Fictional Transgender Before It Was Cool?

Sometimes it is useful to look back to a time before the heated debates of the present were kindled, and see how cooler heads then discussed those issues.  One of the heated public arguments of our time is the place of gender and gender expression in our society, and the degree to which those are God-given, naturally determined, socially constructed, or individually chosen.  This past week the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) published a “Nashville Statement” outlining what they regard as necessary Christian teaching on homosexuality and transgenderism.  Reactions to the statement were covered in all the major and most of the minor media outlets.  And this is only the latest flurry in a discussion which already goes back several years.

I recently read Margaret Widdemer’s 1915 novel Why Not?, written long before the current cultural uproar regarding transgender identity and gender expression.  It includes, solely for entertainment value, a subplot surrounding a woman who wants to be a man, and how that turns out.  In doing so, it raises possibilities that our modern gender pugilists do not consider, or even wish to foreclose.  Let us examine those, looking for an alternative to a renewed culture war.

The Plot

Why Not? is a fluffy read about a young woman (Rosamond) who is tired of being told not to do what she wants to.   She moves to a new place with a list of things she wants to do just because she can, among which is to make money as a “realiser of dreams.”  She believes the reason people don’t have what they want is because they’ve been told they shouldn’t, or they don’t try to have it hard enough (or in the right way).  Her own list of dreams is, she asserts, nothing dreadful, although some of them challenge notions of respectability (such as kissing just one man she isn’t engaged to and telling fortunes for a living).  As she goes about fulfilling these goals, she meets a hard case: Sydney.

Sydney is a girl who “suggested an out-of-gearness all over” (131).  “Her voice was deep and abrupt,” and she was “jerky in her movements and manner as well as in her way of speaking” (131).  Her unrealized dream: “I hate being a girl.  I wish I was a man” (135).  She describes being a woman as “all tied up, with conventionalities every way I turn” (135), and compares other women to “cats, with no sense of honour and no reasoning powers, and more shrewdness than they’ve any logical right to” (136).  By contrast, boys are allowed to climb trees, jump fences, and fish (135).  Sydney describes her interactions with men as working at cross-purposes: “I want to talk man-things to them, and they want to flirt” (136).  In response to Rosamond’s question what she would do as a man, Sydney longs for camping and hunting (137).  She sums up by saying, “I don’t fit into being a woman one bit” (136).

Rosamond’s diagnosis is “your nerves do need ironing out” (137).  So with her characteristic motto, “Why not?” Rosamond persuades Sydney to dress as a man, cut her hair short, and go live like a man in a village down the road for a while.  They go into New York for the transformation (complicated by the existence of laws against cross-dressing, 146), and on the train back Rosamond reminds Sydney that she will store her new friend’s “girl clothes” against the day that she reclaims them (149).  Rosamond also warns Sydney that not everything in a man’s world is smooth sailing, and as they part, Sydney kisses Rosamond goodbye (150).

That last gesture was a tactical blunder, because they were seen, and in 1915 well-bred women kissed new female acquaintances, but not new male acquaintances.  Allowing oneself to be kissed by a new male acquaintance could lead to a reputation for loose morals.  That concern causes Rosamond a great deal of a headache later in the story, especially as the (still male-bedecked) Sydney kisses her a second time on a later visit.

In the meantime, Sydney takes a room in a small village store and roams the woods to her heart’s content.  When the store is purchased, her first reaction on meeting the new owner is revealing: “Sydney’s first impulse was to brace herself to be agreeable, and hate the unseen man meanwhile.  Then she remembered.  She was not a girl now, humiliated if men failed to find her attractive.  She was just another fellow, and she could act as she pleased” (164).  She stays on and swiftly befriends the new store owner, and the two become good chums.  But as he’s useless at cooking, he hires his “boy tenant” to cook for him and clean up the rooms in back.  Sydney likes to cook (169), and the narrator says her horror of dirty housekeeping, even if it doesn’t show, “should have betrayed her sex to anybody” (174).  Sydney likens herself to the Duchess’s baby from Alice in Wonderland, who “made a very poor baby, but a very fine pig” (173).  Sydney enjoys cleaning and cooking for her new landlord as well as roving about the woods with him as a chum.

But things take a complicated turn when he suggests they go courting girls together.  “No other sound… in the world did Sydney hate so violently–the sound of the giggle of Woman when she coquets with Man” (272).  And Sydney was worried that her chum marrying someone else would spoil their friendship (273).  Yet her landlord persisted in taking his (seemingly male) friend to visit every girl in the village, despite her protest, “I couldn’t get excited over any girl that ever lived, no matter how I tried” (278).  In the process, Sydney collected some pointers on how women might dress and act differently than her prior assumptions, and “decided that she would go back to being just a girl again.  Just for a little while, to see if she couldn’t do it better now, with all the hints she’d picked up” (290).  Finally, the landlord decides on a particular local girl who most resembles Sydney (whom he only knows as a boy), after asking whether his tenant might have any sisters (292).  But this decides Sydney to give up her male life and reclaim her woman’s clothing from Rosamond, in order to be available for her best friend to marry.  The closing scene has the anticipated outcome.

What Goes On Here?

To readers today, this looks much like a standard case of transgender identity, but there are differences.  Sydney nowhere says that she is “really” a man, or a man “on the inside.”  Rosamond’s diagnosis of jangled nerves is seconded by the narrator: “She had loafed in solitude and peace for a week, and …the rest and quiet had untangled her nerves” (172).  The narrator also called into question how “manly” Sydney’s “man life” was.  As she returned from reporting to Rosamond how it was going, “there awaited her a happy house, shared on terms uncommonly like domesticity, with the friend of her heart” (271).  “Her clothes were the only masculine thing about her life” (277).

And Sydney’s complaint is not about genes or genitals, but about gender roles; she hates the inane things women were supposed to chat about, the cattiness, the coquettishness of being “charming,” and the overbearing need to be found attractive.  She in fact enjoys cooking and cleaning, although her class background meant that she was never allowed to do so: “A fearful amount of energy had been going to waste all the years Sydney had been kept sitting on verandahs, doing bad embroidery” (176).  Sydney repeatedly confesses herself uninterested in women, and wishing to have reasonable stimulating conversation with men rather than flirting with them.

There is, however, the cost of deception.  Although she does not run afoul of anti-cross-dressing laws, Sydney’s unthinking kisses of Rosamond, twice, gets the latter in a fair pickle, and seriously threatens the dream-realiser’s own chance at a happy marriage.  Even if it is in the nature of a book about wish-fulfillment that everything comes out right in the end, of course, this hints at possible worse outcomes outside of fiction.

What About Today?

Today, Sydney would have received very different counsel.  Liberals would have told her that she “really is” a man, and tried to get her to be happy staying one.  According to the LGBT theory, one cannot stop “really being” a different gender; ceasing to be transgender is a betrayal of the cause, for it denies the bizarre ontology of transgenderism which ascribes reality to what is subjective and denies what is objective.  Sydney was happy to have some of the greater freedom afforded to men in her day, but she did not wish to stay male when doing so would mean losing her best friend.  Conservatives, on the other hand, would have told Sydney that she just couldn’t be a man – it is impossible – and she must just try to like being a woman instead.  Given Sydney’s ideas of womanhood, this would have been a counsel of despair.  Neither the liberal nor the conservative talking points in our contemporary debate would have helped Sydney in the least.  She needs something else.

Rosamond’s approach has its own problems, especially the stain on her reputation that comes from “kissing a strange man,” as what happened – harmless enough in reality – was perceived as a result of the deception.  But Why Not? is not nearly as libertine in the context of early twentieth-century respectable Victorianism as that approach might be today.  Sydney needed a chance to rest and become her own woman, away from the too narrow boxes of upper-class femininity forced upon her.  While no Christian may deny that “male and female [God] created” humanity (Genesis 1:27), men and women are in fact created with a broader range of God-honoring gifts and personalities than the stereotypes of Wild at Heart and Disney princesses.

It should not surprise Christians that, just as the world has corrupted God’s design for healthy work and loving friendships, so it has also corrupted God’s design for “manhood and womanhood.”  And as so often happens, the world’s errors are not all in the same direction.  Conservative gender roles can be just as sinful as liberal anti-gender roles, such as when right-wingers celebrate promiscuous men and manipulative women.  Conservatives doubling down on aspects of gender roles which are not God-ordained may well push confused people to identify as transgender in order to escape intolerable and sinful social expectations.  Liberals insisting on transgender identity’s immutability may not only confuse people further, but back them into a corner from which they feel no escape, if they discover that they aren’t “really” whatever gender they were aspiring toward.  The two approaches together may well drive people to despair, and it is small wonder that self-identified transgender people have suicide rates higher than almost any other segment of society.  I’m sure Satan wants nothing better.

But there is a different option.  God created us the way he likes, and even though we have made a big mess of his good world, he loves us too much to leave us as the monsters we made ourselves into.  Jesus came to give true freedom, not the deceptive freedom of transgender identity nor the shackles of too-narrow gender roles.  In Christ we find forgiveness for our sins and redemption from everything that enslaves us, and we can be our real selves, not the various made-up dolls that both conservatives and liberals tell us we ought to be.  “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  This is not saying that these distinctions do not exist, of course, but that they do not preclude true freedom in Christ.  “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13).  Jesus, not gender roles or gender identity, is the answer.

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2 comments

  1. Not having read the book, I can’t fairly evaluate your assessment, but I have to wonder whether Sydney would really be labeled transgender in today’s society. From your brief description, it sounds like she is the sort of girl who would be labeled a tomboy as a child and would grow up to become an athlete or an engineer or go into some other “male dominated” profession and simply wouldn’t have the problems she had in 1915.

    1. I think our society would be tempted to label as transgender any woman who says, “I wish I were a man,” and is prepared to act upon that wish. Part of my point in presenting the novel’s treatment of the subject was to point out how constraining our current cultural preoccupation with transgenderism is, when many people just want more congenial career or social options.

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