- Removing Masculine Layers to Reveal a Holy Womanhood: The Female Transvestite Monks of Late Antique Eastern Christianity by Crystal Lynn Lubinsky
Removing Masculine Layers to Reveal a Holy Womanhood: The Female Transvestite Monks of Late Antique Eastern Christianity
Turnhout: Brepols, 2013
Pp. 252 + xii. €65.00.
Crystal Lynn Lubinsky’s book builds on a recent flurry of interest in the Lives of cross-dressing ascetics. Yet Lubinsky sets out to distinguish herself from the scholarly consensus, which, according to her, misunderstands the Lives to be chiefly interested in challenging the ancient gender binary, situating the transvestite protagonists in a newly conceived gendered identity. Lubinsky contends that, while the authors of the Lives employed masculine terms to praise their protagonists, they were simply working within the limited (i.e., masculine) vocabulary of sanctity and piety available to them. The authors still regarded the transvestites to be women and still wished to present their holiness as womanly holiness.
To corroborate this argument, Lubinsky pulls apart three layers in which gender operates in the Lives: 1) outward masculinity—the protagonists’ performance of masculinity through cross-dressing, assuming men’s names, and becoming associated with men’s monasteries; 2) social masculinity—onlookers’ perception that the protagonists were men, in turn enabling the transvestites to function in society as men; and 3) inner masculinity—the protagonists’ self-assertions of manly identity or aspirations of gender transformation. Analyzing the Lives according to each of these layers, Lubinsky concludes that the hagiographers depicted the transvestite protagonists as masculine only according to outward and social layers of gender and solely as a practical strategy that permitted them to overcome obstacles to pursing an ascetic life. “A true metamorphosis of an internal womanhood to an internal manhood,” however, “is practically non-existent” (12); “there are no instances where this book can pinpoint an inward masculinity within the internal nature of the women themselves” (221). Despite unbending claims like these, elsewhere in the book Lubinsky acknowledges that some protagonists, such as Matrona, claim to have become a man “both in form and purpose,” seeming to exhibit an inward masculinity. She argues, though, that these claims should be regarded as largely symbolic (192, 220).
In short, whereas previous scholars argue that the Lives depict the transvestites assimilating masculinity and masculine piety, Lubinsky contends that the protagonists’ masculinity is merely superficial and instrumental. The masculinization that attends to cross-dressing, adopting men’s names, and passing as men, as well as the masculinized attributions of their virtue and piety, is ultimately not masculinization “in any genuine sense” (216). What constitutes a [End Page 631] “genuine” essence of womanhood—or, more specifically, the essence of womanly piety—that Lubinsky finds in the protagonists from start to finish in the Lives? Lubinsky stresses that the protagonists’ holiness—when still daughters, wives, and mothers—was characterized by their extraordinary virtue and ascetic aspirations, which remain consistent throughout the narratives. Even as they adopt masculinized personae, we should regard the persistence of their holiness to be womanly, since it is not essentially new nor essentially tied to the new masculine contexts in which it has been relocated (221).
Readers who see more gender fluidity and ambivalence in the Lives, who understand the registers of late ancient gender to be interconnected (even when contradictory), and who perceive the hagiographers to be playing with these registers of gender in manifold ways may find Lubinsky’s discussion of gender in the Lives to be too rigid and tidy. Moreover, readers who understand gendered performances, as well as the gendering of virtue, spiritual progress, and asceticism, to be more integral to the construction of early Christian identity may not share Lubinsky’s conclusions. That said, she provides us with a thought-provoking argument sure to stimulate further discussion of these intriguing texts.
Her survey of the scholarship will also serve as a useful resource. At times, though, I thought she oversimplified or misrepresented the scholarship against which she positions herself (e.g., Anson  and dress theorist Terence Turner [113–14]). I was also disappointed that some pertinent scholarship was noticeably absent (e.g. Burrus ) and, although I understand that the...