jump to navigation
  • Transvestite Protestors: Why, When and Where? June 23, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    ***Dedicated to Chris***

    Modern and early modern social movements are not normally Beach’s thing. He’ll let the likes of Eric Hobsbawm salivate over those. But just yesterday an email brought a peculiar Irish American phenomenon to his attention: the Molly Maguires, previously known to this author only from Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear.  The Mollys operated in Pennsylvania in the mid-late nineteenth century and had their roots in pre-famine Ireland. More disgruntled Celts… hardly a surprise. But the Mollys did have one peculiarity. They allegedly blackened their faces and dressed in women’s clothing. Beach says ‘allegedly’ because nothing about the Mollys is certain: were they really one organization or were they loosely called ‘Mollys’ by hostiles; did they really link back to anti-British cells in the homeland or had they come to light in the US; were they criminal or social in origin… But the women’s clothes and the blackened faces, if we can take these as a given. Why?

    Before attempting to answer this let’s turn to earlier examples of rebel transvestitism. Here is an extract from  Natalie Zemon Davis (the only good material Beach has found on this):

    In 1629, ‘Captain’ Alice Clark, a real female, headed a crowd of women and male weavers dressed as women in a grain riot near Maldon in Essex. In 1641, in the dairy and grazing sections of Wiltshire, bands of men rioted and leveled fences against the king’s enclosure of the forests. They were led by men dressed as women, who called themselves ‘Lady Skimmington.’ In May 1718, Cambridge students followed ‘a virago, or main in woman’s habit, crowned with laurel’ to assault a Dissenting meeting house. Two years later, laborers in Surrey rioted in women’s clothes, and at mid century country men disguised as women tore down the hated tollbooths and turnpike gates at the Gloucestershire border. In 1812, ‘General Ludd’s Wives,’ two weavers dressed as women, led a crowd of hundreds to smash steam looms and burn a factory at Stockport.

    NZD gives other examples from France, Ireland  and Scotland (Madge Wildfire etc) including peasants from the Beaujolais in France in the 1770s where male peasants blackened their faces and dressed in women’s clothes.  However, the most interesting case of transvestite rebellion was the Rebecca Riots in Wales from 1839 to the mid 1840s. These riots were focused on toll gates and saw local men dress up as women, while out smashing things up. The name Rebecca is Biblical (‘they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them’) and the rioters fully ritualized their attacks. Beach loves the following exchange, led by an old blind grandmother (actually a misdressed middle aged farmer),  because it is so Welsh. (Beach has frequently suggested in this place that the Welsh stand at the right hand of the Father.)

    ‘What is this my children? There is something in my way. I cannot go on.’

    ‘What is it, mother Rebecca? Nothing should stand in your way.’

    ‘I do not know my children. I am old and cannot see well.’

    ‘Shall we come and move it out of your way, mother Rebecca?’

    ‘Wait!,’ replied Rebecca, ‘It feels like a big gate put across the road to stop your old mother.’

    ‘We will break it down, mother. Nothing should stand in your way.’

    ‘Perhaps it will open….Oh my dear children, it is locked and bolted. What can be done?’

    ‘It must be taken down, mother. You and your children must be able to pass.’

    So we have violent social movements from Britain, France, Ireland and further afield (?) where dressing in women’s clothes is seen as acceptable, or even right-on. Why? Academics being academics our friends with tenure and all-too-often Marxist leanings have seen this as the beginning of world revolution and the cue for semiotic battles galore. For example:

    The Molly Maguires, males dressed as women, dispensed popular justice in Ireland around 1843. This militant peasant tradition resisted and withstood the rise of the church and patriarchal, classbased society.


    Transgender played a vanguard role in many of the class battles that raged in Europe during the feudal age, and into the epoch of industrial capitalism. Transvestism was an emblem of class militancy, and many grass-roots leaders of these rebellions were people who today might be described as transvestite or transsexual.

    Well, that was useful… Many of these academic studies are, in fact, notable for confusing four separate issues. Amazonianism (women fighting); transgenderism (individuals with indeterminate sex); militant transvestisism (women dressed as men and men dressed as women for undisclosed reasons, see above and below); and transvestitism (men dressed as women and women dressed as men as a lifestyle choice). So, moving beyond Derrida and peer-reviewed articles (ahem) that have ‘Toward’ as the first word of their title let us ask again, ‘Why?’

    Several possible reasons for this kind of transvestitism occur to Beach. First, disguise in an age where clothes were not easy to come by but where every potential protestor had a wife or sister. Second, an act of transgression before breaking more important rules: and we forget just how much stronger the boundaries between male and female were before dungarees. Third, in the case of Wales, a bit of poetry to make the acts of property violence more interesting. Fourth, some confused idea that women would be less likely to be persecuted and prosecuted (good luck with that). And, fifth, a statement that women and the family are being endangered by tyrannous taxes and that the normal rules of society have broken down.

    Of course, none of this explains why these transvestite riots seem to have been resorted to over such a wide area. It is almost as if they date back to a medieval tradition. Morris dancing?!? Any other thoughts: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    25 June 2013: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books shares an interest here and has put together this little collection of offerings. They don’t give any definite solution but they certainly bring us closer. ‘I do see this smoking petticoat: “In McParlan’s initial report to Allan Pinkerton, the leader of the Molly Maguires [in Pennsylvania] wore “a suit of women’s clothing to represent the Irish mother begging bread for her children.” But, again, a far from impartial source. The most plausible explanation of the name “Molly Maguires” is that the men who engaged in the violence disguised themselves as women. “These ‘Molly Maguires,’” as W. Steuart Trench observed, “were generally stout active young men, dressed up in women’s clothes, with faces blackened or otherwise disguised; sometimes they wore crape over their countenances, sometimes they smeared themselves sin the most fantastic manner with burnt cork about their eyes, mouths and cheeks.” [Trench, Realities of Irish Life, 30.] Similar practices were common to nearly all Irish agrarian societies in the period 1760 to 1850. The Whiteboys (na Buachailli Bana), for example, were so named because they wore white linen frocks over their clothes and white bands or handkerchiefs around their hats. At the same time they apparently pledged allegiance to a mythical woman, Sieve Oultagh (from the Irish Sadhbh Amhaltach, or Ghostly Sally), whom they designated as their queen. The Molly Maguires appear to have done much the same thing. Disguised as women when they went out at night, they dedicated themselves to a mythical woman who symbolized their struggle against injustice, whether sectarian, nationalist, or economic. The clothing was not just a means of disguise; it also served to endow the agrarian agitator with legitimacy, investing him with “the character of the disinterested agent of a higher authority,” the “son” or “daughter” of Molly Maguire. [Donnelly, “The Whiteboy Movement, 176-1-65,” 26-29 Quote from Knott, “Land, Kinship, and Identity,” 107] One possible cultural source for the costumes of the Molly Maguires is the practice of mummery imported to Ireland by English and Scottish settlers in the seventeenth century. Mummery was strongest in the North, and in the predominantly Catholic borderlands of Ulster and Leinster it was soon assimilated into the indigenous culture. On festive days, like midsummers or New Years’s, the mummers travelled from door to door demanding food, money, or drink in exchange for a performance. There was often a somewhat ominous undertone to their festivities; they threatened retribution if they were spurned, and the threat was not always made in jest. They dressed in straw costumes, white shirts, or brightly colored women’s clothing, and their faces were usually blackened. The Moly Maguires dressed in very similar costumes, perhaps to signal that they too were acting on behalf of their community, upholding an alternative social order against external authorities. Rather than being an aberration, the Mollys were very much an outgrowth of the cultural world that surrounded them. Moving quickly from taunts and threats to outright violence, they presented themselves at the custodians of their community.’ In Ireland, as one of the leading historians of early modern Europe has observed, “we have the most extensive example of disturbances led by men disguised as women.” [ Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975), 149. ‘The “Threshers,” for example dressed in white sheets before going out a night to enforce “Captain Thresher’s Laws.” The “Peep o’Day Boys,” the “Lady Rocks,” and the “Lady Clares” all disguised themselves, often quite elaborately, in women’s clothing. [Beames, Peasants and Power, passim.] How is this pattern of gender inversion to be explained? Given the preliterate character of Gaelic culture, no written evidence on this point has survived. But it is clear that allegiance to a mythical woman was a common theme in nineteenth-century Irish culture, not just among agrarian rebels. In parishes and villages the residents were “children of the one mother”’ in the nation at large, to the extent that a concept of it existed, they were “children of the Gael.” Ireland was typically symbolized by a beautiful woman in the aisling  poetry of the eighteenth century. And the members of agrarian secret societies were “children” of “Sieve,” or “Molly Magruie,” or “Terry’s Mother.” In McParlan’s initial report to Allan Pinkerton, the leader of the Molly Maguires wore “a suit of women’s clothing to represent the Irish mother begging bread for her children.” [Miller, Emigrants and Exiles , HML, A 1520, B 979, F, “Memoranda and Papers,” report of JMCP to AP, October 10, 1873.]’ ‘As for the motif of cross-dressing, it was characteristic of most communal societies in the Irish countryside, not just those that had recourse to violence. Indeed, the violent societies appear to have been an outgrowth of nonviolent ones, representing the transformation of cultural play into social protest….Disguise, transvestism, and overt sexual games also characterized one of the most distinctively Irish cultural forms of the time, boisterous and often sacrilegious wakes for the dead.’ [Connolly, Priests and People in Pre-famine Ireland, 148-58]… The impulse behind disguise and cross-dressing was not, of course, some collective confusion over sexual identity. But if sex was not being questioned, gender and other forms of social hierarchy were. In societies where the word “woman” often signified the passionate, the disorderly, the violent and chaotic side of human nature, temporary assumption of women’s identity by men was fraught with significance. Recent historians have detected in the practice of carnival, for example, not just a social safety valve, but real alternatives to the prevailing social order, particularly in terms of gender.[Davis,Society and Culture in Early Modern France, 123; cf. Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988), chapters 1,2, on gender as a category of analysis.] The world of Mediterranean festival, social mockery, and cultural play may see ma long way from the rainswept boglands of north-central and northwest Ireland. But the social and cultural roots of the Molly Maguires apparently lay in this obscure world of ritual and protest, common to different parts of early modern Europe at different times. In general, the patterns of protest and violence in question survived longer in Ireland that elsewhere in Western Europe. And the Molly Maguires were the last of the long line of violent secret societies to emerge in the Irish countryside in the century after 1760. These then were the types of social practices and traditions that certain Irish immigrants brought with them to the anthracite region of Pennsylvania. Threatening notices signed “Mollie’s Children” were being posted in the region Making Sense of the Molly Maguires By Austin Kevin Kenny Assistant Professor of History University of Texas, pp. 21-24. And this: Although some believe that the Molly Maguires, Ribbonmen, and Ancient Order of Hibernians are different names for the same organization, Kenny has cast some doubt on such linkages, describing the practice of conflating these names as a strategy which “provided an important rationale for [the Molly Maguires’] eventual destruction”. Kenny observes that most of the Ireland-based equivalents of the AOH were secret societies, some of which were violent. Kenny describes a process of leaders from north-central and northwestern Ireland “[adapting] their AOH lodges to classic ‘Ribbonite‘ purposes”.[4] Although there was a specific organization called the Society of Ribbonmen, the term Ribbonism became a catchall expression for rural violence in Ireland. The Ancient Order of Hibernians was extended to Ireland by the Ribbonmen, according to the official history of the AOH. Kenny believes, “If the AOH was a transatlantic outgrowth of Ribbonism, it was clearly a peaceful fraternal society rather than a violent conspiratorial one”. In some areas the terms Ribbonmen and Molly Maguires were used interchangeably, i.e. conflated. The main distinction between the two appears to be that the Ribbonmen were regarded as “secular, cosmopolitan, and protonationalist”, with the Molly Maguires considered “rural, local, and Gaelic“.[5]’ Borky, meanwhile, writes in transvestism as pragmatics and as magic: Beach by a curious coincidence I stumbled on two functional/magical tranvestism episodes today where I least expected to find them 1) in the aftermath of the Burke and Hare murder trial Burke’s mistress Helen McDougal was able to escape the mob surrounding the police station she was hiding out at by dressing as a man and slipping out the back 2) in this brief video about a Myanmar mystic called ‘ET’ it claims the Generals of the Burma Junta wore women’s clothes to ward off the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi presumably at this mystic’s advice.  Thanks Borky and thanks Chris!