August 28, 2006

Blast from the Past

So I've been reading a lot about colonial America lately, for reasons that are too improbable to outline here. Anyway, it turns out that ideas about gender were really getting scrambled on either side of the Atlantic during the first half of the 17th century. In 1628, this English theologian and fussbudget named William Prynne lamented that in these "Degenerous, Unnaturall, and Unmanly times," women were being "Hermaphrodited" by "Odious if not Whorish Cutting, and Crisping of their Haire." Men were also up to no good, what with all of that "Womanish, Sinful, and Unmanly, Crisping, Curling, Frouncing, Powdring, and nourishing of their Lockes and Hairie excrements." Um, no comment on that last part.

Anyway, check out what happened in Virginia during the following year. I'm quoting from Karen Ordahl Kupperman's Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America, pp. 54-55:

This preoccupation with clothes as symbols and with the need to get them right is most graphically demonstrated in the case of Thomas or Thomasine Hall, whose self-presentation was both male and female. The case came before the Virginia authorities in 1629 because several colonists, hearing that Hall sometimes dressed as a woman and sometimes as a man, had tried to find out the truth by forcibly examining Hall's body. Hall testified to having been christened Thomasine and being brought up as a girl. At age twelve, with adolescence approaching, Hall was sent to live with an aunt in London, and continued to live as a woman up to the age of twenty-two. When Hall's brother was pressed for service in the English expedition to the Isle of Rhe in France, Hall designed a new short-haired identity and signed up to go with him as a soldier. Upon returning to England, Hall once again put on women's clothes and lived in Plymouth doing needlework, until, deciding to go to Virginia, Thomasine resumed men's clothes and shipped out as Thomas Hall.

Because the specter of a person alternately assuming male and female dress comfortably was so disturbing, the General Court of Virginia set out to determine Hall's true gender, in order to dictate proper dress. After hearing sworn statements from men and women who had carried out the examinations, the court accepted Hall's claim to be both male and female, and decreed mixed clothing expressive of this double gender. Hall was ordered to dress as a man, but to wear a woman's cap and apron; the court also decreed that Hall's dual nature was to be "published" in the "plantacion where the said Hall lyveth...that all the Inhabitants there may take notice thereof."

Whoa.

2 comments:

maudite entendante said...

a) Whoa is right.

b) Outline the improbable reasons or I shall stamp my pretty little foot! *grin*

the spinster said...

Let's just say that I've joined the propaganda industry. But unwittingly, I swear!