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

Alternative Sexuality and Gender

Vilhelm Edstedt/Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar (circa 1683– 1733), Sweden

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.

Murray Hall/Mary Anderson (circa 1840-1901), U.S.

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.

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Albert Cashier/Jennie Irene Hodgers (1843-1915), U.S.

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 never married.

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“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.