A quick search in the British Newspaper Archives shows that from the late 1700s to the early 1900s there are scores of stories about people assigned female at birth who lived as men / were masculine presenting. Some lived persistently and consistently as men for decades, for others passing as male was a more temporary affair.
The 1800s saw the mass migration of people from small towns to industrial hot spots in search of work. These vast new urban sprawls offered people anonymity and the chance to reinvent themselves.
As the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender only came into use relatively recently, how should we interpret the lives of these gender variant Victorians?
It can be tricky to use modern identity terms that exist in the context of our contemporary society, to label historical figures living in different eras. Unfortunately we rarely hear gender variant people’s own voices in news articles, and we can’t go back in time and ask them about how they saw their identity and life choices. There is space for multiple interpretations of gender variant Victorian lives. It’s always fantastic to find evidence of historical queer and gender nonconforming lives, and different people will identify with elements of Victorian lives in different ways.
Based on his life choices, we could nowadays include Harry Stokes as a member of the LGBT+ community.
Harry’s life can clearly be viewed in the framework of trans history.
It can be seen that while he was assigned female at birth, he lived his entire life as a man because that’s what he considered his gender to be. While newspaper reports talk of Harry’s ‘deception’ and ‘disguise’, in the context of trans history we can instead see Harry living an authentic life based on his own gender identity. When Harry was outed as being “not a man, but a woman” and became the source of public ridicule, he did not “adopt the appearance which most befits her sex” as newspapers at the time suggested he should, but continued to live as a man. He lived persistently and consistently as a man.
In the context of lesbian history some ‘female husbands’ are viewed as butch women who passed as male to avoid being harrassed and romanced by men. If a woman was perceived as male by the local community, she would pass under the radar and gain the freedom to enter into relationships with other women, and earn enough money to head a household.
Some historians view people assigned female at birth who passed as men as doing so for primarily economic and social reasons. Women were barred from most skilled trades, and typically earned less than half of a man’s wage. Society was geared up to make women dependent on men. In the 1800s just a third of women worked, most were caregivers looking after children or relatives. Passing as male would allow a woman to gain access to the freedoms and privileges usually reserved for men – they had greater job opportunities,, could support themselves financially, and live a fuller, richer life.
The assigned birth gender of gender variant Victorians tended to come to light when their bodies were subjected to formal examination by a public official, perhaps through injury or death.
In the case of Thomas Green it was in 1861 when a prison warden ordered him to undress for a bath before starting his jail sentence for non-payment of debts. In the case of Harry Stokes his gender hit the headlines when his body was examined by a police surgeon to check the allegation made by his wife; and then during his inquest after his body was examined to back up claims made by a juror.
Newspaper reports on Harry’s inquest highlight his body was only examined because a juror suggested Harry was a woman. As clothes may normally have been left on during an inquest then we can assume that many ‘female husbands’ and ‘women-men’ went to their graves in peace without their bodies and genders being subject to analysis, curiosity and ridicule.
News reports on ‘female husbands’ gives an insight into how gender variant people were viewed at the time.
Women and men were as portrayed as having fundamentally different characteristics.
Women were “the softer sex”, naturally “weaker” and wouldn’t normally be able to undertake work involving physical strength or bravery.
Gender variant people assigned female at birth but living as men were generally viewed as being in disguise. Journalists commented how Harry “repressed her own feelings and natural disposition” to assume the habits of a man. Thomas Walker, the ‘She-He Barman of Southwark’ cashed in on public curiosity about how a weak and feeble woman could live as a man by touring the country singing songs about his life. In 1862 John Jones had to be kept inside Manchester Magistrates court awhile to protect him from being mobbed outside by curious onlookers. In 1829 printers cashed in on public interest in James Allen by selling pamphlets and ballads:
In court ‘female husbands’ were portrayed as gender imposters. There were no laws barring women from cross-dressing, however they were cases of women being prosecuted for financial fraud – marrying a woman to gain her dowry.
In the 1800s women were seen as second class citizens, naturally subordinate to men. In general people assigned female at birth living as men were not seen as a threat to marriage, social stability and the general order of the sexes. They were portrayed as curious eccentrics, having to raise their game and overcome their natural feminine fears and weakness to act as man. Also there was no sense of sexual impropriety. Sexual activity was something that was viewed as strictly-dickly, what could two ‘women’ really get up to in bed with no penis around? Women were seen as untroubled by sexual feelings, and lesbian sex impossible. Judges at a notorious libel case of 1811 declared sex between women was “equally imaginary with witchcraft, sorcery, or carnal copulation with the devil”, as likely as “thunder playing the tune of God Save The King”.
In street ballads (like the tabloid press of the day) female husbands were ridiculed as neither man nor woman and their wives pitied as having being duped into a relationship with a second rate pretend man. It can be seen that this was a form of social policing of behaviour, a warning to people thinking of joining the female husband brigade, or indeed marrying one.
Financial necessity was seen as a primary motive for the ‘pretend husband’ living a lie and “adopting the part of a man”. A traumatic family life or difficult marriage to a man may have led a woman to “take on the garb and toil of the other sex” in order to support themselves. In 1859 the Salford Examiner declared that Harry has started living as a male when “The hard treatment of parents ignorant of their responsibility had driven her from the protection of home”.
For more info on ‘female husbands’ see: chapter one of ‘The Lesbian History Sourcebook’, by Alison Oram & Annmarie Turnbull; and ‘Developments in the Histories of Sexualities: In Search of the Normal 1600-1800’, edited by Chris Mounsey