Slander and ‘double sex’: an LGBT history month post

N.B. This post mentions clitoridectomy. 

I use the word ‘lesbian’ here as a catch-all category for desire and intimacy between women, rather than an identity label.


In 1716, Margery Halliwell and Elizabeth Edwards each sued the other for slander. Five witnesses came to the Chester consistory court to talk about what had happened, three women and two men. Four of them had been in or near Mrs Edwards’ house when she and Margery had shouted at each another over a stomacher; the fifth had visited after the case had begun, and heard her insult Margery again. Mrs Edwards lived in Holy Trinity parish in Chester, and the stomacher had been left in pawn with her there. It had not been pawned by Margery, but she turned up to claim it all the same (nobody explained why). Mrs Edwards told her that ‘if she wou’d bring the woman that brought it in shee shou’d have it’, but not otherwise, and Margery ‘fell into a passion’: ‘shee wou’d have it tho shee did not fetch the woman’, she declared, and Mrs Edwards was a ‘cheating slutt’ or ‘cheating House-wife’ (depending on which witness’ account we prefer) who ‘got her living by cheating’. She added that

shee cou’d find it in her heart to slap her on the Face, upon which Mrs Edwards … bid her go out, and not abuse her in her own house and they both went out [the other witness described this exit more dramatically: ‘the said defendant in her passion flew out of the house over the threshhold & then called [Mrs Edwards] a Guinea Bitch which she repeated twice’]. That upon this disturbance one Mr Boyne a half pay officer, who lodg’d there, came down stairs and … said, what ill Names are those that woman … calls you, she calls you a Guinea Bitch, what means shee by it … and shee answerd shee did not know, except it was because shee had lost some Guineas.

This was one half of the story, told by those witnesses who came to court on behalf of Mrs Edwards. Even this side was unusual: public insult was usually framed in immediately recognisable terms. But it is the testimony of the other three witnesses, on the part of Margery, which I am most interested in (though I think it is important to place them in the context of the wider argument). Mary Lacy had been ‘standing at her Father Johns Smiths door in Lower Lane, in Trinity parish’, she said, when ‘shee saw … Mrs Edwards a few doors in the same Lane from her, and … Margery Halliwell … going in the Lane’. Mrs Edwards then shouted after her, ‘Go ye hairy Hermaphrodite, ye Megg Harry … upon which [Margery] desired this deponent to take Notice what shee calld her’. Mary explained that she had not then understood the meaning of the word ‘hermaphrodite’, but had since been informed that ‘the person who is so, is of a double sex, Man and woman, And therefore she believes that the person who is not so, but yet called by those Names … is very much wrongd and abused’. Mrs Edwards’ next-door-neighbour reported that Margery had come to her house, ‘as she said to avoid [Mrs Edwards], but [Mrs Edwards] stood at her own door some time, to watch her comeing out, And when [Margery] so went out, into the Lane, [Mrs Edwards] … said to her Go thou hairy Hermaphrodite thou Megg-Harry’. Unlike Mary Lacy, the neighbour did not need to be told what this meant: ‘which words signify as the common opinion is, and as [she] believes. That the person so calld, is of a doubl & doubtfull Sex’. This was, she agreed, a very scandalous thing to claim.

There was one last witness, a glover called Hugh Wickstead. Hugh had gone to see Mr Robert Starkie, who was lodging with Mrs Edwards, some time after the slander suit had begun. He described Mr Starkie and Mrs Edwards discussing the case while he was there: ‘now shee … has taken out a Citacion against you’, Mr Starkie said, ‘shee’l pay you off’. At this point, Mrs Edwards angrily (and unrepentantly) reiterated that ‘shee … is neither Man nor Woman shee is both Man and Woman shell frigg ye. Sheel frigg ye’. (Note that witnesses distinguished, in their testimony, between not only ‘thou’ and ‘you’ but also ‘ye’ and ‘you’.) By these words, Hugh said, she had ‘very much wrongd and cast a great scandal on’ Margery. But he did not tell the court whether he had understood the last part of this insult, or what he thought it meant. Mrs Edwards went on to claim, in court, that she had (after being called a guinea bitch)

answer’d she was no Bitch and (at the instigation of some person present to call her a Megg-Harry & Hermaphrodite which she did not then understand the Meaning of) Added, being provok’d thereto by [Margery’s] uncharitable Language … That she was no Megg-Harry nor Hermaphrodite for which she humbly submits to the Law & Judge of this Court. [1]

I am not presenting this case as an entry-point into popular belief about hermaphroditism. Instead, it is useful because it is – in comparison to the charges of whoredom which slanderers usually threw at one another – deeply ambiguous. It was possible for one witness to describe ‘the common opinion’ about hermaphrodites, and for another to claim that she had no idea what the word meant. Mrs Edwards alleged that she herself had not known what a hermaphrodite was, and that another person – somehow unnoticed by all the witnesses – had suggested it to her. Yet Hugh Wickstead had heard her repeat it, months later, with that significant addition: ‘shell frigg ye’. Work on same-sex desire and intimacy in the early modern period has often asked what was known, by who, about the possibility of queer sexual experience. [2] I want to suggest that Mrs Edwards’ slander can be usefully considered within this context.

Five years after the slander suit between Margery Halliwell and Elizabeth Edwards, the first edition of Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological Dictionary was published. Bailey defined ‘to frig’ as ‘to rub’, and suggested that it came either from fricare (Latin for ‘rub’) or ‘from Friga, the Saxon Venus’. The entry beneath this explained that Friga was ‘an Idol worshipped by the Saxons in the Form of an Hermaphrodite’. [3] In the same year, the seventh edition of Thomas Gibson’s The Anatomy of Humane Bodies Epitomized came out (it had been first published in 1682). In his section on the clitoris, Gibson explained that ‘there are many Stories of such as have had it so long and big as to be able to accompany with other Women like unto Men, and such are called Fricatrices, or otherwise Hermaphrodites; who, it’s not probable, are truly of both Sexes, but only the Testes fall down into the Labia, and this Clitoris is preternaturally extended’. [4] Here, then, an association which was routinely cited by male medical writers – between hermaphroditism and ‘frigging’ – figured in an argument between two early eighteenth-century women. ‘[M]ale-authored discourses’, Valerie Traub has argued, ‘were an intrinsic, indeed, constitutive part of women’s lived experience’. They were so important because they ‘provided the images and idioms that women encountered, discussed among themselves, wilfully appropriated, silently disavowed, and publicly contested’. [5] We see something like this here.

In her work on representations of lesbianism in the long eighteenth century, Emma Donoghue suggests that the association between hermaphrodites and lesbians served a purpose which we can recognise today: ‘the need to exile us [i.e. lesbians] from womanhood’. [6] When early modern wives insulted each another in public, often at the threshold of their houses (and it is striking that here, ‘the defendant in her passion flew out of the house over the threshhold’…), they distanced their own honest womanhood from the dishonesty of others. [7] But I have come across no other slander cases which mention hermaphroditism. I can think of four possible explanations for this:

(1) Most people did not know what a hermaphrodite was.

(2) Those who had been called hermaphrodites did not want to publicise it (though Margery asked bystanders to bear witness).

(3) Calling someone a hermaphrodite, and perhaps knowing what the word meant at all, was itself shameful.

(4) Either church court officials or potential plaintiffs (those who sued for slander) did not think that hermaphrodite was an ‘actionable’, i.e. legally punishable, insult.

All of these are possible, including the last, least informative option. In theory, accusing someone of ‘living by cheating’ was slanderous while accusing someone of hermaphroditism was not. Eighteenth century legal guides explained that words which were not in themselves actionable could be defamatory if they injured someone in their trade, but not otherwise. For example, they related, one defendant had accused a dancing teacher of being ‘as much a man as I am, she is an hermaphrodite’. Though the teacher claimed that she had lost pupils as a result, the words were not, in the end, actionable: ‘tis no scandal to her profession to say, she is an hermaphrodite, for young women are commonly taught by men to dance’. [8] Yet Margery Halliwell’s lawsuit suggests that in the diocese of Chester, at least, other women could have sued for slander of this sort. I want to suggest that the absence of hermaphroditism from the language of slander is not just a jurisdictional issue, but the product of a specific relationship between knowledge, silence and shame.


In 1741, James Parsons wrote A Mechanical and Critical Enquiry Into the Nature of Hermaphrodites for the Royal Society. He was a fellow of the Society, and a physician. Parsons condemned those who interpreted ‘an extraordinary elongation in the Clitoris of Females’ as a sign of double sex. It was not surprising that ‘at the first sight of a large Clitoris, divers odd Conjectures should arise, and supply the Fancy of those unskill’d in a due Knowledge of the Part’. But it was shameful that European writers had been more ignorant than ‘some of the Asiatick, as well as the African Nations’, who, recognising that

the Length of them produces two Evils, viz. the hindering the Coitus, and Womens abuse of them with each other, wisely cut out or burn them off while Girls are young, and at the same time never entertain the least Notion of the Existence of any other Nature besides the Female in those Subjects who are thus depriv’d of that useless Part. [9]

It had often been suggested, Parsons reminded his readers, that ‘there must be as much of a Masculine nature, as of a Female’ in such women: otherwise, they would not pursue other women sexually. But this was a misunderstanding. It made physiological sense, he explained (in detail), that ‘a Congress like this’ would be enjoyable for both them and their female partners. But they did not actually prefer women to men: it was just safer, allowing them to have sex outside of marriage without risking pregnancy. [10] Parsons was writing against the shame and confusion which, he claimed, belief in hermaphroditism had generally given rise to. To do this, though, he represented female desire as both evil and inherently pointless: ‘that useless Part’, he wrote, eleven pages before explaining that it was, ‘as all allow, the Seat of great Titulation’. [11] Like the ‘credulous’ accounts which he dismissed, he called for medical intervention to prevent women from having sex with other women.

But how did these ideas relate to women like Margery Halliwell and Elizabeth Edwards? Parsons would have been unimpressed by Mrs Edwards’ slander (‘Go thou hairy Hermaphrodite’): he devoted a passage of his treatise to explaining that facial or body hair did not mean a doubtful sex, for ‘there are many Women with Hair between their Breasts and on their Chins, who deserve no such Repute; one I have often seen whose Arms to the Fingers Ends were covered with long black Hair, having a Beard also on her Chin, who was the Wife of a Man of Fortune by whom she had eight or nine Children’. [12] Unlike their witnesses, three of whom (two men and a woman) could sign their names and two of whom (both women) could not, we have no way of knowing whether either Elizabeth or Margery were literate. It is even less possible to know what they might have heard in the marketplace, street or alehouse. Though most of the stories Parsons told about popular credulity were located outside of England, there was one set in London; he had heard it from John Douglas, another fellow of the Royal Society. One of the two male drawers employed at the King’s Arms, a tavern in Fleet Street, had startled everyone by becoming pregnant by the other drawer. The ‘Rumour of the Drawer’s being chang’d into a Woman made a great Noise all over the Neighbourhood’, Parsons alleged. Yet in practice this was only ‘a poor Girl whose Parents ignorantly believing she was a Boy from the Length of the Clitoris, dress’d her up, and employ’d her as such in the Business of Life; she no doubt believ’d herself so, until she was better instructed by her Fellow-Servant’. [13]

Stories like this are difficult to interpret: we cannot know how ‘passing women’ understood either their gender or their sexuality, and Royal Society fellows were by no means a reliable guide to popular belief. Yet other source material, closer to the ground, is even harder to make sense of. A decade before the slander suit, also in Cheshire (but forty-six miles away from Holy Trinity), the registers of Taxal recorded two marriages between women who had travelled ten miles from their own parish to do this. The clerk offered neither judgement nor explanation. [14]

All of this makes it near-impossible to trace the relationship between ideas about queer sexuality in ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ contexts, let alone the relationship between ideas and sexual practices. But we can tentatively say, I think, that the association between lesbian desire and ‘a Masculine nature’ was there in Mrs Edwards’ slander; that, whether or not she thought that Margery Halliwell was interested in or capable of sex with other women, it seemed like an effective way to counter Margery’s slurs on her own honesty as a housewife; and that charges of hermaphroditism were, unlike most defamatory words, so rarely voiced that it was plausible for witnesses not to understand them.

We perhaps see here, then, some hint of the growing ‘logic of suspicion and possibility’ which – according to Valerie Traub – ‘gradually displaced’ the belief that sex between women was safely impossible. [15] Significantly, the repeated claim that ‘sheel frigg ye’ represented Margery as a sexual threat. It is conceivable that Mrs Edwards was literally addressing Mr Starkie, and accusing Margery of sodomy with men rather than lesbian sexual practices. But I think that the contemporary meaning of the word, closely associated with ‘female hermaphrodites’ who desired other women, makes it more likely that she meant: she is a danger to any woman. If we read the case in this way, it prompts some useful (if unanswerable) questions. Who was vulnerable to insults or suspicions of this kind? Were ‘masculine’ features like body hair seen as clues about sexual behaviour? And what did this mean for women who really were attracted to other women (or even just feared that they might be)?

In her 1671 guide for midwives, Jane Sharp informed readers that ‘some lewd women have endeavoured to use [the enlarged clitoris which was ‘like a Mans Yard’] as men do theirs’. But while this was common in ‘the Indies, and Egypt’, she had ‘never heard of but one in this country’. She did not rule out the possibility that there were other English women like this; if there were, though, she expected that they would ‘do what they can for shame to keep it close’. [16] In what Laura Gowing has described as ‘a cultural context which understood women’s bodies to be easily invaded and hard to defend’, so that they were ‘perpetually open to touch and investigation’ if single and ‘bounded only by male authority’ if married, having a body which was shameful in this way – naturally inclined to shameful things – must have been terrifying. [17] But the need ‘to keep it close’ served a useful purpose for Elizabeth Edwards: shame and secrecy made it possible for her to strategically disavow what she had said (though we do not know how this played out, as no sentence for the case survives). It is worth asking, then, how these beliefs and fears figured in day-to-day relations between women – and how far what we see here is the ‘“contamination” of the feminine woman by the phobias surrounding the tribade [i.e. lesbian]’ which, in Valerie Traub’s view, ‘provides the condition of possibility for modern erotic identities’. [18]


[1] Cheshire Archives, EDC/5/1716-7/4.

[2] Valerie Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2002), 19-20. Harriette Andreadis, Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics, 1660-1714 (Chicago, 2001), 11. Emma Donoghue, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1688-1801 (London, 1993), 16.

[3] Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological Dictionary (London, 1721).

[4] Thomas Gibson, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies Epitomized … The Seventh Edition, Corrected and Improved, Both in the Discourse and figures (London, 1721), 195.

[5] Traub, Renaissance, 21.

[6] Donoghue, Passions Between Women, 58.

[7] Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford, 1996).

[8] William Nelson, An Abridgement of the Common Law (London, 1725), 120.

[9] James Parsons, A Mechanical and Critical Enquiry Into the Nature of Hermaphrodites (London, 1741), 8-11.

[10] Ibid, 22.

[11] Ibid, 11, 22.

[12] Ibid, 23.

[13] Ibid, 33-4.

[14] Laura Gowing, ‘Lesbians and their Like in Early Modern Europe’ in Robert Aldrich (ed.), Gay Life and Culture: A World History (London, 2006), 136.

[15] Traub, Renaissance, 20.

[16] Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book, or, The Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (London, 1671), 45.

[17] Laura Gowing, Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England (London, 2003), 53.

[18] Traub, Renaissance, 20.

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