Presenting Gender: Changing Sex in Early-Modern Culture

By Chris Mounsey | Go to book overview

Cross-Dressing and the Nature of Gender
in Mary Robinson's Walsingham

JULIE SHAFFER

BY MOST ACCOUNTS, THE TRADITION OF WOMEN DRESSING AS MEN OR presenting themselves as masculine, which had remained strong at least through the mid-eighteenth century in England, waned by the end of the century both in the arts and in reality.1 While women might earlier be praised for choosing to cross-dress, by the end of the eighteenth century, female cross-dressing became more problematic and it was suggested that women dressing as men had been forced by others or circumstance into doing so. Women warriors lauded in ballads and fiction over the course of the century who successfully passed as men to follow lovers and fight for their country likewise diminished at this point into weak characters unconvincing as males and incapable of carrying out duties as soldiers and sailors.2 Women in male military uniform ceased to appear in polite theater, instead being presented in burlesque and at the less highbrow pleasure gardens. Depictions of women in such garb fell from favor in portraiture as well, and stage roles for women in breeches parts likewise lapsed in popularity.3 Men and women argued earlier in the century that women might have masculine minds and display martial courage; few, however, were willing to entertain such notions by the last two decades of the eighteenth century.4 Even Wollstonecraft's call for women to adopt formerly masculine strengths gets downplayed by Godwin's insistence on her feminine complementarity to his masculine reason.

Dror Wahrman claims this shift arose out of what he calls the "gender panic" of the last two decades of the eighteenth century, a widely held cultural anxiety about gendered identity that caused a movement away from the "relative playfulness of former perceptions of gender" to an intolerance of the view that "gender boundaries could ultimately prove porous and inadequate; and therefore that individuals or actions were not necessarily always defined or fixed by those boundaries." By the 1780s, Wahrman asserts, "gendered behaviour was… made inescapably and naturally to conform to sexual bodies."5 Thomas Laqueur

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