‘It’s a man’s world.’ The old saying goes. Many women would argue it still is. Believe it or not, it used to be worse.
Today some Christian churches ordain women. There are even women bishops. Probably because the the Gospel of Thomas says Mary Magdalene, the first to see the risen Christ, was loved above the Apostles. The Gospel of Philip says Jesus kissed Mary frequently on the… The word is torn from the text, but many believe it was mouth. The Catholic Church remains obdurate; despite, or perhaps because, of the legend of a female pontiff – Pope Joan.
Because sailors believed women were bad luck at sea, they were unable to sign up as crew. Interestingly, neither were young boys. It must have been fear of the havoc sexual frustration would cause on long sea voyages.
Yet the story persists of a handsome cabin boy; with cheeks like roses and curly locks. During a fearful storm in the Bay of Biscay, when even hardened sea-dogs were thrown from the hammock, the handsome cabin boy moaned and groaned, crying out his time had come, and to everyone’s amazement was delivered of a child. He was a woman all along, and no one guessed; except, someone obviously had.
Piracy attracted a lot of women. There were Dark Age Viqueens. Tempting as that sounds, it makes no sense at all – Vikings were not a race – to go Viking simply meant to go raiding.
16th century Ireland had a pirate queen too – Gronya O’Malley: the Sea Queen of Connaught. In the 18th century pirate captains Anne Bonny and Mary Read spent their lives dressing and acting as men to avoid provoking superstitious crews.
In 1806, Isobel Gunn, disguised as John Fubbister, worked as a labourer for the Hudson Bay Company. Isobel, a large robust woman, dressed and lived as a man. Able to work as long and hard as any, none of her fellows suspected, until…
In his diary, her boss Alexander Henry records a hammering on his door in the dead of night. It was John in pain and distress. Leaving him sleeping in a chair, Henry was woken by screams. When he came to see what the matter was, John unbuttoned his shirt showing a pregnant belly.
“In piteous tones he begged to me to be kind to a poor helpless, abandoned wretch, who was not of the sex I supposed, but an unfortunate Orkney girl, pregnant, and in childbirth.”
On the 29 December 1807, Isobel gave birth to a son. No longer able to work with the men because of her sex, she was employed as a washer woman; which did not suit her at all. 3 years later Isobel returned to the Orkneys where she died in 1861, aged 81.
Margaret Anne Bulkley was appointed as an army doctor in 1813. Women were barred from medicine. So with the connivance of her family, she attended Medical School as man – James Stuart Barry. After qualifying she joined the army as a man and lived her whole life as such.
Barry practiced as a doctor in the Caribbean and Cape Town; where he fought a duel to defend himself against accusations of homosexuality – due to being close friends with the governor Lord Charles Somerset. No doubt the rest of the boys thought him a bit girly – what with him being a woman an’ all!
It was not until his death in 1865 that his sex was discovered by his charwoman while preparing the body for burial.
In 2001 someone shamefully suggested Barry was not biologically female but hermaphrodite, which is why she adopted a man’s role. This entirely ignores the fact she was forced to masquerade as a man to do the job she had longed to do since a girl.