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A History of Women in Men’s Clothes by Norena Shopland

A History of Women in Men’s Clothes: from cross-dressing to empowerment

Pen and Sword Books, June 2021

Norena Shopland


Ménie Muriel Dowie (1867–1945) rode through the Carpathian Mountains alone and described her travels in a number of popular books. Her Women Adventurers (1893) covers well-known cross-dressing individuals.

Traditionally, many women have been seen as bound by social conventions, unable to travel unless accompanied and limited in their ability to do what they wanted, when they wanted. But thousands upon thousands of women broke those rules, put on men’s clothing, travelled, worked, and even lived whole lives as men.

Books on women who dressed and lived as men have been written but they tend to concentrate on well-known examples and are often categorised as ‘other’, focusing on sexual orientation, gender identity, or women serving in the armed forces. What I set out to do in A History of Women in Men’s Clothes was to show that these women were not ‘other’ but an integral part of women’s history. Furthermore, most of the examples in the book are of working-class women whose stories are so often neglected.

Women had been cross-dressing, cross-working, and cross-living for centuries but an increased access to newspapers and novels in the second half of the nineteenth century saw numbers soar. Observations during this research shows the media abandoned a self-governing rule not to name women, presumably for fear of shaming them and/or their families. This increased coverage and access gave women courage as well as providing a set language allowing them to copy each other’s motives and pretexts.

There were many reasons why women wanted to break out of social conventions – to escape constricted lives; to watch a hanging or visit a museum; to elope with a lover; to commit a crime; to see family; or escape domestic abuse; while some wanted to earn a decent living when women’s wages could not keep a family. Some women would cross-dress to escape domestic violence or sexual molestation from the husband or others. Some, suspecting their spouse of infidelity, would cross-dress in order to follow or find him while others went to the extreme and disguised themselves in order to assassinate their unfaithful partner, or seek revenge. Some simply had affairs and needed to get from A to B.

Sometimes parents deliberately dressed their young daughters as boys in order to earn more money, for men throughout history, and even today, are generally paid higher wages. Some parents cross-dressed their girls when they knew they were about to be orphaned, for as a boy they would fare better in the world.

What has rarely been shown in depth before is the enormous number of women who were employed in trades where they cross-dressed and cross-lived, often for extensive periods, in hard physical labour normally associated with men. It is astonishing just how many women worked as miners, navvies on railways and roads, shipbuilding, stokers, on the docks and in quarries. This was often to gain better wages after the husband had died or run off leaving the woman to raise a family on impossibly low wages.

Some were quickly arrested and put on display in court, to deter other women from such shameful behaviour, but many more got away with it. This shame was rooted in the Biblical stricture that men and women may not wear the clothes of the opposite sex:

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.

Deuteronomy 22.5 (KJV)

Some countries went as far as making it illegal for women to wear trousers. While it was never against the law in the UK, France did not repeal its law until 2013 and in some countries today women can be publicly whipped for wearing what is regarded as revealing garments.

There has always been a fascination with those women who cross-lived as sailors and soldiers and numerous books have been written covering the subject: putting the relevant terms in an internet search engine will return many titles. However, as with most of these works, they tend to replicate the same famous names and stories. so my book looks at the vast number of girls and women who have never been written about and thousands of small stories which have never or rarely appeared outside the original source are included. They include those who attempted to enlist but were caught; who tried to fool press gangs by pretending to be male relatives while the man escaped; who followed or avenged loved ones; living as pirates or going into battle and many more. Some only survived a few days or weeks before being discovered or gave themselves up unable to cope with the harsh conditions but others lived years, sometimes lifetimes, on small ships or army barracks surrounded by men.

For those individuals with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, cross-living provided a perfect means to be together openly as a couple. There is an abundance of stories casually mentioning individuals living with women showing that many people we would today consider lesbian or trans were living long and successful lives, until they were discovered: a positive reinforcement that gay women and transmen can always be found in history.

A History of Women in Men’s Clothes looks at just some of the many individuals who broke conventions in the only way they could, by disguising themselves either for a brief moment or a whole life. But my research only included English language sources and recorded individuals. We have to ask how many more thousands of women were crossing these gender boundaries throughout history?

Norena Shopland is a writer and historian specialising in the history of sexual orientation and gender identity. Her books include Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales (2017); The Veronal Mystery (2020); A Practical Guide to Searching LGBTQIA Historical Records (2021); A History of Women in Men’s Clothes: from cross-dressing to empowerment (2021). Norena also writes on Welsh history and works include The Curious Case of the Eisteddfod Baton (2019), The Welsh Gold King (forthcoming 2022). She is currently working with the Big Pit Museum on the first exhibition of 19th century Welsh women working in the coal industry.