One of the more common tropes in stories about women making their way in a patriarchal society is cross-dressing. I think that a gender-swapped Victorian Holmes and Watson would have definitely made use of this technique when it suited them. Holmes, after all, is already a master of disguise, so it would have been natural for her to take on a male persona when she felt it necessary.
And a cross-dressing Watson would also help get us over the line in terms of canon compliance when it comes to how she could have gone to Afghanistan. (There were women nurses with the army in Afghanistan at that time, but with women in Britain just recently being able to become doctors in the 1870’s, I think it’s unlikely that a woman doctor would have been accepted into the army’s medical division by 1878-1879 when canon Dr. Watson went to Netley and then on to Afghanistan.)
The New Woman fiction of the 1880’s and 1890’s and the Sensation fiction that preceded it were both genres that were focused with challenging gender norms and questioning our assumptions of gender identity. This often included heroines who crossed dressed.
For example, an 1873 Sensation novel, Revealed At Last, by Albert Eubule Evans, features a cross-dressing protagonist named Evelyn. According to Katherine Mansfield, their gender-neutral name as well as the way the story is written “serves to conflate masculinity and femininity, enabling Evelyn to occupy both binary categories simultaneously.” She goes on to say that in her opinion, the audience by the end of the story is left unsure as to Evelyn’s biological sex and even leaves Evelyn’s “true” gender (in terms of identity) ambiguous. (Go read this thesis if you want more details—it’s very interesting!)
In that same thesis, Mansfield explains that the New Woman genre of fiction often uses cross-dressing to present gender as a spectrum. This was in the 1870’s-1890’s, y’all! Anyone who says that being gender-fluid or non-binary is a “modern trend” is speaking from ignorance.
Novels such as Gloriana by Lady Florence Dixie (1890) or Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893) both feature cross-dressing women who challenge the notion of binary gender categories.
Here’s what Mansfield says about Gloriana, in which the main character, Gloria, takes on a male persona, Hector, in order to be elected Prime Minister and fight for women’s rights:
“Furthermore, Gloria/Hector’s dualistic gender identity reiterates that femininity and masculinity are not distinct categories but naturally combined. This is further reiterated as Dixie employs the male pronoun to refer to Gloria/Hector for the majority of the novel. There is one moment however, when both male and female pronouns are employed. Coming just before Gloria/Hector’s parliamentary speech on women’s rights, fixed gender identity is deconstructed by the depiction of two genders in one body: “now he has taken his seat. But she has risen now” (Dixie 126. My emphasis). The dual pronouns serve to destabilise gender binaries and emphasise the volatility of gender as a category. It is also interesting to note that Gloria/Hector’s gender is changed at the moment she gives the speech to parliament, implying that women can fulfil this role better than men.”(Katherine Mansfield, “The “Ambiguous Sex”: Cross-dressing heroines in Sensation and New Woman fiction”)
In an earlier Sensation novel, Florence Marryat’s Her Father’s Name (1876), the protagonist, Leona, is trying to clear her father from a murder charge. (Sleuthing! Mystery! Sound familiar?) She disguises herself as her friend, Christobal Don Valera, in order to have the freedom to investigate the murder.
Marryat explores the fluidity of gender as well as the performative nature of it by using pronouns based on how the character is dressed. So when Leona is dressed as a man, Marryat uses masculine pronouns to refer to him. When Leona takes off the male disguise, the author uses feminine pronouns.
However, even then, it’s not that simple. Consider this quote from the novel, which changes pronouns at a particularly crucial moment:
“[Leona] locked the door behind him, threw off his fashionable new habiliments with a sigh of relief, and felt that for a few hours at least he might cast aside the restrain that galled him, and be what he was—Leona Lacoste. ‘So far, so good’, she thought, as she stretched herself upon her couch.”
As Mansfield suggests, Leona is uncomfortable with being placed into either rigid gender role—she wants to simply be able to be herself.
At one point, Leona even kisses her female friend, who has fallen in love with Leona’s male persona.
“[Lizzie] lifted up a very bright face so close to Leona’s that it only seemed natural to my heroine to kiss it. The minute she had done it though, she saw by the blush that dyed her companion’s cheek, how imprudent she had been, but it was impossible to explain the action away again. She must let Miss Vereker think what she chose.”(Marryat, p.172)
Make of that what you will!
Admittedly, most of these novels do end with the cross-dressing protagonist setting aside the male persona in order to marry a man. But even then, there are hints that these heroines have found a way to retain their own autonomy and a certain amount of independence in spite of their marriage.
But that’s the world of fiction. What about real women?
There are a lot of intriguing accounts of real-life women cross dressers. Most of these accounts come from court cases, where the woman in question was caught doing something else and the fact of their biological sex came out either because of a required prison bath or inspection or during the court hearing.
Many of these women were working class. Some cross dressed in order to earn more money in a male-only job. Others did it as a lark or simply because they wanted to. Several had wives and were viewed as husbands. These particular cases entered the historic record because they were caught doing something else that was illegal. In the court cases, the fact that they were cross-dressing was sensational, and it attracted scorn and social condemnation. But even the judges had to admit it was not actually illegal.
(Lest you be too quick to consider these folks heroes, there were a few of them who were accused of domestic violence or theft. So it’s possible to subvert gender norms and still be a shitty person.)
There were likely many other cases of women cross-dressing who were never caught or outed.
The question that always comes up is whether these women cross-dressed because it was useful or expedient to them, or if it was because they considered themselves to be men.
And the answer is…we don’t know, and it depends on the person. It seems almost certain that some of these people were what we now consider to be trans men or non-binary. Others were likely what we would now call cis women who cross-dressed because it served a purpose for them. And there are likely people for whom it may have been a bit of both.
Any or all of those reasons are legitimate, and there’s no reason at all to try to argue that they were all one way or another. People in the Victorian era (and indeed in all times past) were as varied as they are now in the way they thought and saw themselves. But one thing they all had in common was that they challenged society’s views of gender in ways that set the stage for greater freedom for everyone.
Next time: Riding in a Hansom Cab: how this iconic mode of transportation worked, and how a female Holmes and Watson could have used it for safely getting around London
The countdown has started! One week from today, on January 29, I will be posting the first chapter of A Study In Garnet—a sapphic, Victorian, canon compliant take on Sherlock Holmes. I’m so excited to share the first 10 chapters with everyone over the next few weeks, and I hope you will consider continuing the journey as a Patreon supporter.