A few weeks ago, when I was in Maine for the weekend I found time to read Alison Oram’s slim little volume on gender crossing in mid-twentieth century England (1920-1960s, roughly), as reported in the popular press. Her Husband Was a Woman!: Women’s gender crossing in modern British pop culture (New York: Routledge, 2007) explores how gender identity and sexual orientation was understood — or at least reported — in tabloid newspapers, and how it changed over time from the dawn of the twentieth century to the postwar era.
While clearly a scholarly monograph with a very narrow focus, Oram’s book does a nice job of historicizing how we understand the relationship between gender crossing behavior and sexual identity. She is careful not to read backward onto women in earlier eras categories of identity that did not exist (transgender, for example) or were understood differently then. At the same time, she describes how those categories emerged and how they, in turn, influenced how gender crossing was reported in the press and understood by the individuals featured in the stories.
She draws mostly on stories of women we would today likely understand as transgender or butch lesbian: women who were read as men in their society (through the clothes they wore and the social roles they fulfilled) and were partnered with women. Some women began crossing as a way of escaping the constraints of femininity (to see better-paying employment, for example) and found it suited them. Others seem to have been drawn for more nebulous reasons to identify as men.
Oram compares the stories of these on-the-street gender crossers with women who performed in drag on stage, in situations where the audience knew the actor was female but bought into the male persona on stage. These performers, who were well-known and adored throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th provided a framework for tabloid journalists to understand gender crossing as something that was not necessarily tied (as it would later become) to lesbianism — even though many of the real-life gender crossers were in same-sex relationships.
According to Oram, the early tabloid reports focused on the performance aspect of gender crossing, marveling (in a positive sense) at the women’s ability to succeed in moving about the world as a man. As the twentieth century wore on, and scientific models of gender and sexuality were more widely discussed, medical language about sex changes and lesbianism began to creep into the reports. Gender crossing became more closely linked to same-sex relationships (which in turn were suspect) and the theatrical element of women’s drag performances faded.
The book is a quick read, which I highly recommend to anyone with a particular interest in how cultural interpretations of gender expression and sexual identity have changed over time.