Wearing the Pants

Why classic stories of women masquerading as men for freedom and fortune damage transgender understanding today.

A woman depicted as Joan of Arc.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Stanislav Hubkin/iStock.

This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Readers in the Early American Republic snapped up stories of young women who dressed as men and pursued daring escapades as soldiers, sailors, and marines. Published as chapbooks—or cheapbooks, the dime novels of the era—tale after tale was churned out by authors and printers. The culmination of this genre came in the form of The Adventures of Lucy Brewer, the story of a young woman who disguised herself as a man and served as a sailor on the USS Constitution. Published in a series of pamphlets from 1815 to 1818, the title was so popular that 19 editions of it were issued in short order.

Lucy Brewer was a fictional character, but many of the era’s other popular stories of passing feature real life women, like Deborah Sampson of The Female Review (1797) and Hannah Snell of The Female Soldier (1750). These tales, fictional and not, follow a similar pattern: The young woman needs to leave home, often because of an unpleasant suitor or other disagreeable domestic situation; the young woman disguises herself as a man to escape the trouble; in disguise, the young woman succeeds in undertaking a male occupation (usually a military role) and maintains her chastity despite temptations; the young woman sheds the masculine disguise and resumes her life as a woman.

Though these novels and memoirs are no longer commonly read, they nonetheless still contribute to our understanding of what it means for a woman to pass as a man. These narratives still shape our expectations of how such a story should go, informing our sense of why a woman might want to live as a man as well as what should be expected of women passing as men. One needs to look no further than Disney’s Mulan to see how popular and powerful these tropes remain in our culture—and for trans people, that narrative’s domination can be damaging.

As described above, the historical passing narrative sets up a few uncomfortable expectations. First, that the woman is forced or compelled to pass as a man: She has no other option. Perhaps her father is trying to marry her to a man she doesn’t love. Perhaps her husband has abandoned her, as in Hannah Snell’s case, and she can’t support herself. She has no other option but to live as a man. These stories present living as a man as something that a woman must do out of financial or social necessity: Her desire to live as a man has nothing to do with identity or self-understanding. Indeed, the protagonists in these stories would face total ruin if they were to go on living as women—life as a prostitute with a child out of wedlock in Lucy Brewer’s story.

Second, all of these popular tales embrace the idea that the passing is temporary. They end with the restoration of gender norms: The women put on dresses once again. In Deborah Sampson’s and Hannah Snell’s cases, they married and had children; thus the female protagonists are back in the sphere of femininity. (Joan of Arc is, of course, a notable exception to this: She refused to resume life as a woman and was burned at the stake as a result. The story of Joan of Arc was also very popular among readers in the Early American Republic.) The narrative insistence on restoration undermines the idea that these women truly wanted to be men, that their passing as men commented on their idea of self, or how they wanted to be perceived in the world. The return to the feminine sphere provides an almost comedic effect, the happy ending that audiences want.

Both of these narrative expectations make the stories of passing palatable to readers. The social order is disrupted but only momentarily. Women can live as men, but it’s just a disguise and not a real identity. Such tales continued to be told throughout American history, particularly in the era of the Civil War and the opening of the frontier. Newspapers of the era chronicle women who fought as men in the Civil War and also tell stories of women who headed West disguised as men to work as cowboys or ranchers. And these stories, purportedly factual accounts, again and again insist that these women only dressed as men so that they would be safe—to avoid harassment while traveling, for instance—or so that they could gain economic advantage, as women weren’t eligible to get the 40 acres and a mule that the government was offering, but men could. In other words, the acceptable narrative remains that women only dress as men for a distinct reason, to make some economic or social progress, to achieve a tangible purpose.

This insistence on a progress narrative distorts our understanding of gender and history. By repeatedly asserting that women only dressed as men to gain some advantage, we dismiss the notion that some women understood themselves to be men—regardless of whether that gained them anything or not. Of course, for those living in a misogynistic culture, passing as a man absolutely grants privilege. That’s an inescapable fact. But that doesn’t mean that access to this privilege was always the motivating factor for a woman to live as a man. Telling these progress narratives erases the presence of transgender people from the historical record. Instead of seeing women who lived as men, instead of understanding how society at the time forced them to resume their lives as women once their “disguise” was discovered, the narratives create a more comforting tale, insisting that these women never really wanted to be men at all.

It is still quite possible to hear and read traces of the assumptions these narratives create in the conversation around transgender identity today. When people assert that being transgender is something seemingly brand new, that it simply didn’t exist prior to the late 20th century, they are supported by these progress narratives, which effectively erase the possibility that these women weren’t just masquerading but were actually living as—and understanding themselves to be—men. Or, when people ask of a transgender man: Do you think you’d still want to be a man if men and women were equal? The assumption is that women only pass as men to gain privilege.

Of course, we can’t go back and ask these historical persons what they really felt about their gender. Hannah Snell and Deborah Sampson, for example, left no written records of their thoughts and feelings beyond what appears in The Female Soldier and The Female Review, and both of these are “as told to” memoirs: The women sold their stories to an author or publisher, who then wrote and packaged the story for sale. It would be presumptuous and anachronistic to deem these two individuals as transgender. The point is not to claim ownership via a label; the point is to reclaim their narratives, to take these stories and pull them apart, examine how they were created—by whom and for whom—and what the social norms were that demanded certain plot points. We may not be able to classify these as transgender tales, but we can use them to create a better understanding of how gender works as a social force, back then as well as today.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.