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To Flee in Women's Clothing

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We agree. An Entry about a flea circus act, with the insects sporting patterned blouses and hooped skirts, and festooned with pearl necklaces and stylish millinery would be more interesting than an absurdly specific study of one form of historical dislocation. Until that wondrous day when such an entry should become necessary, however, this will have to suffice.

If history tells us anything, it's that you should never get comfortable. Examples abound of men1 who are on top of the world one day, and running for their life the next. It's a quirk of history that there are numerous tales of men fleeing their pursuers disguised as a woman.

Of course, it's pretty clear that many of these stories were invented by political enemies. Anyone who 'flees' is generally someone with enemies, after all. Historically, human culture has tended to be homophobic, with rigidly defined systems of gender. The idea of a vaunted political leader (often the subject of these stories) dressing in such a seemingly degrading fashion is a simple way to destroy their legacy and to, literally, emasculate them.


Alexander Kerensky, a Socialist Russian political leader, fell foul of Lenin in 1917, and was forced to flee to France. It was widely rumoured at the time that Kerensky fled the country in women's clothing. However, it has now been proposed that this story was invented by the Bolsheviks in order to tarnish Kerensky's image among his remaining followers in Russia2. In any event, Kerensky's escape was successful, inspiring generations of interior male nesting dolls to cloak their sex within a female shell.

In 2011, a yoga guru named Ramdev arranged a protest against the government of India, alleging widespread corruption. When police arrested Ramdev, he was attempting to clothe himself in female dress in order to escape. It's possible that his bushy, black beard betrayed his deception.

In 1746, Charles Edward Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, led his Jacobite army against the English at the Battle of Culloden. After a few tactical missteps, his army was routed and Stuart decided to make a quick escape. Pursued by the English, his supporter Flora MacDonald dressed him as a woman, and helped row the (it must be said) somewhat effeminate-looking young Prince away from danger.

In 2008, the United States military reported killing Taliban commander Haji Yakub in Afghanistan, who was reported as wearing a burqa, the traditional Islamic female dress3. It must be said, of course, that anyone trying to elude detection could do worse than wear the all-concealing garment. Apparently no one noticed Yakub under his burqa until he tried to attack the soldiers.

In 2005, a Nigerian state governor named Diepreye Alamieyeseigha4 was arrested in London on charges of money laundering. Police found almost three million pounds in his home and bank accounts. After being released from prison on bail, he allegedly dressed himself in women's clothes (presumably from all the finest boutiques in the land) to flee the country.

In 1940, a German novelist named Lion Feuchtwanger was arrested in Vichy France and sent to a Nazi internment camp for his political views. His escape was secured, however, when an American diplomat named Hiram Bingham dressed him in women's clothes and tricked German soldiers by claiming that Feuchtwanger was his mother-in-law.

In 1912, as the RMS Titanic sank, the code of giving space on lifeboats to 'women and children first' was observed. However, at the last minute, one of the ship's owners, a man named Joseph Bruce Ismay, boarded a lifeboat and survived the disaster. The public scorned Ismay for surviving a disaster for which he was, at least in part, responsible. A false rumour spread that Ismay had donned women's clothing in order to secure a place on the lifeboat. Other surviving men were similarly accused. Most of these stories have been convincingly debunked5. However, at least one man, a 21-year-old Irish passenger named Daniel Buckley, admitted to disguising himself under a shawl in order to hide his masculinity.

Under Colombian rule, a man named Facundo Mutis Duran twice served as governor of Panama. In 1900, one of his terms was cut short after an altercation with the Colombian military, when he was forced to flee wearing women's clothes. When the United States began the project of digging the Panama Canal, Secretary of War (and later President) William Howard Taft was apparently unfazed by this, and appointed him as Chief Justice of the Canal Zone Supreme Court.

One of the most famous, and hotly disputed stories of peripatetic transvestitism comes from Jefferson Davis's last days as the president of the Confederated States of America. With the Confederacy crumbling all around him, Davis was travelling with his wife in Georgia, when a detachment of Union troops fell upon his party and captured him. The historical record seems to show that Davis had hurriedly draped his wife's overcoat over him, while she put her shawl over his head, in order to disguise him. However, in the politically charged environment of the Civil War, the newspapers of the North needed no invitation to ridicule their vanquished foe. Typical was this account from Harper's: 'The captors report that he hastily put on one of his wife's dresses and started for the woods, closely followed by our men, who at first thought him a woman, but seeing his boots while he was running, they suspected his sex at once.' Northern cartoons depicted him in a Scarlett O'Hara-style hoop dress (which would have surely hidden his boots) and the myth has persisted to this day.

1A pronoun choice that is not sexist, as context will imminently prove.2The reader will applaud the author's forbearance in avoiding an undoubtedly mean-spirited observation concerning the likelihood of Kerensky's fortune in posing as a woman in Babushka-land.3Ever-heteronormative Fox News chose to headline the cross-dressing aspect, above the 52 other militants killed.4Thanks, copy-and-paste!5The use of circumstantial and primary evidence to accomplish this debunking is valuable. However, the popularity of moustaches among early 20th-Century men alone makes widespread gender-masking unlikely.

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