Female Husbands: Loving the Fairer Sex in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Indigo Dunphy-Smith

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman, not keen on finding a husband, must instead be in want of a wife.

When Anne Lister returned from her pilgrimage to meet the famed Ladies of Llangollen in 1822, she reflected in her diary “I could have mused for hours [and] conjured up many a vision of … hope”. To Anne, Sarah Ponsby and Eleanor Butler were evidence of what could be. They had left their wealthy families in Ireland, set up home together in Wales and had been living as “companions” for forty-two years by the time Anne visited. Mariana, Anne’s old flame, wrote to her after her visit, curious to discover “if their regard had been platonic”? To this, Anne had replied she would “hesitate to pronounce such attachments uncemented by something more tender still than friendship”. Like Anne and Mariana, all we may do is speculate as to the true nature of their relationship. However, it is clear that the manner in which “the ladies” lived sparked Anne’s interest and in 1834 she asked her own sweetheart, Ann Walker, to move in with her at Shibden Hall. Anne Lister, her girlfriend Ann Walker, her ex Mariana and her visit to Llangollen offer only a glimpse into the network of queer women and transmasc folk, who lived and loved in early nineteenth century Britain. Close female friendships were fashionable and thus encouraged during this period. Women often expressed intimacy through letters and a closeness that was strictly platonic. However, as the historical record suggests, some of these friendships crept past platonic and were subtly hidden in the folds of these fashionable friendships. In fact, some dared to go even further, subverting not only their sexuality, but their gender as well. They were known as ‘female husbands’. Historian Jen Manion defines this popular early modern term as someone assigned female at birth, who passed as a man and married a woman. Passing as man at this time may have included dressing in men's clothes, adopting male pronouns and a new name. The women who married these rule breakers were almost always aware of what they were entering into before the wedding day. In fact, the ladies of Llangollen are connected to another queer couple who did just that.
Female Husbands: Loving the Fairer Sex in Nineteenth-Century Britain
The Ladies of Llangollen, Sarah Ponsby and Eleanor Butler 1819

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Female Husbands: Loving the Fairer Sex in Nineteenth-Century Britain
Me at Shibden Hall fangirling over a portrait of Anne Lister

Novelist Mary Shelley is known to have personally assisted long time friend Isabella Robinson in marrying her ‘husband’

Perhaps inspired by her husband's own visit to “the ladies”, novelist Mary Shelley is known to have personally assisted long time friend Isabella Robinson in marrying her ‘husband’, Walter Shalto Douglas. Mary managed to procure the necessary documents needed to secure the names “Mr and Mrs Douglas” for the couple, upon their arrival in Paris in 1827. Walter, who had been living as a successful poet under the pseudonym David Lyndsay before he met Isabella, took to his new life like a duck to water. Another couple, Mary and James Howe had entered into a similar relationship over half a century earlier. When they were just teens, James agreed to change his gender expression in order to legally marry Mary and over the next thirty years, they lived and worked together as innkeepers in London’s East End. These couples reveal a well-established network of women and transmasc folk who dared to take their friendships beyond what was acceptable. However, finding these connections in the archive can often lead to dead or unconvincing ends. No doubt Anne’s diaries, at a staggering five million words, are a unique source, but in order to move forward we need to reframe the discussion. We should consider whether it is appropriate to dismiss potentially queer people or relationships, if no explicit sexual evidence is found. It was often only a lucky few who had the independent financial security to test the boundaries, the privilege of white skin to assimilate and the education to be included in the written historical record. Moving forward, we as historians need to commit ourselves to more inclusive and critical research and to move away from the straight-until-proven-gay mind frame, that has held further analysis back for so long.
Ancestry UK
Female Husbands: Loving the Fairer Sex in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Indigo Dunphy-Smith

Indigo wrote for Edition 2, Forgotten Women of History.
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