J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 25, 2016

How Should We Refer to the Chevalier D’Eon?

Four years ago I reported on art dealer Philip Mould’s identification of a portrait as showing the Chevalier d’Eon.

A French diplomat and spy, D’Eon ran afoul of his own government and took refuge in London. Dressing as a woman while teaching men to fence, D’Eon became a celebrity, eventually claiming to have been a woman all along.

The National Portrait Gallery in London acquired that oil painting to go with its many engravings of D’Eon made for a wider audience. In connection with the display of that portrait, Assistant Curator Claire Barlow recently wrote:
D’Eon’s extraordinary story sparked a debate over the display of the portrait: which pronoun to use? The answer ought to be whichever pronoun D’Eon preferred but here we hit the great problem of working with historical objects – the limitations of surviving evidence. While living as a man, D’Eon had bought women’s clothes for himself but he only began living exclusively as a woman due to external pressure. The French court, convinced by persistent rumours about D’Eon’s gender, only agreed to give him a pension if he wore ‘clothing appropriate to her sex’. This ruling reflects the strict eighteenth-century gender division: ultimately, D’Eon had to choose. He took the pension and lived the rest of his life as a woman, forging a very successful career in Britain as a female fencer.

We simply don’t know whether D’Eon would have chosen to be transvestite, transsexual or something else entirely if those options had been available. We didn’t want to repeat the mistake of the French king, in not realising that a man could choose to wear a dress, so we decided to use the male pronoun.
The chevalier’s Wikipedia entry, in contrast, suggests the article’s editors have tried to avoid pronouns at all, producing sentences like “In an effort to save d'Éon's station in London, d'Éon published much of the secret diplomatic correspondence about d'Éon's recall…”

I’m not sure D’Eon was really forced into the choice of living as a woman. The 1777 agreement between D’Eon and Pierre-Augustin Caron du Beaumarchais, acting on behalf of the French government, did state that D’Eon had to dress as a woman as a condition of returning to France with a pension. However, it also served as a royal ruling that D’Eon was a woman and used female terms like “demoiselle” and “spinster.”

D’Eon’s additions to that agreement, crossed out by Beaumarchais, insisted that the chevalier had been female all along: “Seeing that son sexe has been proved by witnesses, physicians, surgeons, matrons and legal documents”; and “That I have already worn [female clothing] upon several occasions known to his Majesty.” Those don’t seem like the protests of someone being made to do something against his will. Saying the king made D’Eon dress in female clothing seems like saying Brer Fox made Brer Rabbit go into the briar patch.

Furthermore, in 1785 D’Eon returned to Britain, beyond Louis XVI’s reach. The French Revolution ended the pension from Paris in the early 1790s. Yet D’Eon continued to live as a woman until dying in 1810, so consistently that it was a surprise when physicians reported the chevalier had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed.”

I agree that it’s impossible to know whether the Chevalier d’Eon would have chosen any of the modern categories of transvestite, transsexual, or genderqueer. But it looks to me like D’Eon did choose to maneuver into the eighteenth-century category of woman.


Charles Bahne said...

"The French court, convinced by persistent rumours about D’Eon’s gender, only agreed to give him a pension if he wore ‘clothing appropriate to her sex’."

It would be interesting to see the original French language version of the court's ruling.

The single words (possessive pronouns) in French that translate to "his" and "her" are identical — "son", "sa", and "ses". The pronoun instead agrees with the gender of the object that is possessed. For example, his/her father; son père; his/her mother, sa mère; his/her children, ses enfants. Additionally, the French word for sex or gender, sexe, is masculine so it always takes a masculine pronoun: son sexe could mean either "his sex/gender" or "her sex/gender".

There are other ways of phrasing possessives that can be used to define the gender of the owner, but the phrasing is convoluted and wordy and is generally not used unless the author specifically wants to make that sort of distinction — for example, "le sexe de lui", his sex/gender, vs. "le sexe d'elle", her sex/gender.

Alas, the use of an English translation here tells is nothing, it only obfuscates the court's original language.

J. L. Bell said...

The English translation I linked to uses “his/her sex” as its translation for “son sexe,” recognizing that aspect of French genders. Terms like “spinster” (or whatever the French equivalent was) and “demoiselle” are therefore more indicative.

I didn’t mention it here, but a couple of years before returning to France there was a court case in Britain ruling that D’Eon was female. The chevalier wasn’t a party to the lawsuit that produced that ruling. Rather, two men had bet on whether D’Eon was male or female, and then sued all the way to Lord Mansfield on the question of whether that was a valid gamble.

Unknown said...

I'm now a PhD candidate, but when I was working on my undergraduate thesis on "male impersonators" (people female assigned at birth who lived as men) in early America, I, of course, ran into these issues. The interpretation I offered in my thesis is that a strict association between anatomy and identity should be understood as historical. I often was accused of "presentism" referring to the individuals in my thesis with male names and pronouns, but I contended that to refer to them with female names and pronouns because their anatomy meant they were REALLY women rested on the assumption that "men have pensises, women have vaginas" as an ahistorical universal truth.True that it's important to recognize contemporary constructions; in other words, yes, it's critical to recognize that in the eighteenth century, that strict association between genitals and gender did exist. But the difference between recognizing that as historical and assuming that as biological fact is very subtle, and very important.