Harry Stokes & ‘female husbands’ of the 1800s

Today we could classify Harry Stokes as a member of the LGBT+ community. But the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans only came into use relatively recently, and we can’t go back in time and interview Harry and other ‘female husbands’ about how they saw their identities and life choices.

We can view Harry’s life in the framework of trans history – it can be seen that he lived as a man because that’s what he considered his true gender to be. In the context of lesbian history ‘female husbands’ are seen as a masculine women who passed as male to avoid being romanced by men and to get into relationships with other women. Other historians view ‘female husbands’ as women who cross-dressed for financial reasons – women were barred from most skilled trades, and typically earned less than half of a man’s wage. Dressing as a man would allow a woman to gain access to the freedoms and privileges usually reserved for men – they could engage in business, support themselves financially, travel about alone with being harassed.

A quick search in the British Newspaper Archives shows that from the late 1700s to the early 1900s well over a dozen cases of ‘female husbands’ reached the press, including three in Manchester: Harry Stokes; Thomas Green and John Jones.

John Jones Western Daily Press - Saturday 29 March 1862

Leeds Mercury – Friday 28 March 1862

The assigned birth gender of these ‘women who lived as men’ 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 the juror suggested Harry was not what he seemed. 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.

The tone of news reports on ‘woman husbands’ gives an insight into how people who didn’t follow gender norms 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. 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:

nypl.digitalcollections Portrait of Abigail Allen. Portrait of the female husband

Authentic narrative of the extraordinary career of James Allen, the female husband. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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 second class citizens, with the legal status of children. In general ‘women-men’ were not seen as a threat to marriage, social stability and the general order of the sexes – women had to raise their game and overcome their natural fears and weakness to act as man. Also sexual activity was something that was viewed as strictly-dickly, what could two ‘women’ really get up to in bed with no penis around?

‘Female husbands’ were portrayed as gender imposters.  In the press and popular ballads 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