Review: Female Husbands: A Trans History

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Female Husbands includes personal stories of women who lived as men despite danger of exposure, violence, or arrest and imprisonment. Along with these stories, this author supplies the context of public and political views of the time in which these women lived.

Jen Manion covers two centuries of women who led their lives dressed as men. She begins in the UK in 1746, Charles (Mary) Hamilton and his trials. She reports that a journalist of the time claimed that Hamilton and his female wife flipped a coin to decide which one would cross dress. This seems implausible as Manion immediately points out. But it does give evidence of the depth of understanding of 18th Century experts had compared to today.

The appearance of a female husband in the US came in the 18th Century. One Albert Guelph married first in UK and later after his traveling to US married twice again. The courts were no stranger to these crossdressers. Guelph was arrested and jailed three times, twice the product of an interfering mother-in-law or father-in-law.  

Manion tells us that rather than sex only, most cases became a focal point for debates over women’s rights and laws regarding dress. Men could travel, work and live in antebellum America at wages much more than white women. Thus women would present themselves as men to get higher wages only men could earn. Some of these characters are colorful. Case in point James Gray who went to sea where he engaged in duties typical of a sailor. The ship was involved in several battles, one in which Gray was shot. “In order to avoid detection by a doctor, she extracted herself the ball from her groin with her finger and thumb, after that she endured a most violent pain for two days, and always dressed it herself.”    

Now and then wives claimed they didn’t know they they’d married a woman. In the case of Mary Price, she insisted that her female husband penetrated her several times. This information comes from a court record.  In the US between 1800s and 1880s there were more female husbands the than ever before. Female Husbands has been assembled from historical research and could be read as a historical text. Documentation includes a long introduction, endnotes, an index and a number of photos, illustrating everything from weddings to legal documents. all helpful to future researchers.

Female Husbands: A Trans History, by Jen Manion. Cambridge University Press. 2020. ISBN 978-1- 108-48380-3. 2342 pages $17.07. 

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