In this paper, we will be interested in the question of the female husbands in the eighteen century British society. More particularly, our focus point will be the Mary Hamilton case described by Fielding in his pamphlet The Female Husband, published in 1746. However, according to Sheridan Baker in Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband : Fact and Fiction, on page 213, the author modified some of the real facts. For example, Fielding shifted the male name from Charles Hamilton to George. Sheridan Baker also highlights some parallels between Fielding’s fictional characters and the way he wrote the discourse in the pamphlet. He speaks about the similarities between Mrs Rushford and Mary Price’s ways of speak. This fictional part of the pamphlet creates questions about the reality of the female husbands. So, we will picture the background from the artistic wold to the Fielding’s text to conclude by a representation of those women.
Cross-dressing : a notion of seduction
Cross dressing as used in theater since the sixteenth century because women were forbidden on stage. So, men had to dress as women to perform the plays. But, as it is mentioned on page 22 of A Lesbian History of Britain by Rebecca Jennings, in the eighteen century, women started to go on stage. And more than that, they dressed as men to play male roles. The reversal was a way to attract more public, women were a symbol of seduction even cross-dressed. Females were the embodiment of seduction and the cross-dressing made them even more attractive towards the audience. Rebecca Jennings developed the example of the actress : Margaret Woffington. She was a famous actress of the eighteen century Britain and was familiar with cross-dressing. It was an other way to approach the female beauty. It created a kind of mystery around the body because feminine attributes were hidden and bodies were shaped by the clothes to look as masculine as possible.
In 1739, Margaret Woffington played the role of Harry Wildair in Farquhar’s The Constant Couple.
Margaret as Harry Wildair
by William Hoare
Cross-dressing : an example of early feminism?
Males had the power in the eighteen century British society so we can think that if women dressed as men, it was a way for them to get a little of this masculine power. And it was the case. On Friday the 20th of November 1719, the newspaper the Free-Thinker published an article on «philifophizing upon the Nature of Coquetterie». The first paragraph is about the frontier between men and women and the idea that the limit between gender is not clear. He told the reader about «this bewitching Quality is as apparent even in Men» (The Free-Thinker, 1719, 1). It means that women acted in coquetterie and seduction as men did. There was a kind of shift in power. Then, later in the article, he gave the example of a woman called Angelica who was not well seen by society because she seduced men exactly in the way that a man could seduce a woman. Because of Coquetterie, men lost their control on the field of romance and seduction. But they still had this dominant place in the couple and upon society.
Cross-dressed women lived as men towards society so they get the same rights as men. They were free and had power but they were biologically women. So, as Rebecca Jennings on page 25, it was a certain kind of feminism. But it was seen as an offense by society. Cross-dressing was not officially considered as a crime but women living as men and who married an other women were accuse of stealing the woman’s goods. Once again, this is only a matter of power. They were accused only on a material basis, not the moral point of view. And power comes with money and at that time, women were not supposed to be financially independent from her husband. So, those women were attacked because they got more freedom than their initial place in society let them have.
So, the daily cross-dressing can be seen as a step towards feminism because it was a way for women to exist in the outside society and not only in the inside wold of their homes.
The Mary Hamilton case of 1746
In his pamphlet Female Husband, Henri Fielding exposed the cross-dressing case of Mary alias George Hamilton. In the introduction, he described Mary Hamilton as someone «who was convicted of having married a Young Woman of WELLS and lived with her as her husband» (Fielding, 1746, 2).
The first idea developed in the pamphlet is the criticism of homosexuality. This is the entire first paragraph of the second page. The argument that a woman as to be married to a man not only «for the continuance of the human fpecies» (Fielding, 1746, 3) but also because this is an attitude «directed by virtue and religion» (Fielding, 1746, 3) and this is the «moft rational felicity» (Fielding, 1746, 3). Those women’s behavior not only went against society but most important against the principals as fundamental as religion from which this same society came from.
He used very strong terms to depict the general situation of female husbands. According to Fielding «there is nothing monftrous and unnatural, which they are not capable of inventing , nothing fo brutal and fhocking which they have not actually committed» (Fielding, 1746, 3). This is on this exposed point of view that he started to tell the story of Mary alias George Hamilton. He first explained the education that Mary received as a chid. Telling that she was raised in the respect of her condition in the «principles of virtue and religion» (Fielding, 1746, 4). So, her mother did her best to prevent her daughter from vice but despite her efforts, Mary was guilty of «the moft abominable and unnatural pollutions» (Fielding, 1746, 3).
He followed the chronology of the events by telling her meeting with «Anne Johnfon a neighbour of hers» (Fielding, 1746, 4). Then came the description of the process in which their relationship evolved from friendship to a romantic relationship. He used testimonies from both women to reinforce the truth of the history and those letters were nothing less than love letters. But he did not mention love because according to his point of view, love can be between a man and his wife only. He pulled a moral from this story because at the very end, we learnt thatMary had been condemned to whipping and sent to prison. Fielding wrote : « The prifoner having been convicted of this bafe and fcandalous crime, was by the court fentenced to be publickly and feverely whipt four feveral times» (Fielding, 1746, 24).
We could even read a general warning towards the readers on the last page : «But it is to be hoped that this example will be fufficient to deter all others from commiffion of any fuch foul and unnatural crimes» (Fielding, 1746, 25). There was a moral conclusion to this history, trying to be a man when you were not was a crime which had to be hardly punished because each role had its own world and had to stay in.
But we can question the truthfulness of Mary Hamilton’s story because of the tittle of the pamphlet which is « The surprising history of Mary Hamilton» so the end could be darkened by Fielding to be used as a moral. Nonetheless, Ann Marrow, a female husband had be condemned for money fraud in 1777 because she had been accused to benefit from her wife’s money because she pretended to be a man to marry her. (Jennings, 2007, 34, and The Gentleman Magazine 5th of July 1777)
Here are two prints of Mary Read and Ann Bonny. They were pirates in the Bahamas during the 1720’s.
On this print, we can see that they are dressed as men but showing their female attributes.
They are using weapon so having the same status as male pirates.
On the second print, the women are represented breasts hidden. The only sign of femininity are their long hair. They were a real case of daily cross-dressing.