On this International Transgender Day of Visibility, let’s take a moment to remember the nineteenth-century writer and explorer Jane Dieulafoy, who became famous through her travels to the Middle East with her husband Marcel, a civil engineer. Dieulafoy first put on pants when she accompanied Marcel to battle during the Franco-Prussian War, just months after they were married. But it was during the couple’s journey to Persia in the 1880s that her gender non-conformity solidified into practice, as she came to understand that she could never live a woman’s life. Instead, Dieulafoy wanted the world to see her as they saw her husband: as a fierce intellectual and brave explorer, heroically bringing back treasures from the past for the glory of France. (You can still visit these Persian artifacts in the Louvre.) When the couple had their photos taken before the last leg of their mission, they dressed identically.
Historians have begun to tackle the challenge of how to talk about trans before trans: what language to use to designate figures who navigated complex gender identities before the current vocabulary existed. In my forthcoming book Before Trans, I grapple with these choices, using the contemporary vocabulary as a paradigm shifter that allows us to better recognize what was at stake for certain figures in the past. Unlike the fascinating nineteenth-century figures recently studied by scholars like Jen Manion and Emily Skidmore, Jane Dieulafoy did not live her life as a man, making the modern designation a more complex scholarly choice. Rather than feel she had been “born in the wrong body,” as the reductive cliché goes, Dieulafoy was sure she had been born in the wrong century. She fancied herself a woman of the ancient past, when women were (according to her) more like men.
Yet the trans framework remains useful for understanding Dieulafoy, as it allows us to recognize the kinds of questions that she was working out, even if it’s not always clear how to categorize her according to modern terms. Just as importantly, modern notions of trans allow us to distinguish Dieulafoy’s explorations from that of feminism, the framework by which she and other masculine-identifying women of the nineteenth century have been (mis)understood, both in modern scholarship and in their own time. Many of Dieulafoy’s colleagues were rebelling against the patriarchy, but Dieulafoy was most certainly not. Hers requires a different chapter of nineteenth-century gender history.
Having found—quite improbably—a way to live her gender non-conformity in full view, Dieulafoy lived what was by all accounts a happy life, alongside her devoted and well-chosen partner. But signs of hidden vulnerability emerge in her efforts to find her place in history. In Dieulafoy’s Parisian archives, there are several unpublished biographies of gender-crossers from earlier eras: the famous Chevalier d’Eon and the Abbé de Choisy, among others. In transcribed letters to the Chevalier, Dieulafoy underlined the diverging personal pronouns, apparently taking note of how the Chevalier’s friends had linguistically affirmed his gender identity. Dieulafoy never wrote an introduction to these loose pages or attempted to explain the connection between these figures in writing. Unlike so much of her written work, these texts remain uncategorized.
Over the course of my research, I was struck by the similarity between Dieulafoy’s unfinished biographies and works like Kate Bornstein’s 1994 Gender Outlaw and Leslie Feinberg’s 1996 Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Feinberg’s text offers a history of “sex and gender rebellions” in which she describes her own identification with these figures. She mentions Joan of Arc and the Chevalier d’Eon and includes an image of Jane and Marcel Dieulafoy. Well before the current “transgender moment,” or “tipping point,” as it has been called, Bornstein and Feinberg worked to find their historic precedents, so as to better understand themselves. In the late nineteenth-century, Jane Dieulafoy seems to have wanted the same. On this Trans Day of Visibility, I thought it fitting to make that lineage visible. Such is now the public work of trans history in the twenty-first century, which Jane Dieulafoy began privately in nineteenth-century France.
Rachel Mesch is the author of Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France, forthcoming in May from Stanford University Press. She teaches French literature, history, and culture at Yeshiva University. Follow her on Twitter @RachelMesch