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  • Spectacular Child Bodies: The Sexual Politics of Cross-Dressing and Calisthenics in the Writings of Eliza Leslie and Catharine Beecher
  • Etsuko Taketani* (bio)

[T]he fair sex . . . have laid claim to coat, beaver and boots, and have had the audacity to offer us the skirts in exchange.

(“Bloomerism,” 1851)

[T]he uproar [against Bloomerism] must have seemed foolish to the little ones. Children’s clothing in America has often reflected new attitudes and new ideas before adult fashions.

(Worrell, Children’s Costume)

There is arguably no other epoch in American history so tenaciously haunted, vexed, and titillated by the practice of cross-dressing than the 1840s and 1850s. Bloomers, named after Amelia Bloomer, then promenaded the streets in trousers (pantaloons) and actresses like Charlotte Cushman were seen to play “breeches” (male) parts on stage to mixed responses. Cushman in the role of Romeo, 1 for instance, “had an extensive female following” (Dudden 94), and a lady in the audience was reportedly heard to whisper, “Miss Cushman is a very dangerous young man” (Leach 175). Even more pervasive—and surely the predominant response elicited—was male anxiety. In 1851, Punch was vociferous in sneering at the absurdity of Bloomers. Satirizing the masculinized/monstrous woman, the British periodical disclosed, if unwittingly, its own anxiety: Bloomerism “queered” the Victorian masculine. One of the Punch cartoons on the Bloomers, for instance, featured a woman kneeling to propose marriage to [End Page 355] a man; in the cartoon, the woman (“Superior Creature”) asks, “Say! Oh, say, dearest! Will you be mine?”—to which the man replies bashfully, “You must really ask Mamma!” (“One of the Delightful Results” 192). The New York Herald then indignantly declared that the Bloomers “will very likely soon end their career in the lunatic asylum, or, perchance, in the State prison” (“Petticoat Revolution”).

Behind such vilifications are resounding echoes of ambivalences about “sexual difference” which, one should note, was not entirely or exclusively understood as a bodily given in the antebellum period. Sexual difference was a slippery terrain for popular science. By and large, though, two different (if overlapping) understandings of biological sex prevailed. The first was that biological sex was not a static condition of a body but a development or process of “becoming.” Dr. Frederick Hollick in The Marriage Guide, or Natural History of Generation (1850), for one, held firmly to the belief that the embryo is sexed at an early stage of its development, over which parents yet somehow had some control. As Hollick theorizes, the primary cellules always develop into ovaries (female) if left alone. But if additional impulse be given (by which he means “greater vigor, or more frequent approach of the male parent”), the cells develop further and sprout testicles (283). Within a temporal fetal world, “one is not born, but rather becomes, male.” 2 If failed? A fetus who develops half-finished comes out as, in Hollick’s words, “sexual monstrosity,” that is, a hermaphrodite or a “deformed female” who assumes the male organ (293).

The second—and perhaps more crucial—understanding that undermined a stable notion of sexual difference was that biological sex was performative, something that could be donned or doffed without affecting one’s essential character. For instance, Dr. Charles D. Meigs, a renowned professor of Midwifery and the Diseases of Women and Children in the Jefferson Medical College at Philadelphia, asserted in the chapter “Sex” in Females and Their Diseases (1848) that “the sex is something superimposed upon the mere living nature of a creature.” Hence, “on being taken away,” humans return to the “original sameness of life—nature.” “What can be,” Meigs asks, “more like an old woman than an old man?” (35). Sex was equated with “reproductive power” (34), and the donning/doffing of sex thus accounted for, and helped to sustain, the heterosexual bond necessary for reproduction.

It is precisely in this context of sexual “knowledge” that we can understand cultural anxiety about cross-dressing and child bodies during the antebellum period. Cross-dressing was never simply about donning the clothes traditionally associated with, or assigned by social edict to, the [End Page 356] opposite sex. If cross-dressing was socially destabilizing, it was not because essential...