The Cross-Dressers: Women in Uniform

Emma Leach: An Astronomical Diary, or Almanack (New London, 1771)

Sophia Johnson

Instances of women dressing as men were not unknown in antebellum America. A great deal of literature featuring cross-dressing women was published by the mid-19th century. Some historians trace the popularity of such narratives to the widely known story of Deborah Sampson, a woman who dressed as a man to serve in the Revolutionary War. Herman Mann wrote a book about Sampson entitled The Female Review; or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady (Dedham, Mass., 1797). The book was a commercial success, and she followed with a lecture tour in the Northeast in 1802-3.

In addition to the women profiled in this exhibition, the Library Company also holds at least four other early 19th-century pamphlets whose subjects are cross-dressing women. Although many of these are works of fiction, their publication indicates the presence of a market for such literature. Published between 1809 and 1844, these pamphlets tell tales of scorned lovers, life in the armed forces, and adventures on land and at sea. Paradoxically, the narratives often conclude with a statement of the subject’s remorse for embarking on such a dangerous adventure -- indeed, Elizabeth M’Dougald’s account explicitly warns other women not to follow in her perilous footsteps -- yet in their stories, the women take great pride in their abilities of deception.

“Sylvia Hardy, the Maine Giantess,” in The American Phrenological Journal, vol. 21 (May, 1855).

Elizabeth M’Dougald

Whether they sought to serve their country on the battlefront or travel unaccompanied by a male companion, women like Elizabeth M’Dougald and Sophia Johnson demonstrated the performative nature of gender when they dressed as men. Because gender is necessarily a corporeal style of being, these women directly confronted the constraints and societal constructions of bodies in assuming the complete appearance of men. Gender, which contemporary philosopher Judith Butler argues is a set of repeated behaviors given credence through historical precedent, renders any outliers extraordinary.