A Spinster Considers Gender
This is my great-great aunt, Marie Plamondon in her WW1 Women’s Auxiliary uniform. For a while, I used her as my Twitter avatar, from this photo. She grew up in Chicago, in a Catholic family of some wealth, with two sisters and two brothers. Her parents were industrialists who died on the Lusitania when she was in her twenties, a death that rocked the entire family. They were close. They loved one another, and Marie and Charlotte, my great-grandmother and namesake, were close companions their entire life. Years later, when the settlement came through from the German government, Marie inherited more than her siblings because she was a spinster, who would have relied more heavily than they did on her parents support.
As you can see, Marie was not exactly gender conforming. Although she “came out” to society (no not came out like that) as did her two sisters, she was one of those women who usually dressed in menswear on the top, with a skirt and heavy brogues on the bottom. I’m sure they were tailored. She was wealthy, and although I don’t remember her, I do remember her chauffeur, Doc. He was a very tall, very elegant black man. There was a reason she was known not just to us, but around Chicago as “The Duchess.”
Along with her cousin Mary Agnes Amberg, she started The Madonna Center on the southwest side. It was a settlement house along the lines of Hull House, but specifically aimed at the Catholic immigrant communities that were coming into the city at that time. The Catholic Church was worried that Hull House would make Protestants out of people by helping them, so they stepped up. Marie and Mary Agnes spent nearly fifty years together, and although they were proper Catholic religious spinsters, it was pretty clear to everyone that they were also a couple.
I’m always cautious about ascribing contemporary definitions of sexuality to those who came before us, but my aunt Molly who remembers them well is very clear that they loved one another deeply. And that yes, it did not appear to be a platonic love.
The Duchess was a beloved member of the family, as was her brother The Colonel (they had a thing for titles, that generation). The Colonel was a lifelong bachelor, an actual colonel, and my grandmother’s favorite person in the world. There are stacks of letters between them from her earliest childhood when he was in WW1 all the way through to his death. He taught her to ride, let her play polo with his cavalry units, and they adored one another. We were going through pictures when she was quite old, and it was clear to those of us who are younger that the Colonel was not unlucky in love, he was a very handsome man who appeared to have had a number of deeply loved male companions in life. “He had terrible psoriasis,” my grandmother said, to explain his bachelorhood. My aunt and I burst out laughing.
I’ve been thinking about them a lot these past weeks as people have been yammering on about trans kids, and trying to pass laws about gender conformity. The North Carolina law seems particularly insidious to me because it demands that those who work with children police them for “symptoms of gender dysphoria, gender nonconformity, or otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner incongruent with the minor’s sex.” Should they see such symptoms, they are required to notify the child’s parents in writing.
Here’s another picture of The Duchess. One of my favorites. This is The Duchess up to her elbows in her own Model A. She and her sister, my great-grandmother, were two of the first women to get driving licenses. Their mother and her sister Kate also sued a pile of male relatives their father had brought over from Ireland, including a priest, for the right to inherit their own farm. They’re two of the women who established that in the State of Illinois, unlike back in the old country, women could inherit property. And they were the ones who wore lovely clothes. Mary caught a rich husband when her sister didn’t want to go up to Chicago on the train, and sent Mary instead. Mary and Charles had just celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary when the Lusitania went down with them onboard.
My grandmother was born in 1911, when children were sort of considered their own gender until say 7, the age of reason, when you got a first communion. And because she was frustrated all her life by the things she couldn’t do because of her gender: compete at polo when it was a huge public sport, take that position Northwestern offered in the medical school, take over her father’s company when her only brother was killed in WW2 — she raised me not to be girly, and told me my whole life to go to school, get a profession, have my own money so I wouldn’t have to rely on a man. When I was 40 or so, she gave me a family ring and said “there, now you have a huge diamond and you didn’t even have to marry anyone for it.” I spent the best bits of my childhood on her farm, the only girl running a gang of younger brothers and boy cousins, riding ponies, shooting BB guns, and generally getting in mild versions of trouble. It was a shock at ten or so when I had to start wearing a shirt.
I would have been busted had that North Carolina bill been on the books during my adolescence and college years. I was very much Not Girly. I liked boys clothes, and had a series of thrifted mens jackets I wore for years. I came back from a summer of camping and field biology in the BWCA with furry legs and armpits, wearing a pair of old army pants I loved because I didn’t have to carry a bag, I could put everything in the pockets. I was terrible at flirting, and when I did wear something girly I usually wore it as a kind of costume.
We were the “Free to Be You and Me” generation. The ones whose parents dressed us in gender-neutral primary colors. The ones who played with gender neutral toys. The ones set loose in the woods to go amuse ourselves until dinner.
I thought the whole point was that we were supposed to get past all that gender nonsense. We were supposed to be able to meet one another as equals. I remember being so upset by one of my dear guy friends in college, someone I loved dearly, and always kind of hoped would like me “that way” but who didn’t, when he fell for a girl from my hometown who was dumb, and blonde, and had big boobs, and who ticked off all the boxes of wealthy preppy girldom at that time. I was so disappointed in him. How could he? With someone like that?
It’s no surprise I was single until halfway through my forties. The family thought of me as the spinster. In a lot of Irish Catholic families it’s sort of understood that one daughter will not marry, will take care of her parents and everyone else. My mother both wanted me to be this spinster (she said, not long ago “I’m so glad you didn’t have children, so you have more time for me.”), and resented the qualities in me that make one a spinster: bossiness, ability to take charge, not really caring that much what other people think. Alarmingly, I also recently saw this list as often-overlooked symptoms of autism in women. Which brings up all kinds of ideas about how the world thinks about both gender and disability, if one definition of disability is not caring much about gender. But I digress. By the time I entered my early 40s, still single, clearly not destined for motherhood, I was reconciling myself with spinsterhood. I had a house I was on the way to owning. My best friend had 5 kids, including a set of twins, so there were always kids who needed tending. I had friends and a community. I had my own money. I was lonely, but pretty much okay.
I would probably still be single, and an official spinster, had I not met Himself, a guy who loves smart mouthy women, who isn’t interested at all in girliness, and whose ex-wife was bisexual. (I knew her first, and she’s so cool it’s one reason I pursued him.) I’m, as the kids would say, cis het — but for at least a decade I’m pretty sure the older ladies in my family thought I must have a secret girlfriend hidden away somewhere. I was single for so long I was waiting for one of them to bring it up, tell me it was okay, I could bring her home. Sadly, there was no secret girlfriend, or boyfriend — just long years of being single, dating unavailable men or living with my brother. And then he died and I was left in the howling wasteland of being alone, and had to consciously go looking for a partner. I was lucky to be in Livingston, where as one of my exes likes to say “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” I wasn’t good at being alone. I’m grateful every day that I found someone who not only loves me, but who doesn’t want to live in my house, and who is dedicated and reliable but doesn’t want to get married. We’re one of those side-by-side couples.
That we’ve come to a place as a society where gender is being reinscribed in these proscriptive ways hurts my ancient feminist heart. I’m one of the people who had hoped the gay rights movement would free us ALL from marriage, would crack society open to new ways of building families, of building relationships, of building communities.
And that the larger world is piling on these kids who are so vulnerable, it kills me. I remember in the 80s when I had guy friends in college who really really didn’t want to be gay. They thought that meant they’d never have a family, or a stable life. One of my students, who was struggling with transition last spring, got impatient with me when I was talking about it. “But being gay is normal,” they said. “Being trans isn’t!”
How far we’ve come and yet how we have not. Coming out in the 80s was terrifying. My circle of friends were nerdy good students, ambitious kids who were not rebels, who hadn’t done drugs in high school and who just wanted what everyone else wanted — a profession, a reasonably successful grownup life — but who had to go home and tell their parents they were gay. As AIDS was emerging? Before anyone ever thought gay people would wind up with marriages, kids, houses in the suburbs. It meant breaking your parents’ hearts.
I hate gender policing of even the mildest kind. I have no proscriptions here, nothing to say other than we’re all fucking weird in our own ways. Imposing conformity has never worked — and I suspect that’s the point. It’s not supposed to “work” — it’s not supposed to bring anyone back into the fold — it’s supposed to scapegoat, and alienate, and bring together a group of people by uniting them in their hatred of someone different. Someone they can expel from the community and thereby think they’ve gotten their purity back.
So if there’s any point to outing my long-dead family members, it’s just to point out that the non-gender-conforming have always been with us. They’re part of us. They’re people we love. If you or your kids or someone you love is not gender conforming, or someone is telling them they don’t exist, or they’re just looking for attention, or whatever bullshit people are on about them with, you are free to wield Marie’s WW1 uniform picture at them. Sexuality and gender have always existed on a spectrum, and during times like these, those of us who are not under direct attack need to circle the wagons around our vulnerable loved ones, remind them they’re loved, and fight back against anyone who’d suggest they’re not.
I leave you with The Duchess, at Christmas with the whole family in probably 1964. She’s in the foreground. What I love about this photo is how ordinary it is. Everyone is hanging out. Together. On Christmas. Including our odd but loved Aunt, in her men’s suit, short hair, and clunky shoes, who is no doubt, bossing people around because that is her nature.
Also published on Medium.