Dekker, Rudolf M. and van de Pol, Lotte C. 1989. The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe. Macmillan, London. ISBN 0-333-41253-2
This book looks at the phenomenon of women cross-dressing and passing as men during the 17-18th centuries, primarily in Holland, but also covering England and Germany. The core of the data consists of 119 documented cases in Holland. This summary will not cover all of them in detail, and those interested in the topic are strongly advised to go to the source for details.
With very rare exceptions before the modern era, women who enjoyed a romantic and sexual relationship together had two options: live together openly as women but conceal the sexual nature of their relationship, or openly have a romantic/sexual relationship but conceal (one of) their true gender. (We set aside, for the moment, those who negotiated a relationship in the interstices of an apparently heterosexual life.) The former approach was, in theory, open to women of all classes, as long as there were sufficient economic and housing opportunities to refuse marriage and to maintain some level of personal privacy. But the latter approach was taken largely by women who lived on the economic margins because the transition required a degree of anonymity that pretty much required having nothing left to lose.
Solid evidence for the romantic/sexual nature of "covert" relationships is -- by definition -- harder to come by. But the transgressive nature of relationships where one woman is passing as a man -- added to the greater legal scrutiny given to transgressions by working-class people -- means that the historic record takes an interest in, and records, sexual aspects of those relationships. It may be a prurient interest, but we'll take what we can get. Of course, not all of the women discussed in the records that Dekker & van de Pol studied were in lesbian relationships, and for those who were, the relationship was rarely the only motivation for passing. But the cases investigated here provide a rich and varied array of possibilities, as well as pointing up the practical considerations and hazards that were involved.
Due to the richly dense information in this (rather slim) book, I'll be covering it in three or four posts.
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