Wednesday 22 March 2023

Review: 'Female Husbands' by Jen Manion

 A female husband is someone born female who lived as a man and took a wife, we tend to know their stories because something the exposed them to the public. As such, female husbands are at an interesting crossroads of gender, sexuality and sociological expectations and the book, Female Husbands by Jen Manion examines these clearly, with detail and nuance.

I was first introduced to the notion of female husbands due to the Fielding piece of the same title, this piece set a template for a form of newspaper story that would be popular in the UK until 1800 and the US after. What’s interesting, is that the tropes of these stories may have then led other people to attempt being female husbands for themselves.

The book introduces us to a number of female husbands, taking them at chronological order and examining what each case reveals about female husbandary in general, the people involved in specific and about the way they were seen and treated reveals about the societies they lived in. These ranged from the ‘well known’ story of Deborah Sampson (well known in America I suppose) to Adolph Guelph (who pretended to be a nobleman forced to live as a woman sometimes), Joseph Lobdell (who lived as a woodsman) and James Allen (outed by a workplace accident). While there are certain patterns to the female husband story, partly arising from conventions in how such stories were reported, the individuals and their stories are well told, interesting and different.

It did feel a little strange sometimes to have these people described as they/them, as it seemed clear that many would have preferred he/him and some comfortable as she/her. In fact, the only pronouns none of the subjects would have used for themselves was they/them, as understanding and language beyond a gender binary wouldn’t have been known to them. However, I did see the purpose of they/them pronouns in being a way to easily talk about the totality of their lives, both when they lived as men and as women in a tidy way.

I’m British, aka a resident of TERF-island and even as a person who’d rather tuck myself into a nice book, I’ve not been able to escape all the think pieces about ‘the gender debate’. One feature of this debate is that it’s almost always about transwomen, transmen are either infantalised as women who’ve fallen off the noble path or ignored completely. The question always seems to be ‘what is a woman?’ but this novel raises the question ‘what is a man?’ - or at the very least, ‘what does is mean to be a husband?’. For many of the female husbands in this book, being a husband was, in the eyes of the community, sufficient proof of manhood.

I found this particularly interesting in the case of James Allen. Married for over twenty years, he (and I’m sticking with he for this person) was a hard-worker who not only fulfilled his role as husband but also took part as a good man in his community. It wasn’t until a workplace accident left him dead that a coroner’s inquest found him to be biologically female. However, the coroner declared him a man on his death certificate as he had been married by law and so was legally male, whatever his biology said. In his case, being a man was a result of successfully (and even admirably, according to his neighbours) embodying the role of man. 

I found it interesting that most of the female husbands in this book were working class. It does highlight the economic aspect of living as a man. Men had more freedom to roam and more access to better paid jobs. However, this doesn’t mean that living as a man was purely pragmatic, had it been, more women would have done it. I suppose there was also greater restrictions for upper class women, especially those whose womanhood (and ability to have children) are tied to the passing on of great estates. There’s also an interesting economic element of marriage, that while these marriages may have been emotionally and sexually fulfilling (and some may not of course) there was economic sense in marrying and pooling resources - a function of marriage beyond sex and gender.

One very interesting aspect in the relationship was the greater position of power of the wife in such a marriage. While a cis-marriage gave all the power to the husband, the wife to a female-husband could pull the plug on the marriage and cite the ‘true’ sex of their spouse at any time. The examples from the papers show that society is ready to believe a wife who says she was tricked, however unlikely that seems, in order to restore ‘normal’ function. At the same time, if a marriage was outed by accident, like in James Allen’s case, the wife would have a lot of difficult questions to answer. 

As time went on, the problem people had with female husbandry seemed to lie less in the taking on of a masculine gender, especially as women were securing more rights, but in the notion of a same sex marriage. This is when the phrase female husband was replaced by woman husband. I found it very interesting how this change in nomenclature changes the nature of the relationship from a female (sex) husband (gender) to a woman (gender) husband (gender). Which aside from anything else helped me understand the difference between the terms female and woman and also helped me understand why misogynist weirdoes always use the word female where woman would fit more comfortably.

I enjoyed this book, it presented a difficult and complex topic with admirable clarity, gave me a lot to think about and had me wondering a few things also. One wonder I couldn’t shake off was, ‘what about the female husbands who were never discovered?’ Did they exist or was it inevitable that they would be found out? I also thought a discussion of Charlotte Charke might have been interesting, they’re mentioned briefly but dismissed, despite living as a husband with a woman for a number of years. What’s interesting about them is that they were famous before living as a man and only did so when that fame had dimmed, despite that fame being based on playing male parts - often as parodies of her own acting family. I just thought her story may have something to give.

I have used a lot of parentheses in this review, I think it’s because it’s a knotty and delicate topic and I’ve tried to be nuanced, even if that isn’t my greatest strength.

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