Surpassing the Love of Men
Persecution and Impunity
The female transvestite was not a figure in sixteenth-through eighteenth-century erotic literature and evidently presented a far more serious problem than women affording each other some sexual amusement. While a woman who engaged in lesbian sex posed no threat, at least to a libertine mentality, as long as she maintained all other aspects of her role as a woman, someone who both engaged in lesbian sex and rejected the other aspects of a female role always aroused societal anxiety.
The ephemerality of lesbian relationships was a notion cherished by male writers throughout the centuries. The Sappho-Phaon story (which many scholars reject as myth) was used as a reassuring prime example of lesbian transitoriness. One of the first encyclopedias, Dictionary Historical and Critical (first French edition, 1697; first English edition, 1710) by Pierre Bayle devotes most of its article on Sappho to a discussion of her desertion of women in favor of Phaon, with whom she was so infatuated that she leaped to her death from a Leucadian cliff when he did not reciprocate her passion. Bayle quotes at length from Ovid’s “Epistle of Sappho to Phaon,” the popular origin of the Phaon story:
No more the lesbian dames my passion move,
Once the dear object of my guilty love;
All other loves are lost in only thine,
Ah, youth ungrateful to a flame like mine.’ 1
Transvestites, who made lesbianism not just a sexual act but a whole life-style, did not hold out this tacit promise of change.
Even the slightest semblance of women (and men) rejecting their conventional garments was threatening because this implied that women ceased to be feminine (ie., ruled) and men ceased to be masculine (i.e.. ruling). William Harrison (1534—1593) in his Descriptions of England complained that some women wore “doublets with pendant codpieces on the breast,” and that he “met with some of these trulls in London so disguised that it hath passed my skill to discern whether they were men or women.” And since many men’s fashions had become feminized in turn, Harrison says, men were “transformed into monsters.” 2 The next century in England saw a similar hysteria when fashions in dress again shifted to what was considered masculine for women and feminine for men. The author of a 1620 pamphlet. Hic Mulier: or The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to Cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminine of our Times, complained that society was going to the Devil because women had forsaken their “comely Hood, Cawle, Coyfe, handsome Dresse or Kerchiefe” and were now wearing mannish, broad-brimmed hats, masculine doublets, and “ruffianly short lockes.’3 This work set off a paper war regarding masculine women’s and feminine men’s fashions (for example, Haec-Vir: or The Womanish Man and Muld Sacke: or the Apologie of Hic Mulier). If fairly minor shifts in appropriate male and female dress caused such anxiety, one can imagine the horror that a full-fledged transvestite must have aroused.
Both literature and history indicate that a number of women disguised themselves as men in earlier centuries. Occasionally, as in the early decades of sixteenth-century England, women of some classes might have been able to achieve a degree of independence.4 But for the most part in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries in England, France, Germany, and America women were restricted in the jobs open to them, in their freedom to travel without mo1estation, and in their general autonomy. If a woman craved freedom a pre-unisex fashion era, when people believed that one’s garment unquestionably told ones sex and there was no need to scrutinise facial features and muscle structure to discern gender, she might attempt to pass as a man. Novels such as Dr. Arbuthnot’s Memoirs of the Remarkable Life of Miss Jenny Cameron (1746), and the supposedly autobiographical The History of Miss Kathy N— (1757) suggest that such attempts were not as uncommon as might be expected.
If a woman passed successfully and was at all prepossessing, there was a possibility that she would be considered an eligible bachelor and receive serious attention from girls or their families. While some transvestite women ran from such attention, such as the late eighteenth century English sailor, Mary Anne Talbot,5 others could not or saw no reason to do so, or were happy with the attention. How ever, if a transvestite’s community discovered that she was passing as a man and was romantically involved with a woman, her liberty and even her life were at stake.
In most cases of execution or other punishment for lesbianism, in both history and fiction, the accused was a transvestite. The first such instance is described in the early thirteenth-century extension of the French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, in which Ide, a woman in a man’s dress, becomes a knight of the Holy Roman Emperor, and because of her skill is given the emperor’s daughter in marriage. Not knowing how to extricate herself from this “privilege,” she participates in a marriage ceremony with her enthusiastic bride, but of course she must finally tell the princess that she has not the proper equipment to fulfill her marital duties. When the emperor learns of this he condemns Ide to be burned to death, decreeing that he “wold not suifre suche boggery to be used.” However, in this fictional story Ide is saved by a last-minute Iphis-like metamorphosis into a man.6
The laws and the writings of the theologians of this period suggest that a sentence of death by burning would have been considered appropriate in real life as well.7 Saint Albertus Magnus (1206—1280) defined male and female homosexual sodomy as the worst sexual sin.8 The laws of Orleans in 1260 codified the punishment for female sodomy in Li livres de jostice et de plet: A woman was to be mutilated for her first and second sexual offenses with another woman and burned to death for her third. In the later Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Charles V (1519—1556), the law decreed that women who indulged in homosexual sodomy should be put to death by fire. 10
It is doubtful, however, that women who did not change their female appearance suffered such penalties. The love poem to another Woman written by the female troubadour Bieris de Romans, who lived during the period of Huon of Bordeaux, suggests no need to be covert about her affection, even to the slight extent of hiding be hind a male persona. After praising Lady Maria’s perfections, she implores her:
Thus I pray you, if it please you that true love
and celebration and sweet humility
should bring me such relief with you,
if it please you, lovely woman, then give me
that which most hope and joy promises,
for in you lie my desire and my heart
and from you stems all my happiness,
and because of you I’m often sighing.
And because merit and beauty raise you high
above all others (for none surpasses you),
1 pray you, please, by this which does you honor,
don’t grant your love to a deceitful suitor.
Lovely woman, whom joy and noble speech uplift,
and merit, to you my stanzas go,
for in you are gaiety and happiness,
and all good things one could ask of a woman.’11
Although nothing is known of Bieris except for her sex, birthplace, and era, it would be safe to guess that she was not a transvestite if she managed to write such love poetry with impunity. No transvestite women had great latitude in the affection they could show toward other women. In a homosocial society in which it was expected that women would be close, affection might occasionally cross the border of the sensual into the sexual. Even in times and places which were not open to sexual variety, as long as those women practiced a modicum of caution to prevent a third person spying on them, they would have been safe. Transvestite women, on the other hand, would have put themselves under suspicion by their appearance alone if they did not “pass”; and if they tried openly to lead lives independent of men, they would have further enraged their societies. Any connection they had with other women would have come under scrutiny.
If nontransvestite women were careless enough to get caught in flagrante delicto, it appears that their punishments were fairly light. One such instance occurred in Plymouth in 1649. Goodwife Norman, the wife of Hugh Norman, and Mary Hammond were brought before the court “for leude behavior each with the other upon a bed.” Mary Hammond received no punishment, and Goodwife Norman was sentenced “to make public acknowledgement . . . of her unchaste behavior.” ‘~ That such leniency was not typical of Colonial America in the case of “serious” forms of homosexuality is evidenced by the fact that William Cornish was hanged in Virginia in 1625 and William Plain was hanged in New Haven in 1646 for homosexual activity.13
Transvestite lesbians do not seem to have been let off as easily as the two American women who were charged with “leude behavior.” In 1566 Henri Estienne reported a case that had occurred thirty years earlier of a woman from Fontaines who, disguised as a male, worked as a stable boy for seven years, then learned to be a vineyard master, and being sure of a more comfortable economic status, married a woman. The two lived together for two years, after which time, Estienne says, the dildo that she used “to counterfeit the office of a husband” was discovered. She was arrested and, having confessed, was burned alive.’14
Montaigne reports another execution of a transvestite lesbian in his 1580 Journal de voyage. Several years earlier, seven or eight girls from Chaumone en Bassigny had agreed to wear men’s dress for the rest of their lives, presumably because transvestism gave them freedom of movement. They seem then to have left Chaumone in their disguises, and one of them, a weaver, went to Vitry. There she was able to pass as a man and win the respect and affection of the whole community. She became engaged to a woman from Vitry, but the match was broken off as a result of some misunderstanding between them. She then went to Montirandet and after a time married a woman with whom she lived for several months. According to Montaigne’s sources, she employed, like Estienne’s woman, a dildo in sexual intercourse. When a traveler from Chaumone recognized her, she was brought to trial “for the illicit inventions she used to supplement the shortcomings of her sex,” Montaigne says she was hanged.’
A similar case occurred in early eighteenth-century Germany. Catharine Margaretha Linck, disguised as a man, served as a soldier in the Hanoverian, Prussian, Polish, and Hessian armies. In 1717, after her military service, she went to Halberstadt where, still disguised, she worked as a cotton dyer and married a woman. According to her trial transcript, she fashioned a dildo from leather and fastened on it a bag of pigs’ bladders and two stuffed leather testicles. This was strapped to her pubis in order to perform coitus. When, after an altercation, her “wife” confessed to her mother that Linck was a woman, the outraged mother brought her before the law and she was imprisoned and tried. Her “mother-in-law” produced the dildo as evidence against her. She was executed in 1721.16
Still another case is cursorily reported in the anonymous English work, Satan’s Harvest Home (1749), as having occurred in Turkey, where an “old Woman fell in Love with a Girl, the Daughter of a poor Man,” after seeing her at the baths. When wooing and flattering did not win the girl’s favors, the woman disguised herself as a man and established a new identity, pretending to be one of the Chiauxes of the Grand Seignor. She convinced the girl’s father of her legitimacy and prosperity, and was given the girl in marriage. Of course, the girl discovered the woman’s sex as soon as they entered the bride chamber, and she immediately informed her parents, who had the woman arrested. The governor sentenced her “to be pack’d away and drown’d in the Deep.” ‘
In all these cases, the women did something which their societies seemed to regard as being far more serious than simply having sex with other women: They impersonated men. They claimed for themselves a variety of privileges ordinarily reserved for men—self. sufficiency, freedom to wander unmolested, freedom to explore occupations more varied than those open to women. By themselves their usurpations of male prerogatives might not have caused the women to be put to death; but, as we have seen, neither would most forms of lesbian lovemaking by themselves have been judged to warrant harsh punishment. The claim of male prerogative combined with the presumed commission (or, in the case of the Turkish woman, intended commission) of certain sexual acts, especially if a dildo was used, seem to have been necessary to arouse extreme societal anger.18
But despite societal disapproval, the combination of these social sins did not invariably mean that a woman would receive the death penalty. There is no record whatsoever of lesbian execution in England or America, or anywhere in Europe after the first quarter of the eighteenth century, although there were cases similar to Catharine Linck’s in England in the 1740’s and 1770’s. In a sixpenny pamphlet, the novelist Henry Fielding, who was also a judge, relates the story of The Female Husband: or the Surprising History of Mrs. Mary, Alias George Hamilton, Convicted for Marrying a Young Woman of Wells (1746): Mary Hamilton, an adventurer who had in fact married women on three occasions, was sent to several towns to be publicly whipped and then imprisoned when her transvestism and use of a dildo came to the attention of the authorities.18 In 1777 another female adventurer was brought before the courts of London male attire and marrying three different women. (The techniques employed in her conjugal bed are not discussed.) She was in the pillory so that other women “might recognize her in the future” and was sentenced to six months in prison.20
Eighteenth century French and German transvestite lesbians who wore mens clothes for the freedom they symbolized and did not seriously attempt to pass, or whose transvestism could be explained as “an honest mistake,” were also treated less harshly under the law than Catharine Linck. Robert James’s Medicinal Dictionary includes the story of Henrica Schuria, who served as a soldier, like Catharine Linck, under Frederic Henry, Prince of Orange, and fought in the siege of Boisleduc. After returning home, where she was of course known as a woman, she carried on an affair with a widow. James claims that she was so adept at lesbian sex “that, if the Laws of the Land had permitted. [the widow] would have married her, perhaps more cheerfully than she had done her deceas’d Husband, by whom she had had six children.” When the dalliance was discovered it was ordered that Henrica be examined by midwives, who reported that her clitoris, when stimulated, extended the length of half a finger. James quotes “Johannes Poponius, a celebrated lawyer” as saying “that such Women should be punished by Death.” But apparently since, unlike the other four women discussed above, she made no attempt to hide her gender from the community and did not use a dildo to “supplement the shortcomings of her sex,” she was “only whip't with Rods,” and then banished “far from the Partner of her crimes, who was, also, punish’d, tho’ allowed to remain in the City.” 21
Anne Grandjean, a mid-eighteenth-century Grenoble woman, was similarly treated with comparative leniency. Her carpenter father had desired a son, and at fifteen Anne decided she would be one. She then convinced the simple town priest that she was in fact a boy, and with his consent she changed her name to Jean-Baptiste Grandjean. She courted the girls, and a short time later married a woman with whom she moved to Lyons. There another woman with whom Anne had earlier had an intimacy told the innocent wife that her husband was really a female. The wife then told a priest of Lyons, and as a result, Anne was exposed in the stocks and then imprisoned as a “defiler of the sacrament of marriage.” She appealed to the Paris medical faculty, who upon examination declared her to be a woman with a touch of “hermaphroditism” (which probably meant that her clitoris was somewhat larger than normal). The parliament of Paris released her from prison, but also made her resume her female identity, annulled her marriage, and forbade her to have anything further to do with women. Perhaps she was not executed like her contemporary, Catharine Linck, because she was able to convince her judges that she had made an honest mistake which her Grenoble confessor had failed to help her correct, and because, like Henrica Schuria, .she did not use a dildo.22
It can only be speculated whether the initial impulse of these transvestites was sexual or social, but many who left a record of themselves specifically claimed that they became transvestites in the first place because they desired greater freedom than women were permitted. For the most part, it does not appear that they had overwhelming libidinal interests in other women at the outset of their careers as impersonators. or that they were pushed to pass as males by the strength of their inverted sex drives. Those interests developed as their male roles developed and seemed to have been secondary in importance to their lives as masculine, i.e., autonomous, beings. Had they remained in their roles as females, in the right times and places they might have carried on lesbian sexual activity with impunity had that been their interest, although they would have continued trapped in women’s circumscribed conditions. As transvestites, however, if caught they could usually expect prosecution. It would seem though that they were punished less for unorthodox sexual pleasures than for a usurpation of male prerogatives. What was most threatening to both Europe and America from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries was not lesbian sex by itself, but male impersonation and all that was implied in rejection of the feminine status.
Despite the vigorous prosecution described above, some transvestite lesbians of the same period remained untouched by the law. A woman of wealth and influence, such as the seventeenth-century queen of Sweden, Christina, could dress and (within some limits) behave as she pleased. Since women of her position were generally well known, they would make no attempt to pass, and their attire could be regarded as nothing more than eccentricity. A woman whose transvestism and relationship with another woman could be explained as having occurred out of sheer necessity rather than desire was also given considerable latitude, particularly if she were otherwise seen as a valuable member of the community, and especially if she were past childbearing age (which meant that her peculiarities had a minimal effect on the social structure). Finally, actresses, clowns, dramatic but harmless subculture types—could conduct themselves outrageously, at least in big cities like London or Paris. They were larger-than-life specimens, and their exploits could not be taken seriously. While a weaver or a cotton dyer or a stable hand could not hope to get away with much once her sex was discovered, a queen or an actress, or a public celebrity of any sort, usually lived under different rules.
In the seventeenth century Christina of Sweden, who dressed in men’s clothing even while on the throne, abdicated in order not to marry. She settled for a time in Paris, where her masculine dress and sexual advances to women were recorded in the correspondence of numerous of her contemporaries, such as Count Palatine, the Duke de Guise, and Mile. De Montpensier,23 but she was accorded all the privileges and honors society believed due a woman of her exalted birth. The legend of her interest in women cannot be attributed to foundationless gossip. Her correspondence indicates how emotionally susceptible she was to other females. Her letters to Ebba Sparre, written while she wandered about Europe, show that she loved the noblewoman years before her abdication. For example, Christina wrote to Ebba from Pesaro, three years after leaving Sweden, “If you remember the power you have over me, you will also remember that I have been in possession of your love for twelve years; I belong to you so utterly, that it will never be possible for you to lose me; and only when I die shall I cease loving you.” 24
Her professions of attachment are not substantially different from the expressions of romantic friendship that will be examined in subsequent sections, but Christina’s interest in other women appears to have been more consciously sexual than that of most romantic friends. The reputation of her erotic exploits lived on long after she did. In 1719, thirty years after Christina’s death, Princess Palatine, mother of the Regent of Orleans, wrote that Christina once tried to “force” Mme. de Bregny “who was almost unable to defend herself.” She added that it was thought that Christina was a hermaphrodite.25
Had Christina been born into the lower classes, her transvestism and masculine behavior would probably have caused an investigation; had she possessed no more discretion than she did, her sexual interests would have been discovered, and she would no doubt have suffered a punishment similar to those levied on the women previously discussed.
At first glance it is curious that Mary East, who had no advantages of birth or wealth, was not sentenced at least to a public whipping, as was her contemporary “George Hamilton” (see page 52). In the 1730’s, having inherited some money, Mary and another young woman went to a small English town where they were unknown and became proprietors of a pub. Mary dressed in men’s clothing and changed her name to “James How.” She differed from “George Hamilton” in that she became a solid member of her community. Through scrupulous honesty, and hard work, “James” and her friend prospered in this pub and later in a larger one. The two were well liked everywhere, and “James” served in almost all the important parish offices. But eventually Mary was recognized by someone that she had known from home and was blackmailed. She paid her blackmailer for years and continued to live as James How, proprietor of a public house, model citizen, and husband. When her “wife” died after thirty-four years and her blackmailer hired ruffians to harass her further, she permitted a friend to seek protection for her from the magistrates of the district, hoping that her sex would not be discovered. Of course it was, but she was permitted to go free and her blackmailer was imprisoned—however, because she was exposed she felt compelled to give up her pub and go into retirement.26’
It is probable that she was not prosecuted because when her true sex was discovered she was already an older woman, in her fifties, and therefore not considered a sexual being—and her mate was dead. Furthermore, the entire community maintained that she was completely honest and virtuous, and it must have been difficult for them to believe that a mid-eighteenth-century Englishwoman of such otherwise sterling qualities would be capable of sexual transgression. In fact, her neighbors were eager to convince themselves that she lived, as she did not out of desire but pathetic necessity. Reports quickly circulated that she and the woman with whom she had shared her life had both once been disappointed in their fiancés and had met “with many crosses in love.” For that reason they determined to remain single. They posed as man and wife only because two unmarried women could not otherwise live unmolested According to these reports, Mary became the husband after the two tossed a coin and that part fell to her.
Other women who managed to live as transvestites without uncomfortable interference from the law generally were those who were able to cut such colorful figures that they were regarded fondly—they were humored and not taken very seriously. Mary Frith, who was something of a thief and a lowlife oddity with the proverbial heart of gold was one such figure. Frith was the model for Moll in Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl (1611), a figure in Nathan Field’s Amends for Ladies (1618), and the subject of The Life and Death of Mary Fnth (1662). It is not certain whether she was lesbian or bisexual, but Dekker and Middleton, her contemporaries seem to speculate on those possibilities in their play: Mistress Gallipot says of her, “Some will not stick to say she’s a man and some both man and woman,” to which Laxton replies, “That were excellent, she might first cuckold the husband and then make him do as much for the wife” (Act II, Scene l).27 Whatever her sexual proclivities, her special status as a “character” placed her outside the law.
Actresses too had a special status, perhaps because their “peculiarities” could always be attributed to artistic temperament. In seventeenth-century France the most flamboyant and legendary was Mme. de Maupin (on whom Théophile Gautier loosely based his nineteenth-century novel). Maupin, a singer in the Paris Opéra, frequently played men’s parts. Her romantic involvements with women had been widely known, but she almost found herself in serious difficulty when, on a professional tour of Marseilles, the daughter of a rich merchant saw her on stage and fell in love with her. The two then ran off together. It is not known if anything sexual passed between them, but the girl claimed that as soon as she discovered Maupin’s true gender, she escaped from her and informed the authorities. The actress was imprisoned and sentenced to be executed, probably under the sixteenth-century antisodomy law (which included lesbianism) of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. However, because of her stage popularity, public opinion was so much in her favor that she managed to have her sentence Overturned and was able to return to Paris and resume her career. She even continued to dress on occasion in men’s clothes, and the law no longer dared interfere with her.28
By the next century in England it had become common for actresses to play “breeches parts” on stage, a reverse of the Renaissance theater, in which boys played women’s parts. Actresses and other theatrical types sometimes let their newfound freedom lap over into their personal lives—even if they were heterosexual. For example, Mrs. Centlivre, who was best known as a playwright, lived for years disguised as a boy with Anthony Hammond, a secretary of the navy. The most flamboyant of the transvestite actresses of this period was Charlotte Charke, daughter of the playwright and actor Colley Cibber. As an actress she was able to cultivate eccentricity with impunity. in 1755 she wrote her memoirs, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charlie (Youngest Daughter of Colley Gibber, Esq. .)29 partly to blackmail her father into supporting her by threatening to publish the work and shame him by the admission of her various peculiarities—or, if he refused, to earn enough money through the publication to support herself.
Charlotte relates in these memoirs her preference for men’s clothes since the age of four, her rejection of all housewifely education, her penchant for male theatrical roles, and her decision to give up women’s dress permanently. While a lower-class woman would not have dared make those admissions less than ten years after “George Hamilton” was whipped and imprisoned, the public apparently was entertained by such attitudes on the part of a stage personality - who was anyway not a “real-life” human being.
Throughout the book her close relationships are with women; and finally her closest and most enduring relationship, the one with which she ends the book, is with a woman who becomes “Mrs. Brown” to her “Mr. Brown” and shares her fortunes and misfortunes. Charlotte depicts them in a classic “butch/femme” relationship without the slightest trace of self-consciousness. “Mrs. Brown” leaves all decisions to her, shows her deference in all things (even when it is apparent that because of Charlotte’s bad choices they will go hungry for a while), and permits her to act as though she were “the worthiest gentleman in the country” when they come into a bit of money.
Charlotte claims she was often able to pass as a male, and outside of London it was thought that the two women were husband and wife. Surprisingly, she is totally confident that this confession will not get her into trouble. Of course, unlike “George Hamilton” and the London woman who was convicted in 1777, Charlotte never attempted to marry “Mrs. Brown” legally. Nevertheless, she must have relied a good deal on the privilege she knew her society would grant to a flamboyant eccentric of a notable family. The Annual Register between 1761 and 1815 cited fifteen cases of women who had been prosecuted for dressing as males, and most of them did not attempt to marry other women.3°
In eighteenth-century America the most remarkable case of a woman who impersonated a man was that of Deborah Sampson” Like Mary Frith, Deborah was a “roaring girl,” a flamboyant personality. But it is most likely that she was not punished for impersonation because she was married and a mother by the time her true sex was finally known, and she could also claim sympathy as a patriotic war hero, having fought as a soldier in the Revolution.
It was rumored that after Deborah’s children were born she ‘refus’d her husband the rites of the marriage bed,”32 but the Congressional committee which granted her a soldier’s pension some years after her military service, declaring that the American Revolution “furnishes no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity, and courage,” did not inquire into the felicity of her conjugal bond. Perhaps if she had not given up her transvestite ways by then, she would not have been so honored, but the committee members who looked at her case were able to convince themselves that her transvestism was merely an interlude, satisfactorily explained by her great patriotism which urged her to fight in the war for her country’s independence.
In fact, as Herbert Mann, her biographer (who was her contemporary and worked largely from her own memoir notes) makes clear, the assumed male dress for the same reason that women generally chose to become transvestites—in reaction to the restrictions of the woman’s role in her day, and not at all because her primary urge was patriotic.
She had had several altercations in her Middleborough, Massachusetts’s community regarding transvestism well before she became a soldier. On one occasion she stole a suit of men’s clothes, enlisted in the army under the name of Timothy Thayer, took the bounty money she had been given, and went in drag to a tavern a couple of miles east of Middleborough, where she got roaring drunk “and behaved herself in a noisy and indecent manner.”34 Upon returning home, she “crept to bed with the Negro [woman]” who had helped her steal the clothes. The members of the First Baptist Church of Middleborough, which she had recently joined, were incensed at her behavior, as their records for September 3, 1782, show:
“The Church considered the case of Deborah Sampson, a member of this Church, who last Spring was accused of dressing in men’s clothes, and enlisting as a Soldier in the Army, and although she was not convicted, yet was strongly suspected of being guilty, and for some time before behaved very loose and unchristian like, at last left our parts in a suden maner, and it is not known among us where she is gone, and after considerable discourse, it appeared that as several brethren had labour’d with her before she went away, without obtaining satisfaction, concluded it is the Church’s duty to withdraw fellowship [i.e., excommunicate] untill she returns and makes Christian satisfaction.”38
Deborah decided finally to enlist in the army in earnest both because she feared ‘lest punishment should overtake her” in her community as a result of the Timothy Thayer fiasco, and because her mother had been urging her to marry a young man whom Deborah described in her manuscript memoir as “having the Silliness of a baboon.” After enlisting again, but this time in a different community and under the name of Robert Shertliff, she stayed with a captain in Medway while waiting to be called up. There a “love passage” occurred between her and a girl visiting the family.38 This was the first of many love affairs with women during this period of her life. Mann states without comment that “her limbs are regularly proportioned. Ladies of taste considered them handsome, when in masculine garb.””
Deborah’s sex was discovered by a sympathetic doctor when she was sent to a hospital with a near-fatal wound, and she was gently discharged. After her discharge she went to work on her uncle’s farm, still wearing male attire and “flirting with the girls of the neighborhood.” 40 Her eighteenth-century biographer, finding it difficult perhaps to reconcile her apparent transvestite lesbianism and his desire to depict Deborah in the most admirable terms, explains her relationship “with her sister sex” as a platonic friendship, which seem dubious in this case: “Surely,” he comments, “it must have been that of sentiment, taste, purity; as animal love, on her part, was out of the question.41
A short time later Deborah married a neighboring farmer and had three children. Perhaps her desire for children explains her marriage, which was anomalous to everything that is known of her. Or perhaps she married realizing that as an indigent young woman, having no real education and no one to help her establish herself in a decent position, the prospects were not bright. In addition to the vision of a future of unglorious toil, she must have seen that her lean, handsome, beardless-boy appearance was starting to vanish under wrinkles and flaccidity: Time was running out for her as a young gallant. It is probable that many women who would have much preferred to remain lovers of women married for similar reasons throughout the centuries.
It appears then that while most women could not be transvestites with impunity, certain types were granted special prerogatives. Women like Christina of Sweden were, of course, generally above the law (although even she had to give up her throne for her unwillingness to conform to heterosexual custom). But other women who could “carry it off” with style also had the privilege of engaging in unorthodox behavior. Some of these women counted heavily on people loving a clown and being tolerant of its genderless oddity, and thus they risked being ostensibly open about their personal lives. But since they were often actresses or lowlife characters, their communities probably saw them as beyond the pale in any case. What they did could not set an example for the average woman. On the other hand, if enough women weavers or cotton dyers decided to eschew restrictive female dress and marriage, they could have a substantial effect on the social structure. The law moved decisively, as the evidence indicates, to quash such behavior.
Transvestites were, in a sense, among the first feminists. Mute as they were, without a formulated ideology to express their convictions, they saw the role of women to be dull and limiting. They craved to expand it—and the only way to alter that role in their day was to become a man. Only in convincing male guise could they claim for themselves the privileges open to men of their class. Transvestism must have been a temptation or, at the very least, a favorite fantasy for many an adventurous young woman who understood that as a female she could expect little latitude or freedom in her life.