Gender Warriors of Yore

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Butch Heroes
by Ria Brodell
MIT Press. 96 pages, $24.95

 

UPON first looking into this small volume, I had no idea what really big ideas and treasures were to be found within its 96 pages. Artist and educator Ria Brodell has given us a celebration of “butch heroes”—individuals throughout history who were designated female at birth but who identified as male later in life. Many were involved in lesbian relationships along the way. Most are long forgotten. Brodell fills in these gaps by providing one-page biographies for each subject, which appear on the page opposite her illustrations. These are extraordinarily detailed miniatures of the person under discussion, dressed and manicured according to the (male) styles of the day.

         Just as the subjects of Brodell’s paintings led transgressive lives, Brodell engages in a subversive act by using the template of Catholic prayer cards as the model for the paintings. Instead of depicting Catholic saints, these panels present gender-nonconforming martyrs suffering at the hands of hostile social norms and laws. These stylized gouache portraits are rendered in strong, bold colors and offer a glimpse into lives overlooked by history.

Ria Brodell. Sitting in the Water Grizzly, 2011

         Some of the personages depicted came to tragic ends. In 15th-century Germany, one Katherina Hetzeldorfer was sentenced to death by drowning for seducing women. In 1777, Ann Marrow was sentenced to three months in prison and the pillory for wearing men’s clothing and impersonating a man. But not all of the stories end in beheadings, hangings, or other horrific outcomes. A Native American named Sitting in the Water Grizzly was hailed as a hero, a healer, and an otherworldly being. Petra Ruiz, who in 1913 enlisted to fight in the Mexican Revolution, was known for protecting women from rape by her own troops.

     Brodell is to be commended for the extensive research she’s done for each subject. Her methods of inquiry included poring through old newspapers, archival material, journals, photos, drawings, and maps. And her efforts paid off. These stories reveal the lives of gender non-conforming individuals from many eras in history who stayed true to themselves despite living under the narrowly defined rules and roles governing gender in their particular culture. The Davis Museum at Wellesley College has recently acquired fourteen portraits from the “Butch Heroes” series. These inspiring and important works will serve to introduce museum attendees to the stories of butch lives that were previously ignored or erased.

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Irene Javors is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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