Presenting Gender: Changing Sex in Early-Modern Culture

By Chris Mounsey | Go to book overview

Women Behaving Well:
Early Modern Images of Female Courage

CAROLYN D. WILLIAMS

ALTHOUGH FEMALE TRANSVESTITES APPEAR FREQUENTLY IN FACTUAL and fictional writing from Shakespeare's time to the end of the eighteenth century, they cause surprisingly little disturbance to the social order. Serious challenges to traditional gender demarcation might be expected to arise from cases where women disguised themselves as men and, in order to play out their role, displayed a degree of physical courage or moral fortitude that contemporaries normally defined as "masculine." Such behavior might have been perceived as a challenge to the theory and practice of patriarchy. It might also have led to speculation about the authenticity of the femininity from which these women had supposedly deviated. Were they unnatural freaks or the product of exceptional circumstances or indications of a latent potential common to many women? In the latter case, what was to be made of the widespread belief that women were feeble creatures, helpless in any emergency and afraid of their own shadows? This investigation will reveal a fascinating variety of opinions about female nature, together with a surprising degree of complacency about the sort of lives "normal" women led.

Dianne Dugaw's invaluable insights must be the starting point for any investigation of this subject. She finds that the "Female Warrior," popular in ballads, drama, and other media, integrates three important features of early modern social history: "the physical toughness" that the age demanded from lower-class women, the frequent "participation of women in military activities," and the ways in which the Female Warrior's cross-dressing masquerades "accurately represents both the preoccupations and the experience of people living in an age obsessed at all levels with disguise and cross-dressing."1 This study, however, extends its scope beyond military life to include female courage in general. It begins by indicating some of the anxieties and controversies that the subject aroused in early modern spectators, including those who considered courage a valuable quality in all women. The next two sections

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