Wednesday 9 November 2011

Pioneer Cross-Dressers by Caroline Lawrence

Cross-dressing Caroline Lawrence
We've been having some fun discussions about cross-dressing here at the History Girls blog over the past four weeks. We have talked about cross-dressing in historical fiction, cross-dressing in TV tropes (including manga), cross-dressing in real life, sometimes even cross-dressing in our own lives, (usually as tomboys mistaken for real boys or dressing up for "research" purposes.)

My current passion is America in the second half of the 19th century.

It was an age of pioneers, visionaries & non-conformists. My own maternal ancestors headed west in the 1860s and spent subsequent decades in Utah, then Nevada, then Washington and finally California.

It was a period when pioneer women often travelled thousands of miles under unimaginably harsh conditions, wearing whalebone corsets, narrow bonnets and hoop skirts that could easily catch fire. It was a period when pregnancy was considered something almost shameful and never an excuse to rest from chores.

It was a period when thousands of men went off to war, leaving the women to run their stores, farms and businesses while continuing their normal female duties.

It was a challenging time to be a woman. The stories of female fortitude never fail to humble me.

hoping the men are making the right life-or-death choices...
The 2011 film Meek's Cutoff shows us female fortitude under unusually constrained conditions. The story follows three pioneer families and their guide on the Oregon Trail. Stephen Meek is an arrogant "guide" full of bluster and bravado. He has suggested the eponymous shortcut and now the pioneers seem to be hopelessly lost. The women have to work hard at cleaning, cooking, mending and knitting while Meek and their husbands ride ahead and gaze off towards the horizon, making life or death decisions.

They movie is a clever piece of storytelling. When the lights in the cinema first go down, the curtains part all the way, but the film occupies only the middle of the wide screen. Why would the filmmaker do that? Kelly Reichardt is showing us the world from the women's point of view: blinkered by their bonnets.

Later, the audience has to strain to hear what the men up ahead are saying. Why did the filmmaker do that? Why didn't she make the sound quality better? Once again we realise that Kelly Reichardt is showing us how bonnets could muffle your hearing as well as restrict your vision. And how the men aren't concerned with what the women think anyway.

Miss Frances Clayton
Is it any wonder that some women rebelled against constricting clothes and restricting social mores? Is it any wonder that some women craved the freedom that men enjoyed?

In my research, I have come across several types of real-life cross-dressers from this period. They are invariably women who chose to dress as men, not vice versa.

First are the women who dressed as men for a few hours at a time at the melodeon or music hall. (For more on British Music Hall cross-dressers, check out Essie Fox's recent History Girls blog.)

Then there are the women who pretended to be boys or young men in order to enlist in the Civil War. Unwilling to "stay at home and weep", many of them wanted to actively take part. Some kept up the ruse for months or even years. Some were only discovered after being wounded or killed. Others were never found out. Many of them, like Frances Clayton (above) could spit, swear and drink as well as any other soldier. You can read more about these women soldiers of the Civil War HERE.

Something strange about that driver...
But the most astonishing breed of pioneer cross-dressers were the women who passed most of their lives as men.

Some of these women will never be known, for they kept their secret to the grave.

But one of them is quite famous.

Charlie Parkhurst came to California during the Gold Rush of 1849 and found his calling as a stagecoach driver. Charlie wore an eye-patch, smoked cigars and packed a pistol. He once fought off an outlaw called Sugarfoot and his gang while driving the passenger-filled stagecoach at breakneck speed. He performed other acts of bravery and skill and boasted that no passenger was ever injured on his watch. But "One-Eyed" Charlie was an eccentric. He slept in the barn with the horses, liked to bathe alone in streams, never drank on the job and never visited the "girls upstairs". Finally, after thirty years on the job, rheumatism forced Charlie to retire to Watsonville, California. Later he got cancer but refused all medical treatment.

Charlie died in 1879 and when a routine autopsy was performed, imagine everyone's surprise when it was discovered that he was a she! Charlie's real name was Charlotte. She had been a horse-loving orphan who came west to start a new life. And boy, did she have a new life; I haven't told you the half of it!

As always, history often comes up with stories more amazing than anything we could invent.

The hero of Caroline Lawrence's first Western Mystery is P.K. Pinkerton, a 12-year-old private eye and master of disguise (i.e. cross-dresser par excellence). The Case of the Deadly Desperados is available in hardback, kindle or audiobook format. 


Sue Purkiss said...

So many interesting things and people. Will look out for that film.
Thanks, Caroline!

Essie Fox said...

Another film on my list. Great post.

adele said...

And on mine! Super post, Caroline. And a friend of mine said to me just on MOnday night how she hated having the hood up on her parka because she couldn't then HEAR anything properly..

Katherine Langrish said...

Those bonnets are amazing. Just like the hijab, and not too different in signalling female modeesty either. It sounds like a very interesting film!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

When I was a docent at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, I went against the grain and focused on the mining displays. I also did tours (lots of walking) and hikes, and no way did I want to do all those things in women's wear.

I asked about wearing men's clothes, and the volunteer coordinator said as long as I could document examples of real-life instances, it was fine.

Found a wonderful daguerreotype of a young woman in what looked like secondhand men's clothes. So I bought some fall-front trousers a few sizes to big, a voluminous shirt, and cinched it all up with a rustic leather belt.

So much more practical and comfortable!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Loved your photograph Caroline! A famous military English doctor in South Africa in the early 1800's wore three-inch soles, and his shoulders seemed so padded with cotton wool, that the local Malay people called him the "Kapok Doktor".(the cotton wool doctor)He rode around in full military uniform and was fantastic at assisting in childbirth. When he died in Britain he was discovered to be a woman by his charlady as she was laying him out. Dr 'James' Barry was buried in Kensal Rise cemetery, London.

Stephanie said...

That was very interesting. Thanks for sharing! I love learning new things about history like that.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Anjelica, I'm going to get in touch with you to talk more about women in the Gold Rush. Dianne, thanks for that anecdote about Dr James Barry, the "Kapok Doctor". It reminds me of a story of one of the Christian hermits in the Syrian desert. He was a devout eunuch and it was only when they went to bury him that they discovered he was a she!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

Hi Caroline, I sent you a DM through Twitter with my email. I also used to run the research library at Marshall Gold, so I have some good resources.