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  • The Chevalier d’Eon and Wilkes: Masculinity and Politics in the Eighteenth Century
  • Anna Clark* (bio)

In 1764, the supporters of renegade radical politician John Wilkes celebrated the renegade French diplomat the Chevalier d’Eon. To them, he shared their hero’s manly defiance of tyrannical governments; like Wilkes, he dueled to defend his honor. London citizens drank to the health of d’Eon and Wilkes together, and praised d’Eon as “a person of approved bravery . . . as a man, a person of probity and honor.” 1 Even d’Eon’s enemies portrayed him as belligerent and militaristic. By 1771, however, the Chevalier had quite a different image: rumors spread that he was really a woman. Caricatures depicted him as half man, half woman, and thousands of pounds rode on bets about his sex. Newspapers joked that Wilkes and “Mademoiselle d’Eon” were to marry and produce offspring. By 1776, the Chevalier returned to Paris having taken on a female identity—an odyssey for which Gary Kates has provided some explanations in his excellent recent biography. 2

Here, I wish to explore the political implications of the Chevalier d’Eon’s gender transgressions, most specifically how he became embroiled in the radical reform movement identified with John Wilkes. Why did the Chevalier’s manhood not come into question earlier? How could supporters of John Wilkes, known for his ultra-masculine libertine persona, have lauded a person of questionable gender identity? What changed by 1771? The answers to these questions can be found by examining how notions of masculinity and femininity were transformed in the eighteenth century, both in the broad sweep of this era, and the specific decades of the 1760s and the 1770s. [End Page 19]

The d’Eon affair can help us think about the current debates over gender and the Enlightenment. Thomas Laqueur has written that the eighteenth century witnessed a general shift from a notion of gender as a hierarchy, in which women were inferior versions of men, to a notion of gender as a duality, in which women were seen as totally opposite, but also complementary to men. 3 But the eighteenth century might also be seen as a time of potential flexibility in gender roles, as learned women such as Mrs. Macaulay were celebrated for their “masculine” reasoning and “the man of feeling” evinced an exquisite sensibility. 4 Salons were known for mixed-sex sociability, where female salonnières regulated and civilized conversation, drawing out the ideas of and sparking off conversation among intellectual men, or, in the case of Mrs. Macaulay, serving as leading intellectual lights themselves. 5 However, historians debate how much influence women really had; did the focus on “reason” characteristic of the Enlightenment eventually exclude women? 6 D’Eon’s career is the perfect test case for this argument, since he functioned in public both as a man and a woman.

D’Eon is even more interesting in terms of what his story tells us about masculinity which was a subject of intense anxiety in the eighteenth century. Men constantly had to prove their manhood or face the epithet of “effeminacy.” 7 But what did this term actually mean? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, eighteenth-century citations of “effeminate” included “womanish, unmanly, enervated, feeble, self-indulgent, voluptuous, unbecomingly delicate or over-refined”; it could connote the degradation of submission to or excessive passion for a woman, being turned into a woman, or being a sodomite. 8 Historians debate whether effeminacy was linked with sodomy in the early eighteenth century, or if it simply connoted excessive, foppish heterosexuality. 9 D’Eon is a good test case: when his masculinity became suspect, did his sexual identity also come into question?

Above all, d’Eon and Wilkes must be understood in the context of debates over masculinity in the arena of practical politics. Masculinity was particularly important in eighteenth-century political rhetoric because manhood symbolized power; but since the proper structures of power were fiercely debated, so were the qualities of masculinity. Traditional politics could be seen as the story of individual upper-class men in a monarchical system based on patronage/client relations, contending for power with the tools of intrigue...

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