I am currently reading a fascinating book: Colonel Barker’s Monstrous Regiment. The much used title refers to a 16th century work by John Knox called “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women“. The work was a blast against female rule – sovereigns – and has been borrowed for a number of things. The reference in the book I am reading is to those women who have masqueraded as men.
You may be asking “why is this book so fascinating?”. Well, I’m glad you asked me that. The reason it is so very fascinating is that this practice was widespread across the continents until relatively recently – certainly within the last 100 years. I’m not talking here about male impersonators, I mean women who live their lives as men – take a male name, in some cases get married and “father” children, people who shock their neighbours when the truth is discovered. The fact that even so recently as the 1920s/1930s this went on really goes to show that we’re not so far along as we think. It really took two world wars to even begin to allow women to take their rightful places in society.
“Colonel Barker” had never served as a man, but had been in the women’s military service during the Great War. What this meant was that he could talk to military men on their level. He came across as a true gentleman, who gained the trust and respect of other men. Looking at pictures of the Colonel, he looked like a matinee idol – a slightly effeminate man. It’s fairly easy to see how s/he could have passed.
Tales like this give one pause for thought. What is a man, exactly? Or a woman? Because men have masqueraded as women too for a variety of reasons. There is a saying that “clothes make the man“, but is that all it is? If I look like a man, walk like a man, talk like a man, I am a man? I’m not talking about physicality (though many of these women said they had gained a wound or an STD during the war and so were unable to “perform”) since nobody can check that except in very particular circumstances. Maybe we cannot imagine that anyone would want to fool us and so we don’t see what is there.
The bravery of these women and men, or the sheer gall, take your pick is mind blowing. This isn’t dressing up for a party or a dare or a play, this is changing their whole lives. That this was seen to be their only option speaks volumes about our civilised world. That it is little changed from that of the Ancient Greeks or the Norse seems all too obvious.