Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Dr Miranda Barry: Feminist of the Day

Dr. Miranda Barry
Medical doctor, surgeon
"If I had had my sword on when Mr. Fiscal proposed sending me to the tronk (gaol), I would certainly have cut off both his ears to make him look smart."

From the Manchester Guardian, August 21, 1865:

"A Strange Story - an incident is just now being discussed in British military circles, so extraordinary that were not the truth capable of being vouched for by official authority, the narration would certainly be deemed absolutely incredible. Our officers quartered at the Cape may remember a certain Dr. James Barry. He enjoyed a reputation for considerable skill in his profession, especially for firmness and rapid directions.

The gentleman in question pursued a legitimate medical education at one of our most prestigious universities and received its diploma. Passed through the grades of assistant surgeon and surgeon in various regiments quartered all over the globe and had acquired celebrity for skill as a surgical operator, ultimately achieving the rank of Inspector General of Hospitals, in his last post, the Dominion of Canada.

After retirement he settled in London, where in the month past he perished in the dysentery epidemic and upon his death was discovered to be a woman. The motive that occasioned and the time when commenced this singular deception, are both shrouded in mystery.

But thus it stands as an indubitable fact, that a woman was for forty years an officer in the British service."

What I find so powerful about this story, is that we have no idea who this woman was. Although there is considerable documentation about her life, none of it is from her perspective. We can never know where she came from, what made her make those choices, or what experiences that she had.

I've said before that I don't think that individual women bucking patriarchal expectations are intrinsically feminist. But I do think they are women worth knowing about. Particularly when, like James Barry, they fight for other people as well: "Barry denounced the cruelty and negligence of the officials in whose care were prisoners, lepers and lunatics. This led to accusations of defamation, but Barry tore up the summons and refused to answer questions."

There's something fitting about the way her sex came to light: "A doctor signed the death certificate without realising that Dr. Barry was a woman. A charwoman who laid out the body was more observant."

Conclusion: I've heard her story several times and I like Manchester Guardian's contemporary summary the best, because it conveys the most compelling aspect of her story: everything we don't know.

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