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The Prison of Gender
Prof. Lillian Faderman on the age-old struggle to break out of the binary.
This piece was originally published on Skipped History, a Substack blog in which satirist Ben Tumin speaks to leading historians about the overlooked and under-examined events, movements, and people that shaped American history. To subscribe to Skipped History, please click here.
by Ben Tumin for Skipped History
As conservative attacks on the trans community continue, I spoke to Professor Lillian Faderman (emeritus at Fresno State University), an internationally renowned scholar of LGBTQ history. Professor Faderman discussed how the vilification of trans people extends back hundreds of years, as does the history of people courageously challenging traditional conceptions of gender.
Professor Faderman’s most recent book, Woman: the American History of an Idea, chronicles the history of people who’ve pushed back against rigid, limiting, and unimaginative expectations of women since the 1600s. In our conversation, Professor Faderman and I traversed a similar length of time—a transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can also listen to the audio of our conversation, which touches on more paradigm-breaking figures like Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, and the stars of Sex and the City (we covered a lot of ground):
Ben: Professor Faderman, thank you so much for being here.
LF: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Ben: My pleasure. I’d like to begin our explorations of challenges to traditional conceptions of “woman” way back in time. Can you discuss the vastly different conceptions in Native cultures versus among the Puritans?
LF: The Puritan conceptions were characterized by minister Roger Williams viewing “woman” as the weaker vessel. In his view, a woman’s major duty was not only taking care of the home and the children but being a handmaiden, in effect, to her husband.
The Puritans’ rigid gender hierarchy was exacerbated by their fear of this strange new world—a “howling wilderness” as they saw it—and they became even more reactionary, even tighter about what was permissible and what was appropriate, particularly as it applied to women.
The Puritans also feared the people who were already here and who had very different conceptions of “woman.” For instance, the Algonquin Indians had a matrilineal culture, where children’s status was defined by mothers. In the Cree nation, women warriors fought alongside the men. In a similar vein, the Iroquois’ creation myth centered around Sky Woman, a goddess responsible for the sun, the stars, and the moon. The Iroquois culture really respected women as opposed to the Judeo-Christian culture, which saw women through the model of Eve, who was tempted by Satan and brought mankind destruction and suffering.
Ben: You point out that in Iroquois society, women proposed marriage. They could have several husbands, and if a woman wanted to divorce them, she placed her husband's belongings outside the door of her family's longhouse, which makes me think of coming home one day and seeing my Nalgene and soccer cleats outside the door and thinking, okay, message received.
LF: Yes, and let me digress to say that in many tribes, it was fine to be assigned female at birth and to announce that you were really a man. The tribe respected it and put the person through a really congratulatory ceremony. The person thereafter lived as a man and could marry a woman.
For any Europeans assigned female at birth who wanted to live as men, it was a different story. I tell one anecdote in the book about a person on a merchant ship, presented as a man, whom the crew discovered to be a biological female. They were stripped and made to run a gauntlet, then tarred and feathered. It’s an absolutely disgusting story of what might happen to a person assigned female at birth in the 17th century who tried to live as a man, and there are similar stories I tell in the 18th and 19th centuries as well.
Ben: I recall the stories. They’re also abhorrent.
Moving forward, as far as the 1780s you write “if ‘woman’ was practically synonymous with wife and mother, some women chose to drop out of womanhood.”
How was Jemima Wilkinson one example of this dynamic?
LF: Jemima Wilkinson was a fascinating character, active in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Had she lived today, we would probably call her (and she might have called herself) transgender or gender non-binary. I'm going to begin by using she pronouns because those were the pronouns she originally used during her day.
But she was very uncomfortable with those pronouns. Wilkinson was assigned female at birth, and as she grew older, she wanted to become a preacher in the Baptist church, but Baptists didn’t have women preachers.
So how did she solve that dilemma? Well, she became ill when she was 23 years old, and she said that she died, went to heaven, spoke to God, and God said that he wanted her to go back to earth as a man. (I should add that her brother later said that she was never very ill and that she certainly didn’t die, but that was her story.)
So Jemima Wilkinson came back to Earth and declared that they were a man. Wilkinson didn’t want to be addressed by any pronoun but rather to be called Public Universal Friend. They became an extremely successful preacher and did some wonderful things, including convincing some slaveholders to set their enslaved people free.
Ben: You point out that Wilkinson was the first female born in America to have founded what was in effect a new religion, as well as the first person we know of to have been assigned female at birth “who successfully and permanently escaped the prison of ‘woman’ by claiming not to be one.”
That said, though a remarkable figure, Wilkinson also preached celibacy among their many adherents, which meant their religion gradually disappeared.
Ben: That does seem like a slight oversight, but I guess hindsight is 20/20.
Moving forward from there, how did the Civil War (as has often been the case with war) give “women space to step beyond the boundaries that were deemed natural to them”?
LF: Well, women participated in the Civil War, not just as nurses, but as soldiers. It's been reported that over 400 people assigned female at birth served in the Union Army, and over 200 people assigned female at birth served in the rebel army. In some cases, they were found out. In other cases, they served successfully until the end of the war.
Ben: You write that women's enlistment as men was made possible because army physical examinations “consisted of a doctor asking a recruit to open his hands and then make a fist, bend his elbows and knees, rotate his shoulders, and vouch that he enjoyed general good health.”
LF: Very careless, right?
Ben: So silly. In essence, recruits were asked to do the Macarena.
After the war, can you discuss the growth of women's colleges in the North, including the most notable example, Bryn Mawr?
LF: Colleges for women proliferated after the war, and Bryn Mawr was established in the late 1880s. The first president was a man, but M. Carey Thomas, a woman who’d gone to Zurich to get her Ph.D. because she couldn’t get one in the US, became president in 1894.
Thomas was very much her own woman, an intellectual who refused to accept the reigning definition of woman as a wife and mother. She brought those values to Bryn Mawr, where she established a Ph.D. program. Thomas told students that if they wanted to get married, that was okay, but marriage was not to be their main goal in life. Rather they should find a profession and contribute to making the world better. Something like 90% of Bryn Mawr graduates did indeed work in the professions that were just opening up to women, such as social work.
Ben: I love the quote that you include where Thomas was reported to have said, “Only our failures marry,” though she later claimed she’d said, “Our failures only marry.”
LF: Right, who knows exactly what she said? I’ll add that Thomas had her faults. She was a racist, an anti-Semite, and a classist.
Ben: To use her words, she insisted on having “a faculty made up as far as possible of our own good Anglo-Saxon stock.”
LF: A statement aimed specifically at Jewish professors, despite the fact that her brother-in-law was a famous Jewish surgeon whom she often consulted when she had ailments.
Ben: And despite the fact that if she’d ever tried the “stock” that goes into my family’s matzoh ball soup, she might’ve felt differently.
Maybe this is a good time to discuss what you call “woman on a seesaw” during the Depression and World War II.
LF: Yes, so after World War I, women claimed more freedoms than ever before. Women had won the right to vote, and more women were going into professions.
But then the Depression came and all of the liberation and all of the jobs that they were able to get during the 1920s dried up. Women were told that instead of working, they had to prop up men rather than try to compete with them in the job market. However, in 1941, the US joined World War II, and like during previous wars, women were invited back out of the home.
After the war—this is what I call the “seesaw of the progress of woman”—they were told to go back into the home. Styles changed, and the “feminine mystique” grew, as Betty Friedan observed in her book by that name in 1963. Fed up, many women fought to get rid of the feminine mystique.
Ben: Roller derby players represented one example of this battle against the mystique?
LF: Mhm. I grew up in the 1950s, and in high school, before doing my homework, I’d watch these amazing women in jerseys and shorts doing things that women weren't supposed to do; skillfully, sometimes viciously competing in rough and tumble games in ways that were associated with masculinity. I mean, they’d be knocking each over all over the rink.
Except, I should add, roller derby owners made sure that players presented a very feminine image outside of the rink. That was the whole deal: they could be these tough broads at work, but they still had to moderate their message and present themselves as traditional women outside of it. Derby players represented progress for women, but still with strings attached.
Ben: In a bid to get rid of those strings, you discuss how radical women in the 70s articulated to that point maybe the most comprehensive critique of the halting progress of women’s rights and gender identities. Can you talk about this evolution and the Combahee River Collective?
LF: Betty Friedan’s book, published in 1963, struck a chord with many women. She was particularly interested in getting women into new professions and getting equal pay for equal work. She started the National Organization for Women, which appealed mostly to middle-class white women.
But there were radical women who thought that wasn’t enough. They didn’t want just equal pay for equal work, or high-powered jobs. Many radical Black women, particularly radical Black lesbians, didn't want just a piece of the pie because they felt the whole pie was rotten; that there was something wrong with the whole system. They included women like Audre Lord, who had won the National Book Award for poetry; Barbara Smith, who published several really important Black feminist books; and Chirlane McCray, who very interestingly eventually married Bill de Blasio.
These women, who formed the Combahee River Collective, aimed to get rid of sexism and to get rid of racism. They were the first to use the phrase “identity politics,” recognizing an intersection between one's gender and one's race; that what life was like for a Black woman was not what life was like for a white woman.
Ben: Fascinating, and incisive. Speaking of takes that are a little ahead of their time—or maybe spot on while everyone else lags far behind—let’s head to Gen Z, over half of whom say that traditional gender roles are outdated.
LF: Sure. For context, there was an interesting recent Pew Research poll that asked people to identify themselves on what was essentially a gender spectrum. When the question was asked of Gen Z, only 24% of the men said they were absolutely masculine, and only 19% of the women said they were absolutely feminine, significantly lower figures than for other generations.
I think what Gen Z is realizing is that gender is very complex and very different from Roger Williams’ conceptions 400 years ago. The definition of “woman” has become so much more complicated and so much more interesting, and Gen Z understands that with a vengeance, I think.
Yet, just as in earlier centuries, we also see blowback to progress. We’re living in a time of duress, and there’s a push to return to the prison of gender. Trans people suffer from that push particularly, just as they have periodically for hundreds of years, and I’m so sorry to see the disturbing trend continue.
But if we take the long view, the history of evolving gender conceptions could be described as two steps forward and one step back. Right now, we’re in the back phase, but I’m hopeful we’ll enter another forward phase.
Ben: A fitting way to end the conversation, if only because I believe the modern test for joining the military is to take two steps forward and one step backward.
Professor Faderman, I really appreciate your time and your scholarship. Thank you so much again.
LF: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me.