Book Bag: ‘Female Husbands: A Trans History’ by Jen Manion; ‘Amherst College: The Campus Guide’ by Blair Kamin

Published: 3/5/2020 4:24:22 PM

By Steve Pfarrer

FEMALE HUSBANDS: A TRANS HISTORY

By Jen Manion

Cambridge University Press

jenmanion.com

In her new book, Jen Manion notes that there’s a tendency today to think transgender people are somehow brand new, or that gender was always stable until now. But in “Female Husbands: A Trans History,” Manion examines cases as far back as nearly 300 years in which people who were born biologically female presented themselves as men and married other women.

Manion, an associate professor of history at Amherst College, has examined numerous individual stories from 18th and 19th century Great Britain, and 19th and early 20th century America, in which trans people defied cultural norms and, in at least some instances, found a greater acceptance of their more fluid gender than they might today.

As she writes in a preface, “female husbands” was a term “that persistently circulated throughout Anglo-American culture for nearly 200 years to describe people who defied categorization…. Female husbands — people assigned female who transed gender, lived as men, and married women — were true queer pioneers.”

For instance, Charles Hamilton, born in early 18th century England as a girl, at age 14 put on a brother’s clothes “without a stated reason that has survived,” Manion writes, and presented as male. In 1746, Hamilton married a young woman, Mary Price, but the marriage was dissolved some months later when Price claimed Hamilton had deceived her about being a man.

It became a somewhat notorious case, Manion notes, with Hamilton being jailed and publicly whipped. The novelist Henry Fielding (“Tom Jones”) later wrote a fictionalized version of the story, “A Female Husband,” and Manion notes that more sensationalized stories about Hamilton, who later moved to America, lived on in a series of “true crime” books in 19th century England.

“Hamilton was merely the first in a long line of people whose creative, subversive, and unusual lives inspired curiosity, anger, love, and instability for those around them,” she writes.

“Female Husbands” also offers a broader analysis of how social, economic and political developments influenced popular attitudes toward, and the treatment of, these unconventional couples from the 1740s to the 1920s. More widespread gender-nonconformity, and the emergence of women’s rights and queer subcultures, led to the end of the “female husband” moniker in the first half of the 20th century, Manion notes.

She also distinguishes between sex and gender and says people have long blurred gender lines — and that “long ago many [people] were more accepting and understanding of gender than people today. What has stuck with me the most is how excited trans and non-binary people are about this history — it means so much to them they are not the first, they are not alone, and that they can read a history book about people from hundreds of years ago navigating the same issues they navigate in their lives today.”

AMHERST COLLEGE:
THE CAMPUS GUIDE

By Blair Kamin

Princeton Architectural Press

papress.com

Amherst College is not just consistently ranked one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges: It’s also a pretty good-looking place, with architecture that includes fine hilltop views, brick buildings with Corinthian columns, and modern structures of concrete, steel and glass.

Now Blair Kamin, a 1979 Amherst alum and longtime architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, has written a sweeping review of the college’s architecture and its history, with some campus lore thrown in for good measure, such as the story of Emily Dickinson’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, begging a one-legged Pelham farmer named Adam Johnson to leave his savings to the cash-poor college (circa 1820s) so that it could build a proper chapel.

“Amherst College: The Campus Guide,” published by Princeton Architectural Press, is a small coffee table-style book with a wealth of photographs and sturdy production values. The book is also organized around six specific walks that can take readers on an “engaging tour through time and space, history and culture,” as liner notes put it.

In other words, buildings can tell stories.

In an introduction, Kamin says he wanted to offer a clear-eyed look at a campus that he admittedly loves but which in some cases has fallen short, architecturally speaking: “To me, that’s true love — not blind admiration, but an esteem based upon a searching eye, a generous heart, and a mind open to all forms of experience.”

For instance, Kamin has a blunt assessment of the Mead Art Museum: “The art collection is far superior to the building that houses it.” But if the outside of the building disappoints, he writes, the inside is much more impressive, especially one gallery, the Rotherwas Room, a walnut-paneled space that was once part of a medieval English manor.

Along with iconic 19th-century structures such as the Octagon and Johnson Chapel — thank you, Adam Johnson — Kamin also finds much to admire in the college’s newest and largest building, the 255,000-square-foot science center, even if at first glance it looks out of scale on the campus.

Offering one of Amherst’s “most impressive interior spaces,” with first-rate science classrooms and facilities, the science center, Kamin writes, “compelling fuses an expression of scientific precision with responsiveness to nature and a demonstration of environmental stewardship. It reflects the values and visions of its time, just as Amherst’s first buildings made indelible statements about their own era.”

The new book has been produced in anticipation of Amherst College celebrating its bicentennial in 2021.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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