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All Posts, P&S History

Author Guest Post: Norena Shopland

A commonality of gender non-conforming

Every June is Pride month, an opportunity to celebrate and commemoration lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and other (LGBTQ+) people, allies, and events. During this, and other celebratory periods, people across the UK promote all aspects of LGBTQ+ life, but every year when the event is over and the pop-up banners are taken down, where are we? Rarely is there representation in Britain’s cultural windows such as museums and so we are relegated to these handful of celebratory periods instead of being present 365.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Take for example Wikipedia.

The online encyclopaedia, the largest in the world, has approximately 1,911,715 biographies as of 31 May 2023, but only 370,412 are about women,i amounting to a mere 19.56%. In the last few years, the rate that new biographies of women are being uploaded has fallen drastically and if this pace continues, it will be 100+ years to reach equality.

These figures are important because it has an impact on all women’s history, include diverse women who already struggle for recognition. Something covered in my books, A History of Women in Men’s Clothes: from cross-dressing to empowerment (Pen and Sword History, 2021) and Women in Welsh Coal Mining: Tip Girls at Work in a Men’s World (Pen and Sword History, 2023).

Much of history’s narrative has been written by men for men and this skews any aspect of history that lies outside their knowledge and experience. When people lived gender non-conforming lives it was often into male courts they appeared when ‘discovered,’ and for those assigned women at birth, forced back into that gender, second class citizens with little opportunity to speak for themselves. Thousands upon thousands of stories have been uncovered in the last decades or so to show that many did not conform to the binary heteronormative narrative that had, and continues to be, foisted upon society.

Indeed, the very definition of gender has been called into question.

Take for example, many stories included in A History of Women in Men’s Clothes, thousands of women were not content to be imprisoned in their house if they had nobody to accompany them when they went out. Instead, they would take a husband’s, a brother’s, or other men’s clothes and sally forth. Those who cross-dressed, even for an hour or two, are explained away by nay-sayers who wish to deny diversity by claiming it was easy for them to do so because in a hurried world with someone in a coat and hat, nobody looks sideways. The answer then, is where does the binary line sit? At three hours, a day, a week? At some point it must be accepted that the concept of gender disappears when someone can so easily break it, even for just a few minutes.

Gender non-conforming people stream through history with a regularity that defies a definitive collection, there are just so many – so when I came to put A History of Women in Men’s Clothes together, I divided the book into themes. There are those, such as women explorers who defied the proscriptive dress of their times and technically ‘cross-dressed’ because they remained obviously women and needed only a practical attire in order to go off exploring. Again, the question of what is gender raises its head. When women wore men’s clothes, they were described by many, mainly male, writers using terms such as ‘masculine’, or ‘creatures’, or that they had ‘unsexed’ themselves – but what sex then did they belong to? If they had unsexed themselves as women, was society accepting them as men? Or as a third sex, and many writers did invoke hermaphroditism, but as far as we know, many of these women were not hermaphrodites (modern intersex). Writers in the past were quick to throw these people out of the binary system but not so quick to explain where we put them or how we describe them.

Other women took on the personas of men simply as an economic means because women’s wages were woefully low compared to men, even when doing the same job. When a man died, was rendered disable, or simply up and left, often women had no option but to turn to the workhouse or claim poverty relief – and then got blamed for being a drain on society. If a culture insists on dividing itself into those who have and those who have not, it is unsurprising that those who have not will do all they can to cross the line into the haves.

For those individuals whom we might regard as lesbians or trans today, this commonality of crossing the binary enabled countless of people to live as openly as possible. Many described in A History of Women in Men’s Clothes, lived with, and loved, women and when ‘discovered’ were treated more leniently than those who shared lives as women. The latter were often shadowed by whispers of ‘sapphists’ (lesbians) in a way those who were gender non-conforming did not, and who were often seen as simply ‘keeping up the disguise,’ heroically marrying women to save them from shame, or living a pure life free from sex. Equally, for many we might today consider to be trans, this commonality of gender non-conforming allowed them freedom to be themselves.

Some might consider the stories included in A History of Women in Men’s Clothes and other works as a minority subject, of interest only to the LGBTQ+ communities but there is so much more to consider. Take for example, Murray Hall who died in 1901 and whose death created a sensation in New York and shared around the world, because the doctor did not know what sex to put on the certificate. A friend of Murray’s, Senator ‘Barney’ Martin (?-1914) confessed to changing his views on the ‘woman suffrage’ question– ‘Any woman,’ he said, ‘that can act a man’s part in every way, even to supporting a wife and family for thirty years, as Murray Hall did, has a right to vote.’ii There were many more whose views on women’s rights began to change in the late nineteenth century because of what was achieved by gender non-conforming people – and women’s history needs to reflect that.

The people featured in the book lived 365 lives; by breaking the binary they became explorers and high wager earners, they worked, lived, and loved and instead of being relegated to occasional popup banners they must now be woven back into the social history of every country in the world.

i Wikipedia: WikiProject Biography. Available online.

ii St. Louis Republic, 19 January 1901

A History of Women in Men’s Clothes is available to order here.