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BOOKS Jen Manion talks 'Female Husbands' and writing process
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2020-04-15

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In their new book, Female Husbands: A Trans History, Jen Manion illuminates the stories of people assigned female at birth who transed gender to live as men and also marry women in the United Kingdom and United States from 1746 to just before World War I.

While Manion was doing historic research on other topics they would stumble upon short anecdotes in newspapers about female husbands and they wanted to figure out what to make of these stories. That is how this book came to fruition.

When asked to describe their book to someone who does not know about female husbands, Manion said "gender and sexual minority communities have been around forever. We might seem 'new' or 'modern' to some people but history shows nothing could be further from the truth. These female husbands were widely known about and debated in newspapers in both countries during that time and I wanted to share this with a new audience."

Manion decided to focus on the United Kingdom and the United States during those years because that is where the term female husband was used in newspaper reporting.

In terms of their research process, Manion said they verified all their newspaper articles with other archival sources.

"I was able to show that these stories were not just made up by newspaper editors," said Manion. "These couples had legal marriage licenses that I found in the archives. I dug a layer deeper to fill in the context of their lives, the people who encountered them and how they moved through society."

What Manion found was that there was a lot of sadness with these people's stories. They also pointed to the most interesting story in the book was about James Howe and their wife Mary who ran several taverns in the United Kingdom including one in London for more than 20 years. Manion explained that the Howe's were two poor teenagers who made a pact where one of them would live as a man, they would get married and live their lives together.

"There is quite a bit written about the Howe's and it is very interesting," said Manion. "Their story broke after their wife died because James outed themself as someone assigned female at birth. Over the course of 100 years, newspaper editors regurgitated their story with different kinds of language and judgments embedded."

This is not the first book that Manion has written. They are also the author of Liberty's Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America and Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism along with countless scholarly articles on a variety of LGBTQ issues.

Manion's journey as an author and college professor began as a child growing up in a small town two hours from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and got their Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Currently, Manion is an associate professor of history at Amherst College and previously taught at Connecticut College. While at Connecticut College, Manion founded the LGBTQ Resource Center and served as its director.

The reason why Manion gravitated to academia as a career choice was because "college just completely blew my mind. It was rather overwhelming and exciting to me to be surrounded by so many different kinds of people who knew about everything one could possibly know. Colleges are places of tremendous possibility, where people who are curious and open-minded can thrive. I knew I wanted to be a part of that world."

Writing was a natural step for Manion because they loved reading and researching topics and wanted to share these findings with the world.

"It is very gratifying to string words together in a way that helps to clarify an idea or an issue for people," said Manion. "My topics choose me. As a historian, what I write about depends on what sources I have found. But I only spend time on things that have relevance beyond the world of academic history—such as mass incarceration or transgender liberation—otherwise, I do not think I am making the best use of my time and resources."

When Manion is not teaching or writing books and scholarly articles, they enjoy spending time with their spouse of six years, Jessica Halem. Halem is Harvard Medical School's LGBTQ Outreach and Engagement Director and former Chicagoan. The couple has been together for 10 years and married in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 2014.

In their new book's acknowledgements, Manion wrote that Halem declared them their female husband. Manion said, "Somewhere in the middle of this project we realized that the term female husband was the perfect category for me. Some of it is about my gender expression but it is also about caretaking and responsibility that the term husband connotes."

"It's wonderful to learn old-timey language that speaks to the ways that gender lives as both as personal identity and a relational identity," said Halem. "I hope other people in the queer community take this word for a spin. This book also contains the untold stories of the queer wives who are too often ignored in relation to transgender and non-binary people."

Manion's future plans include continuing to teach and keep writing about trans history because there is so much more that needs to be done of this topic.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Manion's book tour has been put on hold, however, they are planning on coming to Women and Children First when medical personnel say travel and gatherings are allowed to resume.

See JenManion.com .


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