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Female Husbands (Review)

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

Female Husbands: A Trans History (2020) by Jen Manion

Phineas Humphris (they/them)

Jen Manion’s 2020 book is an engaging account of the lives of several people who at various times were recorded or reported on as ‘Female Husbands’. They present the book firstly as ‘a window into the lives of people in the past who defied simple categorization of gender and sexuality,’ but more imperatively as ‘a call for privileging the gender expression and identity asserted by a person over the sex or gender they were assigned at birth’ (Manion, 13). Effectively, the book is a proposal for trans* historical reading via the case study of these ‘Female Husbands’ in Britain and the United States from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Charting the shifting category of ‘Female Husband’, the people it was assigned to, their lives, and their reception in media and their communities first in the Britian, and then across the Atlantic and through antebellum and civil war America, Manion constructs a salient narrative of gender conformity and transgression over the better part of two centuries. While unfolding the narratives of these individual ‘Female Husbands’ and other people assigned female at birth who did not live in conformity with the category of ‘woman’, Manion argues not only for a meaningful grouping of similar subjects at least as far as this a can be usefully made in the interest of queer historical analysis, but for the rationality and utility in called said group a ‘trans*’ one.

This is not to say that Manion is unaware or inattentive to the many fraught territories of retrospective discussion and the issues of revisionism, particularly those that relate to the imposing of contemporary language and schema of identity on people and times to whom they may not be so simply applied – most relevantly here those of gender, sex and sexuality; but these challenges apply equally to notions of race, class, (dis)ability, nationality or otherwise in our own scholarships. In the case of trans* scholarship specifically, language is often a sticking point; detractors are very much keen to insist – falsely, as the work of scholars like Susan Stryker, Kit Heyam, Jules Gill-Peterson, C. Riley Snorton, and Manion clearly shows – an absence of recognisable trans* language before the twentieth and twenty-first centuries illustrates a non-existence of trans*ness in history. Or rather, some would use the reasonable critique of ahistoricism and white Anglo-centrism implicit in using terminology that emerged from European sexology in the early twentieth century – i.e., ‘transsexualism’ and ‘transvestism’, the precursors to less medicalised vocabularies of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming identities – in application to people who lived before that language was in use as a means to shut down any and all work to articulate very real trans* histories. While such criticism is more often than not only being raised as a means to silence trans* possibilities in our histories, there are meaningful issues being expressed in the question as to whether it is appropriate to call anyone who lived before such language had been normalised “transgender”. Just as it is reasonable to raise concern with calling men who historically express attraction to other men, or women to other women, “gay” and/or “lesbians” when such terms either did not exist or did not have the same meaning as they do now, trans* scholarship must grapple with these contentions of language to some degree, or risk weakening our own analysis by imposing modern preconceptions of normative and non-normative lives.

Manion chiefly attempts both to address and to circumvent these pitfalls of “ahistorical” language by use of very deliberate wording. They avoid, reasonably, simply calling the subjects of their study “trans men” or “transmasculine” directly. Instead, they utilise a mode of discussion clearly informed by long-standing queer theoretical work of Performance Theory and the recognisable “verb-ing” approach familiar from much queer academic discourse of the last three decades. They wisely choose not to argue whether or not people like Charles Hamilton or James Howe – two of the earlier histories which Manion explores – were or were not “trans” in the contemporary sense of (self)identity. Instead, Manion argues the much more salient point that these individuals performed or did “trans—”. Whether or not they were “transgender”, they socially, physically and often legally “transed”gender. This framing is, again, very much reasonable, and a useful approach for queer and trans* scholars in navigating the difficulties of retrospective and potentially revisionist study. As I expand below, however, Manion’s specific phrasing can, at times, create further problems that I feel could have been better managed and minimised with more self-analysis of its methodology and perhaps a greater willingness to openly engage with the queer and gender theory work that underpins it.

My own critiques of the exact nuances of trans* terminologies aside, the book’s lack of the dense prose that theory discussion usually necessitates and the careful, detailed approach to the interpretation of archival material undoubtedly makes it much more accessible to non-specialists and, importantly, encourages the interdisciplinary engagement the subject matter deserves and warrants. The book appeals as much to those deeply enmeshed in the study of gender and sexuality in the long nineteenth-century as it might to those interested in the lives of working people on both sides of the Atlantic, or in the study of popular media and pulp journalism of the past, as well as the (re)construction of narratives through the use of eighteenth and nineteenth century archive materials. As a published text, Female Husbands represents something of a growing interest and broadening space for trans*-centred scholarship in the mainstream of Arts and Humanities academia beyond the sometimes niche and insular conversations of queer and gender studies circles.

Additionally, Manion’s dedication to piecing together the disparate trail of tabloid journalism and pulp sensationalisation of scattered moments of trans* histories with the often-unnoticed mundane records of “normal” lives helps to actualise an equally unnoticed and mostly unvoiced thread of queer and trans* working-class and labouring histories. It is important to mark that Manion’s subjects are not, by and large, the sort of figures of fortune or privilege that queer narratives both fictional and historical tend to centre. Any fame or notoriety these individuals gained in their lifetimes through public interest in their stories was always limited, often exploitive, and in most cases involved public “outing” which endangered them and their families, exposing them to criminalisation, arrest, abuse and frequently driving them from their homes and jobs. Many were transient labourers – sometimes sailors or soldiers – and Manion stresses the potential significance not just of presenting as male, but of marriage to a wife, as a means of accessing greater socio-economic opportunities and security offered by apparent heteronormativity. In doing so, Manion acknowledges the complexities of gender presentation, expression, and identity in the full context of real lived experiences without undermining the trans* reading of these stories and records. Rather than avoid the many, interconnected motivations that likely influenced the lives and choices of the people Manion highlights, they openly engage with the reality of these lives and the struggles of gendered, sexual, class, and in some cases racial oppressions, while exploring the potential trans* resonances of their narratives and the full complexity of their lives. In Manion’s own words, they aim ‘for expansive and compassionate inquiry and understanding, something every subject deserves’ (Manion, 12).

Where Manion’s work falls down somewhat, at least in my opinion, is in the sometimes clumsy deployment of aforementioned “verb-ing” method to assigning trans* language and terminology. In their introduction, Manion acknowledges the debt owed to ‘[t]ransgender studies and community practice’ which have ‘revolutionized our understanding and usage of gendered language’, particularly crediting Stryker’s push towards a formulation of trans* language around the notion of moving away from a gender that is assigned at birth, and Clare Sears’ conceptualisation of ‘”trans” as a verb’ (Manion, 11). Putting aside the limitations of the “verb-ing” framework such as those raised by Andrea Long Chu and Emmett Harsin Drager, who Manion does cite in their notes to this section, there is still something off in Manion’s employment of “doing” over “being” linguistic modes that can ultimately be rather awkward, if not troublingly evocative of the dehumanising language trans people experience in their contemporary day-to-day lives. The subjects of the study are often described as having “transed gender”, a formulation that Manion does justify and explain in their introduction, but which still undeniably echo misinformed and sometimes actively hostile descriptors like “transgendered”, which many trans people rightly find dehumanising in contemporary parlance. This does not invalidate Manion’s phrasing and grammatical choices, which are very much sensical and precedented in existing literature of trans* studies; literature to which Manion makes enough reference for a reader acquainted with this trans* studies discourse, or even just with the foundational theories of gender performativity which underpins key discussions in the field, to follow the rationality of. For a reader less well-versed in that literature, however, I feel Manion’s “transing” language becomes sometimes too convoluted and ultimately does the text a disservice when terminology of “transition” might serve to better convey the intended meaning. Though, as I earlier stated, Manion’s employment of such language helps defend against accusation of “ahistoricism”, without a deeper and more theoretically-inclined expansion on the thoughts and works that are influencing them here, that language choice seems simply avoidant. Insofar as Manion’s study pushes a discussion of historical trans*ness, the linguistic difference between more recognisable terminology of, say, “gender transition” rather than “gender-transing” is mostly arbitrary, leaving the choice to deliberately forgo terminology of contemporary, twenty-first century, trans* communities unnecessarily alienating; it places distance between the lives of trans* people of the past and those of today which is not exactly false, but that the book in its current format does not in my view probe deeply enough into the influence of trans* voices in either the Academy or on-the-ground advocacy and activist work to meaningfully explain.

None of this, however, should detract from the significance and success of Manion’s text in presenting the potential for trans* histories in our shared archives and in artfully conveying the need to centre and advocate for the experiences of queer, of trans*, of gender non-conforming, and of “gender-transing” people’s personhood in our study of history, literature, and media. If anything, my criticism says less of Manion’s work itself, and more of the ongoing need for more and more varied and far-reaching works of trans*-centred scholarship.

As trans* scholars in all senses – that is as scholars of transness, and as scholars who are (and do) trans – for many of us, being uncompromisingly trans* in all these ways is fundamental to our work and lives. For scholars, activists, and livers of trans* lives, commenting on the growing number of works being published in the field of trans* history in the mainstream is somewhat bittersweet. Manion’s work is worth praising, undoubtedly, and deserves celebration. Indeed, since publication Female Husbands has earned rightful accolades and acclaim – including receiving the ‘Best Second Monograph’ award from the British Association for Victorian Studies as well as praise from the Organization of American History in 2021 – a fact that will hopefully continue to encourage other trans* scholarship across the Arts and Humanities. That being said, there is something at the very least taxing in the unspoken necessity to praise as exemplary, and often as exceptional, the few works of trans* scholarship that receive meaningful public reception. It is, in a very visceral sense, a strain to be continually placed, as trans* scholars so often are told we stand, at the “bleeding edge” of our fields; at the disputed and fraught frontline with the most mundane of our discourse where our peers in the realms of cisgender scholarship are generally much freer to push their dialogues to brave and bold places (for good or ill). With this can come a mostly unspoken obligation on the part of trans* writers, or perhaps more significantly on their published works, to do more than is generally demanded of cis scholarship. That is, to serve as “everything to everyone” – to be suitably accessible while also engaging with all the legacy of queer and trans* theory that has lead to this point and acknowledging all debates and discussions in the contemporary field; to construct sensical trans* narratives in a historical archive that has denied their possibilities without simplifying or erasing the complexities of real lives; to remark on material in its own context and setting while presenting pertinent and clear political meaning and action for the present moment; to be cast trans* lives as normal and present throughout human history on the one hand, and revolutionary and disruptive on the other.

Manion’s work – like Stryker’s, like Snorton’s, like Heyam’s, like Gill-Peterson’s, like many others’ – is of real academic value, of great significance to scholars of their fields and beyond, and absolutely praiseworthy. These works should not have to be socially and politically revolutionary in their mere existence, nor can that cutting, bleeding edge of queer and trans* politics be expected to manifest solely or even mainly in print-published academia. However, it says something troubling about the limited and disputed space being ceded to trans* scholarship in the mainstream Academy that works like these are undeniably politically and socially disruptive. That is to say, works like Female Husbands undoubtedly continue to be much needed.

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