— Women you should know

15 trans women and non-binary activists you should be learning about in history class

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March is Women’s History Month and, to honor the occasion, we’d like to create a space for all the women history forgot. For the women who deserve a place in our textbooks. For the women whose voices should echo. This piece — just one in a series — is for them. 

We have always been a foundational part of history, yet the idea of “Women’s History” as a distinct category is relatively recent. Like Black History Month, Women’s History Month has wide-ranging origins. But both had their clearest beginnings in the early nineteenth century when there began to appear days and events designed to commemorate the achievements of our marginalized groups, most notably International Women’s Day. In 1980, President Carter issued the country’s first presidential statement on Women’s History Week when he attempted to add a constitutional amendment — which was never ratified — barring sex-based discrimination. Two years later, Reagan wrote a proclamation for Women’s History Week. Then, in 1987, the year I was born, Women’s History Week expanded into a month.

But which women? Womanhood is broad, complex. There is a long history of women of certain complexions or faiths or sexual orientations being denied their full humanity relative to other women. And it is only recently that trans women, like me, have begun to enter these conversations, even as trans people have always existed in the shadows and sun alike.

Transwomanhood is womanhood, for there are many ways to exist in the constellations of gender. And acknowledging trans women as part of Women’s History Month is important, for it does what Women’s History Month itself is designed to do: To reclaim the importance of women so often lost, erased, made more ghost than girl, by the patriarchal pen that’s written most of history.

We are here, beautiful and proud, as women from all diverse walks of experience should be. Yet we frequently only hear one or two names as our historical representatives: Lili Elbe and Christine Jorgensen. Of course, today, we are blessed with figures like Janet Mock, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Laverne Cox, and so many others. But there are many more, spanning eras and oceans.

And so, here are some wonderful trans women the history books often don’t contain. Many of these figures existed before the word “transgender” even did, and we must be careful not to assume that labels of the present always define people of the past as they might for us today. Many also underwent reassignment surgery — yet it’s important to note that not all trans people desire or can afford such procedures, and being trans is not equivalent to what surgeries one may or may not have had.

With all that said, these figures, to me, fit within a broad history of trans-ness, even as some are virtually unknown. Now, it’s my pleasure to write in a bit of their histories, so they don’t need to be ghosts any longer.

1Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810)

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Spy, diplomat, fencer, enigma: The Chevalier d’Eon was many things, but most of all she remains a mystery. She helped negotiate an end to a seven-year war between France and Britain in 1763. Later, King Louis XVI, fearing blackmail from d’Eon — she had been recalled from London to France by the king, then threatened to reveal French plans to invade England if she wasn’t allowed to stay — made an extraordinary order: That d’Eon could remain in Britain, but only if she lived full-time as a woman. D’Eon, who was already known for presenting as female, encouraged the idea, taking the name Mademoiselle de Beaumont.

She appears in many illustrations from the period, but is most famously immortalized in a portrait in London’s National Gallery. It’s difficult to know for sure if she would identify, today, as transgender, but given her desire to live full-time as a woman despite how disempowering it was in patriarchal England, she is undeniably a part of our history worth remembering.

2Mary Jones(1784-1864)

One of the earliest recorded stories of a trans woman in America, Jones was a black sex worker in New York. One night in 1836, Robert Haslem, a white mason worker, found her in an alley and decided to pay her for sex; on his way back, he discovered he was missing $99. Jones was brought to court for theft, and despite the constant jeers, she arrived in elegant women’s clothing each day. She testified that she always dressed like that in New Orleans and amongst other people of color. After days of insults and jokes at her expense, the court sentenced Jones to five years in prison, and she was commemorated in an illustration that crassly called her “the man-monster.”

Despite the discrimination she faced as a queer sex worker of color, Mary Jones refused to give up her identity. Though the court system challenged her and wanted her to conform to standards that weren’t in line with what she believed, Mary stood strong. With this in mind, she not only made her mark on history — but also remains an important example in court records.

3Lili Elbe (1882-1931)

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One of the most iconic and tragic names in our early history, the Danish trans woman Lili Elbe is a reminder both of how far we have come and how far we have failed to move forward. A painter married to another painter, Elbe’s story began, according to her own account, when one of her wife Gerda’s models failed to show. Gerda had Elbe model instead. The moment was astonishing to Elbe: It just felt right to dress in women’s clothes, to be depicted as one. She continued to do so in private at Gerda’s encouragement. But she was also confused by these feelings.

The dysphoria was overwhelming and inexplicable for her. Doctors shook their heads at her, and Elbe became despairingly convinced that “my case has never been known in the history of medical art.” In 1930, she planned to kill herself. The legendary doctor Magnus Hirschfield — who was working on determining how sex, sexual orientation, and gender were connected —briefly saved her, claiming he could implant a womb into Elbe using new experimental procedures. Elbe, who was by then divorced, took the risk, undergoing multiple surgeries. She began living in society as Elbe, despite rejection from many who had known her before, and said she wanted to give birth. Unfortunately, she died the following year after Hirschfiled’s uterus implant, but, at least briefly, she was an incredible figure for her time.

4Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954)

A true unsung pioneer, Anderson was born in 1886 in Kentucky. From a young age, she wanted to present as female and said she wished to be called Lucy rather than her birth name, Tobias, which worried her mother. Astonishingly for the time, a physician advised that Lucy be raised as a girl.

Anderson married two men in her life, fighting for her marriages to be accepted as legal and for her to be accepted as a woman — making her both an early fighter for marriage equality and for transgender acceptance. However, she was accused of having “lied” under oath during her marriage by not disclosing that she was assigned “male” at birth. Her response, while not accepted, was powerful. “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman,” she told reporters. “I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.”

5Coccinelle (1931- 2006)

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Born in Paris in 1931, the actress and showgirl Jacqueline Dufresnoy (best known by her stage name Coccinelle) was one of the earliest trans women to undergo reassignment surgery. She began taking hormone therapy in 1952, the year Christine Jorgensen became America’s most visible trans women, and seven years later got a vaginoplasty.

The entertainer soon became a star, being featured in films and performances (like this), and Italian singer Ghigo Agosti even dedicated a song called “Coccinella” to her. Her surgery and subsequent marriage in France led to the country amending its laws so that the gender on one’s birth certificate could be amended after a similar surgery; it also led to France allowing trans citizens to legally get married. Coccinelle went on to found a number of organizations devoted to helping trans and gender-nonconforming individuals.

6Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989)

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Before Caitlyn Jenner, there was a trans woman with the same initials: Christine Jorgensen. She was from the Bronx, and, in 1952, after her first steps towards reassignment surgery, she catapulted to national attention. “Ex-G.I. Becomes Blonde Beauty,” the New York Daily News announced. Jorgensen’s transformation was often treated as evidence of scientific advances rather than an affirmation of trans identity; she was compared to rockets and nuclear bombs. She was called “America’s First Transsexual” — inaccurate, but indicative of how iconic she was. She was glitzy and glamorous and performed for $12,500 a week in Hollywood.

Despite Jorgensen’s fame, she also attracted fury and fear, especially when the American public began to learn more about what transitioning entailed; many Americans initially thought Jorgensen could menstruate and give birth and reacted negatively when they learned she could not. Jorgensen died in 1989 with both fame and infamy, with many cisgender Americans unfortunately still clueless about what it might mean to be trans. But now, they were at least aware that we existed.

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