So I was rummaging through my books in storage in an attempt to get some inspiration for this week’s post. Serendipitously I came across two of my favorite Jacobean pamphlets. (Yes, I am that level of a geek when it comes to Renaissance studies.) The Hic Mulier or The Man Woman and Haer Vir or the Womanish Man (both written in 1620)* are two pamphlets that debate the fad of female transvestitism in early 17th-century London. The more I thought about devoting a post to this topic the more I came to realize how appropriate this would be considering that the 12th Annual International Demin Day was celebrated on April 21st. For those unaware, Demin Day is a worldwide protest against a ruling by the Italian Supreme court in 1992. Here are the particulars of the case: a teenage girl was brutally raped by a 45-year old driving instructor, who threatened her life if she would tell anyone. Courageously the girl did report her assailant, and he was rightfully imprisoned. However, his conviction was overturned on appeal: the Italian Supreme Court ruled that despite the assault and death threats the sex must have been consensual since she was wearing skinny jeans and had to have taken them off for her rapist. Hence the girl was complicit in the act. So outraged by the absurdity of the court’s ruling, the women of the Italian Parliament within hours began protesting and showing solidarity with the victim by wearing jeans. In 1999, the organization Peace Over Violence started the first Demin Day in L.A..
The issue of sexual violence against women and women’s choice in clothing was being discussed in Jacobean London. Before I continue, I should give some context about the significance of clothing in Early Modern England. What a person wore was very rigidly policed by the state: the Sumptuary Laws regulated what type of clothe a person could wear. The penalty for violating the law could range from confiscation of property and/or imprisonment. Mainly, the purpose of these laws was to establish a visible marker of class, particularly at a time when the mercantile class was gaining the financial means to purchase richer clothe. Though the laws were maintained throughout the 16th-century (Henry VIII actually updated them), James I repealed them in 1604. Beyond class, clothing was also a way of stabilizing gender and sexual identity. A good example of this was the custom of breeching. Childhood was considered a period of asexuality; it was not until a young boy was “breeched” or put on his first pair of pants, between the age of 2-8. Until this point, young boys wore dresses/gowns. Clothing gave a person his/her sex. (See Stephen Orgel’s Impersonations: the Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England .)
The emergence of women cross-dressing really troubled the connection between clothing and sexual identity. For those Latin nerds out there, you probably notice something wrong right away with the term hic mulier: hic is the masculine form of “this,” while the noun it modifies is feminine, “mulier” or “woman.” The comment being made is that the female transvestite throws everything into chaos, including language.
In the 1620 pamphlet, Hic Mulier, the writer constantly describes this figure as defying any categorization: the hic mulier is “not halfe man, halfe woman; halfe fish, halfe flesh; halfe beast, halfe Monster.” The pamphlet goes on to accuse the female transvestite of dressing more lasciviously:
From the other, you have taken the monstrousness of your deformitie in apparell, exchanging the modest attire of the comely Hood, Cawle, Coyfe, handsome Drsse and Kerchiefe, to the cloudy Ruffianly broad-brim’d Hatte, and wanton Feather, the modest upper parts of a concleaing straight gowne, to the loose, lascivious civill embracement of a French doublet. . . and extreme short wasted to give most easie way to every luxurious action.
In other words, yet confusing, the writer actually finds that in dressing like a man the hic mulier is exhibiting her lustful nature. The anonymous writer at one point insinuates that the female transvestite has traded sexual favors for her outfit and for having her hair cut short. Among being compared to a monster, “the untamed Moore, the naked Indian, and the wilde Irish,” the writer also suggests the hic mulier to be comparable to a prostitute. In Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girl (1610), Moll Cutpurse, a character based on the real life female transvestite, Mary Firth, is often perceived by other characters as being sexually promiscuous.
One such character, Laxton, whose name implies his on impotency, attempts to lure Moll into a sexual rendezvous, only to have Moll come armed and challenging him to a duel. In one of the more satisfying moments in Jacobean drama, Moll soundly beats him but not before giving a speech, the longest one in the play, detailing the wrong men have done to women in presuming them to be their whores. (Here’s a link to the play. The speech happens in III.i)**
To the Hic Mulier pamphlet, a very clever response was written entitled Haec Vir, or the Womanish Man.
This pamphlet is dialogue between the characters of the haec vir (again “haec” being feminine, while vir [man] is masculine) and the hic mulier. Essentially, the hic mulier rebuts the haec vir’s argument that she is defying nature by claiming her liberation from slavish adherence to custom:
Bondage or Slavery, is a restraint from those actions, which the minde(of it owne accord) doth most willingly desire: to performe the intents and purposes of anothers disposition, and that not but by. . . sweetnesse of entreatie, but by force of authoritie and strength of compulsion.
What the hic mulier argues is that there is nothing natural about women wearing a particular type of clothing. Rather, it is merely custom or conventionality that dictates which sex should wear what. Really, this pamphlet is incredibly empowering, admonishing women to break from custom and be allowed to use their reason: “To conclude Custome is an Idiot; and whosoever dependeth wholely on him [Custom], without the discourse of Reason, will . . . become a slave indeed to contempt and censure.” Since they are “free-borne as Men, have free election, and as free spirit,” the hic mulier character demands that women exercise their own choice in clothing.
**The villainous father in the play, Sir Alexander, who is under the impression that his son wishes to marry Moll, thinks that she may be a hermaphrodite: “Hoyda! Breeches! What, will he marry a monster with two trinkets? What age is this? If the wife go in breeches, the man must wear long coats like a fool.” (Ii.ii.71-2)