Posted by Goody Sandy on January 11, 2000 at 04:17:59:
In April, 1629, a person named Hall was brought before the General Court in the Virginia colony. Hall had not committed a crime, but had been reported to the authorities for one simple reason: people were confused about Hall’s sexual identity. At times Hall dressed as a man; at other times, as a woman. Virginians attempted to come to grips with the problems presented to them by a sexually ambiguous person.
This court case illustrates the importance of clothing as a crucial identifier of gender in early American society. Not only did males and females wear very different garb, but persons of different ranks also were expected to reveal their social status in their dress.
In short, one was supposed to display visually one’s sex and rank to everyone in the society. Thus, new acquaintances would know how to categorize each other even before exchanging a word of greeting. In a fundamental sense, 17th-century people’s identity was expressed in their apparel. Massachusetts went so far as to pass laws regulating what clothing people of different ranks could wear.
Thomasine Hall was christened and raised as a girl. But all those who examined Hall, both men and women, as a result of the court case insisted Hall was a man. Hall fell into the category of human beings that appear female in infancy but at puberty develop what seem to be male genitalia. The confusion arose because Hall physically resembled a man but acted like a woman. Hall had “feminine” skills and mannerisms that would gave been exhibited by a person born, raised and living as a female until reaching the age of 22.
The court, composed of the governor and council, was the highest judicial authority in the colony. The judges heard from Hall, who refused to choose a gender, and sworn depositions of two male witnesses. The court accepted Hall’s own self-definition and declared that Hall was “a man and a woeman, that all the Inhabitants there may take notice thereof and that hee shall goe Clothed in mans apparell, only his head to bee attired in a Coyfe and Crosecloth with an Apron before him.”
Clothing, which was sharply distinguished by the sex of its wearer, served as a visual trope for gender. And gender was one of the two most basic determinants of role in the early modern world, the other being rank. People who wore skirts nurtured children; people who wore pants did not. People who wore aprons could take no role in governing the colony. People who wore headdresses performed certain sorts of jobs in the household; people who wore hats did other types of jobs in the fields.
Virginians had difficulty dealing with a person who sometimes dressed as a man and other times as a woman – and who, on different occasions, did both at the direction of superiors. In light of this context, it’s not surprising that the court based Hall’s sexual identity on clothing. By specifying that Hall’s basic apparel should be masculine, but with feminine signs – the apron and the coif and crosscloth (a headdress commonly worn by women at that time), the court recognized that Hall contained elements of both sexes.
The significance of gender distinctions in 17th-century Anglo-America is dramatically underscored by the case of Thomas/Thomasine Hall and the vigor with which this matter was pursued.
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