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Deborah Sampson (Robert Shurtleff)

18th century American woman who cross-dressed to serve in the army.

LHMP entry

This book is a glossy, photo-filled companion volume to a museum exhibit on lesbian and gay history in Boston, for a fairly broad definition of those terms. Due to this connection with a museum exhibit, there is a natural focus on material objects, accompanied by a relative minimum of explanatory commentary. The exhibit emphasized the importance of making a historic connection for modern visitors--a “usable history”.

In this chapter, Faderman reviews the historic and literary perception of women cross-dressing as men during the 16-18th centuries. She notes that women passing as men [or transgender men, although this framing was not typically used at the time the book was published] were considered a more serious issue than lesbian sex, as long as that sex was between “feminine” women. One difference was that sexual encounters could be framed as a transient amusement whereas passing women were engaged in a long-term transgression.

Somewhat similarly to Dugaw’s book on gender disguise in military contexts in the early modern period (both in life and literature), this book examines the phenomenon of persons born as women who took up military careers as men, whether out of patriotism, as one facet of a transgender identity, from some other desperate need, or a combination thereof. The book is copiously illustrated, including many photographs of the more modern subjects who are included.

Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.

Jelinek has collected information about a surprisingly large number of gender-masquerade autobiographies, covering the 17-20th centuries and focused on the English-speaking world (likely due to the reseracher’s own interests). The bibliography at the end lists 18 publications, covering 17 different individuals, of whom 13 are discussed in detail in the article. As a context for the material, Jelinek notes motifs of women disguised as men in literature , including several works by William Shakespeare and Margaret Cavendish.

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