Advanced search

Gender and ambiguity in a historical context

(26 Posts)
Hovis2001 Thu 12-Nov-15 15:38:16

So, obviously it is very important to correctly gender a person according to their stated desires (c.f. discussions r.e. Jack Monroe). As a historian (and a feminist), however, I sometimes have difficulty with this when considering historical individuals who never explicitly stated a preference.

This came to mind when reading this article about James Barry. Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley and, apparently due to severe monetary pressures, dressed as a man to undertake medical training and become a qualified doctor in 1812. The article suggests that the original plan had been for Barry to go abroad, where he/she could practise medicine as a woman, but this plan fell through. Barry ultimately lived as a man (and as a highly respected doctor) until his/her death, when rumours regarding his/her sex began to circulate.

Now, the article I linked above genders Barry as a woman, and readers in the comments criticise this, saying that he was a transgender person and that it is disrespectful to misgender him. The Wikipedia article on Barry uses male pronouns throughout. I also came across this article, which avoids pronouns throughout until a rather interesting final pair of paragraphs that switches between the two (not, I think accidentally!).

There are two things that make me resist thinking it is right and 'respectful' to use male pronouns for Barry. Firstly, it does not seem at all clear to me that Barry actively identified as male. Indeed, I think it is crucial to emphasise that the evidence suggests that Barry lived as a man largely because the career he/she pursued would have been impossible as a woman at that time. Secondly, using solely male pronouns for Barry feels as if it somewhat conceals the fact that it was a woman who achieved all the things that Barry is remembered for.

By contrast, the Wikipedia entry for Chevalier d'Eon, another ambigious figure gender-wise, deliberately avoids using pronouns - in spite of the fact that (whilst anatomically male), d'Eon actually petitioned during his/her lifetime to be recognised as a woman and to be allowed to live as one.

I'm definitely not trying to insensitive to trans issues, but I would be interested in hearing people's thoughts on whether the situation is different when dealing with figures in history. I also find it quite interesting that the Barry situation seems to come down to a debate as to whether he/she is a "trans hero" or a "women's hero" in history. Is there any compromise between the two?

tribpot Thu 12-Nov-15 15:57:45

Interesting question. I think we need to be guided by what we can know (as with any historical discussion). Barry lived in an era and region where a woman could not train as a doctor. Barry adopted male dress. Barry planned to move abroad (where a female persona would be possible) but ultimately did not.

We don't know what Barry's wishes were but statistically is it more probable that she was a woman dressing as a man in order to get round a gender barrier.

HairyLittleCarrot Thu 12-Nov-15 16:15:52

The whole pronouns thing is beginning to trouble me more and more.

I'm finding I'm progressing from "I'll use whichever pronouns you request because I don't wish to be offensive or hurtful, what does it cost me to call you what you ask"
"I respect your right to call yourself what you wish but your demand requires that I acknowledge your claim to belong to this group of which I am a part - "WOMEN". To do that is to deny my own reality as being fundamentally different from yours. I do not feel I should be compelled to refer to you in a way which directly contradicts my own beliefs (and scientific fact)"

I've realised that MNHQ officially censors the posts of anyone who "misgenders", and misgendering is defined as failing to acknowledge the beliefs of the subject and denying the beliefs of the speaker.

I am beginning to feel that giving this courtesy is costing women far more than I originally realised. It implies an acceptance of an ethos which I utterly reject.

I want to be able to state my beliefs in a civil, respectful way without being censored. It isn't Transphobic to believe that biology matters. That for millions and millions of women Biology matters infinitely more than any ethereal concept of Gender Identity.

The whole concept of gender Identity is damaging to the rights of women and I don't want to be censored for failing to submit to societal rules which prioritise the feelings of a small group of people over the very real rights of millions of women.

tribpot Thu 12-Nov-15 16:51:28

I think that's a somewhat different discussion though, isn't it HairyLittleCarrot? The particular issue here is we have no idea what Barry considered herself / himself to be so we can't respect her wishes whether we want to or not.

That said, there's clearly an overlap with Hovis' point, which is that Barry is being 'claimed' as a hero by two groups based on competing ways of identifying him/her. Unless we avoid pronouns completely (or do this clumsy him/her thing) any discussion about Barry in the historical context means picking a 'side'.

However, that is nearly always true in any historical discussion - I listened to a podcast this morning that considered Elizabeth I a greater religious oppressor than her sister Mary I without any consideration of the fact that, whilst the number of people executed for their religion in the two reigns was similar, one lasted 5 years and the other 45 years. Every historian brings their own opinions to bear, and I think the only thing to do with a figure like Barry is to acknowledge that there is no consensus and that you have picked a side.

HairyLittleCarrot Thu 12-Nov-15 17:05:27

You are of course absolutely right and I apologise for my brain burp. blush

In my defence, I had just bounced off another thread where MNHQ were deleting people for using the "wrong" pronoun and I realised that my position is beginning to be that people should have the right to use the pronoun that relates to the reality of another person's sex (not their preferred gender identity) without being censored.

So if Margaret Ann Bulkley was female, I want to be able to use 'she' accurately regardless of the life she lived or her preferred pronouns.
People are free to regard this as rude (although I regard a demand that I deny the reality of sex to be unreasonably rude) but I want to be free to speak the truth without censorship.

Much as I may wish to defend the right for schools to teach evolution, and not to demand that I respect Creationism as an equal theory, or censor me for stating my 'hurtful' belief that creationism is a myth.

VestalVirgin Thu 12-Nov-15 18:42:27

I think if we have to assume she thought of herself as anything, then it is way more probable that she viewed herself as a woman ... who unfortunately had to disguise as man.

And I wonder how many "transmen" there are who actually just want to live their life in peace and realized that today, disguising as a man is not enough, you also have to believe in being a man yourself.

The infamous pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read disguised as men, too. One of them is said to have shown her breasts to defeated enemies, just so that they'd know a woman had defeated them. Doesn't sound very trans to me.

Fact is, we can be reasonably sure that historical males who wanted to be perceived as female were trans (or autogynephiles), but as any woman in the past had good reason to try and pass as male, the only thing I'd accept as argument in favour of them having been trans would be her saying that she identifies as male.

JeanneDeMontbaston Thu 12-Nov-15 18:57:32

I have the same issue.

In my historical period (I'm a medievalist), there's a famous court case about a person called John Rykener or Eleanor Rykener. The case is itself recorded slipping from male to female pronouns. Rykener was convicted of having sex with men 'as a woman' and with women 'as a man'.

I feel it's very wrong to treat Rykener as definitely 'trans'. It was the fashion a few years ago to claim he was 'definitely' a gay man, too - fashions change.

I think we should use the terms people used at the time. I strongly disagree that 'we can be reasonably sure that historical males who wanted to be perceived as female were trans'. Rubbish. We can't.

AskBasil Thu 12-Nov-15 18:58:59

I think it's frankly ridiculous to demand that we call James Barry, he, any more than we should call Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell He.

Women who disguised themselves as men (either in pen or in reality) did so because of the gender hierarchy which placed them in the subordinate position and stopped them doing what men did. So in order to do what men did, they had to pretend to be men, it wasn't a navel-gazing identity issue for them, it was a fucking survival strategy.

I think it's incredibly dangerous to transpose an idealogical gloss onto real women in the past, to obscure the actual reality of why they had to pretend to be men. As far as we know about all these women, they didn't identify as men and it's just propaganda to pretend they were trans in the sense that we understand it today.

JeanneDeMontbaston Thu 12-Nov-15 19:01:40

YY, agree with ask - it is erasing history.

To pretend that women in the past had the freedom that (some, fewer than we'd like) women have today to identify as they wished, is incredibly damaging.

For much of history, both men and women have been bound by extremely narrow expectations of gender and sexuality and it's disrespectful to them to focus on just one aspect of that oppression, to the exclusion of all others.

VestalVirgin Thu 12-Nov-15 19:01:43

Jeanne, could you think of any other reason why a man would want to be viewed/treated as a woman consistently?

We tend to consider all men who want to be considered women trans, nowadays, despite not knowing for sure if they're autogynephiles or homosexuals or really are dysphoric, so ...

JeanneDeMontbaston Thu 12-Nov-15 19:07:04

Yes, severals reasons, vestal, mostly summed up thus:

He might want to have sex with other men - for much of history, this was considered definitely female.

He might want to avoid stereotypically masculine activities (eg., he might spend his life hiding from military service, etc.).

I don't think 'we' do consider all men who want to be considered women trans, do 'we'? I certainly wouldn't consider a man living in, say Saudi Arabia who transitions because he is homosexual, or because there is extreme social pressure on him to do so, to be 'trans'.

AskBasil Thu 12-Nov-15 19:13:52

Or that woman who got jailed today because she pretended she was a man so that she could sexually assault her female friend. She's not trans, she's just a liar.

Elendon Thu 12-Nov-15 19:39:46

Margaret Ann obviously wanted to be a doctor, to get to that point she decided to change her name to a male one and present herself in male dress.

Take for example female authors who penned their name as male in order to make it in the profession they so loved. The most recent one being J K Rowling. Other females include

Hovis2001 Thu 12-Nov-15 19:56:12

I think it's incredibly dangerous to transpose an idealogical gloss onto real women in the past, to obscure the actual reality of why they had to pretend to be men.

I think this exactly sums up my feelings! To call Margaret Ann a 'he' and declare that obviously she lived as a man because she identified as a man is to completely bulldoze over the historical context in which she lived. It obscures both her individual achievements and the more general reality of what women had to work against in that era.

I also think it is... interesting, that d'Eon, who could justifiably be called 'she', is very deliberately not. Is this because it would risk obscuring d'Eon' achievements as a male?

That said, I definitely agree with PPs r.e. it not always being straightforward with men who lived as woman in the past (and indeed now). I'm just wary full stop of the knee-jerk reaction of "must gender this person in a way that doesn't cause criticism today", rather than taking account of the complex historical realities. Especially when I think a consequence if not an intention of that reaction is to further obscure women from the historical record.

Hovis2001 Thu 12-Nov-15 19:58:08


Interesting that you raise women authors going by male psuedonyms / using initials to obscure their gender. I feel like there's a similar discussion to be had about, for example, Mary Ann Evans' books still being published under the name of George Eliot, etc...

Hovis2001 Thu 12-Nov-15 19:59:45

Huh - I had no idea that the 'K' in JK Rowling didn't stand for anything!

Elendon Thu 12-Nov-15 20:00:50

I also agree with Ask and Vestal.

I would never redefine gender post history. I studied Classical Civilisation and studied Medieval Literature. I think for classicists the question should be was this a female writer writing as a male or was this historical figure, who featured hugely, really a female.

Let's not erase human history and literature, especially when it comes to women.

Elendon Thu 12-Nov-15 20:04:31

George Eliot choose her name and lived in a time of photography and newspapers (still extant). It's well known she is Mary Ann Evans.

Hovis2001 Thu 12-Nov-15 20:06:13

I did an optional module on classical literature during my undergraduate. I came across one fabulous article that argued that the Homer who composed the Odyssey was not just a different bard (fairly uncontroversial) but also female. grin I got the impression that on balance it was unlikely but I found it interesting how some of the profs around couldn't even bear it as a thought exercise - very revealing, I thought.

Hovis2001 Thu 12-Nov-15 20:09:06

*A different bard from the Iliad Homer, that should say.

Hovis2001 Thu 12-Nov-15 20:13:00


The Rykener case sounds fascinating! Obviously it's different with a c.19th case but I think there's also the problem of using modern terminology to push the evidence much further than it will go. Presumably the court case is as, if not more, revealing of medieval attitudes towards sexuality and gender as it is of Rykener's actual sexual identity. (Heh, can you tell I'm a cultural historian?!)

Elendon Thu 12-Nov-15 20:14:21

Oh when I was a student there was an uproar among the women in the lecture hall when a Prof suggested that Sappho was pretending to be female.


JeanneDeMontbaston Thu 12-Nov-15 20:17:19

hovis - it is fascinating! It raises all sorts of questions about what medieval people thought 'gender' and 'sexuality' were - what does it mean to 'have sex as a man', did the men who shagged Rykener really not know he had a penis, or what? Etc. Great fun.

And yes, absolutely more revealing of attitudes than of Rykener's 'actual' sexual identity ... do you think we can even talk about historical 'sexual identity'? Because I don't think anyone back then would have understood the concept.

Hovis2001 Thu 12-Nov-15 20:32:48

Jeanne, to be honest, I'm not sure we can! To me it seems interesting-but-irrelevant in the same way that applying modern medical diagnoses to past 'cases' is. I know the latter is rooted in physical realities as well as mental perceptions, but, for example, early modern 'melancholy' was defined and understood, and therefore experienced, in a quite different way from modern-day depression, even if individuals with melancholy did have what we would now understand to be clinical depression.

Looking into past attitudes towards sexuality is a real eye-opener, especially when contrasted with our own. For example, the idea that 'men are sex-crazed and can't control themselves' and 'women like sex less than men' is a total inversion of the historic (European) perception that women were obsessed with sex.

Tbh, whilst I know that things were by no means rosy in the early modern or medieval periods, I do blame the Victorians for a lot when it comes to our hang-ups surrounding sex (and all of the negative consequences they have for women). I think in terms of a graph of "shittiness for women" there is something of a peak c.1850-ish.

JeanneDeMontbaston Thu 12-Nov-15 20:35:12

YY, that's a comparison that makes sense to me too - especially medical diagnoses of things more on the level of (eg) PND and less on the leve of a broken arm.

I love researching attitudes to sexuality. It's what I do a lot of the time. Medieval dildos, penises on trees, nuns shagging other nuns ... it's all great. But not easy to label in modern terms.

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, watch threads, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now »

Already registered? Log in with: