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Male, Female, or Non-Binary in the Jamestown Colony?

Monday, January 14, 2019 - 07:00

One of the topics looming over this blog (though likely to be addressed in the podcast) is the historic ambiguity between the expression of gender identity and the use of gender presentation to accommodate heteronormative expectations in the context of same-sex desire. Or, to put it in less academic terms: the conflict between interpreting a historic individual as a trans man or a cross-dressing lesbian. One of the approaches to mapping out this territory is to gather individual life histories that provide examples of how people on the gender/sexuality spectrum behaved and discussed their lives, as well as exploring the social structures  and attitudes that they were inhabiting and engaging with.

Thomas(ine) Hall provides one of those stories, all the more interesting for occurring in the early colonial history of North America. Hall’s case also provides a context for examining the phenomenon of modern individuals desiring to “claim” historic persons for a specific gender or sexuality category. Depending on which parts of the story and testimony one finds most compelling, Hall could be seen as a trans man who had been assigned female at birth, as a cis woman who sometimes passed as a man for economic and sexual purposes, as a trans woman (who somehow escaped being assigned male at birth), as a cis man who had been raised in a female role and was comfortable returning to that role at times, as an intersex person who was trying on various gender presentations to see what fit, or as someone (regardless of anatomy) who had a non-binary gender identity and was struggling to express that in a society that required a fixed binary identity. Although some of these possibilities don’t fit as well with the evidence as others, trying to come up with a single, definitive classification inevitably requires erasing key aspects of Hall’s life history and self-expression--much in the way that Hall's contemporaries erased key aspects in order to assign a gender category. Lives like Hall’s may be a better context that simple sexual orientation for considering the changeability of gender/sexuality categories over time.

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Full citation: 

Brown, Kathleen. 1995. “’Changed...into the Fashion of a Man’: The Politics of Sexual Difference in a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Settlement” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 6:2 pp.171-193.

[Note: Content advisory for coerced physical examination to determine sexual category.]

In 1629, in a small settlement just across the river from Jamestown, Virginia, 22 years after the first settlement at that location, Thomas Hall was accused of fornication with a servant girl. This fairly ordinary offense became more complicated and interesting after the community took it on themselves to investigate exactly what had happened.

Hall was a recent arrival (though there’s some confusion due to another individual of the same name being recorded earlier) and Warrosquyoacke was a small community, so it’s understandable that the residents were dismayed to find that they didn’t know their neighbors’ business as well as they thought they did. As well as the local investigation, the case was eventually taken to the Virginia Colony’s general court at Jamestown and the following story emerged.

In England, Hall had worn women’s clothing and practiced the traditionally female trades of needlework and lace making. After emigrating to Virginia, Hall sometimes wore male clothing and performed traditionally male occupations, but also sometimes wore female clothing. (Virginia still had a fairly low female population at this time.) During the investigation of the fornication charge, Hall was asked “whether he were man or woman” and replied “both.” When asked further what the reason was for the women’s clothing, Hall answered somewhat obliquely, “I go in women’s apparel to get a bit for my cat.” [Note: Google does not turn up any other context for the phrase “get a bit for my cat” but that doesn’t mean it may not have been an obscure bit of slang that had a clear meaning to hearers, even if we are befuddled.]

As was typical in the early modern period, the primary social crisis that Hall sparked was the need to determine exactly what gender category to place them in. Ambiguity was not acceptable and alternation was right out. In any event, whatever Hall’s true gender, it was clear that some sort of punishable offence had been committed. It just needed to be determined which one.

Eventually the local officials in Warrosquyoacke threw up their hands and sent the case to Jamestown, where the details of the existing investigation were recorded for posterity, including efforts by community members to obtain physical evidence on the question. Hall provided a detailed and candid personal history and these records are essentially all we know of the case. But the records include details of the responses of Hall’s community that shed light on popular beliefs among ordinary people about sexual difference, in contrast to the opinions of professionals, which are the more common source of information for this period. In the absence of relevant medical and/or legal professionals in the colony, community members did their best to gather physical and behavioral observations and interpret them in light of their understanding of what constituted male and female identity.

The scientific/medical understanding of sex difference in this era still followed the Galenic “single-sex” model that emphasized physiological parallels between men and women and the belief that women were “imperfect men” but had the potential to undergo spontaneous sex change. This theory held that strenuous activity or masculine performance could cause a woman’s organs to “emerge” from the body as a penis and testicles, constituting a genuine change in physiological sex. At the same time, the clear legal distinction of personal status based on sex made it necessary to establish a person’s “true sex.” But the means of establishing this was left to community custom and individual performance.

Performative gender was established through customary distinctions in clothing, names, occupations, and the participation in heteronormative relationships. [Note: This last is one of the things that complicates applying concepts like “homosexual” or “transgender”. If heterosexuality is considered a fixed universal, then participation in apparently same-sex relationships can only be considered as evidence for gender identity, not for sexual orientation.]  Medical literature recognized a physiological continuum of sexual morphology (treated under the concept of the “hermaphrodite”) but the law did not allow for such ambiguity. As Brown notes, “the courts, which were mainly concerned to preserve clear gender boundaries, rather than explore anomalies, had the power to coerce individuals to alter their gender performances.” The legal pressure was to pick one clear gender identity and stick to it, rather than to identify a “true” anatomical sex.

In the 16-17th centuries, transvestism was recognized as different from the anatomical ambiguity of “hermaphroditism” and treated, perhaps, as even more threatening to society, as it undermined the ability for clothing to define and stabilize gender identities. [Note: Brown simultaneously claims that transvestism was primarily a matter of women dressing as men, but then notes the English tradition of transvestite theater, which would have been primarily men dressing as women. So I’m a little confused in this section.]

Returning to the legal records of Hall’s case, one confounding aspect in interpreting the records is that the language followed the needs of the legal setting, which dictated certain elements of the descriptions. The court pursued Hall’s personal history and past performance to answer the question of their gender identity, while the community investigation had inquired far more directly into what was in Hall’s breeches. Curiously, their investigation was inconclusive as there was disagreement as to the meaning of their findings.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of Hall’s testimony is that Hall treats gender identity as malleable and opportunistic. Gender identity could be claimed by the simple expedient of a change of clothing, and justified by the opportunity for gender-segregated employment. Hall’s narrative does not align with a sense of stable, internal gender identity from which public gender performance was a passive consequence. Rather, Hall seems to treat gender as an actively chosen self-presentation that is distinct from any issue of personal identity. And given the overtness of Hall’s gender transgression, the legal penalty that eventually was applied was comparatively mild.

Brown discusses at length the social and political context of the community that underlay certain of the gender dynamics of Hall’s situation and resulted in the responsibility for investigation falling in the hands of ordinary community members, including the gender politics of women claiming responsibility for the task.

The Warrosquyoacke settlement had existed for less than 7 years when Hall arrived and--like most of the English colony in Virginia at the time--was focused primarily on the economic project of producing tobacco for export. Most of the population were recent arrivals, including a number of enslaved African people diverted from a different destination. A few had been in Virginia  for a longer period, which helped to establish personal authority among the residents. Among the named individuals in the court record was Alice Long, a married woman who had been in Virginia since 1620, and Dorothy Rodes, another married woman who assisted her with the physical investigation, who may have been there for several years. Another key figure was John Tyos who was a former employer of Hall’s at a time when Hall was presenting as a woman. (To complicate the historic trail, several years earlier, Tyos had shared living space with a different Thomas Hall, a man, at a time when the relevant Thomas Hall was hypothetically present in the colony. This is presumed to be a coincidence of names on the assumption that Tyos would have recognized his former servant even if presenting as a different gender.)

Female authority in the investigation was claimed by Long and Rodes in their roles as midwives and matrons, with the responsibility to perform physical examinations of women for legal purposes. (Legal purposes such as determination of pregnancy or childbirth, or to identify evidence of sexual activity if, for example, a husband were accused of impotence.) Their roles depended on the acceptance of sexual categories and gender boundaries and assumed that women who interacted with female bodies in intimate ways (e.g., childbirth) would have special authority in interpreting those bodies. But this authority only applied to the extent that Hall’s body was accused of being female.

At the time Hall was accused of fornication with the maidservant of Richard Bennet, John Tyos claimed that his servant Thomas Hall was female (evidently despite wearing male clothing and performing male work). This provoked the community matrons to take the authority into their own hands (without the request of a court) to examine Hall with regard to this question. The matrons asserted, based on this examination, that Hall was a man. Tyos continued to maintain that Hall was female and the question was escalated to the local landowning authority, Captain Bass.

Bass took the perhaps radical approach of simply asking Hall “whether he were man or woman” to which Hall, as noted above, replied “both” and explained further that this answer was based on having what was described as a very small penis but that “he had not the use of the man’s part.” Bass chose to define maleness in terms of the ability to successfully perform penetrative sex with a penis and assigned Hall a female gender on this basis, ordering Hall to put on women’s clothes. This aligned, to some extent, with the Galenic view of gender: Hall might be a little bit masculine but insufficiently male to be granted categorical male status.

This decision was challenged by the matrons who had performed the examination and were still convinced of Hall’s male nature. To them, a male Hall now going about in women’s clothing (per Captain Bass’s legal requirement) was an insupportable breech of gender categories. They demanded a second inspection from Hall’s new employer (who was convinced enough of Hall’s female presentation that he referred to Hall with female pronouns in the record, where everyone else used male pronouns). On further interrogation of Hall, this time with regard to the presence of female anatomy, rather than the inadequacy of the male anatomy, Hall claimed to have “a piece of a hole” but the investigating women failed to confirmed this on examination.

This shifted the official position. Hall’s new employer then ordered that Hall “be put into” male clothing and be punished for impersonating a woman. When Hall had been classified as female (or even potentially female), social rules had restricted the physical investigation to women, but now having been officially categorized as male, Hall was subject to some spontaneous (and forcible) confirmatory investigations by men. These did not contradict the male classification.

Setting aside the appalling nature of the investigation methods, we see a whole sequence of attempts to define the nature of maleness and femaleness. Was maleness something that had to be achieved above a certain threshold? Or was there a clear and uncrossable physiological dividing line between male and female? The result had major consequences for Hall’s day to day life, determining what occupations were allowed, what responsibilities were imposed, and what socializing was permitted. (Brown also hints that being classified as male protected Hall from sexual advances from his new employer and others, that might have been a hazard when classified as female.)

Brown provides a discussion of the socio-political stake the various parties had in both the process of the investigation and its conclusions. She notes that one key party--the maidservant that Hall had been accused of fornication with--was not called as witness, with several speculations on why this might have been the case. In any event, the question of gender transgression was more important to them than that of irregular sexual activity.

Having come to a decision on Hall’s gender categorization, the authorities in Warrosquyoacke were stuck on an appropriate punishment and passed the case along to Jamestown. The governor reviewed the testimony and then elicited Hall’s own biographical narrative.

[Note: at this point, I’m going to follow Brown’s lead and shift pronoun gender in alignment with Hall’s shifting presentation, except when quoting from Hall’s testimony. I hope this finds a balance between clarity, sensitivity, and narrative function.]

Hall was christened Thomasine (an unambiguously female name) when born in England and grew up living a female life and wearing female clothing. At age of 12, she was sent to London to live with an aunt (it was typical at that time for adolescent girls to be “placed out” to learn the skills of a housewife) for the next ten years. When Hall was 24, her brother was pressed into military service and she “cut off her hair and changed his apparel into the fashion of a man” to join the English forces supporting the Huguenots in France. On returning to England, Hall “changed himself into women’s apparel” and took up the (feminine) profession of needlework. She lived in the port of Plymouth, which may have inspired the next step in 1627 when she “changed again ...into the habit of a man” and sailed to Virginia.

After considering all the evidence and testimony, the court imposed the following sentence: Hall was required to take a male identity and wear male clothing, with the exception of being required to wear a (feminine) coif and apron. That is, the court enforced Hall’s gender ambiguity, not in the serial form that Hall had performed, but as a permanent hybrid presentation. The judgment that Hall was “a man and a woman” was to be published to the inhabitants of Warrosquyoacke so that they “may take notice thereof.” This suggests that rather than following the long legal tradition of requiring a fixed and unambiguous identity following the gender binary, the court had to some extent recognized Hall’s elusive non-binary nature and, instead, chose to enforce that non-binary identity.

The question of the original charge of fornication was not addressed, but neither was the question of the consequences for Hall’s future sexual activity. The ruling also problematized how Hall was to be treated within the gendered work and social environment of the community.

The article concludes by situating Hall in the context of other gender transgression narratives of the 16-17th century, including Elen@ de Cespedes, Catalina de Erauso, and Mary Frith. Unlike most such narratives, rather than the eventual conclusion being that the subject was a “hermaphrodite” or female transvestite, Hall was concluded to be male.

I want to focus on part of Brown’s analysis that I think needs to be interrogated. She says, “Hall’s atypicality...alerts us to another possible explanation for his otherwise difficult-to-fathom behavior. In a world in which dressing as a man brought women expanded economic and political opportunities, Hall found it difficult to suppress his female identity. ... Despite the attendant risks and disadvantages of being female in the seventeenth century, Hall found it personally useful, necessary, or comfortable to dress occasionally as a woman.” And then, after further discussion, “Perhaps ‘his’ female identity was so deeply embedded as a consequence of a childhood and adolescence of female training and identification that he could not shed it.”

I think this analysis overlooks two key aspects. One of them is what Brown notes: Hall was raised from birth to adulthood in a female role, treated as a woman and interacting with the world as a woman. To require some extraordinary explanation for Hall being comfortable returning to that performance smacks a bit too much of gender essentialism for comfort. To the extent that gender is performance--and Hall’s life story suggests a personal sympathy for that position--is it the historian’s place to impose a judgment that performing the gender one was raised as is “difficult to fathom”? The second aspect that is absent from this article is a consideration of Hall as potentially intersex. Brown invokes the early modern concept of the “hermaphrodite” as it was used in the discourse around gender categories and gender performance, but doesn’t seem to recognize the most plausible context in which an infant would be classified as female but then would present with under-developed male genitalia as an adult. Setting aside the question of whether physiology does (or should) attract one to a particular expression of gender performance, being intersex might well have motivated Hall to “try on” different genders and feel equally comfortable (or equally uncomfortable?) in each.

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