Nineteenth Century “Female Husbands”

Anne Fausto-Sterling begins her story with a 19th-century debate over an historical figure’s sex and gender, further complicated by the fact that men and women did not yet have equal voting rights – hence the need to accurately assess the man’s…er, woman’s?…sex at the time.

There is a historical evidence of individuals dressing and conducting themselves as a different gender.  NPR recently spoke with Prof. Sarah Nicolazzo of University of California-San Diego about stories of “female husbands.”

Women assuming masculine gender expression sometimes even married, taking wives and adopting children. While some of these women were no doubt sexually attracted to women, others were not. Women had many reasons for assuming a masculine gender expression, including greater access to certain civil and legal rights denied their sex, like voting, serving in the military, and obtaining a job and an income.

A 19th-century illustration of a "female husband," a woman who dressed and assumed the role of a man, sometimes taking and supporting a wife and family.

A 19th-century illustration of a “female husband,” a woman who dressed and assumed the role of a man, sometimes taking and supporting a wife and family.

The lesson here?

“History can be complex. Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College and wrote the 2005 book Marriage, A History, explains that it was fairly simple to pull off a “self marriage” before the 1860s. ‘Marriages were supposed to be registered, but authorities seldom checked,’ she says. ‘The idea was that if you acted like man and wife, you were assumed to be married.’

“Lots of evidence exists, she says, ‘contrary to the idea that small communities are always judgmental, that your behavior as a neighbor was often more important to other community members than your behavior in your own home. So people often turned a blind eye to behaviors or dress that in later years might occasion more suspicion and hostility.'”

In other words, if you fulfilled a recognized “role” in society, people might have tended to stay out of your private life, a form of tolerance very different from today’s obsession with the private details of gay and transgender individuals’ lives. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the government sought to set down a more stringent legal definition of marriage.


The fictional story of one such woman who worked and lived as a man is the 2011 film Albert Nobbs, now streaming on Netflix. Nobbs is played by Glenn Close. Watch the trailer below:



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