When Roger Morris last fall enrolled in the Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the University of Delaware, it marked his first course since graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana in the spring of 1967 with a Master of Science in Communications. Morris previously had a career in corporate marketing and communications and currently is a fulltime journalist, writing about wine and food, travel, and culture for a number of publications.
Monsieur d’Eon Is a Woman (Do We Have a Problem with That?)
Roger Morris, University of Delaware
On the title page, we read – Kates, Gary. Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade. Basic Books, 1995.
Almost 25 years ago, as a new century was about to begin, sex, sexuality, and gender were very much parts of the country’s cultural agenda, topics that directly affected most people past the age of puberty and managed to hold the interest of those not directly affected. Of course, this discussion of gender-related topics was not in itself unusual, as American citizens have been debating these same subjects since the beginning of the country—what is socially acceptable and what is not, what is normal and what is scandalous, what will be permitted and what will be outlawed.
Still, the conversation about sex and gender seemed to be more-complex and more-intense as the last half of the 20th century neared a close. During the 1940s and lasting for the next several decades, men dressing as women and occasionally women dressing as men became standard entertainment fare. First, there was the comedian Milton Berle—“Uncle Miltie”—who often appeared in drag in the early 1950s via the newest medium, universally available television. Next, it was the movies’ turn at cross-dressing; for example, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot (1959), Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria (1982), and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (also 1982). All had America laughing.
Beginning in the 1960s, gender issues became more contentious. Women’s liberation, which meant many different things to many different people, was spurred along by the advent of birth control pills (1960), which allowed couples to have sexual encounters with less fear of pregnancies; by the spirit of the Summer of Love (1969), which spread the idea of free sex well beyond San Francisco; and perhaps just as a general reaction to a staid older generation that seemed to vegetate socially and politically during the Eisenhower era. The period also reintroduced a wide-spread usage of gender-neutral or unisex clothing, although the movement seldom went beyond young, urban, and trendy folk.
Until the 1970s, being gay or lesbian was almost universally ridiculed in public dialogue as being unnatural, evil, dangerous, or, at mildest, a source of humor or derision. As Bonnie J. Morris points out in “History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements,” published on the American Psychological Association website, “it would not be until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as an ‘illness’ classification in its diagnostic manual.” The Stonewall “riots” of 1969 marked the beginning of the end of gays being passive. What started as a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in lower Manhattan, a gay bar without legal certification, resulted in six days of street confrontations between police and the gay community that ranged from serious encounters with gays behind barricades being dislodged by police water hoses to more humorous encounters such as a drag queen pounding a policeman over the head with her purse, as detailed in David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution (2004). “Stonewall is still considered a watershed moment of gay pride,” Morris says, “and has been commemorated since the 1970s with ‘pride marches’ held every June across the United States.”
Slowly over the next two decades, having a gay family member was not always the source of embarrassment that it once was. The term “coming out of the closet” and “outing” became common as gays and lesbians on their own, or against their will, let it be known that they did not live the straight life.
Unfortunately, beginning in 1981, the onslaught of HIV/AIDS in America forced the country to turn its attention to the gay subculture most vulnerable to the disease, which, at the time, was incurable and thus a death sentence. Although some religious bigots celebrated the disease as “God’s way” of punishing gays, the majority of Americans gradually rallied around massive attempts to find a cure for the disease as well as to lend comfort and sympathy to those who had it. The death by AIDS of America’s leading man in the movies, Rock Hudson, was mourned almost universally. The issue was no longer whether gays would be generally accepted into society, but what their role might be in that society. According to Gallup polling, public acceptance of lesbian and gay relations moved steadily upward since 1997, when it stood at 47% approval, until 2018, when it had progressed to 75% approval over the 20-year period. Were they “fit” to be elementary-school teachers or soldiers? Would their relationships as couples ever be legally recognized as civil unions or marriages? Those in the straight world who tended to be sympathetic were moved by heart-wrenching news accounts and depictions in films of lifelong unions in which, upon the death of one partner, the other partner was prevented by the survivor’s unsympathetic family from inheriting what had been the couple’s home and sometimes not even allowed to attend the funeral of their lifelong love. Nor were they eligible for workplace benefits their partners earned and which a spouse would normally receive.
In spite of early attempts to mainstream gays and lesbians and to sanction gay and lesbian marriages, the 1990s in some ways were actually a reversal of gay fortunes. The “liberal” American President Bill Clinton took one small step forward and one big step backward. In November 1993, he signed an act allowing closeted, but not openly, gays and lesbians to serve in the military—the famous “don’t ask, don’t tell” doctrine. But in September 1996, he also signed the Defense of Marriage Act, outlawing official Federal recognition of gay and lesbian unions.
This, then, was the social context into which Gary Kates’ academic biography, Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman, was published in 1995. The book examines the history a French nobleman, Charles d'Eon de Beaumont, born in 1728 and who, somewhat late in his career as a diplomat, soldier, and spy, let it be known that he was actually a woman in men’s clothing, thus launching a fascinating and unusual public life until his death in 1810 while residing in England. Then, surprise! Upon his death, it was discovered that d’Eon had anatomically been a man all along. Although a serious historical study in transvestism, Kates says he wrote his book to be accessible to the intelligent lay person who might be interested in the cross-dressing subculture in history, in the 18th century French court, or in Anglo-French relations in the same period.
The social context at the time of publication is important for two reasons. One is that it will have influenced Kates’ assessment of his subject, even as a highly regarded professional historian and then Chair and Professor of History at Trinity University in Texas. Second, the tenor of the times could have also colored the book’s reception as reflected in both popular and academic reviews that served to introduce the book to its audience.
After reading Kates’ book and some of the reviews of it, I decided to contact the author, now H. Russell Smith Foundation Chair in the Social Sciences and Professor of History at Pomona College in California, to solicit his thoughts and reactions. Kates, who is in the process of finishing a volume on Montesquieu’s Enlightenment, generously agreed to engage in a conversation about the book and social context. Thus began as an e-mail discussion.
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RM: In Monsieur d'Eon, you rightly considered the cultural and political context of the era in which he took his actions—first, the false self-revelation that he is a woman, then his thwarted attempts to continue dressing as a man, and his final acquiescence to living out his life as a man dressed as a woman. I'm particularly interested in the reception reviewers gave your book and how they framed their discussions in the context of the times when your book was published—the mid-1990s.
GK: Before I get into the reviews themselves, Monsieur d’Eon was not a work of popular history; it was an academic crossover. There are very few of these. I tried not to write a popular history, but a work of academic scholarship that would have some popular appeal. My models were [Canadian author] Natalie Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre and [Italian author] Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms.
RM: Richard Bernstein in his New York Times review wrote, “There are moments that Mr. Kates…threatens to deaden his otherwise wonderful story with trendy, late-20th-century academic analysis.” Do you think this is a justifiable, or even relevant, evaluation? Or is Bernstein in his review actually the one making a trendy analysis?
GK: I will never forget the morning that I learned my book had been reviewed in the New York Times. You can imagine that it was thrilling; the culmination of so much that I had worked for. So, when you ask whether I think his dig is justifiable or relevant, I guess what I feel is overall the review was positive, and a positive review in the NYT is, well, heavenly. So, more soberly, here’s what I think of his comment: Bernstein is right to signal that many readers will find the book too academic because, in truth, it is not a popular history, but a work of academic scholarship based upon original archival sources. He is right to insist that at the end of the day, I am seeking to seduce my colleagues more than the average NYT reader. He needs to find a way to say that, and I plead guilty. Could I have dressed up the “academic analysis” in more engaging language? Oh gosh, that’s why I had my sister the journalist read every word. We did the best we could!
RM: Having been involved most of my life in journalism, one way or another, I can certainly imagine the rush you must have felt! In an unsigned review in The Wilson Quarterly, the reviewer starts with an interesting observation: "Spies tend to have more complicated inner lives that the rest of us. What sort of person chooses to live an uprooted existence, change identities at great risk, and deceive friends, families and lovers on a routine basis?" The implication is that in being a spy, d'Eon might have found it easier to resort to a disguise than if he were merely a diplomat. Is this a valid comment, or is it more of a reflection of the fact that, by the 1990s, we had gone through a few decades of seeing spies in movies and reading about them in books as perhaps better masters of disguise than they were/are in fact? The author also concludes: "Intent on removing d'Eon's story from the realm of pathology, Kates makes his transformation seem implausibly rational." Comments? Is this observation partly a result of the state of the nature vs. nurture debate still raging in the '90s?
GK: Well, I would not get along with this reviewer. He (and I’m sure it is a he) is from the 19th Century, when the standard interpretation of d’Eon was that he was a phony, a trickster, who both as spy and woman, deceived the public. That explanation fails on so many levels and makes the story a dead end. We historians can learn nothing from it. It closes down the shop. As for “implausible rationality,” anyone who reads The Maiden of Tonnerre, that is, the collection of d’Eon’s writings that we published with Johns Hopkins [University Press], will see that it is he who is implausibly rational. His continued attempts in drafts of his memoirs reveal attempts to make rational sense of his life. I just brought that to the canvas.
RM: Next, Prof. Robert Darnton, writing in the New York Review of Books,observes "Now it [the d'Eon story] is available to the general reading public, packaged in a way that suits the times, as a heroic episode in the history of feminism," before going off, as these reviews tend to do, into a long analysis of recent feminist history as he sees it. Is his a valid observation about your approach (which he generally praises) or it more a prism of where his mind is at the time of writing? Other thoughts? A final Darnton observation, one left unexplained by him, is, "D'Eon, one of the boldest negotiators in the old-world school of diplomacy, demonstrated that gender itself could be negotiated. His life provides a moral for all of us, especially those in the front lines of gender battles in the new world." And says no more before moving on. I'm a little puzzled as to what is the moral mentioned in his observation, whyit's applicable and why Darnton sees himself on the front lines. Do you have an explanation?
GK: So, first you must know that I am a disciple of Darnton. I think he is simply the most brilliant historian of the 18thCentury of his generation. That said, as academia is complicated, I am finishing a book that takes issue with his two best-known books published in 1995. I will argue in that book that Darnton’s “forbidden bestsellers” [pulp fiction novels of 18thCentury books and how they evolved] have been misconceived. But here, this Darnton reviewing me is on target. Bulls-eye. Yes, the book is definitely written as a heroic episode in the history of feminism, and as usual, Darnton’s effortless prose captures that better than I did in the book. And yes, Darnton gets it totally right that d’Eon managed to negotiate his gender. That’s brilliant. There were other digs in that review that I did not find appropriate—that stung me. But overall, oh my god, a review in the NYROB that is largely positive? Darnton is such a keen reader, and to have him read the book in front of me was—and still is—thrilling.
RM: I'm excited about your new book—one of which I wasn't aware—and look forward to reading it.
GK: Well, I am one and a half chapters from finishing, so realistically, it won’t be out for a while. It is tentatively titled Montesquieu’s Enlightenment: Reading Political Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Through twelve case studies that try to reframe the Enlightenment as a series of publishing events involving readers, publishers, and authors, I show how erudite political thought became popular between 1748 and 1789.
RM: A final review—Wendy Doniger, another gender scholar in addition to her other studies, reviewed the book in The Nation. She places much of the review in terms of myths and fantasies, her specialty. There is a long section in which she points out that “fantasies are precisely what Kates reveals to us—both d’Eon’s and those of the people that he fooled.” It concludes that there is as much fascination in the d'Eon story in how people reacted to his masquerade as there is in the masquerade itself, aptly drawing an analogy to the Br'er Rabbit stories. In this interpretation, d'Eon almost becomes a puppeteer, orchestrating the reactions of those around him. What do you think of her observations? In addition to reflecting the times in which we write, do we also bring along some personal and academic baggage–sometimes helpful, sometimes not—to our analysis of any situation?
GK: I recall well the Doniger review. It is special. Let me go on a digression. When I published The Cercle Social [subtitled “The Girondins and the French Revolution”] with Princeton [University Press] in 1985, I felt as if no one in the world knew more about the Cercle Social than me. I was determined to defend myself as the world’s expert. But the d’Eon project, from the start, was very different. I knew this was a mammoth effort, that I only understood a small part of the story, that I could correct errors of the past, but I could not master all of it. I knew and expected others to make something out of d’Eon that I could not see. Such a thing (in my arrogance) was impossible with The Cercle Social. And so, I saw in Doniger one of the first attempts to do that. I hoped that my book would open up scholarship on d’Eon, and that by 2019, I expected that my book would be obsolete, laughed out for its limited vision!
RM: Well, we are still studying it at the University of Delaware in my class—Professor John Patrick Montaño’s “Cross-Dressing in History: Identity, Gender & Cultural Anxiety”—so it remains very alive and relevant. Which brings me to a final question: I'm also interested if you, on reflection after 25 years, think your analysis of d'Eon's actions would have changed in any significant way were you writing it in today's cultural context? I realize that's a very difficult evaluation to make.
GK: Yes, definitely, the book would change in significant ways if I were writing today. This is because what it means to live transgender has both changed substantially since 1991–1994, which is when I wrote the book, and even more dramatically, transgender issues have moved into the mainstream of our popular culture. LGBTQ is an amazing acronym to me! On my campus, I am expected to reveal what pronouns I use. The notion that gender is fluid, and that we must move beyond binary fixtures, is accepted today among people who are hardly radical—it’s a commonly accepted view, at least here on the West Coast. All that is a sea change from the 1990 Texas where I conceived of the book.
More concretely, what would change today? Well, for one thing, I would use the “she”/“her” pronouns throughout. In 1990, I made a conscious decision to use male pronouns because I was writing for straight men, and my message to them was that gender is a social construction and that they should consider [as a concept] “living life as a woman”—to do so was not an illness, pathology, or something deviant, but the kind of bourgeois individualism that has made religion, occupation, and nationality all aspirations of individual will and choice. I still think that position was progressive in 1990. But it doesn’t make sense today. My audience would no longer be male feminists, but a readership with much more varied ideas about gender identity.
Other than that, there is not much I would change in the book; or rather, I’m not sure what I would change. I am surprised that the only significant scholarship since my book on d’Eon regards her diplomacy, that is, the most old-fashioned part of the story. Scholars have not really addressed critically my approach regarding d’Eon’s gender identity, nor have they touched the religious question, which I think is the most original part of the book.
[The conversation concludes.]
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Although this discussion does nothing to further understanding the mysteries of Monsieur d’Eon, the man or the woman, it does again, hopefully, illustrate that it’s almost impossible for us to escape the times in which we live when we are exploring history or when we are making judgments about the actions of others. This is true whether we are authors, readers, or critical interpreters. Or even, as was the case with Monsieur d’Eon himself, when we are the subject.
Bonnie J. Morris, “History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements” (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, n.d.). https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/history
For more detail on the lesbian and gay marriage timeline, see ProCon.org.
Gary Kates, Monsieur d'Eon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade (New York: Basic Books, 1995).
The conversation has been minimally edited for conversation flow.
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