Her Husband Was a Woman: Women's Gender-Crossing in Modern British Popular Culture

May 29, 2008

I never thought I'd say this, but this book won me over as a fan of News of the World. By opening up six decades' worth of representations of women's cross-dressing to be found in the pages of the two popular Sunday newspapers, The People and News of the World, Alison Oram has provided us with a valuable, original and fascinating historical insight on cross-dressing from the British press. And News of the World, a paper my mother always refused to have in the house, comes out surprisingly well, compared with the slightly more prissy and middlebrow The People.

As with most cultural history projects, conventional archivists and textual detectives search first within established literary genres for ideas about social practices. Typically this has meant histories skewed toward the middle classes, towards norms and icons of citizenship that have left (through ignorance, difficulty, or contempt) "ordinary" lives undocumented or at best weakly researched.

There have been counter-trends of course, not least of which has been the near-revered Mass Observation archives, but histories of cross-dressing, transgenderism, lesbianism - in fact all types of gender/sexual transgression from the first part of the 20th century - have relied too heavily on that urtext, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1926), which collapsed into one single memorable metaphor, namely the sexual invert as crucified Christ. The Well of Loneliness is a powerful tragedy, after which one would be tempted to assume that for all pre-Second World War gender deviants life was hell.

But Oram shows, through her painstaking archival research at the brilliant British Library Newspapers in Colindale, north London, how this representation of mannish-woman misery was unrecognisable to the mass readership of working-class consumers.

Instead the cross-dresser enjoyed an admired position as a trickster; a popular, honourable and rather sentimental figure that merged into the dragster of music-hall fame (Vesta Tilley and her ilk), with the familiar practices of working-class cheek, loyalty to family and - most of all to be admired - the knack of "getting away with it".

Oram's book provides us with beguiling reproductions of articles and photographs of persons I swear I saw hanging around in Brighton's pubs and clubs only recently, pictures of ordinary women spiffing in their best butch clothes, out for a night at the late, lamented Long Branch or, more latterly, at the Queen's Arms.

Oram draws distinctions between pre- and post-1930s cross-dressing, demonstrating that it was not really until the latter period that cross-dressing became steadily more pathologised as perverse, viewed through bourgeois sensibilities as a medicalised, pseudo-Freudian sickness and strangled by a lesbian sexological model peddled by professional psychologists.

Rather, we find representations here that are rather magical, enchanting even, of women who managed to perform working-class masculinity successfully and convincingly, gaining respect while passing as men. Oram also emphasises the cross-dresser's links with the romantic figure of "the sheik", an orientalist cipher that allowed all manner of imagined naughtiness.

This book really cheered me up. It is a strong scholarly work informed by a delicate and knowing substratum of expertise that informs the study with tender historical dexterity. Oram's analysis shows an historian at her best, someone who has laboured with recent history and found new material to which she provides broader insights, and in doing so has confronted and so redefined subcultural gender history, challenging the easy (or lazy) acceptance of dominant narratives and codes.

The work, because it is grounded in such precise archival media research, is useful across disciplines and shows what can be done - and what certainly should be done - to pay closer attention to mass culture, in an age when such a thing was still possible to find.

Her Husband Was a Woman: Women's Gender-Crossing in Modern British Popular Culture

By Alison Oram
Routledge
208pp
£65.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9780415400060 and 400077
Published 6 December 2007

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