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.