Madame Clofullia was judged by what she said, not how she looked.
The Atlantic Magazine - Sean Trainor
An abridged version: The “bearded lady” is a cliché—a staple of a carnival freak show, a sideshow, a Ryan Murphy show. But despite her success as a cultural meme, the original bearded lady elicited little more than a shrug.
Peering into the daguerreotype glean of a 19th-century Swiss woman’s portrait, it’s easy to see a man in a dress. But the woman in the photo, Madame Josephine Clofullia, was viewed much differently by her contemporaries. The bearded-lady gag, of course, relies on audiences to be astonished by contradiction: A woman with a beard? Impossible! It must be a man. But as she toured America in the 1850s, Clofullia’s audiences saw a mere curiosity, not the crime against gender that was billed. Only rarely, in fact, did they claim that Madam Clofullia’s beard compromised her womanhood or made her look “like a man.” Instead, they praised her elegance and touted her respectability. Her beard, in short, was largely irrelevant to her status as a woman. As a sideshow, she bombed.
Now that transgender civil rights have become a larger part of the American dialogue, Clofullia’s story is instructive. Though Madame Clofullia was not trans—she never shifted her gender presentation at any point in her life—she did force Americans to grapple with an issue at the heart of trans political struggles today: namely, the ability to define one’s gender as one sees fit, despite the presence (or absence) of gendered bodily features. While the nation wrestles with a legacy of violence against transgender people, courts weigh in on trans peoples’ rights to move freely in gendered spaces, and some citizens fret about the presence of trans bodies in bathrooms and locker rooms, Clofullia’s life as the bearded lady offers a useful history.
Born near Geneva, Switzerland, around 1830, Josephine Clofullia (née Boisdechêne) started sprouting facial hair in childhood, likely the result of hypertrichosis. When her family fell on hard times, a late-adolescent Boisdechêne began performing to make ends meet. By 1853, Boisdechêne was a married mother, now known as “Madame Clofullia,” and on her way across the Atlantic to try her luck in America—with the showman Phineas Taylor Barnum.
Today, P.T. Barnum is largely remembered as a founding partner of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. But in the decade before the U.S. Civil War, he was better known as the proprietor of New York City’s American Museum: a mass-culture venue that blended the freak show with the natural-history museum. For more than a decade, Barnum had thrilled audiences with his outlandish (and often morally offensive) exhibitions: an aging woman of color named Joice Heth whom he presented as George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse, a hairy horse that he described as a long-lost relative of the wooly mammoth, and a mash-up of fish and monkey parts that he pawned off as a mermaid.
This is not to suggest that none of Clofullia’s contemporaries doubted her womanhood. A Boston newspaper, for instance, claimed that Clofullia “out Herods Herod,” and an influential women’s fashion magazine opined that the bearded lady and other transgressive figures were neither as “lovely as women [n]or respectable as men.” But comments like these were rare. For the majority of Americans, Clofullia seemed to be exactly what she claimed: a middle-class wife and mother—who happened to have a beard.
Despite a body that did not conform to prevailing ideas about sex and gender, Madame Clofullia had the rare option to live the identity she claimed with few questions asked. What made this possible was the willingness of Clofullia’s contemporaries to define her according to what she said and did, and not by how she looked.
Still, for trans men and women struggling with discrimination by those who say their bodies and gender do not align, Clofullia’s story offers a valuable lesson: When people rely only on external features to tell a story about gender, they are bound to fail.
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