Emily Skidmore


On her book True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of October 15, 2017

A close-up

At the end of chapter one, I discuss one of my very favorite primary sources in the entire book: an editorial published in the New York Times in late 1883, titled “Female Husbands.” If a casual reader approached my book, I would love for them to open to this editorial (and my discussion of it) because it reveals a great deal about the surprising ways in which gender and sexuality were understood and debated in the 1880s. To give you a taste of it, the editorial opens:

If Mrs. Dubois chose to marry a woman, whose business was it? Such a marriage concerns the general public less than the normal sort of marriage, since it does not involve the promise and potency of children. It has been well established that if a woman chooses to wear trousers she has a right to wear them, and no one will venture to deny the right of any two women to live together if they prefer one another to solitude. Why, then, has not Mrs. Dubois the right to live with another woman who wears lawful trousers, and why should so much indignation be lavished upon Mrs. Dubois’s female husband?

There are many women who, if they had the opportunity, would select other women as husbands rather than marry men. The women who regard men as dull, tiresome creatures, incapable of understanding women, would find sympathy and pleasure in the society of female husbands. (“Female Husbands,” The New York Times, November 4, 1883.)

While up to this point, the anonymously published editorial appears to be an earnest endorsement of same-sex marriage, it quickly takes a satirical turn:

The marriage of women would solve the problem which renders wretched the superfluous women of New England. Those unhappy women cannot marry because there are not enough men in New England to be divided fairly among them. The New England men, to a large extent, abstain from marrying their fellow New England women, and prefer to seek wives in other states. If half of these neglected women were to put on trousers and marry the other half, the painful spectacle of a hundred thousand lonely spinsters would forever disappear. The female husbands and their wives could read Emerson’s essays to each other, and thus completely satisfy the wildest longings of the female New England heart. What more could a New England spinster desire than a husband who never smokes, swears, or slams the door; who keeps his clothes in order, and does not stay out of the house until late at night, and who reads Emerson, understands the nature of women, and can discuss feminine dress with intelligence and appreciation? (Ibid.)

I just love this source, as it is so provocative in what it suggests about the ways in which Americans discussed gender and sexuality in the 1880s. While it is no doubt satirical, I wonder about the multiple ways in which contemporary readers responded and interpreted its words. Some, no doubt, saw logic in the author’s argument for same-sex marriage—and some, perhaps, were themselves engaged in queer relationships and felt legitimated by these words. So, if a prospective reader encountered my book at a book store, I would love for them to open to this passage, as it is a great example of what my book as a whole does: it suggests a past that is much queerer than we commonly anticipate.