I am interested in gender performativity and how gender is a malleable identity, with a particular focus on gender passing individuals in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
I like the idea that gender is unstable, it can be altered, changed and rethought quite simply through clothing and outward appearance, personality traits and mannerisms. For me gender is to be played with as well as celebrated. However, a lot of the time biological sex and gender have been confused with academics thinking that biology and gender have to correspond to what society expects. This idea is similar to Butler in that she discusses that, a man can be just a feminine as a woman can be masculine it is this malleability that makes an gender seem outdated and maybe a ‘bit Victorian’! (1)
I began being interested in this type of research when I watched a TV drama adaptation of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, luckily just before I was due to enter my final year at undergraduate level and was thinking of dissertation topics! (2) Initially I wanted to research male impersonators such as Hetty King and Vesta Tilly (and still want too in the future). However, my tutor encouraged me to look at the unvoiced working classes and I was introduced to Alison Oram’s book Her Husband was a Woman! and I became obsessed with female husbands and discovering them in newspapers. (3)
My undergraduate dissertation looked at how female husbands, living between 1800 and 1850 in Britain, were successful in queering their idea of heterosexual marriage. The majority of the wives of the female husbands I located had claimed that they were unaware of their husband’s biological identity and that they had led largely fulfilled marriages. These individuals had lived as men in their communities and had been successful in their employment choices as bricklayers, dockworkers as well as groomsmen. All without their wives, colleagues and neighbours being aware of their biological identity. Only through unforeseen circumstances such as death, criminal hearings or accidental discovery were these individuals discovered. For me I thought this fascinating, brave and impressive. These were working class individuals who actively challenged and questioned nineteenth century masculinity and the role of a husband. However, my concern was that academic work I was engaging with all seemed to focus solely on the individuals being in a same-sex relationship, that they were women imitating men, that they were lesbians – all of which was an example with modern history taking advice from Victorian categorising!
My MRes dissertation focussed a little more on the entirety of the nineteenth century engaging with new ‘concealment of sex’ cases after 1850 and developing a bigger collection of gender passing newspaper articles. This research leaned towards how gender passing individuals were treated in their communities, how the press responded to them and their relationships with women and friends. One thing remained in that these individuals were arguably seen as successful by the press in their performance of gender and were recognised for their physical abilities despite being ‘of the fairer sex’. (4) Some articles were extremely progressive in their approach to individuals for instance, Salford Weekly reported that, ‘The most remarkable woman of this century was “Harry” Stokes, the bricksetter who committed suicide in the sluice of the river Irwell’ in October 1859. (5) Harry Stokes lived in Manchester and Salford during his adult life, where he was married twice and was a ‘master bricklayer’. He gained notoriety in his community. Harry Stokes was biologically female.
Moving forward into my PhD I am still engaged with gender passing in the nineteenth century but will branch out into twentieth century work including engaging with Valerie Irmas Arkell-Smith (aka Colonel Barker) and the intriguing Vita Sackville West. Ultimately my research will contribute to a variety of histories including, gender history, trans* history as well as masculinity research. Hopefully this research will reach out to a number of people who will start to consider the individual rather than trying to categorise and pigeonhole nineteenth and twentieth century people into lesbian history, gay history or trans* history without the them having been aware of such modern terminology.
(1) Butler, J. Gender Trouble, (New York; Routledge, 1990).
(2) Oram, A. Her Husband was a Woman! Women’s gender-crossing in modern British popular culture, (New York; Routledge, 2007).
(3) Waters, S. Tipping the Velvet, ((London; Virago, 1998).
Nicholson, N. Portrait of a Marriage, (London; Orion Books LTD., 2002).
Donoghue, E. Passions Between Women, , (London; Pan Macmillan, 2014).
(4) ‘Extraordinary Investigation, Or the Female Husband’, The Newcastle Courant, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne; England), 04/01/1829.
(5) ‘Harry Stokes The Man Woman’, Liverpool Mercury, Liverpool, 24/10/1859.