Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3
Introduction: Extraordinary Lives
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Manion begins by introducing several of the historic figures who will feature in this book: Charles Hamilton in 18th century England, George Wilson in 19th century New York. These are just two of the many individuals collected under the category “female husbands,” who claimed a male role in society including the right to marry a woman.
This book follows the social category of female husband from its beginnings in the mid 18th century up through the era just before World War I when the phenomenon more or less disappeared. Although there were many individuals assigned as female who lived male-presenting lives for economic or personal reasons, the category of female husband is specifically defined as those that include marriage to a woman.
While the focus of female husband narratives is usually on the person read as male, the women who loved and married them are equally interesting. Sometimes they are depicted as ignorant victims of deception, but often they were active participants who are well aware of their husbands’ background.
Journalistic accounts typically framed the wives as ordinary women, drawn into an unusual relationship. However the female wives of female husbands held a great deal of power within the relationship in their role as secret keepers, and discovery sometimes came when a wife either was surprised to learn her husband’s past, or when the relationship went sour and she wanted leverage to obtain a divorce or a favorable settlement.
Up through the mid 19th century, female husbands were primarily viewed in terms of gender crossing. But around that time, reactions began to change and female husbands were interpreted more within the context of the women’s rights movement. Interpretations shifted rapidly in the late 19th century. In the US, female husbands were initially framed in class terms, associating the phenomenon with vagrancy and poverty, but this shifted to viewing them as precursors to same-sex relationships.
Rather than emphasizing the gender of the female husband, narratives now emphasized sex, with female husbands being viewed as actually being women and therefore not “husbands.”
Although authorities generally condemned the gender transgression of female husbands, they often had difficulty finding applicable laws. Was the underlying problem that someone assigned female was living as male, that is, a gender transgression? Or was the problem that a female couple were living as married, and therefore it was a sexual transgression? Regardless, when such arrangements came to the attention of authorities, they were consistant in claiming the right to define and decide on the fate of the participants.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the label female husband was losing its specific meaning. Accusations of masculinity were hurled in the context of women’s rights with satirical accusations that women wanted to take on all male roles including that of husband. In another context, when two women lived openly as a couple in a same-sex relationship, one was typically interpreted by society as being “the man” in the relationship and termed a female husband. All of these uses diluted the specificity of the original category.
The connection between gender non-conformity and homosexuality was a popular theme among sexologists at the beginning of the 20th century. It has been a long-time theme that gender expression marched in parallel with sexual orientation, with male effeminacy or female masculinity being interpreted as a sign of homosexuality. But as the century progressed, interpretations shifted to distinguishing between gender and sexual orientation.
In examining the roots of the female husband phenomenon, it is impossible to separate gender and sexuality issues from the economic and social power that one could claim by living a male life. Female husbands were sometimes treated sympathetically because, after all, who wouldn’t prefer to be a man than a woman?
Newspapers played a major role in disseminating information about female husbands in the 18th century, as stories of gender crossing were considered of general curiosity. Local examples were frequently repeated and shared outside the local community where the subjects lived. But by publicizing accounts of female husbands, the press normalized them and created a familiar model that others could relate to and find inspiration in.
Manion discusses how female husbands and their wives fit within the construction of lesbian history, which typically works backward from a framework of modern identities. The modern paradigm of sexual orientation focuses on sex and minimizes gender, but the fuzzy boundaries between transgender men and masculine lesbians have always been difficult to define, and it’s not possible to make generalizations about that distinction in historical contexts.
When female husbands came to public attention, by definition by having their histories revealed, they were no longer in control of the narrative of their lives. How we understand their identities is almost always filtered through other viewpoints. Accounts of female husbands regularly alternate the gender of descriptions and pronouns, regardless of the identity and internal understanding of the person involved.
Manion takes a very specific approach to describing the objects of her study. She takes the approach of considering trans not as a fixed category of identity, but as any degree of movement away from the gender assigned at birth, either in terms of identity or in terms of practice. For this reason, rather than arbitrarily applying an identity to her subjects in the language she uses to describe them, Manion has chosen to use gender neutral pronouns when describing female husbands in the third person, and to refer to them with the names they chose for themselves.
The book is divided into two sections. In the first section it traces the concept of the female husband in Great Britain following two major themes: one considering sexual desire and intimacy and the other focusing on the representation of masculinity and patriarchy. After the mid 19th century there were far fewer examples of female husbands noted in the British press, however this era marks the rise of female husbands in the United States, and US examples feature in the second part of the book, up through the early 20th century.