Passing (Woman)

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Passing (Woman)

Passing, a term that figures commonly in questions of racial identity, as in black passing as white, in this context refers to a woman who is successful in being viewed by others as a man, that is, by creating a male gender identity. To pass combines physical elements (primarily haircut and clothing) with behaviors and mannerisms associated with the male gender. Cross-dressing is an essential component of gender passing. The term became common in the 1940s and 1950s, sometimes referring to butch-femme relationships in which the butch passed as a male at all times. It also designated one partner in a couple who would pass so that they could go out in public, to a straight nightclub or restaurant, without encountering problems. The 1950s also saw a popularization of psychological assessments of a lesbian as a man trapped in a woman's body, inadvertently encouraging some women to pass. As Marjorie Garber (1992) noted, gender passing can produce "a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another" (p. 16).

Examples of women who cross-dressed and married other women begin to appear in legal records and chronicles in Renaissance (1350–1600) Europe. Many of these accounts offer examples of a young woman who in her guise as a male earns a living and is well-liked in the town, until the truth of the relationship comes out. In such cases the woman who passed as the male partner was likely to receive harsher punishment than was her wife, and was frequently put to death. The latter consequence was apparently even more prevalent when some instrument was used to counterfeit male genitalia. Whereas these cases are often considered early examples of the existence of lesbians, it is not always clear how homoerotic desire intersects with economic realities and individual independence. A parallel could be drawn with early Christian women who passed as men for spiritual reasons. Nonetheless, the prosecutions highlight European cultural anxieties concerning the usurpation of male privilege. Passing can be seen as a destabilizing force, threatening the social structures that subtend male dominance.

Military exploits are another common thread in the history of passing women and offer a variety of models. Unlike Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1431), who cross-dressed but did not attempt to pass as a man, the Basque Catalina de Erauso (c. 1592–c. 1650), also known as the Lieutenant Nun, became famous in her lifetime, inspiring a play. Erauso served in the Spanish army in Latin America. Her sex was eventually discovered, and for her service and military prowess, she received a papal dispensation to wear men's clothing. Erauso as a soldier was notorious for a hot temperament and violent behavior. In order to be more convincing, she seems to have taken on a hyper-masculine role.

The British military, too, had its passing women. Hannah Snell (1723–1792) donned a uniform to search for her husband who had deserted her. After the death of her daughter, she joined the Royal Marines, sailing to India. Even after her sex was revealed, she was granted a pension for her service. After returning to civilian life in 1750, Snell remarried twice. Similarly, Mary Anne Talbot (1778–1808) first cross-dressed when she was mistress to a navy captain in order to be able to sail with him. After his death she continued to pass and earned her living in the military. She spent the last years of her life with a female friend.

The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) saw Deborah Samson (or Sampson; 1760–1827) serve successfully while keeping her sex hidden. She received an honorable discharge and eventually, through the intervention of Paul Revere (c. 1735–1818), a solid pension. Samson, who resumed female dress and also married, was proclaimed the official heroine of Massachusetts in 1983. Albert Cashier (born Jennie Irene Hodges [or Hodgers] 1843–1915) enlisted in the Union Army in 1862. After being discharged he continued to live as a man. Although his true sex was found out a number of times, it was only when incarcerated in Illinois at the Watertown State Hospital for the insane that he was forced to wear a dress.

As the varying narratives suggest, no simple identification between passing and homoerotic desire exists. For some, soldiering or earning a living appears to be the main motivation. Such women are often understood as protofeminists, fighting against the constraints of society. For some the period of passing was short lived, and a return to female gender roles followed. Whereas Erauso's pursuit of adventure also included coy flirtations with women—always stopping short of marriage—Talbot's turn to a female companion is fraught with the ambiguities of romantic friendship.

In the nineteenth century, stories of passing women, including those in the military, frequently appeared in the newspapers or as autobiographical sketches, with, of course, the discovery of the true sex as a culminating moment. With the rise of sexology and psychiatry, masculine women, among whom the passing woman was counted, took on another dimension—that of sexual inversion. As formulated by Karl Westphal (1800–1897), the symptoms were "a congenital inversion of sexual experience with the consciousness of the pathological character of that phenomenon" (Mak 2004, p. 65). Passing was not considered a temporary masquerade but rather an identity. The image of the mannish lesbian popularized in the early twentieth century was another manifestation of this sexual invert.

In relation to the late-twentieth-century understanding of gender identities and sexualities, passing crosses its own definitional borders and is associated with other terms, including transgender and transsexual, and figures such as Leslie Feinberg, whose autobiographical novel Stone Butch Blues (1993) traces complex gender identities, including the movement from a passing woman to a transgendered butch.

see also Androgyny; Body, Depictions and Metaphors; Clothing; Eleno; Gender Identity; Lesbianism; Manly (Masculine) Woman; Masculinity: I. Overview.


Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Donoghue, Emma. 1993. Passions between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668–1801. London: Scarlet Press.

Feinberg, Leslie. 1993. Stone Butch Blues. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.

Garber, Marjorie. 1992. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge.

Ginsberg, Elaine K., ed. 1996. Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mak, Geertje. 2004. "Sandor/Sarolta Vay: From Passing Woman to Sexual Invert." Journal of Women's History 16(1): 54-77.

                                                      Edith J. Benkov