The Female Husband (Henry Fielding)
Introduction: Sex before Sexuality
The text opens with a manuscript illustration of the concept of sexual temptation and resistance to that temptation to introduce various themes relating to how sexual objects and desires were understood in “pre-heterosexual” culture.
In late 17th century England, the practice of boys playing female roles on stage became outmoded and even perhaps unacceptable to audiences. This was, of course, only made possible by women entering the acting profession to play those characters. But the growing unacceptability of male cross-gender performance did not translate to a similar rejecting of female cross-gender performance on the stage. In fact, women playing male roles became fashionable, though the nature of the practice changed during the course of the century.
[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article.
[Note: the use of the word “hermaphrodite” and its definitions in this article and the texts it examines is in reference to a historic concept--one that reflected a specific social construction. It is acknowledged and emphasized that “hermaphrodite” can be an offensive term in modern language in the context of gender, sexuality, or physiology.]
In this chapter, Faderman reviews the historic and literary perception of women cross-dressing as men during the 16-18th centuries. She notes that women passing as men [or transgender men, although this framing was not typically used at the time the book was published] were considered a more serious issue than lesbian sex, as long as that sex was between “feminine” women. One difference was that sexual encounters could be framed as a transient amusement whereas passing women were engaged in a long-term transgression.
Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.
The overall thesis of this paper seems to be that the combination of the peculiarly cosmopolitan nature of Philadelphia, and the lower emphasis on sexual sins that may be traced to the colony’s Quaker origins (as contrasted with the Puritan origins of some other colonial settlements) led to a tolerance (though certainly not an acceptance) of homoerotic behavior in 18th century Philadelphia, as evidenced in the scraps of documentation that have come down to us.
There are no identifiably female authors in this set. Several works are anonymous, but unlikely to be by female authors. Sappho continues to be a theme, with approaches that range from a positive interpretation of her homoerotic themes to a satirical portrayal of her invention of lesbianism. Out and out pornography is well represented, presenting sex between women for the male gaze, in one case disguised as condemnation. And we have a couple examples of the blurring of gender categories in ways that could be interpreted as homoerotic (among other interpretations).
The paper opens with a consideration of the use of the term “queer” in modern academia, combined with a more literal meaning indicating deviance from the norm. But then it dives into a somewhat unusual use of the word in the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) who appears to use “queer” as a name for female genitalia—a use that doesn’t seem to have a clear origin or parallels.
Donoghue’s second conceptual cluster in this analysis is the “female husband” motif. That is, not simply women passing as men, but doing so in a context where they courted and/or married other women. The chapter begins with a general note on the prevalence of this type of event and the wide variety of superficial motivations for passing.