Women’s History: “Passing” in a Man’s World

The movie “Albert Nobbs” was criminally neglected by viewers. Although stars Glenn Close and Janet McTeer were both nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes (neither won), the film earned a middling 56% on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed a paltry $5.6 million at the box office. In short: no one saw it. But the story was an interesting one: a woman overcomes abject poverty in 19th century Ireland by passing as male butler in a hotel. When she meets another woman passing as a male painter, she decides that having a wife is the key to fulfilling her dream of opening her own tobacco shop and sets out to woo one.

It’s not a lesbian movie at all, but rather one about the things some women have had to do to survive in a male dominated world. Albert, the painter, and the maid Albert courts are all, in their own way, victims of a system that views women as the lesser of the two sexes and limits their opportunities in life.

It is a depressing movie: born out of wedlock and abandoned as a child, “Albert Nobbs”–whose female name is never given–is raised in a convent before being kicked out at age 14, at which point she is gang raped and beaten by a group of men. She turns to passing as male for survival and lives for the next almost 50 years in a reclusive, timid, sexless existence. She cherishes the dream of her own shop as the only independence and control over her life she will likely ever have, tending to the dream with all the care a gardener gives a precious but frail orchid.


Albert courts a maid at the hotel not because she is romantically or sexually interested in her, but because Albert comes to see her as the lynchpin of her dreams. For Albert, passing as male is a necessity that has protected her–but also enchained her–for decades. In contrast, the painter “Hubert Page” views passing as male as a form of freedom. Whether Hubert is lesbian, genderqueer, or transgender is irrelevant for this era. Passing as male gives her the freedom to marry her wife, a relationship that is clearly romantic and probably sexual, and to live beyond the constraints normally imposed on women at that time.

In the book (and then BBC miniseries) “Tipping the Velvet,” set in Britain in the 1890s, passing as male is a major plot element. The character of Nancy “Nan” Astley first performs in the music halls of London as a male impersonator, in which role she is able to act out her lesbian relationship with Kitty Butler in public because the public believes it is an act.

After becoming destitute, Nan passes as male on the streets because it gives her a freedom of movement she could not have as a woman and begins work as a gay male prostitute. She is eventually picked up by a wealthy woman, Diana Leatherby, who enjoys flaunting her lesbian relationship in public…clandestinely, because she and Nan pass as a heterosexual couple. Nan ultimately reverts to presenting as female because although passing as male enabled her to live without being harassed by a sexist society, she ultimately believes that she can achieve a sufficient standard of living without having to wear the mask of a man.

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In real life, women have passed as male—temporarily or for extended periods of time—for millennia. Their reasons are numerous but seem to generally fall into two broad, overarching categories: to be able to work in fields that at the time were restricted to men (including as temporary measures to be with loved ones or inspired by patriotism), or because they were what today we would recognize as lesbian or transgendered. These categories are not mutually exclusive, nor are they comprehensive, but are meant to provide examples of how women have used passing to achieve their intentions, whatever those intentions were.

Overcoming Gender Restrictions in Career Fields

James Barry/Margaret Ann Bulkley (circa 1789-1865), U.K.

James Barry was a physician who achieved the signal honor of being Britain’s Inspector General in charge of military hospitals at a time when Britain was still the world’s reigning colonial power. Except James Barry was actually Margaret Ann Bulkley. Bulkley, who was only five feet tall and had a high pitched voice, passed as male in order to become a medical doctor and make a good salary at a time when the profession was barred to women and her family was in desperate need of money. Not only did her family knew of the ruse and help to perpetuate it, but afterwards many other people claimed to have been aware of the deception, too.

Image via Vagabond.com
Image via Vagabond.com

Why did she get away with it? Probably because of her connections to powerful people willing to protect her, and possibly also because she practiced medicine in India and South Africa, areas where there would have been a desperate need for doctors, even women doctors pretending to be men. Officially, the “bachelor” Bulkley (she is believed to have been in love with the Governor of the Cape Colony) was able to take her secret to the grave and was only outed at her death when her body was prepared for burial. Later, her old traveling trunk was opened and the new owner discovered a collage of fashion plates from women’s magazines showing gowns, bonnets, slippers, and hairstyles glued to the inside of the lid. All the things she could never wear so long as she continued to be Barry.

She was the first doctor to perform a Caesarian.

William Chandler/Mary Lacy (1740-1801), U.K

At the age of 19, Mary Lacy ran away from home and joined the British Navy as an apprentice carpenter named William Chandler. She was discharged in 1763 after having served for four years, then kept living as a man while apprenticing for her shipwright’s exams, which she passed in 1770. The next year, however, she developed rheumatoid arthritis and applied to the British Navy for a pension as a war veteran, which, surprisingly, she was granted even though she was a woman and legally barred from service. In 1773, she published an account of her life, ‘The History of the Female Shipwright,” publicizing her experience. Lacy married another shipwright in 1772 and they had six children.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez was born in Cuba, but she was sent to school in New Orleans and at age 14 eloped with an officer in the Texas army. When the American Civil War broke out, her husband joined the Confederate Army and Velazquez disguised herself as a Confederate lieutenant, “Lieutenant Harry T. Buford,” in order to follow him. Velazquez first went to Arkansas, where she raised a regiment of volunteers, then took it to join her husband in Florida.

A few days later, her husband was killed in a shooting accident, so Velazquez headed north and joined a new regiment in time to fight at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. She later traveled to Tennessee and joined another regiment to fight at the Battle of Fort Donnelson and then the Battle of Shiloh. Near the end of the war, she worked as a spy in both the North and South, using both male and female disguises. Or at any rate, Velasquez claimed she did those things in her book, “The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army,” whose accuracy remains hotly contested among historians.

Alternative Sexuality and Gender

Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar grew up a tomboy, eschewing “womanly” pastimes. In 1713, to escape an arranged marriage, Stålhammar dressed in her deceased father’s clothes and ran away from home. In 1715, she enlisted in the army as Vilhelm Edstedt and in 1716 she married a maid named Maria Lönnman. Stålhammar two weeks later revealed her true gender, but they continued to live happily in a union of “spiritual love.” Stålhammar eventually left the army in 1726 and returned to dressing as a woman, but in 1729 she was charged with having “violated the order of God” by dressing as a man and “making a mockery of marriage” by marrying another woman.

Stålhammar confessed that she had been taken by “a strong love” for Löhnman and had decided “to live and to die with her.” Löhnman, for her part, confessed that she loved Stålhammar regardless of her gender, though both denied to the court that they had any sexual contact. When the court asked Stålhammar how she could have lived for ten years without men, she replied that since she “never had any debauched thoughts and even less so any natural lust, there was never any need for her to associate with any male person.” Stålhammar and Lönman were given light sentences and after serving them quietly lived out the rest of their lives as a couple.

Mary Anderson left Scotland dressed in her dead brother’s clothing and never resumed a female identity during the rest of her life in the United States. As Murray Hall, Anderson became a vote-getter for “Tammany Hall,” the corrupt Democratic political machine that controlled politics in New York City from the 1790s to the 1960s, for 25 years. Hall was a whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking, poker player who married twice and had an adopted daughter. He flirted shamelessly with women even when married and once brawled with two police officers. When Hall eventually died of breast cancer, news that Murray Hall was actually a woman rocked New York City because there had been no inkling that he was anything but a man with a small frame. It is unknown what Hall told his wives, although perhaps like jazz musician Billy Tipton he claimed to have been in an accident that mutilated his anatomy.

In 1862, Irish-born Jennie Irene Hodgers enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment to fight in the Civil War as Albert Cashier, an identity she had previously used to find work. Cashier fought in over 40 battles in three years in future US President General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. Cashier managed to keep his secret because other soldiers thought he was just small and preferred to be alone. In fact, many of the estimated 400-750 women who fought in the war were able to pass because they looked similar to the beardless, adolescent boys–often just 13 years old–who were also enlisting at the same time.

After the war, Cashier never returned to a female identity. For forty years, Cashier worked as a farmhand, church janitor, cemetery worker, street lamplighter, and chauffeur. Eventually, he claimed a veterans’ pension and moved into a soldier’s retirement home and was buried with full military honors. He (she)  never married.

“Passing” has become much less common in this century. The number of male-only professions has dwindled to all but a handful, while homosexuality has become more widely accepted around the globe. For example, in 2015 the US Army welcomed its first female Rangers, while in 2016 Hillary Clinton became the first female candidate for US President for one of the two main political parties and Ellen DeGeneres continued her streak as the queen of daytime TV.

However, some of the other drivers that once led women to pass as male continue. For example, women on average earn less than men in nearly every single occupation for which there is sufficient earnings data for both men and women to calculate an earnings ratio. Women continue to experience sexist microaggressions while men are automatically viewed as having more gravitas and authority in professional settings.

One thing the history of passing teaches us is that women shouldn’t have to pass as men to be given respect and equal treatment. We should be given these things because we are individuals, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we recognize that there’s still a long way to go towards gender equality and thank the brave trailblazers who have gone before to push the envelope of equality.