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Published in: September-October 2020 issue.


by Jen Manion
Cambridge Univ.  Press. 350 pages, $24.95


Female Husbands tells the stories of women who lived as men despite the danger of exposure, violence, or arrest and imprisonment. Author Jen Manion also supplies the social and political context for their stories. The book covers two centuries of history, beginning in Great Britain in 1746 with Charles (Mary) Hamilton and his trials. We learn that a journalist of the time claimed that Hamilton and his female wife flipped a coin to decide which one would cross-dress. The appearance of a female husband in the U.S. came in the 18th century. One Albert Guelph married first in Britain and later in the U.S., twice. Guelph was arrested and jailed three times, twice as a result of an interfering mother- or father-in-law.

            Manion explains that these cases weren’t only about sex; many became a focal point for debates over women’s rights and laws regarding dress. Men could travel, work, and live in antebellum America at wages much higher than women. Thus women would sometimes present themselves as men to get the higher pay. Some of these characters are quite colorful. There was James Gray, who went to sea and engaged in duties typical of a sailor. The ship was involved in several battles, one in which Gray was shot. “In order to avoid detection by a doctor, she extracted herself the ball from her groin with her finger and thumb, after that she endured a most violent pain for two days, and always dressed it herself.” Now and then a wife would claim that she didn’t know she’d married a woman. In the court case of Mary Price, she insisted that her female husband had penetrated her several times.

            Female Husbands has been assembled from a wealth of firsthand historical research. The book includes a lengthy introduction, endnotes, an index, and a number of photos that illustrate everything from weddings to legal documents, all of which may be helpful to future researchers.

Martha Miller

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