- Six Ways of Looking at a Trans Man?The Life of Frank Shimer (1826–1901)
A man and a womanAre one.A man and a woman and a blackbirdAre one.—Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (1917)
We live in a moment of transition, when new vocabularies and frameworks for making sense of gender/sex nonconformity succeed each other with stunning rapidity. Only a foolhardy historian could hope to seize on one such present category, apply it to a person who died over a century before, and have her analysis last well into the future. Trans academics like Genny Beemyn have sagely warned against labeling historic figures whose lives defied normative binaries as "transgender."1 Yet such reasonable caution risks unintentionally consolidating the historical coherence of categories like woman and man. Today is not the first moment of transition. During the nineteenth century, the sex/gender system underwent numerous dramatic shifts that undermine popular assumptions about Victorian rigidity.2 The biography of Frances "Frank" Ann Wood Shimer (1826–1901), remarkable throughout her life for her masculinity, illuminates those shifts and provides an opportunity to [End Page 32] trans the category of woman, revealing the long history of contestation over its meaning.3
Throughout Shimer's life—as she grew up in upstate New York, attended normal school in Albany, moved to frontier Illinois for a teaching job, served as an influential college president, retired to Florida, helped launch the citrus industry, and lived out her final days—she consistently expressed characteristics that those around her understood to be masculine. However, over her lifetime the meaning of that masculinity and, consequently, the meaning of her identity as a woman changed repeatedly. This essay examines the shifting meanings of female masculinity during Shimer's lifetime, drawing attention to gender's historical incoherency in order to situate Shimer's life within trans history. It follows the lead of scholars who have argued that attention to process rather than identity provides the best approach to writing transgender history avant la lettre.4
As Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura observe in their introduction to The Transgender Studies Reader 2 (2013), when trans studies emerged during the early 1990s, identity formation constituted a primary concern.5 Newer work published during the last decade takes a more anti-identitarian direction, focusing on how sexed categories become inconsistent. Nineteenth-century US scholarship that participates in this trend, such as Clare Sears's Arresting Dress (2015), reaches broadly to include subjects who did not identify as trans.6 Such an anti-identitarian lens contributes to gender history by returning to Joan Scott's critical insight that "'man' and 'woman' are at once empty and overflowing categories" and that normative statements asserting male and female as a fixed binary do not reflect unanimous consensus but are the product of "overt contests" and "the refusal or repression of alternative possibilities."7 Shimer's life offers the raw material to substantiate Scott's argument. At the same time, this anti-identitarian approach advances trans activism and scholarship by refusing to flatten the history of sex/gender variability. Reina Gossett, a trans activist and writer, has called attention to the unintended ways that applying modern language to history might erase the "different and beautifully expansive" language [End Page 33] of gender variability in the past.8 The goal of my essay is to trans Shimer's biography without imposing an ahistorical trans subjectivity upon her. Such an approach, I argue, includes rather than excludes other possible readings of Shimer, for example, as belonging within the history of butch lesbianism. This method can connect transgender and lesbian history.9
Shimer's life spanned a critical period in the history of female masculinity, bridging numerous successive frameworks for understanding gender variance, which she made sense of by gleaning from the literary culture, social practices, and medical understandings of her day. This makes her an ideal subject for writing a trans history of gender because the record of her self-perceptions provides a case study of the transformation of understandings of gender over the course of the nineteenth century.10 Ironically, the nineteenth century has...