Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco

Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco

by Clare Sears


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822357582
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 12/26/2014
Series: Perverse Modernities: A Series Edited by Jack Halberstam and Lisa Lowe Series
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Clare Sears is Associate Professor of Sociology and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University.

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Arresting Dress

Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco

By Clare Sears

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7619-4


Instant and Peculiar

In early 1849 a young man named George Dornin left his home in New York to travel by ship to San Francisco, seeking his fortunes in the newly discovered gold mines of northern California. The journey was long, and Dornin later recalled how the ship's passengers celebrated the Fourth of July: they read the Declaration of Independence, flew the U.S. flag, prayed, held a thirty-gun salute, and enjoyed an evening of cross-dressing and same-sex dance where "the lack of lady dance partners ... [was] made up by the substitution of the younger, and smoother-faced gentlemen, in calico gowns." As one of the ship's "patriotic Americans," Dornin happily participated in the evening's festivities: "Thanks to Mrs. Longley, I was made presentable as a young lady, and though I could not dance I could manage to walk through the figures and was, in consequence, in active demand." Dornin later served as a Republican member of the California state legislature, and his cross-dressing recollections appear in his published memoirs.

When Dornin slipped into his calico gown and embraced his male partners, he participated in a cultural practice that was common among gold rush migrants, consisting of cross-gender dress and same-sex dance. Indeed multiple cross-dressing practices proliferated in gold rush San Francisco among men who wore women's clothing at predominantly male dances, women who dressed and lived as men when working in the gold mines, female prostitutes who dressed as men to advertise their sexual services, and feminist dress reformers who wore men's pants for increased freedom and mobility on the city streets. These practices took place against the backdrop of two transnational events that structured mid-nineteenth-century San Francisco life: the multinational, predominantly male migrations of the gold rush and the U.S. annexation of California from Mexico after less than three decades of independence from Spanish colonial rule. These events shaped the meanings, pleasures, and anxieties that attached to cross-dressing practices, some triggering considerable gender and racial anxieties and others supporting the growing regional dominance of European American men with remarkable ease. As suggested by Dornin's invocation of "American" patriotism, on Independence Day, on a U.S. vessel bound for newly conquered California, not all cross-dressing practices were as "transgressive" as they may at first appear. To understand the significance of cross-dressing laws—what they targeted, what they overlooked, why they mattered—this chapter turns to the cultural forms, contexts, and meanings of cross-dressing in the fifteen years preceding its criminalization.

A Sweeping Wave of Desire

In early 1848, on the eve of the gold rush, San Francisco was a small, coastal settlement with approximately eight hundred residents, including Californios, Native Americans, and European American settlers and their children. Within two years the town's population had boomed to thirty-five thousand, and within ten years it had surpassed fifty-five thousand as the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills brought thousands of migrants to the port of San Francisco. Over 95 percent of these migrants were young men, and over half traveled from outside of the United States, arriving first from Mexico, Chile, and Peru and later from Hawaii, France, Australia, China, Britain, Ireland, and Germany. The sudden arrival of these young men from multiple nations, in search of their fortunes, had a tremendous effect on San Francisco, transforming it from a small, sleepy settlement to "an instant city" in a handful of years. The vast preponderance of men among these migrants also transformed gender relations in the region, as thousands of young men struggled to organize their social, sexual, and domestic lives in the virtual absence of women.

When these migrants arrived in San Francisco, they stepped into a social world that was not only adjusting to the chaos of the gold rush but also reeling from the recent Mexican-American War and the U.S. annexation of California. The war resulted in major territorial changes, and the United States seized more than one million square miles of land that became the states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as portions of Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Kansas. This massive transfer of land was formalized by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, signed just weeks after the discovery of gold. In the following months, as thousands of migrants crossed national borders to reach gold rush San Francisco, national borders crossed resident Californios, who ceased to be nationals of Mexico and became "foreigners" in U.S. territory without traveling an inch. U.S. rule produced dire consequences for Californios, despite treaty reassurances to the contrary, as legal maneuvering robbed them of land rights and accompanying status, lifestyle, and political power. The U.S. conquest of Mexican California also shaped the ideological form of the gold rush, particularly for migrants from the eastern states, fueling beliefs in manifest destiny and infusing travel to California with nation-making, as well as wealth-making, meanings. Indeed some of the first European American men to arrive in San Francisco were soldiers from East Coast regiments who had crossed the continent for battle, not gold, but arrived too late to fight in the Mexican-American War. The territory that these and other migrants arrived in was not only a new U.S. possession but also a new home to thousands of other migrants, from multiple nations, who were staking claims to the land and the riches it promised. Undoubtedly the sudden national diversity of the region was a variation of its earlier cultural diversity rather than a completely new phenomenon. Nonetheless this national diversity combined with the region's gender demographics to produce a social world in which complex and intersecting claims about identity, difference, and morality were made. In particular the postconquest gold rush context created spaces of possibility for male femininities and female masculinities that most visibly manifested in cross-dressing practices.

Although the California gold rush quickly swelled San Francisco's population beyond recognition, the discovery of gold initially promised to be the town's death knell, as established residents flocked to the mines, causing the local newspaper, school, and even the military fort to cease all operations. However, the small settlement housed the region's only developed port, and as word of gold spread around the world hundreds of ships steamed into the Yerba Buena cove and thousands of gold-hungry men poured into town. These would-be miners needed a place to buy supplies, and San Francisco quickly became "an emporium for its hinterland," offering food, lodging, entertainment, mining tools, and clothing at exorbitant prices. Additionally, because mining was a seasonal enterprise, thousands of miners returned to San Francisco every year to ride out the winter and spend whatever gold they had gained. The sleepy hamlet was soon overwhelmed. As one newspaper editor explained in mid-1849, "We were prepared for a large emigration, but we were not prepared for such a sweeping wave of desire."

During these early gold-hunting years San Francisco was a chaotic and crowded place, lacking the physical spaces and social relationships that many associated with home. For example, there were few buildings to accommodate the new arrivals, so people bedded down in hastily erected tents, on large wooden boards nailed to the walls of overcrowded lodging houses, or simply on the ground where they fell. Multiple men shared the few beds available, and while some men presumably enjoyed such arrangements, others wryly complained that "however anxious a man may be to cultivate an extensive acquaintance he is not always exactly anxious to be imbedded in friendship." Empty ships crowded the harbor, abandoned by crews and passengers rushing to the mines. Conditions were unsanitary, disease was rampant, and by the end of 1849 many gold rush migrants had died.

Within two years, however, the chaos of the late 1840s had been replaced with more ordered—though equally rapid—growth. As early as mid-1850 streets had been planked, multilevel brick houses had been built, and a banking and financial district developed. Saloons, gambling dens, and brothels similarly sprang up, providing some of the social and sexual companionship that could stand in for home. The town expanded spatially, too, westward toward the Presidio and eastward into Yerba Buena cove, as merchants converted abandoned ships into saloons and hotels—and even a city jail. San Francisco became the key hub for imported merchandise, serving as a transfer point between arriving clipper ships and departing steamers that transported supplies upriver to Sacramento and the surrounding mines. Certainly San Francisco's development remained unstable, and major fires destroyed the fledgling canvas-and-wood city six times between 1849 and 1852. Nonetheless, by 1851 San Francisco was one of the nation's leading ports, its foreign commerce topped only by the long-established cities of New York, Boston, and New Orleans.

If twentieth-century historians have been struck by San Francisco's emergence as an "instant city," nineteenth-century chroniclers were equally impressed—or perhaps disturbed—by its "peculiar" population. During the gold rush years San Francisco was an overwhelmingly male town; women constituted only 2 percent of the population in 1849 and 15 percent in 1852. This gender imbalance featured prominently in gold rush participants' diaries, letters, and memoirs, frequently as a "peculiarity" to be remarked upon. One chronicler, for example, observed, "The most striking peculiarity observable in this city is the plentiful lack of women," while others claimed that the preponderance of young men "naturally tended to give a peculiar character to the aspects of the place and habits of the people." Perhaps unsurprisingly some migrants viewed this "peculiarity" with dismay, with one stating, "One great cause of a loose state of morals in San Francisco is the absence of female society and female influence." Others were even more grim, claiming that San Francisco had a uniquely high rate of "corruption, villainy, outlawry, intemperance, licentiousness, and every variety of crime" as a direct result of women's absence. Indeed the imagined link between unrestrained bachelor men and rampant immorality led some religious leaders to develop schemes for importing "respectable" women to San Francisco to become dutiful wives—or, as one newspaper editor described it, to "bring a few spare-ribs to this market."

Assessments of San Francisco's gender imbalance provide a window onto some of the ways that women were perceived during this period, most frequently as a "humanizing influence" or "civilizing force." However, the gender ratio "problem" in gold rush San Francisco also provides a window onto colonial relations, particularly between European American men, indigenous women, and Mexican women. Perceptions of a gender imbalance had existed in California long before the gold rush, since the Spanish conquest in 1769 instituted colonial ideologies that literally did not count indigenous women as women when calculating gender ratios. Moreover the political and economic "value" of indigenous and Mexican women had fallen since the early days of conquest, as European colonizers no longer relied upon marriage to gain access to land, military alliances, and political and economic resources. The problem of there being too few women in gold rush California, then, was more accurately a problem of there being too few women acceptable for marriage to European American men, and it had several causes that predated midcentury mass migrations. These included an ideological sphere that now condemned sexual relations between European American men and indigenous or Mexican women, except for rape and prostitution, and long-standing practices of land appropriation, violence, and Indian Removal policies that had forced indigenous people from the area. Moreover some miners were acutely aware (if not critically so) of the impact of these changes on gender relations. In his study of sex and gender in gold rush California, for example, Albert Hurtado quotes a Yuba County miner writing to his cousin of his plan "to go back to Michigan to get a Wife." This was not because there were no women in Yuba County but because—in his derogatory and dehumanizing words—"Squaw time is over in California." Consequently when gold rush migrations brought thousands of men, and far fewer women, into midcentury San Francisco, they produced a gender imbalance that extended and modified a preexisting phenomenon, shaped by colonial practices, rather than creating something new. Far from being distant history, these colonial legacies continued to inform social relations in the region, manifesting in the ways this gender imbalance was perceived, as well as in the gender and sexual order created in response.

Mid-nineteenth-century San Francisco was thus located at the crossroads of two transnational events: the multinational, predominantly male mass migrations of the gold rush and the conquest of Mexican California by a U.S. government hungry for land and continental domination. At this crossroads national and racial identities were in flux, as were sexual and gender identities and the social relations they informed. This state of flux was temporary and was gradually replaced with a social and legal order that protectively consolidated the interests of a European American propertied elite and criminalized a wide range of public indecencies, including cross-dressing practices. These changes, however, occurred slowly and unevenly, and throughout the first half of the 1850s the gold rush migrations prompted a reorganization of gender and sexual relations under conditions of national heterogeneity and gender homogeneity, characterized by male predominance. This reorganization did not equalize gender relations between men and women, but it did allow some reconfiguration of the connections between sex, gender, and sexuality. Specifically, European American cultural demands for a strict coherence between anatomy and gender loosened their grip, providing spaces of possibility for some men to experiment with femininity in dress and labor, some women to perform masculinity in predominantly male social worlds, and some people to live as a gender they were not assigned at birth. However, these spaces of possibility were intimately shaped by the region's colonial experiences—with Spain in the past and the United States in the present.

The Place of the Women Would Be Taken by Men

In the fifteen years preceding San Francisco's passage of cross-dressing law, a wide range of cross-gender practices flourished, emerging in multiple and sometimes unexpected sites. The predominantly male, racially segregated gold mining camps, for example, were home not only to hard labor, heavy drinking, disease, and violence but also to cross-dressing recreations, as European American miners used items of clothing to gender the homosocial spaces of their men-only dances. Although these dances received only a footnote mention in Hubert Howe Bancroft's multivolume history of midcentury San Francisco ("The place of women at dances would be taken by men"), other observers provided more generous details of the dress and dance practices of European American men. After attending such a dance at Angel's Camp in the southern mines of Calaveras County, for example, a Scottish artist named J. D. Borthwick explained how several men became women for the night, wearing a sackcloth patch to indicate their new gender: "The absence of ladies was a difficulty which was very easily overcome, by a simple arrangement whereby it was understood that every gentleman who had a patch on a certain part of his inexpressibles should be considered a lady for the time being. These patches were rather fashionable, and were usually large squares of canvass, showing brightly on a dark ground, so that the 'ladies' of the party were as conspicuous as if they had been surrounded by the usual quantity of white muslin." Music at such dances was usually provided by an amateur fiddler, who encouraged cross-gender dancing by directing the miners to "lady's chain" and "set to your partner." According to Borthwick, when the fiddler instructed the dancers to "promenade to the bar, and treat your partners," cross-gender practices would continue, as "the 'ladies' ... tossed off their cocktails and lighted their pipes just as in more polished circles they eat ice-creams and sip lemonade."

At similar dances in the northern mines handkerchiefs were used to temporarily transform men into women, as at a Nevada City dance in 1850, where numerous men compensated for the gender imbalance of twelve women to three hundred men by tying a handkerchief around their arm and assuming the woman's part. Luzena Stanley Wilson attended the dance and reported that the men "airily assumed the character of ball-room belles. Every lady was overwhelmed with attentions, and there was probably more enjoyment that night, on the rough pine floor ... than one finds in our society drawing-rooms." Women's clothing was also sometimes worn to indicate a man's temporary new gender. Just as George Dornin donned a calico dress to compensate for the "lack of lady dance partners," several women who attended a ball at Marysville in Yuba County persuaded a minister's son from Boston to supplement their number by wearing a woman's gown, shawl, and fan.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction. Not Belonging 1

1. Instant and Peculiar 23

2. Against Good Morals 41

3. Problem Bodies, Public Space 61

4. A Sight Well Worth Gazing Upon 78

5. Indecent Exhibitions 97

6. Problem Bodies, Nation-State 121

Conclusion. Against the Law 139

Notes 149

Bibliography 175

Index 191

What People are Saying About This

Transgender History - Susan Stryker

"Don't let the subtitle of Clare Sears's important new book fool you into thinking this is a narrow investigation of an obscure law in a small city a long time ago. It's filled with big ideas about bodies and spaces and norms, about the generative as well as disciplinary function of the law, and about the historical transience of gender categories as well as the persistence of transgendering practices. Sears's powerful analytical framework allows her to connect the exclusion of gender nonconformers from the public sphere with similar exclusions of raced and disabled bodies, while her crystal-clear prose and compelling archival stories never let the reader get lost in the weeds of excessive theorization. A great book for undergraduates and specialists alike."

Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West - Nayan Shah

"Arresting Dress is an outstanding archivally based and theoretically potent intervention in transgender history. Clare Sears offers fresh insight into how individuals targeted by cross-dressing law manipulated gender boundary logics to make public claims or evade unwelcome scrutiny. Clearly written, vividly documented, and vigorously argued, this book explores how policing gender conformity had far-reaching impacts."

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