A growing number of people assigned female at birth rejected the constraints of womanhood near the end of the nineteenth century. There were more ways to do this than ever before. Some embraced a male identity and were known by neighbors as men while others were known to be women. Gender expressions proliferated and varied. Female husband — once a clear category that signaled a particular life experience and gender expression — suddenly meant other things. In the late nineteenth century, the category was used in expansive way to describe a variety of people. Broadway star Annie Hindle was thought of as a woman who dressed in men’s clothing for their work on stage and sometimes off-stage as well. At the same time, homosocial environments at schools and workplaces nurtured same-sex friendships and intimacies, enabling more women to reject conventional heterosexual marriages. Many forces contributed to these shifts, including industrialization, urbanization, feminism, and progressive social movements.
Female husband as a descriptive category lost its meaning in public discourse just as it proliferated in the U.S. from roughly 1878 to 1906. It had already largely fallen out of use in the U.K. Female husbands — once defined by manhood and masculinity — were quietly and subtly subsumed under a newly expansive category of woman. Same-sex relationships became more visible and included women who embraced a range of gender expressions. Those who refused the category of woman outright and insisted on claiming manhood for themselves — as Joseph Lobdell, Frank Dubois, and Alan Hart were known to do — were harshly stigmatized. Accounts continued to blur lines of gender and sexuality in reporting on female husband cases. This period marks a dramatic shift, however, away from gender towards sexuality. In other words, the fact of two “women” married to each other becomes the central drama, replacing the fact that someone assigned female could become and live as a man. This shift created some openings and foreclosed on others. A challenge to the stigma of sexual inversion also brought with it a critique of transing gender. The recognition of informal relationships between two women grew, whereas marriages between female husbands and wives had been formal legal contracts.
Frank Dubois and Same-Sex Marriage
As was the case with most female husband accounts, the 1883 story of Frank Dubois broke because their manhood was challenged by someone. In this case, a man named S. J. Hudson from Illinois tracked Dubois down in Waupun, Wisconsin and claimed that Dubois was his wife who abandoned him and their two children. (Bismarck Tribune, November 2, 1883) The Dubois case encapsulates a change in popular attitudes toward female husbands and their lovers from one of curiosity to one of overt hostility. The reporter was at odds with the subject of the story. They spoke of Dubois as a woman and downplayed evidence supporting Dubois’ claim of manhood. Through the coverage of Dubois’ life, a transformation takes place in the popular understandings of and attitudes about female husbands. The female husband category no longer signaled gendered transformation but rather signaled a new relationship form: that of two women.
On what basis was Dubois a man? Statements from Dubois, their wife, and acquaintances who knew the couple all asserted Dubois was a man. One reporter pushed Dubois, saying “You insist that you are a man!” to which Dubois replied, “I do; I am. As long as my wife is satisfied it’s nobody’s business.” (The New York Times, Nov. 2, 1883) Dubois refused to entertain the idea that they would give up their life and male identity even though their former husband tracked them down. Dubois claimed, “I will not return to live with Hudson, and propose to wear pants and smoke and earn my living as a man.” (Wisconsin State Journal, November 6, 1883) Another story claimed that no one ever suspected Dubois was anything other than a man, stating, “To everyone, even to the intimate acquaintances of the couple, to all except, perhaps, to the “wife,” the secret of Frank Dubois’ sex was as unsuspected as it was unknown.” (Little Falls Transcript, Little Falls Minnesota, November 2, 1883) The interesting claim here is the recognition that the wife knew what she was getting into when she married Frank. For over a century, wives were thought to have no idea their husbands were assigned female at birth. Indeed, they were often forced to take this position to protect their own personal safety and reputations.
On what basis was Dubois not a man? First, we must not underestimate the existence and claim of Hudson, their alleged husband. His appearance alone — along with the assertion that Dubois was the mother of his children — would carry tremendous weight in the eyes of the public. A newspaper reporter who tracked down Mr. and Mrs. Dubois offered their own assessment of Dubois’ physical body and stature. In this rendering, the account combines male pronouns while emphasizing a female body, stating, “Dubois was in his shirt sleeves, a slightly built, effeminate looking personage. He is four feet, eleven inches tall, slight figure, weighing about 100 pounds, hips broad, chest full, arms short, and hands and feet very small and slender. He has every appearance of a woman.” (Wisconsin State Journal, November 6, 1883) After the initial confrontation, Dubois allegedly openly discussed their sex with the reporter, who wrote, “Dubois finally acknowledged herself to be a woman and the wife of S.J. Hudson, the Belvidere man.” (The New York Times, Nov. 2, 1883) These accounts by a former husband and disinterested reporter supported the claim that Dubois was not a man by society’s standards. But a sympathetic reader would note Dubois was a man to themself — and their wife — and that this fact was what mattered most.
An explosion of references to female husbands in the U.S. press, combined with the broad effects of the women’s movement generally led people to consider such accounts in a new way. This rise in visibility led more mainstream writers, thinkers, and politicians to weigh in on the role of the husband, the question of sexual difference, and the future of heterosexual marriage. The women’s movement threatened all of these things. Stories about the Dubois marriage in Wisconsin, in particular marked a turning point. Major coverage in the New York Times and in Peck’s Sun out of Milwaukee used the story as an occasion to think about the broader social and political implications of marriages between two women. Even if done in jest, such reflections pointed to real truths that could no longer be denied. Such accounts fundamentally redefined the threat of female husbands from one of transing gender to one of same-sex marriage.
More than any coverage of female husbands to date, these stories took up the serious question of same-sex marriage. Would people stand for it? Should society care? How did it differ from women’s rights in other realms? As was often the case, husbands could avoid the wrath of the carceral state if they simply claimed what everyone wanted to hear: they were women. In making this claim to avoid intrusive physical exams, further interrogation, and jail time, husbands of earlier times were generally freed and sent on their way. Never before considered a serious threat in the U.S., the possibility for same-sex marriages between women seemed just on the horizon. To this threat, the New York Times declared in 1883, “public opinion will not tolerate the marriage of two women.” The New York Times, November 4, 1883 Why did they even need to say that? That is the important take away here. Female husbands, long ignored and dismissed as LGBTQ ancestors or political actors, opened the door to national and transatlantic debates over transing gender, same-sex marriage, and eventually, sex changes.
Dubois did not concede to being a woman and instead dug in their heels, defending themself and claiming their manhood. Despite this, they were spared “imprisonment and threatened tar and feathers.” The New York Times, November 4, 1883, It is a curious reference — the one to tarring and feathering — evoking physically painful and humiliating punishments of a much earlier era, long since abandoned. Tarring and feathering, rooted in early modern Europe, became popular in Revolutionary America as a symbol of rebellion and independence from Britain. As a form of punishment, it retained its association with patriotism long after the war for independence was over. Through brutal violence against their new-found “enemies,” colonists worked through their sense of allegiance and identity, in part bonding themselves to each other. This kind of ritualistic violence aimed at those who transed gender — or even its threat — united the perpetrators together, affirming and solidifying their own allegiance to the gender norms that had been violated.
Thankfully, this violence remained only a threat. Modernity prevailed. And the question of same-sex marriages between women was critically, seriously, and at times satirically explored. Under the headline “Female Husbands,” New York Times writers noted the various things to consider, from the issue of kids, “Such a marriage concerns the general public less than the normal sort of marriage since it does not involve the promise and potency of children,” to one of preference, “There are many women who, if they had the opportunity, would select other women as husbands rather than marry men.” The New York Times, November 4, 1883, There were so many reasons given for this claim, including that women understood, supported, and enjoyed each other. It almost seemed as if this was, in fact, a widely held view. Women made good company – why bother with men?
This essay took particular aim at the prospect of marriage between women in the New England States. This is curious because New England is one of the few regions that did not feature as a hometown or location of a female husband to date. Female husbands could be found in every other region of the U.S. and all throughout the U.K. Why did New England matter so much now? The reference hints at the idea that the women of New England are “different” from other women, driven by their intellect, love of literature, and disdain of typical male behaviors of smoking, searing, and door slamming. The solution proposed was both evocative and conservative: “If half of these neglected women were to put on trousers and marry the other half, the painful spectacle of a hundred thousand lonely spinsters would forever disappear.” This exaggerated suggestion included some truth, which readers of female husband accounts were all too aware of. But the claim was also an erasure of the same-sex couples that could already be found all over New England, especially in educated circles and sometimes referred to as “Boston Marriages.” This essay willfully refused the existence of such partnerships, instead of reducing everyone to the category of “spinster.”
In 1883, George W. Peck addressed these same concerns, reminding readers that there was no way a female husband could ever replace “the old-fashioned male article.” Boston Sunday Globe, Boston, Massachusetts, December 30, 1883; Peck was publisher of The Sun, later named Peck’s Sun. He went on to become mayor of Milwaukee in 1890 and governor of Wisconsin in 1891, signaling at the very least a degree of popularity for his viewpoints. His turn of phrase, “the old-fashioned male article” dismissed female husbands as something contemporary, modern, and fleeting. They were no match for the tried and true men who were assigned male at birth. His article echoes the themes previously addressed by defining manhood in relation to a series of instincts, such as bravery in the face of a burglary, confidence in the face of a confrontation, or a “can-do” spirit and ability to multi-task amidst a family emergency. Neither female husbands nor female wives were up to these tasks in Peck’s view. Peck asserted, “It is well that the female husband business in Wisconsin is thus early nipped in the bud, and it is hoped that an end has been put to it for all time.” Even if he truly believed this, however, Peck — like so many other publishers — could not resist the fact that such headlines sold papers and books. Peck included a chapter on female husbands in his popular book, ensuring that knowledge of such people would continue to spread far and wide.
Female husbands attracted unprecedented levels of visibility in the United States. during the final decades of the nineteenth century, inspiring a wide range of debates and dilemmas. Transing gender faded in significance as the defining feature of the identity of a female husband as the category expanded to encapsulate same-sex relationships between women of any gender expression. Older concerns about how someone assigned female could live as a man or particular descriptions about physical embodiment were replaced with reflections on the existence and meaning of marriages between women. While female husbands and their wives already demonstrated that two people assigned female at birth were perfectly suited to partnerships, same-sex marriages offered the threat (or promise) of marriage without men or masculinity. Growing tolerance and recognition of same-sex relationships, such as that between Annie Hindle and Annie Ryan, may have intensified stigma against and hastened rejection of female husbands and other trans figures.
Increasingly, not all who presented in masculine attire were socially stigmatized outliers. As long as those who embraced expansive genders conformed to dominant social values in other ways, they were generally tolerated and sometimes celebrated. Civil War hero Dr. Mary Walker presented in men’s clothing for decades. Walker was occasionally mocked in the press but nationally lauded, receiving the highest honor bestowed by the US military, the Medal of Honor. Walker was part of a movement of countless women who embraced more educational, occupational, and political rights along with new styles of dress. Clothing often involved modified versions of conventional men’s clothing made specifically for women. There was no doubt that such people were assigned female, but they pushed the boundaries of gendered expression without raising too much ire. They were more tolerable if they did not partner with women, as male husbands minimized the social threat of their gender nonconformity.
Jen Manion is Associate Professor of History at Amherst College, Massachusetts. They are the author of Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (University of Pennsylvania: 2015), and a lifelong LGBTQ rights advocate. @activisthistory Adapted from chapter eight of Female Husbands: A Trans History (Cambridge University Press, 2020). All rights reserved by the author and Cambridge University Press.