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  • Androgynes, Amazons, Agenes:Transgender Studies and the College Girl, 1878
  • Molly K. Robey

In 1878, An American Girl and Her Four Years in a Boys' College—the first college novel written by an American woman—appeared in print. Published under the pen name SOLA by Olive San Louie Anderson, one of the University of Michigan's first female graduates, An American Girl helped define the College Girl at the outset of a US movement in women's higher education. As the novel's title character, Wilhelmine "Will" Elliot, seeks educational, professional, and political equality with her male peers at the fictional University of Ortonville, she is described as "boyish" by her fellow students, who feel uncomfortable with the ways Will's short hair, masculine clothes, and bold manner violate their expectations of femininity (84). Will finds herself described by the student newspaper as a monstrous "Megatherium Amazoniense," a creature who, unless "domesticated," will terrorize the campus with her physical strength and stature (102). Will's classmate Guilford Randolph states, "I can't bear her style. . . . why, I'm afraid of her: . . . she has such a way of aping boys" (84). Will is "the first girl," Randolph declares, he "can't understand," and he is not alone in his sentiments (84). Will herself asks why she has to be so "odd and queer," so unlike "other girls" (138).

Given Will's evident gender trouble and our own vantage point in an era of increasing transgender visibility, we may ask whether this college girl is, after all, a woman. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg noted some decades ago that the first generation of US College Girls and the New Women they became were perceived as "androgynes," gender-indeterminate figures whose appearance and behaviors were manifestly "unnatural" (245). Such beliefs found vivid expression in Sex in Education, the best-selling 1873 study by the former Harvard medical professor Dr. Edward Clarke, who asserted that higher education destroyed women's reproductive health. In his famous publication, Clarke claims that [End Page 65] women who pursue higher education are frequently marked by an "appearance of Amazonian coarseness and force" (93). Higher education, in turn, further de-feminizes women. Clarke feared large-scale female education would result in the production of a third sex, a neuter gender he calls the "agene" and likens to "the sexless class of termites" (93). The College Girl described through such terms—the masculine "androgyne," the powerful Amazon, the sexless "agene"—cast into doubt not only the stability and coherence of the gender binary nineteenth-century Americans assumed was self-evident and indelible, but also the body's very fixity and the certainty of sexual difference. These terms name female bodies that are not really or not exactly female, female bodies positioned ambiguously in relation to the gender binary, female bodies that may cease to be female. They reveal an uncertainty about whether College Girls really were women, and Will Elliot, the first College Girl treated as the subject of a novel, reflects this ambiguity. Her mother states she has "always been more like a boy than a girl," and her closest friend describes her as a "delightful mixture of boy and girl" (7, 90). Viewed in a period of multiple and multiplying genders, these descriptions of female masculinity and gender fluidity incite curiosity about Will's gender identity.

In Transgender History, Susan Stryker defines transgender as "the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place" (1). While in some sense Will Elliot exemplifies such a definition, to label her transgender would be problematic. At best, such retroactive identification is anachronistic, given that the current usage of the term dates only to the 1990s.1 Moreover, such identification is nearly impossible, because, as K. J. Rawson explains, the "very site of transgender experience—the body—cannot be captured by" historical documents and their "irreducible distance" from "the lives they come to represent" (25). Finally, the novel's title seems to settle the question of Will's gender—she is an American girl, and one whose appearance and behaviors hardly register as unwomanly to twenty-first-century readers. Yet I suggest that a transgender reading of the novel is appropriate...


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