- A Case for a Trans Studies Turn in Victorian Studies“Female Husbands” of the Nineteenth Century
Since the beginning of Victorian studies’ engagement with academic feminism in the 1960s and ’70s, which saw the landmark publication of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), the thorough, historically nuanced examination of gender has become foundational to our field, both in the classroom and in academic research.1 To be a thoughtful scholar of Victorian literature has come necessarily to involve thinking through nineteenth-century debates around the roles of men and women as gendered subjects. However, in this attention to gender, Victorian studies has largely ignored the critical possibilities offered by transgender studies for a more complex understanding of gender itself. Such an understanding ought to be central to our field. Indeed, we must honour the feminist tradition in Victorian studies by working to ensure that feminist scholarship is fully enmeshed within transgender studies, which is founded in the lived realities of trans folks and trans bodies.
The first steps of this transformational transgender turn ought to be twofold: first, Victorian studies must fundamentally reconceptualize our understanding of gender to account for the possibility of movement between, across, and among genders; and, second, we must use this understanding to consider the possibilities of trans narratives within the diversity of gender identities represented in Victorian literary culture. In making this argument for a transfeminist approach to nineteenth-century gender, I will examine representations of “female husbands” in Victorian periodicals and pamphlets and the methodological difficulties that such texts present so as to demonstrate how transgender studies enables a fuller understanding of Victorian gender discourses that exceed fixed gender binaries.
Victorian studies has long been concerned with the workings of gender binaries during the Victorian era. We have made it our business to critique the various separate-spheres ideologies undergirding much of Victorian thought and writing about gender, which locate women’s proper sphere in the domestic, private sphere of the home and men’s proper sphere in the public world, where a man, as, John Ruskin famously puts it, is “the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender” (77). On a personal note, [End Page 37] when I was a young graduate student, it was the work of feminist critics that was responsible for my becoming a scholar of Victorian literature. I was drawn to this sustained and often provocative scholarship that looks both at writers who sought to codify the delineations between Victorian society’s gender roles, such as Ruskin, and at Victorian writers such as Sarah Grand and Mona Caird, who sought to challenge those roles, often in contradictory ways, which limited middle-class white women’s opportunities for agency.
Throughout Victorian studies’ interest in nineteenth-century gender, scholars have insisted on the importance of teasing out the hidden gaps, revelatory contradictions, and fraught intersections between nineteenth-century ideological visions of “woman” and “man,” representations of those genders in Victorian literary culture, and the lived realities of women and men living in England during the nineteenth century.2 As productive and essential as this critique of separate-spheres ideologies has been and continues to be, we must also now consider how this work is predicated upon the idea that “woman” and “man” are discrete categories equated with sex assignment at birth, that people who are assigned female at birth are girls/women and people who are assigned male at birth are boys/men. Perhaps due to Victorian literary culture’s own tendency to collapse the differences between sex (the physical body) and gender identity (a person’s understanding of their gender) by using “sex” to refer to both of these parts of a person’s identity, we, too, have assumed that, though gender expression involving femininity and masculinity certainly varied in literary characters and real people alike, the relationship between gender identity and sex did not.3 The pervasiveness of this binary vision of gender might be the greatest success of Victorian separate-spheres ideologies in our time in that these ideologies have become, as J. Jack Halberstam describes the power...