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Healing is hard work. Sometimes a survivor just needs a little easy diversion; a book, maybe?

Don’t make it Jen Manion’s new book, Female Husbands: A Trans History (Cambridge University Press, 2020); it isn’t an easy diversion. In fact, trans and non-binary readers are likely to wince their way through it.

It’s not that the book is bad or filled with violence. Manion reports on people who were whipped or put into stocks, but a more common punishment for discovering that a man had female anatomy was forcing them to wear women’s clothes. Instead, readers’ winces are likely to be over the big themes, many of which we are still struggling with.

  • What is the definition of a man? Can you just start living as a man, or does everyone around you have to agree that’s what you are? If you don’t make an affirmative declaration of who you are (or that declaration doesn’t survive), who gets to choose your label?
  • Do you need to have a wife to be seen as a man? If you do have a wife, in a crisis, will she deny you to save herself?
  • What happens when media gets involved (as they did in every case in Female Husbands; otherwise we would not know of these people). The media exists to get readers and make money; different outlets’ stories about the same person or couple had some to many discrepancies. How much was each story distorted to attract attention or fit existing beliefs?
  • How do larger social movements, race, and class influence how individual lives are seen? 

The scope of the book is UK “husbands” from 1740-1840 and US “husbands” from 1830-1910. Manion is fully aware that her work is situated in the boiling crossroads of history and identity: Was this person a trans man, a passing woman (female-identified, but working as a male to escape sexist barriers), or a lesbian? Because the subjects of these pages didn’t leave written answers to these questions, much of what Manion explores is how the rest of the world saw them. These observations were, of course, shaped by race and class and other forces completely outside the given person’s control. For example, how do we call anyone a lesbian when there is no record at all of anyone’s sexual behavior? Yet sexuality was a theme: many media reports hinted of the possibility of sex “between two women,” possibly solely to attract readers.

One of the first challenges Manion takes on is pronouns. Given the unknown preferences of her subjects and wanting to avoid switching pronouns based on how the person was presenting in any given time period, Manion chooses to call everyone “they” throughout their lifespan. Another potentially controversial underpinning is that Manion argues that having a female wife largely solidified public perception that a person was male, which is why she titled the book Female Husbands. Accordingly, she even gives the ones without a wife – the sailors and soldiers – their own chapter.

There isn’t a lot of joy to be found in Female Husbands. Perhaps there couldn’t be, given that the only reason we know of these people is that others found them worthy of media attention. There weren’t diaries or journals that record achievements and happy events, although they can be intuited through long-lived marriages and records of weddings. But the stories are of daring, resilience, persistence, and creativity. And we should know our history. Female Husbands is definitely worth the time, winces notwithstanding.