Women passing as men is a well-documented manoeuvre that goes back centuries. The history stretches from the legend of Hua Mulan, the fifth-century Chinese warrior who took her ageing father’s place in the army, to 18th-century pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Cross-dressing women defied all odds and deserve to be honoured and celebrated. But their heroism is at risk of being obliterated by the politically correct liberal establishment who want to recast the boldest women of our history as 'transgender men'.
In Shakespearean England, a cohort of women paraded around the streets of London in 'broad-brimmed hats, pointed doublets, their hair cut short or shorn, and some of them stilettos or poniards'. In the playhouses, cross-dressing was common. From Moll Cutpurse in Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl to Rosalind-turned-Ganymede in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, cross-dressing in Elizabethan comedy was a reflection of the gender crisis taking place in contemporary England. Half of women were unmarried or widowed. The establishment was so nervous about the plague of unruly women that James I ordered preachers to condemn female cross-dressers from the pulpit. Sensationalist pamphlets warned against 'the new Hermaphrodites', declaring that 'since the days of Adam women were never so masculine …Masculine in Mood, from bold speech to impudent action.'
Economic pragmatism, love of country and pure ambition have prompted women through the ages to seek refuge from the stultifying shackles of womanhood. Joan of Arc famously fought in a man's military uniform in the 15th century, and was eventually burned at the stake for it. George Eliot and the Brontës took up male pen names in order to be published and taken seriously. Catalina de Erauso, the 'Nun Lieutenant', fled her 17th-century convent disguised as a man and joined the Spanish army. Ordinary women donned men’s clothing to earn a higher wage in industry or to fight in the English Civil War.
But now cross-dressing women are being erased from the historical record and turned into men. As part of their Pride of Place: England's LGBTQ Heritage project, Historic England has categorised male-dressing soldiers Hannah Snell and Mary Anne Talbot as members of the historic trans and gender-crossing community. Margaret Ann Bulkley, a Victorian woman who lived and worked as Dr. James Barry because women were barred from middle-class professional life, was recently described by the Guardian as a 'secret transgender surgeon'. Since President Trump tweeted about his transgender military ban, the brave and patriotic women who fought in the American Civil War disguised as men have been reclassified as 'transgender soldiers' by newspapers from the Washington Post to the LA Times.
Of course, historians have been bringing to light legitimate examples of historical transgenderism for decades. The 14th-century prostitute John (or Eleanor) Rykener, for example, or colonial Virginia’s Thomas(ine) Hall may well be examples of individuals who lived as another sex because, like many trans people today, they felt their innate sense of gender identity did not conform to their birth sex.
But this is entirely distinct from the phenomenon of pragmatic female self-disguise. Retrospectively superimposing a trans narrative onto historical situations that had little or nothing to do with transgenderism is a different matter entirely. To reclaim defiant women as transgender men is an untruthful rewriting of history, conflating shrewd, practical strategy to enhance status and opportunity with the separate issue of personal identity. It wilfully distorts historical context, ignoring the suffocating and life-destroying realities that denied women the right to live full lives in the first place. It obscures history for ideological purpose, in order to corroborate the current move towards a society that embraces gender-switching. It is a hijacking of women’s history, a flagrant erasure of women's achievements, and a denial of the savvy ways in which women have imaginatively and bravely adapted to their circumstances throughout history.
Hilary Mantel recently warned against the desire to impose our present-day values on our reading of the past. The implications for the rigorous and truthful accounting of history are obvious. But the political consequences are troubling, too. Undeniably, the logical conclusion of this line of thinking – that women who defied the odds in order to live fuller lives were really men all along – is deeply sexist. Is that the story we want to tell girls already boxed in by the pink, frilly dresses and dolls pushed on them by supermarkets and advertising?
The recent BBC show No More Boys and Girls struck a chord with the public because it showed that children, once offered an alternative, are as quick to reject gender stereotypes as they were to absorb them in the first place. The trend to pathologise children because they do not wear the right clothes or play with the right toys is causing alarm to doctors and parents. Anyone can see the inherent problem of telling a little girl that because she wants to wear dungarees or play with a toy car that she is really a boy. Equally, telling her that Joan of Arc was a man all along is not a sign of a modern society making progress – it is a harmful and poisonous act, reinforcing the sick logic of gender repression and making her feel that the sexists were right – women cannot do the same things as men.
Cerys Howell is a writer and doctoral researcher in women’s lament in ancient culture and Elizabethan literature