Friday, November 4, 2011

Britain's Crossdressing Women

by Linda Collison

Women pretending to be men crop up regularly in English and Irish literature and contemporary dramatic productions. An upcoming film starring American actress Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs is based on a short story by 19th century Irish writer George Moore.

Albert Nobbs is the story of a nineteenth century British woman of illegitimate birth who portrays herself as a man in order to get work. The movie has been Glenn Close’s passion project for 15 years and is expected to be Oscar qualifying. The movie is to be released in January, 2012 and you can watch trailers of it on the internet.

Women passing as men are tantalizing archetypes as old as the Cheviot Hills. Most real women who dressed as men did so primariily for economic opportunities. I believe it may have been more common than we know, back in a time when a woman depended upon a man for her livelihood and her legal status.

Most of us have heard of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, infamous British pirates of the early 18th century. These two didn’t actually pretend to be men but dressed in trousers and lived the rough life of pirates alongside their partners and lovers, the most ruthless of men (although Mary Read was raised as a boy so she may have had some gender issues...)

Less well known is Christian Cavanagh, an Irish-born mother who disguised herself as a man and operated under several aliases including Welch, Welsh, Jones, Davies and Mother Ross. Daniel Defoe, an author with empathy for women as evidenced by his 18th century novels Moll Flanders and Roxanna, the Fortunate Mistress, chronicled her life in Mother Ross; The Life and Adventures of Mrs. Christian Davies, commonly called Mother Ross on Campaign with the Duke of Marlborough.  No pirate, she!

After the disappearance of her husband Christian left her children in the care of her mother and a nurse and pursued him into the army.  Dressed as a man, she first volunteered as a foot soldier and fought at the Battle of Laden during the Nine Years War, where she was wounded, captured and exchanged without being discovered as female. She later re-joined another campaign as a trooper of the 4th Dragoons where she served from 1701 to 1706 when she was wounded in action again -- and this time discovered.

Hannah Snell was a young Englishwoman who also went in search of her man who had run off. She ended up serving as a soldier and as a marine for a many years until she too, was wounded and found out. Hannah was honorably discharged and granted a pension in 1750 (increased in 1785), a rare thing in those days. A good account of Hannah Snell and two other women who served in the British Navy can be found in Lady Tars (a Fireship Press reprint). There may have been many more such women who never were detected because they were never wounded.

Patricia, natural daughter of an 18th-century Barbadian cane planter, poses as Patrick in the fictional Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series. Inspired by Star-Crossed, originally published by Knopf/Random House and soon to be republished by Fireship Press, the idea for the character came to me in the middle of the Pacific Ocean aboard the HM Bark Endeavour, a replica of Captain James Cook’s famous vessel, on which I served as a voyage crewmember in 1999. 

While climbing the rigging to make and furl sail, heaving on hempen lines as thick as my wrist in unison with my mates and taking my turn at the helm, I discovered a woman really could perform the same work as a man aboard a ship during the age of sail. But why would she, I wondered? And how might she pull it off?  Answering these questions has led to many years of research about the Royal Navy during the 18th century and other aspects of colonialism.

Romance and adventure aside, in a man’s world some women chose to become men rather than turn to the poorhouse or prostitution. It must've been a tough choice but not without its rewards.

Surgeon's Mate; Book Two of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series was released earlier this year by Fireship Press and is available world wide.  Book Three is underway. For more information please visit my website Check out my author’s blog for release date or follow me on Twitter.


  1. Thanks to Linda Collison, author of the Patricia MacPherson Natural Adventure series for this fascinating and informative article on Britain's Crossdressing Women. The insights into how and why they crossdressed in a time and place when women's economic opportunities were often limited by their sex provide a great mini-lesson for anyone interested in women's history.

  2. Thanks for this post! Your ocean voyage sounds like a truly great experience. :)

  3. This is a fascinating post. Not the least for the practical questions it raises about how these women managed to keep their gender hidden. Maybe part of the answer lies in the difference between our modern day standards of hygiene and the eighteenth century version. Since folks didn't bathe much back then, there probably was little call for these women soldiers/sailors to get fully undressed.

  4. I have heard of the movie and was planning to give it a look-see. I find it fascinating how all these women in your post did what they had to do even under harrowing circumstances.

    Thanks for posting!

  5. Barbara, it was indeed an amazing experience. I'll be speaking to the Society of Southwest Authors in Tucson Nov. 20 about how my experience led to an historical novel series. And Tim, it does raise many questions but I have to say when I worked aboard Endeavour we were so exhausted at the end of our watch that we hung our hammocks and fell instantly asleep not knowing or caring whether the sailor swinging next to us was male or female!

  6. I have Lady Tars on my bookshelf and it is a good book. Thanks for the interesting post.

  7. Linda, what a wonderful experience to work on the Endevour. It's well know to us in the Pacific NW. I went out on the Zodiac, a 105? foot schooner and as a guest crew set the main sail which is pretty big. And recently, I have been researching a 19th century bark that plied the waters here. My appreciation for the crews and captain is ten-fold. Sometimes the waters between San Francisco and Puget Sound was very rough. Hats off to your gal in your novels.

    Oh, we have a documented story of an army soldier dressing up as a woman during the Civil War her WA State. A laundress was a paid position back then and often couples married to increase their pay. One laundress begged not to laid out, but when she died they discovered she was a he. People wondered why her husband ran off.

  8. Interesting post, Linda. A popular subject for fiction writers too, since Shakespeare. I'm glad Hannah got a pension, she certainly deserved it.

  9. Hat's off to you, Linda for climbing to those spars! I can think of hardly anything more terrifying than to be clinging 100 feet in the air as a a ship rolls -- and to actually be expected to do something additionally strenuous while up there!


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