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

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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.

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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.

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