Significant others

Selina Todd reviews Female Husbands, by Jen Manion


There’s a story imbibed by undergraduates across the Western world that goes like this: once upon a time history was about old white men. Then feminists came along and inserted some white middle-class women. But thankfully, queer history is now overthrowing that patriarchal status quo to reveal a new, inclusive past that reflects our own diverse identities.

This isn’t a myth confined to student union bars or social media. The publication of Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History, shows that this story — retold in her introduction — has gained academic credibility. Manion’s attention to those she calls “female husbands” is certainly welcome. She offers some intriguing case studies of women who lived as married men across England and the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Female Husbands: A Trans History, By Jen Manion
Cambridge University Press £17.99

Manion’s detective work underpins tentative conclusions about why they sought to “escape . . . the confines of womanhood”. Many of these women were, in Manion’s words, “poor” (they came from a wide range of households but most were not wealthy); they broke with their birth family at an early age due to bereavement or poverty; and they sought work in exclusively male occupations.

While admitting that these women’s reasons for choosing to live as men are “elusive”, Manion aims to explain their choice. Unfortunately, her speculation often weakens the analysis. Toward the end of Female Husbands we meet Sarah/Samuel Pollard, who Manion tells us was exceptional in having “purely financial motivations” for living as a man.

But a careful reading of earlier chapters indicates that the need or desire for money, education or a profession was important to most of these women. Charles Hamilton, born a woman in eighteenth-century Somerset, dressed as a man from her teens. This coincided with her seeking an apprenticeship as a quack doctor. As Manion observes, Hamilton’s subsequent nomadic lifestyle and occupation would not have been available to a woman. Manion notes in passing that other women had a bleaker choice: impersonate a man or enter prostitution. But the economic rationale for their decision is not explored in any depth.

Manion is even more uneasy when confronted with same-sex desire. James and Mary Howe lived as a married couple in eighteenth-century London. When James was exposed as a woman, newspapers reported that the couple had tossed a coin to determine which of them would disguise herself as a man. Manion disputes this, on the grounds that it “may have been made up by the person writing the news story”. True; but that claim could be made about any of the hundreds of press reports on which Female Husbands is based. Manion argues that James “embraced” (the most over-used word in the book) “gender transgression” for its own sake. In other words, James Howe’s actions weren’t inspired by same-sex love, and the stigma or vilification a lesbian couple may have faced, but by a desire to be a man. We can’t know the truth. But the newspapers’ version did not “neutralise the agency” of the Howes, as Manion claims. Rather, Manion denies these women the possibility of having been lesbians.

This is the crux of the problem with Manion’s book. She makes strenuous efforts to claim that her subjects “embraced” transgender identity as it is understood today. Her endnotes are studded with the work of the philosopher Judith Butler, who believes that “male” and “female” are simply linguistic constructions. Manion believes that sex is “assigned at birth” by doctors, rather than determined by one’s chromosomes and the ability of one sex to reproduce the human race.

Manion makes strenuous efforts to claim that her subjects “embraced” transgender identity as it is understood today

She offers no justification for her reasoning. From here it’s apparently an easy step to claiming that sex is of little significance in the present or the past. Manion’s book is “a call for privileging the gender expression and identity asserted by a person” over her or his sex. In practice, this means Manion assumes that “gender expression and identity” were of primary importance to her subjects.

Yet far from showing that gender expression was more important than sex, Female Husbands demonstrates that we can’t consider either in isolation. Manion writes about female husbands in the third person (making for a confusing read at times). Yet as she admits, none of her subjects wanted to be referred to as “their”. Most of them adopted male pronouns along with a masculine persona. This places Manion, who is clearly a conscientious scholar, in a dilemma. She knows the women she is studying were not men. Their experience was predicated on being women (men who married women were not afraid of being found out).

Her subjects clearly knew it, too. Some only disguised themselves in public (James Howe among them). When exposed by their wives, police or the press, most admitted that they are women. Some may have had intersex conditions; some may have suffered from gender dysphoria and believed strongly that they were men, despite anatomical evidence to the contrary. But most of the female husbands appeared able to live with a truth that Manion cannot: that it is perfectly possible to be a woman without acting in a “feminine” manner. Sadly, they lacked the freedom to do so.

“The distinction between male and female . . . could largely be overcome by those who wanted to embrace a social gender typically reserved for those assigned a different sex,” Manion argues. But the wives of these female husbands knew that distinction mattered. A female husband could not make their spouse pregnant, and their lifestyle depended on a wife’s deception or complicity.

Manion admits that she knows little about these wives. Nevertheless, she dismisses those who claimed ignorance of their husband’s sex as disingenuous. Mary Price, who married Charles Hamilton, realised after two months that her husband was a woman, also called Mary, and sought to have her marriage annulled. Price was young and lived with a spinster aunt, so it’s unlikely she had intimate knowledge of male bodies. And Hamilton was an experienced con-artist. Yet Manion is quick to cast doubt on Price’s story: “When she realised her husband was different than other men, she panicked and rejected Hamilton. Or so she says.” Manion’s version is different: “Hamilton did something that made Mary feel so good that she did not question Hamilton’s manhood for two entire months.” Female husbands’ alleged sexual prowess is a recurring theme in this book; so is the lack of evidence for this claim. Why Price felt compelled to escape this sensual utopia after two months is just one of the many questions that Manion’s inferences beg.

Manion’s desire to champion female husbands means wives who were manipulated or deceived are given short shrift. James Allen lived as the husband of Abigail Allen for 21 years before James’s death exposed she was a woman. Abigail appears to have kept quiet out of fear — James was often violent towards her — and dependence: disability made her heavily reliant on James’s income. But Manion dismisses any criticism of her transgressive hero: James beat Abigail for looking at other men, she explains, because he “was insecure in their manhood”. In any case, she argues, isn’t the vital point that such violence proved James was “man enough”, regardless of “their” sex?

The price of fraud: Mary (aka Charles) Hamilton is publicly whipped in 1746 after deceiving her “wife” into marriage

Manion avoids asking what this violent and manipulative relationship tells us about the motives of women who impersonated men, and the effects on those around them. Her celebration of “transgression” also glosses over the manipulation, fraud and exploitation in which a surprising number of the female husbands engaged. She never wonders whether those fleeing dodgy business deals might have particular reasons for adopting a false identity.

Manion correctly points to a decline in female husbands from the late nineteenth century. This was a period when feminists won new legal and political rights for women, and the lot of the poor became slightly easier thanks to trades unions and social welfare reform. But like Butler and other thinkers inspired by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, Manion is suspicious of legal “regulation”. By this logic, her transgender champions have more in common with gun-toting Texans protesting the Covid-19 lockdown than they do with feminists in the late nineteenth century who, by naming women, allegedly helped to cement their oppression.

Manion acknowledges that feminism was among those “developments” that granted women a modicum more political and economic power by the twentieth century. As a result, fewer women felt obliged to masquerade as male. But that notable change is consigned to one line in this 342-page book. Here lies the central flaw in Manion’s argument. The emergence and achievements of nineteenth-century feminism point to the existence of inequality between the sexes, and women’s awareness of this. Feminists argued that women should not have to present as men, or indeed as feminine, to merit political and legal equality.

The existence of female husbands also points to the importance of sex, as the basis of women’s exploitation and discrimination. But despite all the evidence to the contrary, Manion is determined to argue that sex never mattered; and to deny a voice to those whose experience shows otherwise.

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