Review of The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe

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A Review of The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe

by Rudolf M. Dekker and Lotte C. van de Pol

New York: St. Martin's Press

Review Copyright © 1990 by William A. Henkin



It's probably a consequence of a patriarchal mentality, but as the gender community as a whole becomes increasingly visible in the Western world, the sub-group most conspicuously left out of the picture has been FTM cross-dressers. Despite national and local network television shows with walking, talking, breathing examples, many psychologists and sociologists, as well as lay people, still deny that FTM TVs exist.

Part of the purpose of this thoroughly documented yet readable discussion of FTM cross-dressing is to help correct that popular misconception. The book specifically concerns 119 Netherlands women who lived between 1550 and 1839. It does a credible job of placing their lives in a broad historical context, and if its geographical context seems narrow, the authors assert that is because research and documentation are difficult in this nearly virginal field.

Even though their focus concerned the Netherlands, along the way the authors discovered enough evidence of female cross-dressing throughout Europe to claim that the cases they uncovered were not anomalous, and to encourage scholars in other countries to examine their own national records and thereby to expand the subject's social history. But since many archives have been lost, are unavailable, or simply never existed, "we do not know how many cross-dressers left no trail behind them in written source-material.... especially [among] those women who transformed themselves so successfully that they never were unmasked. For these reasons we presume that our 119 cases are only the tip of the iceberg."

After a very short introduction the authors provide an overview chapter in which they explore some of the reasons the women they studied cross-dressed. They discuss their general biographical outlines and a few peculiarities and similarities among those women, and they describe the nature of their transformations, the professions they followed as men, and the risks they faced if and when they were exposed.

Most of the rest of book is concerned with describing the motives and traditions that inspired the 119 women to cross-dress, investigating the varieties of their sexualities, and showing how their contemporaries viewed them: some of the women were whipped publicly, exiled, or otherwise punished, but many others were received surprisingly well, especially if they had performed military service as men.

Despite its ponderous academic title and rather professorial price, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe fills an important gap and is a welcome addition to the gender bookshelf. Though much of what the authors discovered will not surprise FTM TVs today, some of the women's livelier tales may provide emotional and intellectual support, along with evidence that FTM TVs are not alone but are, rather, "part of a deeply rooted tradition."


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