Author Taylor Stevens
Vanessa Michael Munroe Books in chronological order


Gender-Swapping Kickass Women Are Nothing New

“A man and woman travelling together doesn’t attract the same attention as two women,” she said. “As a man, I make us less visible.”

Neeva faked a laugh, folded her hands in her lap, and head still tipped against the window said, “In that case, why not just send a man?”

Munroe smiled. To herself. Humorously. Regretfully. At the history of survival and instinct that had made her who she was, and the unique set of skills both inborn and man-made that, once combined, had both blessed and very nearly destroyed her life. “None of their men can do what I can do,” she said. – Vanessa Michael Munroe, in THE DOLL

Munroe is a chameleon and hunter who spends an inordinate amount of time in third world countries, tracking down obscure information, buying secrets and selling souls. As often as not, she operates under the guise of a man, a choice that has nothing to do with sexuality or gender preference and everything to do with preconceived ideas and prejudice. In THE DOLL, Munroe is required to deliver a young woman into a brutal nightmare, else condemn to death the person she loves the most. It’s a horrendous position to be in and until the end we don’t know if she’ll find a way out. For most of the journey her female captive, Neeva, believes Munroe is a man and when Neeva finally figures it out, the above conversation ensues.

Munroe understands the subtle—and often not-so-subtle—differences in the way men and women are perceived and treated, and bends these to her advantage: slipping between gender constructs, taking on whatever guise will best get her what she wants in the moment. This unique aspect of her character has garnered lots of attention, but it’s not as novel as one might think. Taking a page out of history, Munroe is doing what brave kick-butt women have done throughout the centuries: whatever it takes to survive in a man’s world.

Many of us are familiar with George Sands, the author born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin who, after separating from her husband, adopted men’s dress—ostensibly because men’s clothing was sturdier and more comfortable than women’s clothing of the 1800s. And while I doubt that few of us would argue that point, dressing as a man also allowed her opportunities to go and be and do what other women of her day were methodically kept from. Even still, George Sands is only half-way to an actual example of a woman surviving in a man’s world because, though she dressed as a man and took on male habits such as smoking—unacceptable for cultured women in that time period—she never intended to truly pass herself off as a man.

To this end, my personal favorite is Charley Parkhurst, born Mary Parkhurst, and known throughout her life as Cockeyed Charley (due to an accident that cost her an eye). One of the most renowned stagecoach drivers of the Old West and owner of the best six-horse team around, Parkhurst, who barely topped out at five-foot flat, roughed it up with the men. Her gender identity was so well-maintained that when she died at nearly 70-years-old and it was revealed that she was a woman, it startled both business partners and friends alike—even more so when the examining physician realized that at some point in Parkhurst's life, she had given birth.

While there are a number of documented histories of women who disguised themselves as men to join the military or work on ships, perhaps the two most famous are Francis Clalin and Mary Anne Talbot. Their notoriety arose from similar reasons as those of Charley Parkhurst: the length of which they were able to pull of the masquerade and the conditions they did it under.

Frances Clalin disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union during the Civil War. Known as Jack Williams, she served side-by-side with her husband until he was killed in battle. After his death she continued with the Union Army, was wounded multiple times and even taken prisoner once without her gender being discovered. Uncertainty swirls around the exact details of her unveiling, but most suspect it came to light during the treatment of a wound. Until then, she pulled off the ruse convincingly and was considered a fantastic horseman and swordsman to boot.

Mary Anne Talbot headed off to sea during the Napoleonic wars, supposedly to follow a young naval officer but that was a one-sided affair. The relationship never bloomed but her alter-ego, John Taylor, was born. Working first as a cabin boy and later as a powder monkey, she was wounded in multiple battles (treated herself at one point), had a leg nearly severed, was captured three times and spent over a year in a dungeon. Her deception was so effective that when seized by a press-gang she was forced to reveal her gender to avoid being taken unwillingly to sea. That she pulled off her act for years while surrounded by men 24/7 is nothing less than astounding; sailing ships in the 1700’s weren't exactly renowned for space or privacy.

Moving into current times, in the mountains of modern Albania where male-oriented cultures are still the norm, there are women known as the Sworn Virgins who have taken an oath and adopted the male persona completely, assuming male habits, clothing and hairstyles. By doing so, they become socially acknowledged and treated as men in order to fill the role of protector and provider for their families who have no males to carry on traditions. Although this practice is slowly becoming obsolete, the Sworn Virgins do still exist.

Even more recently Candace Lau cross-dressed her way across Afghanistan because “it’s not so easy to travel by yourself as a woman in this part of the world.” That’s a notion Munroe would totally get behind.

I find reading stories such as these, both in history and in fiction, to be fantastic escapism for the mad dash they provide against reality. However, like Vanessa Michael Munroe I hold out hope for the day that we are each accepted and known for who we are as individuals—not stereotyped by race or gender, not judged by cultural prejudice and preconceived ideas, rather that we can each be recognized for our individual capabilities and choices and so appraised by the lives we lead, not confined by lives others presume we were meant to lead.

Taylor Stevens is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling novelist who—by odds and expectations—should never have become either successful or published. Like many aspiring authors Stevens had no credentials or platform, and no direct route into the publishing world. But, unlike most, she was also limited by a life of cultural isolation and a sixth-grade education.

Born into an apocalyptic cult and raised in communes across the globe, Stevens grew up as a child laborer, cooking and cleaning for up to a hundred at a time, caring for younger commune children, or out on the streets begging on behalf of commune leaders. Books, movies, music, and pop-culture from the outside world were strictly forbidden, and she finally gained unlimited access to fiction after returning to the United States in her early thirties. Her books have since been published in over twenty languages, with The Informationist optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment.

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