“Female Husbands: A Trans History” delves deep into culture and norms

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Interior page illustration from
Interior page illustration from "Female Husbands: A Trans History"

In Review: Female Husbands by Jen Manion

In pursuit for knowledge and history of queer, transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary community, comes Amherst College associate professor Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History. The eclectic history delves deep into Western roots of social and systematic policing of bodies, gender, sexuality, and race through the social hierarchy of the binary, misogynistic patriarchy as far as can be traced from the mid-1700s onward.

Cover of the book "Female Husbands: A Trans History"
Cover of the book “Female Husbands: A Trans History”

The term “female husband” dates back over 200 hundred years in Anglo-American culture as a means to describe people who defied categorization. “Though assigned female at birth,” writes Manion, “female husbands assumed a legal, social, and economic position reserved for men: that of a husband.”

Manion’s research began in 2012 in a proposal about gender nonconformity within the 19th century before discovering the term “female husbands.”

In the 20th century mindset was a link that gender nonconformity was directly associated with homosexuality. This extension of the gender binary has since, and only recently, been broken. With this broken link, Manion began tracing the story of gender and transness throughout time. As a result, Female Husbands arrives as a priceless truth to uncovering the oversimplification and erasure of trans and queer life in Western history.

“We have all this terminology in our community that is amazing because it allows us to speak more precisely about who we are,” Manion said. “And when we are together and we all share and understand what those terms mean it can be incredibly affirming, and when we are talking to people that don’t understand our language it can be alienating and we have to translate.”

Female husbands became a term that everyone kind of knew, even though it was unconventional and problematic

Female husbands became a term that everyone kind of knew, even though it was presented as unconventional and problematic. An example of this spurs with narratives like James Howe of Poplar, England, who transformed themselves into a man and then husband by the age of 16 in 1732. Howe lived as a man for more than 30 years and was married to their beloved wife Mary. They were held in high esteem by the community as the owner of the popular White Horse Tavern.

However, their prosperity was challenged by a Mrs. Bentley who recognized Howe from their childhood. In threatening to out them as a female, Mrs. Bentley’s extortion of James Howe began. The final straw dropped when Bentley hired a constable and a policeman to threaten to charge Howe with “going in disguise in man’s apparel being a woman” unless Howe coughed up 100 pounds. This and the death of their beloved Mary would lead to Howe’s decision to undo their public gender.

In the timeline covered in Female Husband, Manion draws lines where the stories of the past morphs, changes, and even erases the experience of black trans individuals. Although white Female Husbands were heavily dehumanized, racial privilege was a ligament to those privileges in American colonialism and slavery. In a section titled “Criminalized Poor,” police, magistrates, or constables play a huge role in keeping the status quo of racial and gender hierarchy asserted.

Female Husbands can weave moments in history that uncover why intersections of activism and community are imperative to today’s civil rights movement, integrating like never before the intersections of BIPOC and LGBTQ. By understanding the layers of intense policing, criminalizing, and brutalizing of spaces that encouraged intermingling of people across race, class, sex work, gambling, entertainment, and gender nonconformity, people can better understand the grossly adopted international racism, xenophobia, transphobia, and sexism that infiltrated and still infiltrate systems and infrastructures of the world today.

When we come back to the collected history, Manion reminds us that most of these stories are through third person accounts from the gender and racial hierarchy. “I definitely feel protective of female husbands and queer lives,” Manion said.

Racial privilege of female husbands contributed to theft from Native American communities. Whiteness was a leg to stand on. For example, female husband, Joseph Lobdell (known as the female hunter) was hired to hold land in what became the future site of Kandiyohi County in the state of Minnesota.

“People have been denied their history,” Manion said. “I hope my book acts as a bridge, that you could give [Female Husbands] to a straight, cis person and say read this and it’ll make sense to them because it is history, right? It’s pretty straightforward but at the same time it’ll give them a window into our life.”

Female Husbands, by Jen Manion, ©2020, Cambridge University Press, $24.95, 350 pages.