I’ve been reading Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s autobiography in order to prepare to read a couple of chapters as a libravox volunteer. Stanton was a lot more interesting than the cipher of nineteenth century feminism I have always had in mind when I think of her. In some ways, I really identify with her. She talks about blowing people’s minds inadvertently by saying things that she thinks are logical and obvious, but are actually lightening-speed progressive to most of those around her. She’s always shocked when she shocks someone.
In other ways, heaven forfend I make her mistakes. She and Susan B. Anthony really sold out to the racists when it came to garnering support for white women’s votes. They eventually reduced their political rhetoric to “hey, if scary Black men are going to be voting, don’t you want your nice white daughters and wives voting too?” Eyelash bat.
But before it got to that point, these white women were abolitionists, hobnobbing with Frederick Douglass, who fully supported their cause, even after they threw him under the bus.
I digress, however. What I really wanted to point out was this fun picture of Murray Hall, casting a vote in New York City in the late nineteenth century.
Murray Hall was probably a Scottish immigrant who probably switched genders at age twelve to become a boy and kept up the gender “ruse” all of his life, even having two wives and an adopted daughter before he died and was thus discovered to have been a “woman.”
They didn’t have terms for people who switched genders back in those days, or people who felt strongly born into a wrongly-gendered body, but Murray Hall was so persistently a man that transgender people claim him today as an ancestor.
But if you read the New York Times articles surrounding his death and the “discovery” of his secret, not only do you learn a lot about the simple ways gender was constructed in the 1880s and 90s (Murray Hall died in 1901), like through clothing and cigar smoking and “womanizing” (apparently his first wife left him for that reason!) but also the political ways it was enforced and reinforced. The picture above is, presumably an artist’s rendition of the fact that Murray Hall participated (actively–including as an elected official) in local politics all his adult life. This was his truly titillating and scandalous gender transgression.
I think the picture makes him look like a woman in men’s clothes. Notice how he’s a little bit slighter and shorter than the other men, it almost looks like he’s about to go on tip-toe to reach the ballot box. And yet, while the New York Times readers were probably reassured by such a picture that they could “tell,” clearly they probably couldn’t. After all, he was a rather successful local leader and kept company with other politicians none of whom ever suspected a thing.
Again and again I find myself wondering, how many women lived as men and never did get caught? How many women voted before, you know, women could vote?