Historical Intrigue: Women Cross-Dressers

annakareninastillI’ve always found stories with cross-dressing heroines to be quite compelling. To name three works that revolve around this subject: Sarah Waters’ TIPPING THE VELVET(novel), SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE(film) and Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT(play/film). Then there’s also the endless list of historical romance novels with cross-dressing heroines (click here for the list) among which is Georgette Heyer’s THESE OLD SHADES for those looking for a more witty, Austen-esque quality.

I wonder what it is about cross-dressing heroines that so fascinates us?


Women (usually single and of a poor background) turned to cross-dressing to escape their economic and social disadvantages.

Margaret Hunt has pointed out “that in the early modern period women attempted to pass as men in far larger numbers than was at once thought, often precisely for the purpose of escaping their families, supporting themselves independently at higher-paying and more interesting jobs than ones women usually were able to maintain, gaining skills they would normally not have access to and escaping the pressure to marry.”

Many women cross-dressers believed that by wearing trousers and performing the ‘masculine role’ they could claim the economic/social advantages that men possessed and also escape their domestic confines and ‘powerlessness’.

Diane Dugaw comments that for cross-dressing women, “disguise seemed to go hand in hand with breaking out of custodial confinement whether of parents or husbands. Dressed as men they could travel at liberty without requiring masculine guardianship.”


Dr. Barry

A famous cross-dressing woman was Dr. James Miranda Barry (1799 – 1865). In the account of Dr. Barry, Bridget Hill writes: “At the age of ten [Barry] enrolled as a medical student at Edinburgh University. In 1813 She joined the army and became Colonial medical officer. She went to Cape Town, where she became physician to the governor… She was a great flirt with women she found attractive.”

There are also cases of women who went to war by cross-dressing as soldiers or sailors. In England there is a relatively small number of women who, for their own mixed motives, became soldiers and sailors:

Cases of cross-dressing isn’t only confined to England. In Holland, for instance, there are more than a hundred documented cases of young women who in male disguise set out for the Dutch East Indies to seek their fortune.

Among the many reasons why women turned to cross-dressing, there was nearly always some elements of ESCAPE.

Bridget Hill, “Ways of Escape,” in Women Alone: Spinsters in England 1660-1850. (London: Yale University Press), 126-142



P.S. My LONNNGGGG-neglected Period Drama Rating page has been updated. I decided to review each film/series within (approximately) 150 letters. I’ll be dedicating an entire entry to a period drama only if I think it’s worth it and only if I have the time.

My Writing Music:

5 thoughts on “Historical Intrigue: Women Cross-Dressers

  1. Pingback: Cross-dressers ‘strut stuff’ on runway | Cbcburke9's Blog

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