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:

HISTORY!!! Now that I have your attention…

Note: If you don’t care to read about my Oliver, scroll down to check out the movie poster of an upcoming period movie!

1) I’m researching for a major paper and came across one of the many rare books at my university (can’t wait to touch ’em all *creepy laughter*!). It contained pages so brown with age that I had to be careful as I flipped through, as the paper would literally break between my fingertips. I was enchanted.

The thought that I was holding within my bare hands a book published in 1852…meaning that 158 years ago another person had held this very book… To be exact, that other person had been OLIVER. My heart fluttered reading this name. I became curious about the hand, the MAN, who scribbled down his name. With a quill pen.

Quill pen *swoons* 

1852….that’s like….that’s around when North and South takes place!!! Maybe this Mr. Oliver gentleman was a Mr. Thornton? Hmmmm. *Caresses book* 

  2) Books I’m dying to get my hands on after the deluge of essays and readings comes to an end. Maybe during the winter break:

  • M.M. Bennetts’ Of Honest Fame (It’s by one of my favorite novelist & historian whom I had the honour of interviewing)
  • Michel Faber’s Crimson Petal and the White (Read the first few pages. A very unique voice. And I mean…quite, quite unique)
  • Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin (Why do I want to read this book? It’s about a prostitute in 18th century. Go figure)
  • James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last Mohican (I loved the movie)

Yes, they’re all historical  fictions. And yes, I’m having a Historical-fic-fetish of late.

While I was in search of supporting evidences for my analysis of this one historical movie, I came across a very interesting passage in Rosenstone’s article “The Historical Film as Real History”. He discusses the difference between historical romance movies and historical movies—and I realized his points very much clarified for me the major difference between the two book genres: historical romance (HR) & historical fiction (HF). So, for anyone interested in a simple and  clear explanation as to the differences in these two genres:

To be considered historical, rather than simply a costume drama that uses the past as an exotic setting for romance and adventure, a film must engage, directly or obliquely, the issues, ideas, data, and arguments of the ongoing discourse of history. Like the book, the historical film cannot exist in a state of historical innocence, cannot indulge in capricious invention, cannot ignore the findings and assertions and arguments of what we already know from other sources. Like any work of history, a film must be judged in terms of the knowledge of the past that we already possess. Like any work of history, it must situate itself within a body of other works, the ongoing (multimedia) debate over the importance of events and the meaning of the past.

3) Check out this poster for the upcoming movie WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2011). “Lindsay Lohan campaigned for the role [of romantic heroine Catherine Earnshaw] but...” another actress replaced her. And then that replacement was eventually replaced. And replaced again. And now I’m not quite certain who the role was given to. Anyway…uhh….thank goodness Lohan didn’t get the role? I can’t imagine her playing the lead role in a PERIOD MOVIE. Maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to so much bad press about Lohan on tabloids while waiting in line at grocery stores. So if I saw her on-screen as Catherine Earnshaw…I would not see Catherine Earnshaw but the celebrity-in-rehab-and-in-court-and-in-court-again. Gee, I remember the good old days when she was in Parents Trap….

I digress. 

Here’s a photo of Mia Wasikowska (she played Alice in…Alice in Wonderland) from the new JANE EYRE (2011) adaptation! Another adaptation that’ll hit theatres next year. I can see a bit of Alice in Ms. Eyre, peeking into the room without knowing that she’ll soon be tumbling down into a world of romantic madness!



Listening to: