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'Female Husbands' In The 19th Century

Questions of gender identity are nothing new. Way before Transparent and Chaz Bono and countless other popular culture stepping stones to where we are now regarding gender identity, there were accounts of "female husbands."

Stories of women dressing and posing as men dot the journalistic landscape of 19th century America — and Great Britain — according to Sarah Nicolazzo, who teaches literary history at the University of California, San Diego.

Nicolazzo points to the late 18th century tale of Deborah Sampson, who called herself Robert Shurtlieff and fought in the American Revolution. There was a novel written about Sampson's life, The Female Review by Herman Mann.

"This genre of narrative was already a popular one by the beginning of the 19th century," Nicolazzo says. "Readers of newspapers, novels, pamphlets and other print forms clearly found this kind of story compelling, and there was a long history of demand for it."

Consequently, she says, "the historical record we tend to have about these cases — newspaper reports or fictionalized accounts — are texts written for a literary marketplace. They can certainly give us hints about the lives of the people actually described in these accounts, but they're also clearly written to meet the expectations of readers who are familiar with an established genre."

And the manners and mores of polite society.

Recurring Motifs

Sure enough there are common threads — such as abandonment and bravery — running through many of the narratives. Here are several of the tales:

* The remarkable case of James Walker, "a female who was found intoxicated in the street ... dressed in man's clothes," appeared as a Journal of Commerce item in the Aug. 26, 1836, issue of the Maine Farmer and Journal of the Useful Arts.

James was arrested on a Friday night. The next morning, a "decently dressed woman called at the police office and asked to see James Walker, who she said was her husband." The decently dressed woman was "informed of the discovery which had been made." Though the decently dressed woman was permitted to see James Walker, she did not speak to James.

In front of a magistrate, James Walker said her real name was George Moore Wilson and that she was from England, where George was an acceptable name for a female. According to the report, she told the judge that "both her parents died when she was very young and that when she was 12 years old, in consequence of being ill-treated by her friends, she ran away from them, put on boy's clothes and made her way to Scotland, the native place of her parents."

Posing as a boy, Walker/Wilson worked in a factory for a few years, then married Miss Eliza Cummings. Together the newlyweds set sail for Quebec. "A few days after her marriage," according to the report, Walker/Wilson "imparted the secret of her sex to her wife; but not withstanding this the two females have lived together ever since as man and wife. Fifteen years have passed since their union, during which it appears they experienced a great variety of fortune, but kept the secret of the husband's sex so well that it never before transpired and remains even unknown to the wife's father, who had resided some years with them."

* The Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage -- a New York weekly newspaper for the upper crust — reported in its edition of May 19, 1838, on a "female husband" whose wife declared that "she only found out the sex of her partner by accident three years ago. The parties had been married 17 years, and thus she had been in a happy state of ignorance just 14 out of that number."

In witty commentary, the writer noted, "it is the first time, however, we have heard that married people find out the sex of each other by accident."

* The picaresque tale of Lucy Ann Lobdell — "hermit, hunter, music teacher, female husband" — and her life up and down the Delaware River made the obituary page of the National Police Gazette on Oct. 25, 1879.

Born circa 1829 to a poor New York lumberman, Lucy Ann married a raftsman when she was 17. They had a child. A year later, the man disappeared. Lucy Ann sent her child to live with her parents and she started dressing as a man and for the next eight years "adopted the life of a hunter" — living in crude forest shelters and trading skins and game for supplies.

When the hardships of the hunter's life became too much, Lucy Ann re-entered society, began dressing as a woman and wrote a book "detailing her adventures in the woods," noting that she had killed 100 or so deer, 77 bears, one panther and a bunch of wildcats and foxes.

Eventually, though, she started dressing as a man again and calling herself Joseph Lobdell. She took a job teaching voice in Bethany, Pa., where a young female student fell in love with Joseph. "The two were engaged to be married," the Gazette reported, "but the sex of the teacher was accidentally discovered and she was forced to fly from the place in the night to escape being tarred and feathered."

While living in a poorhouse in Delhi, N.Y., she met Marie Louise Perry Wilson from Massachusetts, who had also been deserted by her husband. The two became quite affectionate. They left the poorhouse together and began appearing in small villages near Lake Ontario — introducing themselves as the Rev. Joseph Israel Lobdell and wife. They kept a pet bear on a leash. They were jailed for "vagrancy" and "the discovery that the supposed man was a woman was made."

From then on, the couple wandered — sometimes living in caves. Joseph continued to preach. They were arrested again in Pennsylvania — for vagrancy. Using a split stick for a pen and pokeberry juice for ink, Marie Louise drafted a plea for release — based on the failing health of her husband. The two bought a farm in 1877, and Joseph (Lucy Ann) Lobdell died two years later.

'Boston Marriages'

So what do these stories tell us about life in earlier America?

History can be complex. Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College and wrote the 2005 book Marriage, A History, explains that it was fairly simple to pull off a "self marriage" before the 1860s. "Marriages were supposed to be registered, but authorities seldom checked," she says. "The idea was that if you acted like man and wife, you were assumed to be married."

Lots of evidence exists, she says, "contrary to the idea that small communities are always judgmental, that your behavior as a neighbor was often more important to other community members than your behavior in your own home. So people often turned a blind eye to behaviors or dress that in later years might occasion more suspicion and hostility."

She adds: "This is not to say that these communities were tolerant of open homosexuality."

After the Civil War, the government became more stringent about the definition of a legal marriage, Coontz says. "But this was also the heyday of the doctrine of separate spheres and true womanhood, when women were assumed to be pure and asexual — and also completely different from men, who were often referred to as 'the grosser sex.' "

These shifting attitudes toward marriage, Coontz says, "opened up a different way for two women to live together in what later came to be called 'Boston marriages.' Plus, it was considered perfectly normal for heterosexual women to have crushes on each other, to be very affectionate, and so forth. So, again, a pair of women who actually had a sexual relationship could easily manage to be together without arousing suspicion that it was anything more than feminine affection."

The irony: "It was only after the sexual revolution of the early 20th century, when men and women were encouraged to explore their heterosexual attractions and sexuality began to be seen as a central part of one's identity," says Coontz, "that same-sex relationships and signs of affection began to be regarded with suspicion."

Lingering Questions

When considering the gamut of "female husband" stories from 19th century America, Sarah Nicolazzo offers four possibilities to ponder. It is worth imagining, she says, that:

* Not every participant in these marriages considered anatomy to be the truth of gender.

* Some wives of "female husbands" thought of their spouses as women but used the vocabulary of heterosexual marriage in order to attain social legitimacy and financial independence for what we might today refer to as a lesbian relationship.

* Some wives of "female husbands" considered their spouses men. "We don't have airtight evidence that all 19th century American women necessarily believed that social maleness required one particular anatomical arrangement, and without that evidence, we shouldn't make assumptions."

* Some wives of "female husbands" thought of their spouses as occupying another gender category — "perhaps one that is specific to the 19th century and might be harder to map onto our present-day vocabularies of gender."

But isn't it possible that in some cases a "female husband" and the wife never became physically intimate? "Sure, that's certainly possible," Nicolazzo says. "We certainly don't have strong evidence otherwise. And it's possible that some of them did — again, we don't have strong evidence otherwise."


Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.