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Full citation: 

Dugaw, Dianne. 1989. Warrior Women and Popular Balladry 1650-1850. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-16916-2

Publication summary: 

By popular demand, we return to the topic of cross-dressing and passing women with a study of ballads featuring a woman joining the military in disguise (typically with a romance-related motivation). All of the ballads involve, at heart, a heterosexual romance, however several play at the implications of attraction and desire in cross-gender contexts. And the building-block motifs of gender disguise, claiming cross-gender roles in society, and the ability to take action outside restrictive female spaces are all clearly relevant to creating historic lesbian characters.

Due to length, the entries for this book will be split up into two or three postings (it depends on how many advance postings I have in queue by Wednesday since I won't have time to work on the project this coming weekend).

Contents summary: 

Chapters 1-4

Dugaw's book looks at the genre of gender-disguised women warriors in balladry (the genre also extends to cover the "saucy sailor boy" motif) examining both the historic roots of specific ballads and the treatment of gender and gender disguise in popular culture at the time. The first section examines the appearance and evolution of one specific ballad Mary Ambree as well as surveying the larger set of ballad types with this motifs and their variants over time. There is also a detailed structural analysis of several major groupings within this ballad type. This comprises the first half of the book and will be covered in the current blog entry. The rest of the book will be covered in the following entry.

Although the “Female Warrior” genre is always framed as a successful heterosexual quest, the disguise creates multiple homoerotic possibilities: from men who feel inexplicably attracted to the "boy" and from women who fall for the surface presentation.

Mary Ambree is only one of at least fifty ballads collected that have a Female Warrior in Disguise theme. Identification of this grouping has been hindered by traditional folklorists' tendency to categorize by other aspects of the songs, separating sailor ballads from disguised lover ballads from family opposition ballads and so forth. The ballad Mary Ambree is first noted around 1600 when the opening lines are quoted in an anonymous play: "When captain courageous whom death could not daunt..." A different gender disguise ballad is noted earlier (though Mary Ambree may will have been written first) a broadside about "the merchants daughter of Bristol" which was registered with the stationers in 1595. There are multiple references to Mary Ambree being re-registered in the 1620, and 1630s. The earliest surviving copy dates to c. 1640.

In summary: Mary's lover was killed in battle at the siege of Gaunt and she swore to avenge him, taking up arms and armor and fighting at the forefront of battle. She inspired the other English combatants and the enemy targeted her for capture, taking her for an important captain. Just when it seemed she would be taken, she boasted from the castle wall that It was a woman opposing them. One of the enemy leaders, the Prince of Parma, is so impressed he proposes marriage. She refuses in patriot scorn, but the enemy is still so impressed they allow her to return to England.

The “fridged” boyfriend is less common as a motivation elsewhere in the genre, where the women more often go to sea or take up arms in disguise either to seek out or accompany a lover. Mary is also somewhat more bloodthirsty than many of her ballad-sisters, killing one of her own men who betrayed her. The defusing of an unmasking event with a romantic resolution (or its satiric counterpart) is common although in other cases it results in a romantic pairing at the resolution rather than being a somewhat awkward means of showing respect.

The Female Warrior ballad flourished in the period from 1650-1800, in part because it addressed hot-button topics such as gender role reversal. The sub-types are many and the remainder of this summary catalogs some of the principal ones, in somewhat chronological order as the motif evolves. In The Valiant Commander, a woman, urged to escape from a besieged town by her soldier husband, instead takes up arms to fight at his side. A slightly facetious version of the same base story is seen in The Gallant She-Soldier, where the disguised woman is outed by her pregnancy. In Constance and Anthony she follows her love to sea but a shipwreck separates the two and Constance becomes servant to a Spanish merchant while Anthony is sent to the galleys, to be reunited at the ballad's end. The motif of Mary Ambree as more valiant than the men was used as a recruiting tactic in late 18th century performances by actresses in breeches, who added a coda to the effect of "Go enlist or I'll take up arms and put you to shame like the subject of my ballad." The intersection with theater also included real-life disguised soldier Hannah Snell (after she retired from the military) who would perform military exercises in uniform at the Sadler's Wells Theater.

The ballads often show lineages as one is adapted from another, as with the pair The Valiant Virgin and its much-condensed offspring The Constant Lovers. A father, unhappy with the lower class of his daughter's sweetheart, arranges to have him pressed into the navy. The girl follows him to sea disguised as a surgeon and takes ship on the same vessel without his knowledge. When he receives a wound, she heals him and the two become inseparable friends. When the war is over and they are released from service, the man states regarding his long-parted sweetheart that “if she be dead, I ne’er will wed, but stay with thee for ever, And we will love, like a dove, and we'll live and die together." (Remember: this is when he thinks the “surgeon” is a man!) At this, his sweetheart reveals herself to him and they return to her home. In one version, her cruel father has long since died of a broken heart at her disappearance. In the other he welcomes them home and approves the marriage.

By the mid 19th century the Female Warrior ballads were slipping into obscurity as curiosities and museum pieces rather than holding sway in popular performance. In part this was due to changes in the production and performance at popular song, but in part the social preoccupations the ballads expressed were changing. Increasingly, the sturdy robust heroines of the earlier ballads are described as frail and slight, being betrayed in their disguise by feminine weakness. But another strain that arises, rather than showing the woman as heroic, has the adventurous woman motivated by vengeance, e.g., following and killing a faithless lover or taking up a smugglers trade for profit, but perhaps winning the heart of the commodore who captures her after all (The Female Smuggler). The erotic confusion motif finds its satirical extreme in works like The Female Cabin Boy where the ship's captain learns of his cabin boy's true gender and begins an openly erotic relationship (one that the other sailors think is homosexual) until the "cabin boy's" pregnancy gives the secret away. For an extra twist, the captains wife is also on board and both of them are said to "enjoy" the cabin boy.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 5

Rather than arising from male fantasies as some suggest, the ballads are rooted in actual working class experience. Three features are key contributors to the context in which they arose. There was a general expectation of physical strength and toughness from working-class women. There was a context of near constant warfare and the routine participation of women in military contexts, as well as a somewhat less rigid and regimented structure to the military. And there was a general preoccupation with disguise and cross-dressing.

In addition to women’s routine participation in hard physical labor, 18th century accounts are rife with examples of women participating in “male” sports and activites including boxing and duelling, as well as somewhat more conventional active sports such as riding and rowing. The book offers the text of several advertisements of women in dueling exhibitions.

The presence at women (not in disguise) in military contexts is copiously documented where, in addition to the motivation of accompanying husbands and lovers, they provided support services, not only of a domestic kind but including carrying powder for the guns. This occurred on ships as well as in land-based forces. And real-life cases of women serving disguised as men occur regularly. Recruiting practices that indiscriminately pressed boys as young as thirteen make it plausible that a recruiting officer might not look too carefully at a volunteer who presented as a beardless youth.

In the ballads, the act of disguise is presented as matter-of-fact and unquestioned. English society of the 18th century had a preoccupation with masquerades and disguises, and in particular cross-gender disguises and fashions. Women had been appropriating male fashions -- especially for active pursuits -- since the 17th century. Some wore breeches for riding, and there are comments (especially from foreigners) of mistaking the gender of women so dressed. Gender disguise was used by men to escape identification, e.g., during riots, and by women to travel more easily and safely when escaping parents or husbansd. But masquerades were also popular entertainments, including cross-gender masquerades, both among the upper and lower classes. Although this masquing may have had its origins in the more limited escapades of carnival, it had become far more pervasive in 18th century practice.

Of the three factors considered here -- the pervasiveness and loose organization of military life, the expectation of women's physical robustness, and the focus on masquerades -- the first two have clear and identifiable shifts that correlate with the declining popularity of the Female Warrior motif. The organization and regularisation of the military happened all across Europe dong the 19th century. Similarly, the image of women as delicate and frail was generalized from the upper class to lower class women as part of a clear social policy during that same general period. Less clearly deliberate was a shift from participatory masquerading to theatrical performance that divided performers and audience. All three shifts contributed to the loss of popularity of the Female Warrior motif.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6 considers how the women in the Female Warrior ballads use gender signifiers as a code and exploit them to perform a blended role of military hero and romantic heroine. I disagree somewhat with the author where she considers an inherent/biological basis for gender difference to be “modern” in contrast with the appropriatable gender of the ballads -- but I disagree only in considering this a progressive change as opposed to an attitude that has regularly varied over time and culture. [See, e.g., the debate between “nature” and “nurture” in the medieval romance of Silence.] But certainly the Victorian age swung more to the “innate” notion of gender, which made the Female Warrior character less plausible.

The notion that gender (especially male gender) can be “put on” with the appropriate clothing underlies the sexual ambiguity and resulting homoerotic implications of the women’s disguise. But it is the asymmetry of social attitudes towards men and women that allows the disguised woman to be admired and considered heroic, where cross-dressed male characters are more often seen a humorous. The ballad heroines command admiration for their “masculine” virtues of boldness -- both in battle and in taking control of their own lives -- while remaining anchored in female identity via the romatic arc of the ballads and their eventual return to a “feminine” gender presentation.

Balancing the “masculine” characteristics of the Female Warrior, the male characters in the ballad (and especially the lovers) are “feminized” in many ways, being more passive in their wooing and frequently the object of rescue and comfort by their female counterparts.

Chapter 7

This chapter considers the Female Warrior ballads in the larger context of a literature of gender controversy in the 17th century, often shorthanded as “Hic Mulier”. (The phrase comes from the title of a pamphlet decrying “masculine women” -- using the Latin masculine demonstrative article “hic” paired with the feminine noun “mulier”, i.e., “woman”. In response, another pamphlet used the title “haec vir” with the femine article and the masculine noun for “man”.) The chapter reviews the principle concerns of this controversy, which focused on the appropriation by both genders of garments and accessories previously considered to be associated with the other gender.

The 16-17th centuries also saw a preoccupation with warrior women of legend and history (the two being less clearly distinguished at the time), such as the amazon knights of Spencer’s Faerie Queen and Sidney’s Arcadia as well as those of classical myth. “Trouser roles” on stage were popular throughout the 17th century, and played by women for most of the period (in contrast to Shakespeare’s women-in-disguise who would have been played by boys). The text provides a vast number of specific titles of works with this general motif, too numerous to review in detail.

Chapter 8

The final chapter looks at the “heroic ideal” as presented in the ballads. The ballads present heroism as male-gendered -- but therefore by the appropriatable nature of gender, available to women as well. The Female Warrior combines both Mars (warrior) and Venus (romantic heroine) to challenge the notion of gender-essentialism. The remainder of the chapter largely examines John Gay’s Polly (sequel to his Beggar’s Opera) as the ultimate satirical deconstruction of these intersecting motifs.

historical