Female Husbands: A Trans History, by Jen Manion

Heike Bauer is intrigued by a study of women who lived as men that raises important questions about gender identities today

April 14, 2020
Portsmouth Point; Portrait of Abigail Allen and Portrait of the Female Husband!
Source: Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

An apparently ordinary event took place in St Cuthbert’s parish church in Wells, Somerset, in July 1746: the marriage of Charles Hamilton and Mary Price. The couple had met when Hamilton, a travelling “quack doctor”, lodged in the boarding house of Price’s aunt. After the wedding, the newlyweds moved around the country together, with Hamilton selling ointments for common illnesses to make a living. Their new life was short-lived. After less than two months of marriage, Price denounced Hamilton to the authorities, claiming that she had just discovered that her husband was a woman.

After being tried and convicted, Hamilton was sentenced to six months’ hard labour and public whippings in four local market towns. The case inspired the writer Henry Fielding to publish a fictionalised account of events that would help to embed a satirical figure in the popular imagination: the female husband. But female husbands were not just figures of fiction or fun.

Jen Manion’s Female Husbands reveals a rich and varied history of female husbands in the UK and the US from the late 17th century to the First World War. Taking the case of Hamilton as its starting point, the book explores the lives and changing public perceptions of female husbands during a time of major social transformation. Unlike previous studies, which have examined female husbands specifically in terms of the history of female same-sex sexuality, this work explores shifting ideas about sexual difference. This does not mean that Manion ignores the significance of same-sex desire. Female Husbands shows, however, that sexual desire alone does not account for the full range of experiences and motivations that brought to life the female husband – and that exposed them to violence and legal persecution once their gender transgression was revealed.

While the documented history of such gender transgression in Anglo-American culture ranges from the pre-modern period to almost the present day, Manion keeps a tight focus on the term “female husband” itself. Through newspaper reports and related documents about female husbands who often, although not always, entered legal marriage, Manion primarily charts the ways in which binary gender norms were constructed, challenged and policed. But the book also offers glimpses of individual lives, including those of the wives whose existence often left only the lightest historical footprint. Newspaper reports about female husbands, for instance, did not always mention the wife’s name, writing her out of history even as her marital status came under intense public scrutiny.

Female Husbands is a treasure trove of historical insights. By exploring how some people refused to submit to the gender norms associated with the sex assigned at birth, it shows that sex and gender are complex, contingent categories that were lived as such across time. The research makes a refreshing intervention in the fraught debates about the intersections between queer, lesbian, feminist and trans histories. Manion’s approach is to use “trans” as a verb “to describe a process or practice without claiming to understand what it meant to that person or asserting any kind of fixed identity to them”. If the female husbands of this history are subjects without a collective political voice, recovering their lives makes an important contribution to the ongoing struggle for an expansive gender politics.

Heike Bauer is lecturer in English literature and gender studies at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture (2017).

Female Husbands: A Trans History
By Jen Manion
Cambridge University Press, 320pp, £17.99
ISBN 9781108483803
Published 26 March 2020

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