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DePaul forum looks at 19th-century transgender labor
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2015-03-18

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"History is an awesome major or class to take for gender and women's studies people or people who are political because we need you to study this history," said Jen Manion, assistant professor of history and director of the LGBTQ resource center at Connecticut College.

This was the primary message that Manion conveyed during the Q&A following the lecture—entitled "To work as a man: Transgender narratives and labor in early 19th-century America"—March 10 at DePaul University.

After words of welcome and an introduction by Tera Agyepong, director of pre-law concentration and assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at DePaul University, Manion told the approximately 60 people in attendance that there were many reasons why women were motivated to pass as male including work, safety, freedom and love as well as the fact that they felt they were men i.e. transgender.

Crime & Punishment in U.S. History, the History of Sexuality, Global Queer Histories and Social Justice Movements are among the many classes that Manion teaches. Manion also co-edited Taking Back The Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism and their book Liberty's Prisoners: Gender and Punishment in Early America, which will be published in September. [Note: Manion prefers the pronouns "they" and "their."]

Manion was the founding director of the LGBTQ Resource Center, the second center of its kind in Connecticut. They were also recognized with the 2010 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Service Award and was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in 2012-2013 to research, "Crossing Gender in the Long 19th Century." Manion previously served a three-year term on the Governing Board of the Committee on LGBT History, an affiliate group of the American Historical Association.

Manion noted that until the late 18th century, people believed that men and women were biologically the same with minor differences but that changed with the emergence of a two-sex model of sexual difference.

This provided scientific justification to a political system deeply invested in female inferiority. Biological differences were increasingly used to sidestep the question of men and women's equality and justify women's oppression," said Manion. "It should come as no surprise that people contested restrictions places on their lives, including people designated girls at birth who took on male duties, personas and at times, entire lives. Stories of passing, cross-dressing and other states of in-betweenness not only allow us a window into the lives of those whose histories are rarely preserved or understood but also shines a spotlight on some of the most obvious anxieties about women's place in society."

Manion explained that by the 1850s, the main reason why women began dressing in male attire was in order to gain entry into jobs that weren't open to women such as working aboard a ship as a cabin boy or deck hand although they had been working on ships for many decades prior to the mid-1800s. Of the women who dressed as men, Manion said that many who went to work on ships escaped detection due to the lack of scrutiny in hiring new recruits, the fact that they scarcely bathed and stayed dressed all the time.

"Those found living and passing as men were not punished, informally or legally and were never vilified," said Manion. "They were scarcely mocked and generally treated to some kind of celebration for their daring and sometimes compassion for their hardship."

Manion noted that although women who dressed as men weren't punished, "upon discovery that one was assigned the female sex at birth a series of events took place that were aimed at completely undoing one's gender, regardless of the desire of the person."

"Historians have all to readily promoted utilitarian explanations rooted in the historic limitations of women's economic and geographic mobility to the exclusion of more complicated gendered and sexual dynamics and so we must err now in the other direction and with our telling honor the possibility that some, perhaps even many of the people I've noted were very happy in their decision to live as men," said Manion.

DePaul University's English Department, the LGBTQ Studies Program, the Women's and Gender Studies Department and the Women's Center sponsored the event.


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