Missouri Historical Museum

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.

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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.

Barnum carefully designed these exhibitions not only to excite viewers’ curiosity, but to arouse their skepticism. Doubt, in fact, was central to the spectacle, as viewers were encouraged to puzzle over the exhibitions’ authenticity and to discuss the mechanics of Barnum’s fraud with friends. When an exhibit was in doubt, it drummed up controversy and ticket sales. Barnum likely had this kind of spectacle in mind when he hired Madame Clofullia to appear at the American Museum. Accusations would fly, he assumed, that Clofullia was a hirsute man in disguise or a barefaced woman in false whiskers. And a torrent of spectators, he hoped, would rush to the museum to look and decide for themselves.

But much to Barnum’s surprise, those accusations were faint, feeble, and rare. The public seemingly accepted that Clofullia was what she presented herself to be: a genteel woman with a beard. While a handful of viewers trickled into the American Museum, the bearded lady had, distressingly, failed to provoke cries of fraud.

And so, as the lucrative July 4 holiday approached, Barnum resorted to a promotional tactic he had used many times before. Not content to allow skepticism to bubble up organically, the showman leveled charges of fraud against himself—by hiring a man named William Chaar to sue him for false advertising. Clofullia was a “humbug,” Chaar’s suit alleged; she was a man in woman’s clothing, and he wanted his money back. This sham of a suit was heard by a New York City magistrate on July 1, 1853. Barnum introduced testimony from Madame Clofullia’s father and husband, as well as from three physicians, each of whom had examined Clofullia. The case was dismissed: Clofullia, the judge ruled, was indeed a woman.

The cultural fallout of the case was mixed. On the one hand, Chaar’s odd lawsuit—which was widely reported in the U.S. press—seemed to have awoken interest in Madame Clofullia: A surge of visitors poured through the American Museum’s turnstiles that July 4 weekend. On the other hand, skepticism regarding Clofullia’s womanhood remained scarce. Indeed, in the flood of newspaper commentary that followed Chaar v. Barnum, only a handful of commentators expressed doubts about Clofullia’s womanhood. A far larger number, by contrast, questioned the authenticity of the case—leveling the all-too-accurate charge that Barnum had put Chaar up to the suit.

What’s more, Clofullia’s audiences spoke of her respectfully and admiringly. A writer for the Daily Alabama Journal, for instance, claimed that the bearded lady had “the finest set of whiskers you ever saw,” telling readers: “She is very fine looking, and appears to have a very good disposition, and can beat the world for whiskers.” One audience member scrawled the following on a pamphlet bought at one of Clofullia’s Ohio performances: “Saw this Lady—father and husband in Zanesville 1854—very intelligent respectable looking people.” And while later portraits of bearded women would include a variety of visual gimmicks to accentuate the incongruity of bushy beards on female bodies, Clofullia’s lone, elegant photograph (above) lacks anything of the sort. Meanwhile, almost no commenters expressed surprise that Clofullia was married with children. The far more common reaction to Clofullia was that she was “a perfect lady in every aspect,” as the New Albany Daily Ledger wrote in 1854.

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.

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Why did Clofullia’s Victorian American audiences respond so favorably? Partly it’s because she “acted” like a 19th-century woman. In a society with deeply entrenched gender norms, Clofullia fit the part: She was demure, nurturing, and demonstrated excellence in needlework and other “feminine” arts. In the face of all this, what was a beard?

This is not to suggest that Clofullia lived in a world of possibilities. Like every woman in Victorian America, Clofullia had to live with a set of gender roles that deprived her of franchise, limited her control over her body, and subjected her to the legal authority of her husband. Nevertheless, within these constraints, Clofullia was utterly “normal.”

Of course, today, the roles that define “woman” and “man” are in a state of flux and “feminine behaviors” now include becoming secretary of state or a military combat officer. Without “acting like a woman” as a touchstone, it has become all too easy for those who fear what they don’t understand to refocus on external cues—and ban a woman with a beard from a public bathroom.

Not so for the bearded lady. 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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