Malenas. Published in The Eighteenth Century (Electronic article)

Transgender history / Susan Stryker. (E-book)

The transgender studies reader 2 / edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura.

Unmasking the Gentleman Soldier in the Memoirs of Two Cross-dressing Female US Civil War Soldiers / Matthew Teorey. Published inInternational Journal of the Humanities (Electronic article)

Women in men’s guise / by O.P. Gilbert.

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Posts and articles from the Loughborough University LGBT+ staff network

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