James Barry

James_Barry_(surgeon)05

[James Barry, c. 1813-1816. This image is in the pubic domain.]

It’s often said that historians make meaning or sense of the past. It’s been my experience as a student of history that, when I come across certain historical figures, I wish to make sense of them. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to let people be who they are. Thus, this week I am featuring James Barry, an Irish-born medical reformer from the British Army.

James Barry was born in 1799 in a body that was considered after death to be female. From early childhood, Barry’s mother and her friends identified Barry as a wunderkind. In 1809, Barry began studying university medicine and literature as a male student. Three years later, Barry successfully graduated with an MD, despite the university’s attempts to stopper someone so youthful from presenting a thesis. Later in the same year, Barry moved to London and apprenticed with a surgeon at St. Thomas’s Hospital. A year later Barry joined the army as a junior-most medical officer, a career that took Barry to several colonies.

As an army surgeon, Barry displayed professional prowess and enacted medical reforms. Sydney Brandon, one of Barry’s biographers, has noted that Barry had an egalitarian attitude toward medicine—“She invariably championed the neglected and oppressed of any race or station in life. Prisons, leper colonies, and indigent patients always received her attention, and she never accepted fees for her private practice.”[1] And this led to conflicts with authority figures. Nonetheless, Barry had a long career as a medical inspector in the army. When Barry died in 1865, the death certificate was signed without a corresponding medical examination; the signatory of Barry’s death certificate had long known Barry, and found it unnecessary to examine, and especially to sex the corpse. The death certificate listed Barry’s sex as male, and Barry was buried in the masculinised garb in which the surgeon had dressed in life. However, the woman who laid out Barry’s body considered it to be female (and to have once been pregnant), and the story was picked up by the press in cities across Britain.

As a historical figure, Barry is problematical (not least because of his military and colonial associations). Some might consider Barry an example of an empowered, rebellious woman who presented herself as a man—hoodwinking contemporary intellectuals and military officials—in order to pursue a successful, masculinised career. Indeed, Barry has been retroactively credited with being the first woman MD. Some authors refer to Barry as “she,” and others as “he.” I confess, the question of which pronoun I ought to use plagued me as I wrote this. Would it be truest to the surgeon to present Barry as a woman, a man, or as genderqueer? The singular they would anachronistically place Barry into a category that wasn’t contemporaneously defined. Would that be more or less “truthful” than labelling Barry as “she” or “he?” (In the end I chose to use alternate sentence construction in order avoid pronouns altogether). Predominant present day perspectives compel one to understand Barry as either a woman living secretly as a man, or else as a transgendered man. Either or these may be the case. Or they may not be. Not everyone is male, female, trans or intersexed. Assumptions about gender limit how we understand one another in the present day, and this is equally the case when we try to discern the “truth” of those in bygone times.

~S

[1] “Barry, James (c.1799–1865),” Sydney Brandon in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/1563 (accessed April 15, 2016).

James Barry

Ah Toy

Today’s post pays tribute to Ah Toy, the second recorded Chinese woman to have arrived in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush and the first Chinese sex worker (that we know of) in San Francisco. Ah Toy was born in 1828 in Southern China and travelled to the United States with her husband, who passed away en route to California. Born into relative wealth in comparison to many of the Chinese (im)migrants who traveled to the United States during the Gold Rush, Toy quickly became an influential social and economic presence in San Francisco.

Toy was an independent sex worker who established herself before the Tong controlled era of the 1850s took hold of San Francisco and wider Gold Rush California. She gained respect and a substantial amount of control over her livelihood (and wider control in the political scene in San Francisco) due to this. Toy’s life traces the difficulties that Chinese (im)migrants experienced in the United States, and specifically those of Chinese women and Chinese sex workers. The “yellow peril” sentiments amongst the White population forced Chinese women to navigate the stereotypes and violence that resulted from these attempts at securing a White supremacist state amidst the influx of thousands of Chinese workers to California and the broader American West.

Toy was both romanticized by many within the society around her and also stigmatized due to the “yellow peril” sentiments that were taking shape in the 1850s. Toy was able to negotiate the many myths surrounding Chinese sex workers, and Chinese women more broadly, to work in her favour, and was even able to manipulate the court system and vigilante police force, as can be seen by her famed relationship with John A. Clark, a prominent vigilante police officer of the time.

After establishing herself as an important political figure through her sex work, Toy went on to open a series of brothels in San Francisco and became deeply involved in the sex trade, bringing in girls and women from China to work for her. Unfortunately, some of these girls were purported to be as young as eleven years old, demonstrating the intersecting set of power dynamics that Toy and others were complicit in while trying to secure respect and safety for themselves. Toy’s life can therefore serve as a window into a complicated era of settler colonialism, anti-Asian racism, and frontier mythology, wherein the history of Chinese (im)migration to the United States points to the messy and complex negotiations of oppression, survival, and control that were at play during the era in California.

Toy’s place in this history can be looked at from multiple perspectives, but begs us here at Historical Hotties to ask ourselves a difficult and uncomfortable set of questions. How do we complicate narratives surrounding sex work in the historiography of California, the Gold Rush, and Chinese immigration to the United States without resorting to tropes of victimhood or predation? How do we understand someone like Ah Toy, whose lived experiences attest to the power and control she gained from sex work but who at the same time became a part of a tangled system of immigration, sex work, exploitation, and liberation? Where do people like Ah Toy fit in the broader project of settler colonialism in the American West? How has the historiography of Asians in America and Asian Americans served to replicate “yellow peril” myths and stereotypes of submissive East Asian women (for example) that continue to this day? How does a story such Ah Toy’s add to our understandings of racism and patriarchy in the American West, the responses of Chinese women to “yellow peril” racism amongst White settlers, and colonialism as a transnational project involving both people of colour and White people in the United States? Lastly, how can we incorporate and understand histories of sex work/ers as integral to — Capital A, Capital H — American History and treat these histories with just as much nuance as we do the histories of other labourers?

~ M

Bibliography

Gentry, Curt. The Madams of San Francisco: A Highly Irreverent History. New York: Signet, 1964.

Tong, Benson. Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

 

Ah Toy

Prudencia Ayala

A photograph of Prudencia Ayala
A photograph of Prudencia Ayala

Today’s Historical Hottie is the revolutionary, beautiful, and total bad ass Prudencia Ayala. Born in 1885 in Sonzacate, El Salvador, Ayala was a voracious self-taught reader, writer, and activist. Often going unrecognized in Anglophone post-secondary institutions of education, Ayala was the very definition of a groundbreaking feminist.

Forced to drop out of school due to her family’s lack of financial resources, Ayala taught herself how to read and write, along with learning the craft of being a seamstress (which she worked as for a time). Ayala also claimed to be able to predict the future, with her prophecies being published in the newspapers of Santa Ana. Her predictions included the large scale events such as the entry of the United States into the First World War.*

Ayala was well-known in her time as an activist that concentrated her efforts on anti-imperialism, feminist issues, and Central American solidarity especially in the face of United States imperialism in Nicaragua and other parts of Central America. She continued to struggle for social justice throughout her life, even at the cost of her own safety as in 1919 she was imprisoned for her critical newspaper writing. Despite women not having the vote in El Salvador until 1939 and not being legally allowed the right to stand for election until 1961, Ayala ran for President in 1930. It was due largely to Ayala’s agitation that a larger feminist movement grew in El Salvador, leading to the 1939 decision granting women the right to vote. I can only dream of the wonderful things Ayala could have accomplished as President!

Thank you to Prudencia Ayala and all the other women of colour, Indigenous women, or otherwise marginalized women across the Americas who have struggled + continue to struggle for social justice in their own ways. We here at Historical Hotties have the utmost respect for Prudencia and all the other women like her.

~ M

* According to Prudencia’s own lived experiences, she was able to foretell the future. Therefore we here at Historical Hotties wish to respect her authority and will not be engaging in any discussions over whether telling the future is “real” or not.

Bibliography

“Central & South America Suffrage Timeline.” Women Suffrage and Beyond: Confronting the Democratic Deficit. Accessed October 16, 2015. http://womensuffrage.org/?page_id=109.

“Biografia Prudencia Ayala.”  Concertación Feminista Prudencia Ayala. Accessed October 16, 2015. http://www.concertacionfeministaprudenciaayala.org/quienes-somos.php.

Prudencia Ayala

Oscar Micheaux

[A photograph of Oscar Micheaux, date unknown]
[A (fantastic) photograph of Oscar Micheaux, date unknown.]
Oscar Micheaux, born in the state of Illinois, USA in 1884, was a Black American filmmaker, writer, and businessman. Micheaux used his artistic storytelling talents to fight against injustice during a time when White supremacy and anti-Black racism often resulted in lynchings, violent sexual assaults against women and men, and a legalized system of discrimination in the Southern USA called Jim Crow.

Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company in 1918, and utilized his self-owned business to write, publish, and distribute novels and films across the United States. Due to the larger sociocultural context within which he lived, Micheaux (as many within Black communities in the USA did) was forced to utilize innovative techniques that allowed for him to succeed in a White supremacist society. Often promoting and hand-delivering his films in person to theatres across the United States, Micheaux embodied the themes of his films.

At the time that Micheaux was an active filmmaker and writer, many activists in Black communities utilized social uplift as one way to combat segregation, stereotypes, and broader White supremacist power structures. It was with these themes that Micheaux was concerned with in his films, and his everyday life. Although uplift strategies, from a twenty-first century perspective, can be viewed as problematic in many respects this by no means should detract from the efforts of those who fought racialized injustice in the USA (and many of whom paid dearly, often with their lives or those of loved ones).

Along with themes of social uplift, Micheaux’s films often drew upon the rich West African and African American traditions based around the trickster trope. As with those of social uplift, Micheaux, too, lived a life that embodied the trickster as he often would subvert White perceptions of Black Americans as unintelligent and utilize them to his advantage. For example, Micheaux’s 1924 film A Son of Satan was completely censored in Virginia. Yet Micheaux disregarded the censorship of this film (as he often did), and acted as though it was due to his ignorance and not cunning that the film had “accidentally” been shown.

As with all of the Historical Hotties featured here, Oscar Micheaux is a wonderful example of the many revolutionary, radical, and rabble-rousing people that make up our shared histories. Here’s to one fabulous trailblazing trickster + justice seeker.

~ Monique

Bibliography:

Ooten, Melissa. Race, Gender, and Film Censorship in Virginia, 1922-1965. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015.

Oscar Micheaux

Sessue Hayakawa

A photograph of Sessue Hayakawa [Advertisement, Moving Picture World, July 1918]
A photograph of Sessue Hayakawa [Advertisement, Moving Picture World, July 1918. Accessed September 25, 2015 on Wikipedia]

Born Kintaro Hayakawa in Chiba, Japan on June 10, 1889, Sessue Hayakawa was an Issei* actor famous in both Hollywood and non-American films. Hayakawa appeared in well over 80 films, and following his film acting career, went on to become a theatre actor, producer, and director. In 1957, Hayakawa received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai, however his prolific career began decades before he was recognized for this role.

Although in the twenty-first century East Asian men are often represented in American popular culture as effeminate, and therefore – according to Western heterosexual patriarchal standards – not sexually attractive, Hayakawa was well-known during the early twentieth century as the first male Hollywood sex symbol. Yet being venerated as a sex symbol was not without its discriminatory elements, as this was often done by typecasting Hayakawa as a villainous and sexually domineering “exotic” man. Throughout his film career, Hayakawa was cast as a man of various ethnic backgrounds, all of which were always presented to Anglo audiences as a “foreigner” who therefore commanded a taboo eroticism. Examples of his constant casting as a non-descript “foreigner” include roles such as an Arab donkey tender, an Indigenous man, a Chinese Tong warrior, and a Burmese ivory trader.

By casting Hayawaka as a sex symbol only so long as he adhered to villainous and sexually domineering roles that rarely ended with a successful interracial relationship, Hollywood continued to emphasize the white supremacist ideals that upheld anti-miscegenation statutes in the United States. Due to the continual typecasting of Hayakawa in roles that depended upon yellow peril and other racist stereotypes, he eventually created his own production company in 1918. By doing so, Hayakawa openly showed his disagreement with the racism that Hollywood production companies upheld during this era of American film.

Hayakawa’s battle to be positively represented in film – even stating that his one ambition was to be cast as a hero and not a villain – forced him to pave a path for himself in Hollywood. Despite receiving negative attention for his so-called extravagant lifestyle, Hayawaka refused to compromise how he chose to live his life in order to make Anglo-Americans comfortable in their stereotypes of East Asian men. Hayawaka is a man who deserves much praise for both his artistic and activist achievements. For this, we here at Historical Hotties tip our proverbial hats to him and other people of colour who have paved the way for future generations.

~ Monique

* Issei, literally translating as first generation in Japanese, refers to the first generation of immigrants in a Nikkei (Japanese diaspora) community. Issei were born in Japan, and then immigrated to various countries such as the United States, Canada, and Brazil.

Bibliography

Andre Soares. Alt Film Guide. “Sessue Hayakawa: Pioneering East Asian Hollywood Star.” http://www.altfg.com/film/sessue-hayakawa-portrayal-asians-hollywood/.

Laberge, Yves. “Review: Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom by Daisuke Miyao.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 25 (February 2011). http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue25/laberge_review.htm.

Saltz, Rachel. “Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When the Twain Met.” The New York Times. September 7, 2007. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9907E3DC143BF934A3575AC0A9619C8B63.

Sessue Hayakawa