Skip to content Skip to navigation

Christian Davies

18th century English woman who cross-dressed to enlist in search of her husband.

LHMP entry

How do cross-dressing women work around the “missing penis,” both in sexual and everyday contexts? Biographical narratives often show a fascination for the mechanical details, such as Christian Davies’ urination device, or the artificial penises used for sex by Mary Hamilton and Catherine Vizzani. While such a descriptions may take a condemnatory tone, they also advertise the erotic possibilities between women that these devices signal.

The breast is an elusive gender signifier. An opening example from Hannah Snell’s biography tells how a combination of posture, breast size, and viewing angle prevented the presence of breasts from giving away her sex when she was stripped to the waist for a whipping in the army.

Working class cross-dressing narratives establish the breast not only as a sign of femaleness but as a site of erotic connection with the women who desire her. The chapter primarily examines cross-dressing in military and sea-going contexts, but also touches on Maria Edgeworth’s novel Belinda.

This chapter looks at the symbolic function of facial hair as a definitive sign of maleness and the ways a successful courtship of a woman can substitute for the lack of a beard. The “smooth beardless face” is noted in narratives as a giveaway. But beards were not fashionable in the 18th century. And the subject’s “feminine” features might be cited as being an attractive feature to women.

Somewhat similarly to Dugaw’s book on gender disguise in military contexts in the early modern period (both in life and literature), this book examines the phenomenon of persons born as women who took up military careers as men, whether out of patriotism, as one facet of a transgender identity, from some other desperate need, or a combination thereof. The book is copiously illustrated, including many photographs of the more modern subjects who are included.

Jelinek has collected information about a surprisingly large number of gender-masquerade autobiographies, covering the 17-20th centuries and focused on the English-speaking world (likely due to the reseracher’s own interests). The bibliography at the end lists 18 publications, covering 17 different individuals, of whom 13 are discussed in detail in the article. As a context for the material, Jelinek notes motifs of women disguised as men in literature , including several works by William Shakespeare and Margaret Cavendish.

There was a theatrical counterpart to the real life cross-dressing women discussed in the previous chapter. It had become the fashion for women to play certain types of male roles on stage, under the cover term “breeches parts”. This was part of the contradictory acceptance/rejection of women in male disguise. Acceptability was not related to how well the disguise was pulled off: “masculine” clothing among fashionable women (such as riding habits) might be mocked while women discovered after passing completely as soldiers might be lauded.

Subscribe to Christian Davies