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Mary Henrietta Kingsley


Mary Henrietta Kingsley (October 13, 1862 – June 3, 1900) was an English writer and explorer whose writing on her travels and observations in Africa challenged attitudes of racial superiority and provoked considerably hostility towards her ideas. She was the first Englishwomen to climb Mount Cameroon and to follow the particular route she took to the summit and the first European to enter parts of the Gabon. Although not a trained anthropologist, her writing represents a significant contribution to the ethnography of Africa. She is recognized by the Royal Africa Society as the inspiration behind its formation. She is of special interest as someone who bridged or transcended gender in the later nineteenth century by combining masculine and feminine characteristics. Announcing her death while serving as a war-time Nurse in South Africa, one obituary stated that, “she died at last a woman’s death in a center of civilization, but perhaps that will only strengthen people’s memories to recall that she had lived like a man in strange countries where civilization had not gained the mastery.” Kingsley was courageous to challenge the imperial order and to cross gender frontiers at a time when women were thought incapable of doing what men did. Her achievements earned her a unique place in the European exploration of Africa and her championship of the equality of races was a pioneering contribution to combating the type of prejudice that results in the exploitation and dehumanizing of Others.


Kingsley was born in Islington. She was the daughter of George Henry Kingsley (himself a travel writer) and Mary Bailey, and the niece of Charles Kingsley. Her father was a doctor and worked for George Herbert, 13th Earl of Pembroke. Her mother (her father’s former cook, whom he married just four days before Mary’s birth) was an invalid and Mary was expected to stay at home and look after her. Mary had little formal schooling but she did have access to her father’s large library and loved to hear her father’s stories of foreign countries. She began to act as his research assistant. George traveled widely, and wrote such books as South Sea Bubbles (with the Earl of Pembroke; NY: D. Appleton & Co, 1872) and Notes on Sport and Travel (1900, with a Memoir by Mary; London: Macmillan) and a book on Geoffrey Chaucer. Kingsley traveled to Paris when she was 26, and also taught herself Arabic and Syrian. She also benefited from living in Cambridge, where her family moved in 1894 to be close to her brother Charley while he studied there. Mary was not allowed to enter ‘the gates of any of the Colleges’ but found the social and intellectual atmosphere of great interest and enjoyed the house visits of her father’s and brother’s scientific friends. One of these, Henry Guillemard, with ‘whom she had a devoted but sometimes troubled friendship’ was later her editor. She later pointed out how only a few pounds was spent on her education to pay for some tuition in German to assist her father with translation, while her brother’s education cost thousands.

First Tour

Her father died in February 1892. Her mother also died just five weeks later. Freed from her family responsibilities, and with an income of £500 a year, Mary was now able to travel. She first visited the Canary Islands, where contact with West African traders pointed her in the direction of Africa as her destination of choice. She also moved to London to keep house for her brother Charley, who that year himself set off for the Far East. She continued to keep house for him when they were both at home. Her father had started a book on African culture which he had not finished, so she decided to visit Africa to collect the material she would need to finish the book for him. Her father had been especially interested in primitive religion and law.


She sailed to Sierra Leone in August 1893. Sailing along the coast, she then walked inland, reaching what is today part of Nigeria. She lived with local people who taught her necessary skills for surviving in the African jungles, and often went into dangerous areas alone. In her writing, she drew on ethnographic work and while she did not make any formal claim to be an anthropologist, she used participant observation and was methodological in her work. Certainly, says Frank ‘today she would be called an anthropologist or enthnographer’. She never relied on a single account or on a single observation, but always looked for repetition before she took a belief, custom or practice as standard. She had read widely on anthropology and the physical sciences, says Blunt having set out to master the ‘new science of anthropology’ as early as 1894 in ‘her capacity as her father’s research assistant’ preferring Edward Burnett Tylor to James Frazer, commenting that despite her Cambridge pedigree (almost as if she were a graduate) she was inclined towards the ideas of Oxford’s first professor of anthropology. She did not think that people owed their notion of the soul to dreams, as Frazer. Calling Tylor her ‘great juju’ she recommended that any visitor to West Africa learn his Primitive Culture off by heart. For Tylor, belief in the soul, and in spirits, began as a type of rational process whereby in the absence of a ‘sensible’ explanation for such life-crises as death, dreams, illness, primitive people concluded ‘that they are to be accounted for by the presence, or absence, of some immaterial entity, the soul’ In fact, at a time when most anthropology took place in ‘the cloistered libraries of Oxford or Cambridge’ Kingsley ‘was one of the few early ethnographers actually to go out into the field.’ Blunt says that she was constantly ‘anxious to establish credibility as a scientific observer,’ a task that her gender made more difficult, hence she ‘attempted to be identified as an objective, masculine observer while maintaining more feminine characteristics of subjective observation.’ However, in order to be taken seriously, she located herself ‘within the masculine tradition of scientific observation’ When her publisher wrote to her that he had assumed her book to be written by a man because of the masculine tone, she was somewhat offended, replying that she had never said that the book was by a man. Her interests were those of a cultural anthropologist but not typically so since she was not so much concerned with the ‘social fabric of the culture or even how the people got on practically in every day life’ than with ‘what they lived for, what they believed in – their conception of and accommodation to the universe and the mystery of human existence’. Frank suggests that this stemmed from her own background in which religion played an important role. She was never really an ‘impartial scientist’ because she began with an a priori belief in the reality of the spiritual dimension and also was disposed towards she finding ‘kindred spirits’. She found, Frank suggests, a ‘kindred spirit’ among amimist peoples. She traveled, in fact, in ‘search of herself’. She often traveled alone, or in small groups and ‘traded to pay her way’, in contrast to some explorers who left home with a large financial grant.

Second Tour

She returned to Africa in 1895. This time, she was equipped with a ‘collector’s outfit’ by the British Museum and ‘claimed to be studying fish and fetish’ but appears to have been more interested in cannibalism. She had spent a lot of time in the British Museum under the tutelage of Albert Charles Günther, keeper of the Zoological Department and author of An Introduction to the Study of Fishes and an old friend of her famous uncle, whose daughter wrote her a letter of introduction. Günther arranged for her to be equipped by the Museum when he heard of her plan to return to Africa.

She again traveled first to Sierra Leone, then along the Cape and Gold Coasts to Calabar, in company of Lady MacDonald, wife of the British Governor of what was then called the Niger Coast Protectorate. Reaching Glass by ship, she set off from there by canoe up the Ogowe, or Ogooué River in the Gabon, having taught herself how to steer, where she collected specimens of previously unknown fish and became the first European to enter some of the territory through which she passed. It would be the Ogowe that she ‘appropriated for herself.’ After meeting the Fang or Fans tribe – known for their cannibalism – with whom she spent some time, she climbed the 13,760 feet Mount Cameroon by a route unconquered by any other European. Several of her male companions collapsed from exhaustion before reaching the summit. Characteristically, she made them comfortable before continuing on to the summit. Africa for her was a continent of great beauty and endless interest. She wrote in the preface to Travels in West Africa that, ‘Your superior culture-instincts may militate against your enjoying West Africa, but if you go there you will find things as I have said’. Her sheer enjoyment of much of what she did is evidenced in a passage such as this, in which she described canoeing along the Rembwe, having marched overland from the Ogowe through territory notorious for the ferocity of its population:

On the other nights we spent on this voyage I had no need to offer to steer; he handed over charge to me as a matter of course, and as I prefer night to day in Africa, I enjoyed it. Indeed, much as I have enjoyed life in Africa, I do not think I ever enjoyed it to the full as I did on those nights dropping down the Rembwe. The great, black, winding river with a pathway in its midst of frosted silver where the moonlight struck it: on each side the ink-black mangrove walls, and above them the band of star and moonlit heavens that the walls of mangrove allowed one to see.

News of her adventures reached England and when she returned home in October 1895 she was greeted by journalists who were eager to interview her. She was now famous and over the next three years she toured the country, giving lectures about life in Africa. After this tour, she took 65 specimens of fish and 18 of reptiles back to England. Three newly ‘discovered’ species were named after her, the Brycinus kingsleyae, the Brienomyrus kingsleyae and the Ctenopoma kingsleyae She once said that she was most proud of having learned to paddle a canoe, and that her mentor liked the specimens she collected.

View of missionaries

Mary Kingsley upset the Church of England when she criticized missionaries for attempting to change the people of Africa. A ‘good deal of Travels in West Africa, says Frank, ‘consists of an attack on West African missions’ although she did form a close friend ship with Mary Slessor, whom she “admired enormously.” Slessor was a Scottish missionary for 20 years in West Africa – a remarkable term for what was literally a missionary graveyard – who shocked many by ‘going native’ as it was called, that is, by adapting local customs and practices and because of her staunch defense of women’s rights. Kingsley once confided in Slessor that she thought Islam ‘less disruptive of African society’ and that she would very much like to ‘study and live among the Muslims’. She had already studied Arabic. Frank thinks, too, that Kingsley may have admired David Livingstone, for whom Africa had become – as it became for her – ‘a desperately needed psychological and spiritual resting place’ and also a place from which there was no return. Frank thinks that Kingsley may have attended Livingstone’s funeral in 1874 Kingsley appears to have thought that, like Livingstone, she would die in Africa. Livingstone, too, had been ‘keenly interested in the African peoples among whom he traveled and lived’.

On religion

Kingsley, who used the word ‘Allah’s as often as she did ‘God’ told another missionary, Robert Nassau, however, that she was ‘not a Christian, telling him that ‘we see the God we are capable of seeing, according to the capacity and nature of our vision’. At other times, she described herself as worshiping the ‘Great God of Science’ and, says Frank, she appears to have been raised ‘without any sort of religious training whatsoever’ by her atheist father. On another occasion, she spoke of possessing, beneath the sense of ‘melancholy’ which she admitted feeling , ‘an utter faith in God’, though she was not certain this was of any use to anyone other than herself because it was rather gloomy. Her ‘faith’ remains an extremely ‘vexed and confusing issue’ because she was ‘reluctant to put herself on the line’. She appears, though, to have self-identified as Christian while entertaining doubt as to whether Christianity was ‘for white and black alike – the only’ hope.

On Race

She talked about, and indeed defended, many aspects of African life that had shocked many English people, including polygamy. Subsequently, people found her ideas shocking, especially in the face of the common perception that Europeans were far superior to Africans at the exact time that the European Scramble for Africa was occupying so much attention in the capitals of Europe. In contrast, Kingsley wrote that the “seething mass of infamy, degradation and destruction going on among the Coast native… [was] the natural consequence of the breaking down of an ordered polygamy into a disordered monogamy.” She argued that a “black man is no more an undeveloped white man than a rabbit is an undeveloped hare” and that she did not regard “the native form as ‘low’ or ‘inferior’… but as a form of mind of a different sort to white men’s – a very good form of mind too, in its way.” She thought that Britain had the right to locate new markets and she did not oppose colonization per se but thought that while the Southern region should be colonized, West Africa should be left alone. She did not lack a sense of superiority but inclined to attribute this to cultural differences, not to inherently racial factors. Defending her Travels in West Africa against a critic, on the one hand she agreed that African had allegedly failed to produce great art but she vehemently disagreed that Africans were socially or morally inferior, possessing ‘both a sense of honor and justice’ while ‘in rhetoric’ the African ‘excels and for good temper and patience he compares favorably with any set of human beings’

Of the European men she encountered in Africa, she preferred traders to missionaries and colonial officers, arguing that the former should have more influence over policy. She enjoyed a friendship, too, with Sir George Goldie, head of the Royal Niger Company ‘a rebel, a wanderer and an atheist’. Imperialist though he was he was also a ‘humanitarian’ who ‘wished to preserve and protect the people’s who inhabited the territory under his company’s dominion.’

She was, however, fairly conservative on other issues and did not support the women’s suffrage movement. She rebutted accusation that she wore ‘trousers’ while on her travels, which was deemed to be very shocking. However, she has been described as deliberately assuming an asexual or male persona in order to pursue her interests in African exploration, which was a male preserve. Frequently asked where her husband was, she resorted to saying that she was on her way to meet him. Blunt (1994) writes that among the Fans, for example, she developed a ‘masculine camaraderie’. While many explorers suffered ill health, she apparently did not, until her final journey though oddly she did not enjoy such good health when in England. She almost never had to use’ her medical kit on herself, except perhaps for minor bruises.’ Both Blunt and Frank speculate that Kingsley’s afflictions when in England and apparent robust health in Africa was symptomatic of how much freer she felt to be herself in what she called the great Continent.

Literary Legacy

Kingsley wrote two books about her experiences: Travels in West Africa (1897), which was an immediate best-seller making three thousand pounds within a year of publication, and West African Studies (1899) in which she set out her political ideas, although she spoke of her ‘feminine hatred of politics’. Yet Kingsley’s major contribution as an ethnographer was, ‘her political role in colonial affairs: her overriding insistence that African culture be protected from the “smash” of British colonial policy.’She famously called the presence of Europeans in Africa the “black man’s burden,” mocking the characterization of the imperial project as the ‘white man’s burden’, that is, to civilize the non-white world and in her turn was labeled ‘the most dangerous women’ by the British Colonial Office. Just as she was critical of colonial policy, so she criticized the journalism establishment, which, she said, was dominated by people who are or had been in the Diplomatic Service and who did not really know Africa at all. But would die rather than admit this. Kingsley defended her writing in letters to the press. Her second book was more favorably reviewed by academics. One review commented on her ‘unladylike style’ but another described the book as a ‘weighty contribution’ praising her ‘painstaking research’ and ‘immense powers of observation’ Her writing was popular with general readers and was full of humor, even self-mockery as she related her encounters with such dangers as hippopotami, cannibals and crocodiles. With reference to the latter, she reports slapping one with her paddle when it decided to ‘improve their acquaintance.’ Speaking at Cheltenham Ladies College, she recounted how she and a hippopotamus had shared an island together. She wanted one of them to leave and ‘I preferred it should be myself, but the hippo was close to my canoe, and looked like staying, so I made cautious and timorous advances to him and finally scratched him behind the ear with my umbrella and we parted on good terms. But with the crocodile it was different….” She did not take herself too seriously and initially wanted her first book to be called Log of a Light Hearted Lunatic, but her publisher, Macmillan, did not approve.


In 1899, during the Second Boer War, Kingsley volunteered as a nurse. She had for some time supported, and spoke on behalf of, the Colonial Nursing Association urging the establishment of a regular Nursing corp. No one too surprised when she volunteered herself. She also explored the possibility of ‘covering the war as a correspond’ and planned to return to West Africa once the conflict was over. She has been trying to get back there over the last four years but had delayed this because she was enjoying her popularity on the lecture circuit. At the Cape, in a relatively short time she endeared herself to her fellow nurses and to the men whom she nursed. She died June 3, 1900 of typhoid at Simon’s Town, where she was treating Boer prisoners, including Typhoid patients. Expressing the desire to die alone, she asked her companions to leave the room so that she could make her own terms with death. She also said that she did not want her friends to see her in her weakness. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried at sea, receiving full military honors. A touch of comedy, which would ‘have amused’ Kingsley herself, was added when the coffin refused to sink and had to be hauled back on board then thrown over again weighed down this time with an anchor. She had died serving her country, however she had opposed its imperial policy. She asked to be buried in the sea, at the bottom of the Continent she loved, so that ‘the heart-shaped continent that had governed her life would … claim her as one of its own’.


In 1897, Kingsley suggested that a Learned Society was needed that would provide a meeting place especially for those who thought government, that is, imperial policy in Africa misguided and detrimental to African people. Although the African Society was not established until after her death, in 1900 (it received its Royal Charter in 1968) it acknowledges Kingsley’s suggestion as its founding vision. The Journal bore the words ‘founded in memory of Mary Kingsley’ and until 1923 also carried her image (being then replaced by an image of Africa). In 1998, a Centennial Exploration of Gabon’s Freshwater Biodiversity expedition named for Mary Kingsley, aided with a grant from the Geographical Society, followed her footsteps.

Her ideas on racial equality, that Africans and Europeans belonged to the same ‘section of the human race,’ were pioneering at a time when the superiority of the white race was almost universally taken for granted. Blunt (1994) describes Kingsley as ‘an outspoken figure in imperial debates of the 1890s’. She has been ‘described in fictionalized accounts in children’s books’ and in ‘virtually all accounts of women travel writers.’ Blunt suggests that Kingsley’s legacy is of special significance in terms of how a nineteenth century woman explorer negotiated her way through gender and race related issues. Blunt says that by traveling outside the home context, Kingsley was able to regender her ‘positionality’ as she wrote of her travels. However, concern, for example, for her appearance represents a feminine trait. In obituaries of her, she was ‘elevated to the status of Florence Nightingale’

She transcended ‘gender’, too, because her ‘wealth of adventurous experience which’ belonged ‘to few men, and to no other woman’ of her generation.. Did Kingsley ‘recognize’, asks Frank, ‘the essential pattern of male exploration in Africa, a pattern of masculine penetration, conquest and ultimately self-aggrandizement, if not outright plunder’, pointing out that there were no ‘female role models in African exploration’ for her to emulate and that even the men whom she did admire entirely escaped enacting the above. Blunt points out that the way in which she planned her journeys, mapping out the route, had a lot in common with those Orientalists who saw Africa and the East as territory to be ‘possessed’, as places that ‘shimmered with possibility’ for travel and adventure. Imperialism made her travel a possibility, even if she did not fully share imperialist convictions.

Topfreedom in Canada


Topfreedom in Canada has largely been an attempt to combat the interpretation of indecency laws that considered a woman’s breasts to be indecent, and therefore their exhibition in public an offence. In British Columbia, it is a historical issue dating back to the 1930s and the public protests against materialistic lifestyle held by the radical religious sect of the Freedomites, whose pacifist beliefs led to their exodus from Russia to Canada at the end of the 19th century. The Svobodniki became famous for their public nudity: mostly for their nude marches in public and the acts of arson committed also in the nude.


In Canada, the law on public decency is found in Sections 173 and 174 of the Criminal Code. However, what constitutes an indecent act is not defined, and is open to interpretation by the courts.

In 1991, toplessness as an indecent act was challenged by Gwen Jacob in Guelph, Ontario, who removed her shirt and was charged with indecency. Part of her defense was the double standards between men and women. Although she was convicted, this was overturned by the Court of Appeal. This case determined that being topless is not indecent within the meaning of the Criminal Code. However, it did not establish any constitutional right of equality. This case subsequently led to the acquittal of women in British Columbia and Saskatchewan who faced similar charges. Although each Province and Territory technically reserves its right to interpret the law as it pleases, the Ontario case has proved influential. Since the matter has not been determined by the Supreme Court of Canada, it is still possible that a woman could be convicted elsewhere in Canada, but interpretation of moral law in Canada has become increasingly liberalised. There do not appear to have been any further women charged in Canada since these cases were decided.


Topfreedom is allowed in Ontario, set by the precedent in the case of Gwen Jacob. The acting executive director of Municipal Licensing and Standards said that while “there’s no bylaw that governs toplessness”, “it is legal for women to go topless on the streets of Toronto” according to a National Post article. He added that parks require clothing, except, for example, the clothing optional Hanlan’s Point Beach.

Gwen Jacob

On July 19, 1991, a very hot and humid day, Gwen Jacob, a University of Guelph student, was arrested, after walking in a street in Guelph, Ontario while topless after removing her shirt when the temperature was 33 °C (91 °F) and was charged with indecency under Section 173(1)(a) of the Criminal Code. Police stated that they acted following a complaint from a woman who was upset that one of her children had seen Gwen Jacob. Jacob stated she did it because men were doing it and she wanted to draw attention to the double standard. She was found guilty and fined $75. In her defence she argued that breasts were merely fatty tissue. In finding her guilty the judge stated that breasts were “part of the female body that is sexually stimulating to men both by sight and touch,” and therefore should not be exposed. She appealed, but her appeal was dismissed by the Ontario Court (General Division), and she further appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

In the meantime, protests against Jacob’s arrest and conviction led to further charges against others, in particular R. v. Arnold but in this case McGowan P.C.J. applied the test of community standard of tolerance, following Butler, stating that the action of being topless caused no harm and thus did not exceed community standards of tolerance. Indeed, she commented – “… Undoubtedly, most women would not engage in this conduct for there are many who believe that deportment of this nature is tasteless and does not enhance the cause of women. Equally undoubtedly, there are men today who cannot perceive of woman’s breasts in any context other than sexual. It is important to reaffirm that the Canadian standards of tolerance test does not rely upon these attitudes for its formulation. I have no doubt that, aside from their personal opinions of this behaviour, the majority of Canadians would conclude that it is not beyond their level of tolerance.

Gwen Jacob was acquitted on December 9, 1996 by the Ontario Court of Appeal on the basis that the act of being topless is not in itself a sexual act or indecent. The court held that “there was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in what the appellant did. The scope of her activity was limited and was entirely non-commercial. No one who was offended was forced to continue looking at her” and that furthermore “the community standard of tolerance when all of the relevant circumstances are taken into account” was not exceeded. It is important to note that although Jacob claimed she had a constitutional right, the court did not address this. The Ontario Government decided not to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, and thus it has remained the prevailing interpretation of the Criminal Code in Ontario. Since then, the court ruling has been tested and upheld several times. R. v. Jacob has been cited in similar decisions in other provinces and by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Labaye, and is taught in Criminal Law courses.

Another important distinction is that of whether the nature of the act is commercial or not. In Jacob, the court stressed that it was not. In contrast in of R. v. Gowan, Gowan, a known sex worker, under the impression that exposing the breasts was now legal, solicited clients at an intersection, motioned to her breasts and called out “Do you want to fuck?”. She was consequently charged with and convicted of engaging in an indecent act, under the same section as in Jacob, 173 (1) (a).

The decision by the Ontario Government not to appeal to the Supreme Court was based on the likelihood that the court would not grant leave. This caused considerable public concern as well as attempts by municipalities to preempt the law by passing more restrictive bylaws. (Uniform Law Conference of Canada 1999). Nevertheless the Ontario Government did contact the Federal Government regarding amending the law to make such actions clearly illegal. This was not pursued.

While the community standards test is not an immutable part of indecency jurisdiction, community tolerance is likely to be partly determined by the degree to which the public is exposed to top freedom on a regular basis. Jacob’s victory is now celebrated annually in Guelph.

2011 marked the 20th anniversary of Gwen Jacob’s walk, and to celebrate some students re-enacted it.

Public parks and facilities

Despite this, women still faced discrimination in public facilities. In 1997, Fatima Pereira Henson was charged with trespassing for swimming topless in Cambridge, but the charges were dropped. She was then charged again, and also this was dropped by the crown, so the City initiated its own prosecution. Although this too was dropped, a bylaw specifically prohibiting topfree swimming was passed. Eventually her efforts led to a new bylaw allowing this.

In Toronto in 2011, a Go Topless Day rally was refused a permit to meet in a park, so they marched down the streets, with a police escort.

British Columbia

In 2000 a similar case to Jacob resulted in acquittal. Linda Meyer was a top-free activist inspired by the Gwen Jacob case, who appeared in a number of public venues topless. A bylaw in the municipality of Maple Ridge stated “females over the age of 8 years shall fully cover all portions of their nipples and aureole with opaque apparel.“. On July 1, 1997, Linda Meyer went to the swimming pool in the bottom half of her bikini. Some parents complained and she was charged, but the judge in this case (Justice Holmes) voided the by law stating, inter alia:

[55] In R. v. Jacob, supra, a woman who walked bare-breasted on a city street and then reclined top-free on the front step to her home was acquitted on appeal of committing an indecent act. The Court found the baring of her breasts was not harmful to anyone. There was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in her conduct. The Court noted anyone who was offended was not forced to look.

[57] I do not find in the evidence support for the view that the parks could not operate in orderly fashion if a female were to bare her breasts in a circumstance that did not offend criminal laws of nudity. The evidence suggests the Section 3A amendment to the Park By-Law was more a reaction to a frustration that the criminal law was not supporting the moral standards in regard to females who chose to bare their breasts in public that some Maple Ridge citizens desired.

[64] The defendant’s 18A application is allowed.

Meyer subsequently tested the decision in a number of locations, winning acknowledgement from the Vancouver Police Department that women would not be charged for appearing top free in public. However she has been harassed by police on a number of occasions.

In 2008 Vancouver, British Columbia, was a location of the World Naked Bike Ride


In 1997, a 64 year old woman, Evangeline Godron together with Kathleen Rice sunbathed topless in a Regina park and charged for doing so. On July 22 a judge in the Provincial Court ruled that their behaviour did not violate community standards. However she and other women then swam in a pool without a top. Again parents complained. Godron was arrested for assault, because she refused to leave the pool when requested. Although she appealed this, she was unsuccessful. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, who declined it. However this was a question of assault, not of indecency.

Public opinion

A 1992 poll showed that 62% of Canadians were opposed to women having topfreedom, with women being more likely to be opposed. A more detailed survey was undertaken in 1998, and a detailed analysis was published by Fischtein and colleagues in 2005 (Fischtein et al. 2005). This showed context to be important, for instance 72% were opposed to being topless on a city street, 62% in parks, but only 48% on beaches. In all cases women were more opposed to toplessness.


Topfree Equal Rights Association

The Canadian Topfree Equal Rights Association (TERA) assists women in both Canada and the United States who are prosecuted for being topless in situations whereas men are not. It does not advocate toplessness, but promotes the concept of freedom of choice of the individual woman, and the de-sexualisation of breasts.

Grace Mugabe


Grace Mugabe ( 23 July 1965) is the wife of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and the First Lady of Zimbabwe from her marriage to the leader in 1996.

Grace was previously married to Stanley Goreraza, an air force pilot, and now working in the Zimbabwe embassy in China. As secretary to the president, she became his mistress while still married to Goreraza and together they had two children, Bona, named after Mugabe’s mother, and Robert Peter, Jr. The couple were married in an extravagant Catholic Mass, titled the “Wedding of the Century” by the Zimbabwe press, after the death of Mugabe’s first wife, Sally Hayfron.

In 1997, Grace Mugabe gave birth to the couple’s third child, Chatunga. Grace is popularly known in Zimbabwe as “Dis Grace”, a reference to her extravagant lifestyle while maintaining political responsibilities as first lady.

In 2014, Grace Mugabe was given a doctorate in sociology by the University of Zimbabwe, only two months after registering at the university and although a dissertation does not exist. The degree was widely described as fraudulent. Grace Mugabe is under personal sanctions in the European Union and the United States for her role in the Mugabe regime.

Grace Mugabe was designated as head of the ZANU-PF Women’s League in 2014.


In late 2014, Grace Mugabe was fiercely critical of Vice-President Joice Mujuru, who was alleged to have plotted against President Mugabe. Ultimately the accusations against Mujuru resulted in Mujuru being eliminated as a candidate to succeed Mugabe and effectively becoming an outcast within ZANU-PF by the time it held a party congress in December 2014. Meanwhile, Grace Mugabe’s political prominence increased. She was nominated as head of the ZANU-PF Women’s League, and delegates to the party congress approved her nomination by acclamation on 6 December 2014. In becoming head of the women’s league, she also became a member of the ZANU-PF Politburo.


After observers from the European Union were barred from examining Zimbabwe’s 2002 elections, the EU imposed sanctions on 20 members of the Zimbabwe leadership and then, in July, extended them to include Mrs Mugabe and 51 others, banning them from travelling to participating countries and freezing any assets held there. The United States instituted similar restrictions.


Real estate

During her tenure as first lady, Grace Mugabe has overseen the construction of two palaces. The first, referred to commonly as “Gracelands”, became controversial for its extravagance, and Grace Mugabe later explained that she had paid for its construction with her own personal savings. It was later sold to Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. The second, completed in 2007, was reported to have cost $26 million to construct and to have been funded by the ZANU-PF party as thanks for Robert Mugabe’s political service.

In 2002, Grace Mugabe toured farm properties in Zimbabwe, looking for a new location for herself and her family. She chose the Iron Mask Estate, which had been previously owned by farmers John and Eva Matthews.

The first family owns property in Malaysia, and in early 2008, it was reported that Grace Mugabe hoped to move there with her children. The intention behind the move was to escape the stress of leadership and to address fears that the first family faces assassination. Recent reports indicate that Grace acquired property holdings in Hong Kong, including a diamond cutting business and a bolt-hole at House Number Three, JC Castle, 18 Shan Tong Road, Tai Po, New Territories. The media speculates that this property acquisition is intended as both a weekend getaway pad for their daughter Bona who is studying at The University of Hong Kong under an assumed name and that she and her husband expect to escape to China should they be ousted from power in Zimbabwe.

Diamond trade allegations and lawsuit

In December 2010 US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks brought up again earlier allegations that high-ranking Zimbabwean government officials and well-connected elites, including Mugabe’s wife Grace, are generating millions of dollars in personal income by hiring teams of diggers to hand-extract diamonds from the Chiadzwa mine in eastern Zimbabwe. Grace Mugabe is currently suing a Zimbabwean newspaper over its reporting of claims released by Wikileaks she had made “tremendous profits” from the country’s diamond mines. The president’s wife is demanding $15m (£9.6m) from the Standard newspaper.


Grace Mugabe is known for her lavish lifestyle. The Daily Telegraph called her “notorious at home for her profligacy” in coverage of a 2003 trip to Paris, during which she was reported as spending £75,000 (approx US$120,000) in a short shopping spree; and in the years leading up to 2004 withdrew over £5 million from the Central Bank of Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe she is known sarcastically as “Gucci Grace” or “The First Shopper” in reference to her numerous, lavish European shopping sprees. When Grace Mugabe was included in the 2002 sanctions, one EU parliamentarian said that the ban would “stop Grace Mugabe going on her shopping trips in the face of catastrophic poverty blighting the people of Zimbabwe.” Mrs Mugabe faces similar sanctions in the United States.

Assault on photographer

The Times reported on 18 January 2009 that, while on a shopping trip in Hong Kong, where her daughter Bona Mugabe is a university student, Mrs Mugabe ordered her bodyguard to assault a Times photographer Richard Jones outside her luxury hotel. She then joined in the attack, punching Jones repeatedly in the face while wearing diamond encrusted rings, causing him cuts and abrasions. She was subsequently granted immunity from prosecution ‘under Chinese diplomatic rules’ because of her status as Mugabe’s wife.

Daughter’s controversies in Hong Kong

Early reports indicated Bona Mugabe was a student at the University of Hong Kong. A protest started on the University of Zimbabwe campus on 3 February resulting in about 30 students needing medical treatment including police forces being used against defenceless citizens and harassments of students. Zimbabwe students were protesting to the P. R. Chinese embassy that Bona Mugabe should return home to Zimbabwe and study in the same conditions as her peers. Colleges and universities in Zimbabwe have failed to open at some point in 2008 due to dollarisation of fees and other economic problems.

On 17 February the University of Hong Kong distanced itself from the controversy, denying a report that she was a student there. The school statement said “We do not have a student by the name of Bona Mugabe on our student register, and we do not have any lady student from Zimbabwe who is reading for an undergraduate programme or is at the age of around 20.” Subsequent reports clarified that Bona is in fact enrolled in a second school, the City University of Hong Kong, which said she met normal admission requirements and her enrolment was not influenced by her parentage. Due to the attention surrounding Robert Mugabe’s daughters her family enlisted the help of a female ex-government official to provide safety and supervision during her time in Hong Kong.

According to Vice chairperson of the HK democratic party Emily Lau said the government should study whether to follow international practice in barring certain foreign politicians as many people might be looking at buying properties, investments or education in Hong Kong. Lee Wing-tat said Beijing should be making the decision since this was a foreign affair. Spokesperson Jiang Yu from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China said she was not aware of the Mugabes’ alleged house purchase in Hong Kong and would not comment further. A professor at the University of HK said Beijing was trying to stay out of the controversy. The Beijing central government dismissed the concerns, adding that Falun Gong members were allowed to buy properties in Hong Kong.


Controversy ensued when Grace Mugabe was given a doctoral degree in sociology in September 2014 from the University of Zimbabwe two months after entering the program. She was awarded the degree by her husband and University Chancellor Robert Mugabe. Her doctoral thesis is not available in the University archive and she has faced calls to return her PhD. This caused backlash in the Zimbabwean academic community, with some commenting that this could harm the reputation of the University.

Dahomey Amazons


The Dahomey Amazons or Mino were a Fon all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the present-day Republic of Benin which lasted until the end of the 19th century. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the semi-mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea.


King Houegbadja (who ruled from 1645 to 1685), the third King of Dahomey, is said to have originally started the group which would become the Amazons as a corps of elephant hunters called the gbeto.

Houegbadja’s son King Agaja (ruling from 1708 to 1732) established a female bodyguard armed with muskets. European merchants recorded their presence. According to tradition, Agaja developed the bodyguard into a militia and successfully used them in Dahomey’s defeat of the neighbouring kingdom of Savi in 1727. The group of female warriors was referred to as Mino, meaning “Our Mothers” in the Fon language, by the male army of Dahomey.

From the time of King Ghezo (ruling from 1818 to 1858), Dahomey became increasingly militaristic. Ghezo placed great importance on the army, increasing its budget and formalizing its structure from ceremonial to a serious military. While European narratives refer to the women soldiers as “Amazons,” they called themselves ahosi (king’s wives) or mino (our mothers).


Ghezo recruited both men and women soldiers from foreign captives, though women soldiers were also recruited from free Dahomian women, some enrolled as young as 8 years old. Other accounts indicate that the mino were recruited from among the ahosi (“king’s wives”) of which there were often hundreds.Some women in Fon society became soldiers voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled if their husbands or fathers complained to the king about their behaviour.

Membership among the mino was supposed to hone any aggressive character traits for the purpose of war. During their membership they were not allowed to have children or be part of married life (though they were legally married to the king). Many of them were virgins. The regiment had a semi-sacred status, which was intertwined with the Fon belief in Vodun. The mino trained with intense physical exercise. Discipline was emphasised. Serving in the mino offered women the opportunity to “rise to positions of command and influence” in an environment structured for individual empowerment.

Combat and structure

The women soldiers were rigorously trained, given uniforms, and equipped with Danish guns (obtained via the slave trade). By the mid-19th century, they numbered between 1,000 and 6,000 women, about a third of the entire Dahomey army, according to reports written by visitors. The reports also noted variously that the women soldiers suffered several defeats, but that the women soldiers were consistently judged to be superior to the male soldiers in effectiveness and bravery.

The women soldiers were said to be structured in parallel with the army as a whole, with a center wing (the king’s bodyguards) flanked on both sides, each under separate commanders. Some accounts note that each male soldier had a mino counterpart.

In the latter period, the mino were armed with Winchester rifles, clubs and knives. Units were under female command. Captives who fell into the hands of the mino were often decapitated.

Conflict with France

European encroachment into West Africa gained pace during the latter half of the 19th century, and in 1890 King Béhanzin started fighting French forces in the course of the First Franco-Dahomean War. According to Holmes, many of the French soldiers fighting in Dahomey hesitated before shooting or bayoneting the Mino. The resulting delay led to many of the French casualties.

Ultimately, bolstered by the Foreign Legion, and armed with superior weaponry, including machine guns, along with cavalry and Marine infantry, the French inflicted casualties that were ten times worse on the Dahomey side. After several battles, the French prevailed. The Legionnaires later wrote about the “incredible courage and audacity” of the Amazons. The last surviving Amazon of Dahomey is thought to be a woman named Nawi who died in 1979.

Saartjie Baartman


Saartjie Baartman was born in 1789 into the Griqua tribe of the eastern Cape, a subgroup of the Khoisan people who are now thought to be the first aboriginal inhabitants of the southern tip of Africa. Her family moved to a shack near Cape Town and, while working as a 20-year-old servant to a local farmer, she attracted the attention of a visiting English ship’s surgeon, William Dunlop. What made her a curiosity in the doctor’s eyes were her extraordinary steatopygia — enlarged buttocks — and her unusually elongated labia, a genital peculiarity of some Khoisan women of the time.

She agreed to go with Dunlop to England where, he promised her, she would become rich and famous as a subject of medical and anthropological research. She was 21 when she left Cape Town for London. At first, she was indeed put under anatomical scrutiny by scientists, who named her genital condition the ‘Hottentot apron’. ‘Hottentot’ was a word coined by early Dutch settlers to South Africa to describe the strange clicking language of the Khoisan. But the only success she achieved was as an exhibit before the general public.

Contemporary descriptions of her shows at 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket in London say Baartman was made to parade naked along a “stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered”. People paid one shilling to gawk at her, where she was depicted as a wild animal in a cage, dancing for her keeper. For several years, working-class Londoners crowded in to shout vulgarities at the protruding buttocks and large vulva of the unfortunate woman.

The aristocracy were no less fascinated at what they saw as a sexual freak, but they had private showings. Baartman was supposed to earn half of the proceeds from her performances, but in fact she saw little of the profits. In 1814, after spending four years being paraded around the streets of London, Baartman was taken to Paris and, according to the archival accounts, was handed to a “showman of wild animals” in a travelling circus. Her body was analysed by scientists, including Baron Cuvier, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s surgeons. A number of pseudo-scientific articles were written about her, testimony at the time to the superiority of the European races.

Her anatomy even inspired a comic opera in France. Called “The Hottentot Venus” or “Hatred to French Women”, the drama encapsulated the complex of racial prejudice and sexual fascination that occupied European perceptions of aboriginal people at the time. It appears Baartman worked as a prostitute in Paris and drank heavily to cope with the humiliation she was subjected to. Sad and homesick, she died a lonely alcoholic on January 1 1816, probably of pneumonia. But even then she was to suffer indignity. Less than 24 hours after her death she was carved up by Baron Cuvier. He had her body cast in wax, dissected and her skeleton articulated. Her genitalia and brain were pickled and displayed at the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind). They were finally withdrawn from public view in 1974, and her remains were assigned to a storeroom and forgotten.

But some Africans never forgot Baartman. Nelson Mandela made a request to France in 1994 for her remains to be handed back. Her cause gained momentum amid post-apartheid South Africa’s new awareness of tribal identity. All over the country, aboriginal peoples are asserting their heritage rights, claiming not only political and cultural recognition, but also the restitution of ancestral land and the protection of intellectual property rights. The San, once known as the bushmen of southern Africa, have successfully reclaimed historic tribal land and won a share in the proceeds of internationally marketed drugs made from their traditional medicinal plants. And now Baartman’s Khoisan tribe, which has been recognized by the United Nations as an indigenous “First Nation,” has won a victory for tribal recognition by securing the return of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ to South Africa.

It took years of negotiations and wrangling before a law was voted in on March 6 2002 allowing for her return. French legal analysts said the text was carefully worded to prevent it from being used in other cases. French Research Minister Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg said: “France wants to restore the dignity of Saartje Baartman, who was humiliated as a woman and exploited as an African.” Ambassador Thuthukile Skweyiya stated:

“Saartje Baartman is beginning her final journey home, to a free, democratic, non-sexist and non-racist South Africa. She’s a symbol of our national need to confront our past and restore dignity to all our people.”
“I’ve come to take you home –
home, remember the veld?
the lush green grass beneath the big oak trees
the air is cool there and the sun does not burn.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white
and the water in the stream chuckle sing-songs
as it hobbles along over little stones.

I have come to wrench you away –
away from the poking eyes
of the man-made monster
who lives in the dark
with his clutches of imperialism
who dissects your body bit by bit
who likens your soul to that of Satan
and declares himself the ultimate god!

I have come to soothe your heavy heart
I offer my bosom to your weary soul
I will cover your face with the palms of my hands
I will run my lips over lines in your neck
I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you
and I will sing for you
for I have come to bring you peace.

I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white –
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you
for you have brought me peace.”

Diana Ferrus, “A poem for Sarah Baartman”

Almost 200 years after she suffered indignity and hardship in Europe, a box containing Baartman’s remains, draped in a South African flag and flanked by six Khoisan children, was wheeled into Cape Town airport in May 2002.

Sister Elizabeth Barton


Sister Elizabeth Barton (1506? – 20 April 1534), known as “The Nun of Kent”, “The Holy Maid of London”, “The Holy Maid of Kent” and later “The Mad Maid of Kent”, was an English Catholic nun. She was executed as a result of her prophecies against the marriage of King Henry VIII of England to Anne Boleyn.


Little is known of Elizabeth Barton’s early life. She was born in 1506 in the parish of Aldington, about twelve miles from Canterbury, and appears to have come from a poor background. She was working as a servant when her visions began in 1525. At the age of 18, while working as a domestic servant in the household of Thomas Cobb, a farmer of Aldington, she suffered from a severe illness and claimed to have received divine revelations. These predicted future events, such as the death of a child living in her household, or more frequently took the form of pleas for people to remain in the Roman Catholic Church. She also urged people to pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to undertake pilgrimages. Thousands believed in her prophecies and both Archbishop William Warham and Bishop John Fisher attested to her pious life.

When certain events she foretold apparently came to pass, her reputation spread. The parish priest Richard Masters referred the matter to Archbishop Warham, who appointed a commission to ensure that none of her prophecies were at variance with Catholic teaching. When the commission decided favourably, Warham arranged for Barton to be received in the Benedictine St Sepulchre’s Priory, Canterbury.

In 1528 she held a private meeting with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the second most powerful man in England after Henry VIII, and soon thereafter met twice with the king himself. King Henry accepted Barton because her prophecies did not at that time challenge the existing order. Her prophecies warned against heresy and condemned rebellion at a time when the King was attempting to stamp out Lutheranism and was afraid of possible uprising or even assassination by his enemies.

However, when the King began the process of obtaining an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and seizing control of the Church in England from Rome, he turned against her. Barton strongly opposed the English Reformation and, in around 1532, began prophesying that if Henry remarried, he would die shortly after. She said she had seen the place in Hell where he would go. (Henry actually lived for another 15 years.) Remarkably, Barton went unpunished for nearly a year – largely, it appears, because of her popularity. The King’s agents spread rumours that she was engaged in sexual relationships with priests and that she suffered from mental illness. Many prophecies, as Thomas More thought, were fictitiously attributed to her.

Arrest and Execution

With her reputation undermined, the Crown arrested Barton in 1533 and forced her to confess that she had fabricated her revelations. However, all that is known regarding her confession comes from Thomas Cromwell, his agents, and other sources on the side of the Crown.

Friar John Laurence of the Observant Friars of Greenwich gave evidence against the Maid and against fellow Observants, Friars Hugh Rich and Richard Risby. Laurence then requested to be named to one of the posts left vacant by their imprisonment. She was condemned by an attainder (25 Henry VIII, c. 12); an act of Parliament authorising punishment without trial. She, along with five of her chief supporters, four of whom were priests, including Risby and Edward Bocking were hanged for treason at Tyburn. She was buried at Greyfriars Church in Newgate Street but her head was put on a spike on London Bridge, the only woman in history accorded that dishonour.


Churches such as the Anglican Catholic Church of St Augustine of Canterbury and the Nephite Church of Christ continue to venerate Sister Barton.

The case of Elizabeth Barton is dealt with extensively in the 2009 historical novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and in its TV adaptation, where she is played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards.

Li Yuqin


Li Yuqin (15 July 1928 – 24 April 2001), sometimes referred to as the “Last Imperial Concubine”, was the fourth wife of China’s last emperor Puyi. She married Puyi when the latter was the nominal ruler of Manchukuo, a puppet state established by the Empire of Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War.


Li Yuqin was a Han Chinese by birth and her ancestral home was in Shandong. She was born in a peasant family in Changchun, Jilin.

Li attended Nanling Girls’ Academy in Jilin, then known as Hsinking, the capital of Manchukuo. In February 1943, Li and nine other girl students were taken by their principal Kobayashi and teacher Fujii to a photography studio for portraits. Three weeks later, the school principal and teacher visited Li’s home and told her that Manchukuo’s emperor Puyi had ordered her to go to the palace to study. She was first taken directly to Yasunori Yoshioka, who thoroughly questioned her. Yoshioka then drove her back to her parents and told them Puyi ordered her to study at the palace. Money was promised to the parents. She was subjected to a medical examination and then taken to Puyi’s sister Yunhe and instructed in palace protocol. Li then became a concubine of Puyi and was given the title of Noble Lady Fu .

In 1945 the Manchukuo regime collapsed following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. Li attempted to flee from Changchun, alongside Puyi, Empress Wanrong and other remaining members of the old Qing court. Empress Wanrong was experiencing significant opium withdrawal symptoms at that time. She, as well as the rest of Puyi’s family was evacuated with him by train from Changchun to Dalizigou. From there, however, Puyi continued by plane with only two of his sisters, his brothers, three nephews, his physician and a servant to Mukden, where he was arrested and taken to the Soviet Union. According to Puyi, Li Yuqin was very frightened and begged to be taken with him, when he left from Dalizigou to Mukden, but he assured her that she and Wanrong could reach Japan as well by train.

They were shortly arrested by Soviet forces and sent to a prison in Changchun. Li was released in 1946 and sent back home. She worked in a textile factory and in a library in Changchun, studying the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. In 1955 she began visiting Puyi in prison. After applying to the Chinese authorities for a divorce, the government responded on her next prison visit by showing her to a room with a double bed and ordered her to reconcile with Puyi, and she said the couple obeyed the order.

Li officially divorced Puyi in 1958. She later married a technician named Huang Yugeng, with whom she had two sons. During the Cultural Revolution Li became a target for attack by the Red Guards because she used to be Puyi’s concubine. She died in 2001 at the age of 73 in Changchun after a six-year battle with cirrhosis.

Katherine Kennicott Davis


Katherine Kennicott Davis (June 25, 1892 – April 20, 1980) was a composer, pianist, and author of the famous Christmas tune “The Little Drummer Boy”.

Life and career

Davis was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on June 25, 1892, the daughter of Jessie Foote (Barton) and Maxwell Gaddis Davis. Her father was descended from John and Mariah Jane Boylan Murphey, one of the early pioneer settlers of Morgan County, Ohio and a foreman during the construction of the National Road — also known as the Cumberland National Road, as it pushed westward from Cumberland, Maryland through Ohio and on to Vandalia, Illinois. She composed her first piece of music, “Shadow March,” at the age of 15. She graduated from St. Joseph High School in 1910, and studied music at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In 1914 she won the Billings Prize. After graduation she continued at Wellesley as an assistant in the Music Department, teaching music theory and piano. At the same time she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Davis also studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She taught music at the Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts, and at the Shady Hill School for Girls in Philadelphia.

She became a member of ASCAP in 1941. and was granted an honorary doctorate from Stetson University, in DeLand, Florida. Katherine K. Davis continued writing music until she became ill in the winter of 1979-1980. She died on April 20, 1980, at the age of 87, in Littleton, Massachusetts.[3] She left all of the royalties and proceeds from her compositions, which include operas, choruses, children’s operettas, cantatas, piano and organ pieces, and songs, to Wellesley College’s Music Department. These funds are used to support musical instrument instruction.


Many of her over 600 compositions were written for the choirs at her school. She was actively involved in The Concord Series, multiple-volume set of music and books for educational purposes. Many of the musical volumes were compiled, arranged, and edited by Davis with Archibald T. Davison, and they were published by E.C. Schirmer in Boston.

She wrote “The Little Drummer Boy” (originally titled “The Carol of the Drum”), in 1941. It became famous when recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale in 1958: the recording sailed to the top of the Billboard charts and Simeone insisted on a writer’s royalty for his arrangement of the song. Another famous hymn by Katherine Davis is the Thanksgiving hymn “Let All Things Now Living” which uses the melody of the traditional Welsh folk song The Ash Grove.

Christine Jorgensen


Christine Jorgensen (May 30, 1926 – May 3, 1989) was an American trans woman who was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery. Jorgensen grew up in the Bronx, New York City. Shortly after graduating high school in 1945, she was drafted into the US Army for World War II. After her service she attended several schools, worked, and around this time heard about transitioning surgery. She travelled to Europe, and in Copenhagen, Denmark, obtained special permission to undergo a series of operations starting in 1951.

She returned to the United States in the early 1950s and her transformation was the subject of a New York Daily News front page story. She became an instant celebrity, using the platform to advocate for transgender people, and became known for her directness and polished wit. She also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer, and recorded several songs.

Early life

Christine Jorgensen was born George William Jorgensen, Jr., the second child of the carpenter and contractor George William Jorgensen Sr. and his wife, Florence Davis Hansen. She grew up in a crime-ridden area of the Bronx, New York City and described herself as having been a “frail, blond, introverted little boy who ran from fistfights and rough-and-tumble games”.

Jorgensen graduated from Christopher Columbus High School in 1945 and shortly afterwards was drafted into the US Army.

After being discharged from the army, Jorgensen attended Mohawk College in Utica, New York, the Progressive School of Photography in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School in New York City. She also worked briefly for Pathé News.

Sex reassignment surgery

Returning to New York after military service and increasingly concerned over (as one obituary later called it) a “lack of male physical development”, Jorgensen heard about sex reassignment surgery. She began taking the female hormone ethinyl estradiol and researching the surgery with the help of Dr. Joseph Angelo, the husband of a classmate at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School. Jorgensen intended to go to Sweden, where the only doctors in the world who performed the surgery were located. During a stopover in Copenhagen to visit relatives, she met Dr. Christian Hamburger, a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Jorgensen then stayed in Denmark and took hormone replacement therapy under Dr. Hamburger’s direction. She obtained special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of operations in that country.

On September 24, 1951, surgeons at Gentofte Hospital in Copenhagen performed an orchiectomy on Jorgensen. She referred to how the surgery affected her in a letter to friends on October 8, 1951:

“As you can see by the enclosed photos, taken just before the operation, I have changed a great deal. But it is the other changes that are so much more important. Remember the shy, miserable person who left America? Well, that person is no more and, as you can see, I’m in marvelous spirits.”

In November 1952, thirteen months after her first procedure, doctors at Copenhagen University Hospital performed a penectomy. In Jorgensen’s words, “My second operation, as the previous one, was not such a major work of surgery as it may imply.”

She then returned to the United States and eventually obtained a vaginoplasty when the procedure became available there. The vaginoplasty was performed under the direction of Dr. Angelo, with Harry Benjamin as a medical advisor.

Jorgensen chose the name Christine in honor of Dr. Hamburger. She became a spokesperson for transsexual and transgender people.

As a transgender spokesperson, Jorgensen entered the public eye. She influenced other transsexuals to change their sex on birth certificates and to change their names. Christine Jorgensen’s case is significant because for the first time, it led to complications over sex and science and the changing definition of sexuality. Gender was thought of as a set binary (where one could only be male or female) that was permanent, but Jorgensen questioned that stability. This case is an example of something that undid gender binaries that were thought to be permanent. Gender was not the set binary as people once thought of it, and doctors were redefining gender with the term “psychological sex”. This new “psychological sex” showed that psychologically, one might not relate to your biological sex. Jorgenson was an example of this; her sexuality was not a result of her biological sex. The question of what determined sex emerged, and the spectrum of sexuality identity included: chromosomes, genitalia, and body actions. This spectrum was not clear and people did not know whether chromosomes, genitalia, or body actions determined someone’s sex. Due to Jorgensen’s surgery, her definition of sexuality changed, and this led the public challenged to think about the definition of biological sex. The topic was overall complicated, as doctors tried to define and reclassify sexuality, but it did not come easily. For example, doctors tried to distinguish transexuality from transvestism and homosexuality, but at the same time also tried to decontextualize them to make it simpler for people to understand. Traditional gender norms were questioned, and Jorgensen reinforced what it meant to be a woman despite her original sexuality. She took on the notions of femininity. She saw herself as a founding member in what became known as the “sexual revolution.”


When the New York Daily News, December 1, 1952, carried a front-page story (under the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell”) announcing that Jorgensen had become the recipient of the first “sex change”, it caused a sensation. However, the claim that this was the first was not true, as this type of surgery had previously been performed by pioneering German doctors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Danish artist Lili Elbe and “Dorchen”, both patients of Magnus Hirschfeld at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin, were known recipients of such operations in 1930-31. What was different in Jorgensen’s case was the added prescription of female hormones.

Jorgensen was an instant celebrity when she returned to New York on February 13, 1953. The first authorized account of her story was written by Jorgenson herself in a February 1953 issue of The American Weekly, titled “The Story of My Life.” The publicity created a platform for her, and she used it to advocate for transgender people. New York radio host Barry Gray asked her if jokes such as “Christine Jorgensen went abroad, and came back a broad” bothered her. She laughed and said that they did not bother her at all. However, another encounter demonstrated that Jorgensen could be offended by some questions. When she appeared on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, the host asked an inappropriate and misguided question about the status of her romantic life with her “wife”, Jorgensen walked off the show’s set. As she was the only scheduled guest, Cavett spent the rest of that show stating that he had not meant to offend her.

Later life

After her vaginoplasty, Jorgensen planned to marry John Traub, a labor union statistician, but the engagement was called off. In 1959, she announced her engagement to Howard J. Knox, a typist, in Massapequa, New York, where her father had built her a house after her reassignment surgery. However, the couple was unable to obtain a marriage license because Jorgensen’s birth certificate listed her as male. In a report about the broken engagement, The New York Times noted that Knox had lost his job in Washington, D.C., when his engagement to Jorgensen became known.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Jorgensen toured university campuses and other venues to speak about her experiences. She was known for her directness and polished wit. She once demanded an apology from Spiro T. Agnew, the U.S. vice president, when he called another politician “the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party” (Agnew refused her request).

Jorgensen also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer, and recorded several songs. In summer stock, she played Madame Rosepettle in the play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. In her nightclub act, she sang several songs, including “I Enjoy Being a Girl”, and at the end made a quick change into a Wonder Woman costume. She later recalled that Warner Communications, owners of the Wonder Woman character’s copyright, demanded that she stop using the character; she did so and instead used a new character of her own invention, “Superwoman”, who was marked by the inclusion of a large letter S on her cape. Jorgensen continued her act, performing at Freddy’s Supper Club on the upper east side of Manhattan until at least 1982, when she performed twice in the Hollywood area: once at the Backlot Theatre, adjacent to the discothèque Studio One, and later at The Frog Pond restaurant. This performance was recorded and has been made available as an album on iTunes. In 1984, Jorgensen returned to Copenhagen to perform her show and was featured in Teit Ritzau’s Danish transsexual documentary film Paradiset er ikke til salg (Paradise Is Not for Sale).

Jorgensen said in 1989, the year of her death, that she had given the sexual revolution “a good swift kick in the pants”. She died of bladder and lung cancer four weeks short of her 63rd birthday.

Fanny Mills


Born in 1860, Fanny Mills was the daughter of English immigrants who settled near Sandusky, Ohio. She had a condition called Milroy disease, which restricts development of the lymph vessels in the legs and causes fluid build-up. Fanny was a petite woman who weighed but 115 pounds, yet she wore size 30 shoes, each pair made from three goat skins, with pillowcases as socks. Each foot was said to be 19 inches long and 7 inches wide, although photos clearly show that they were not the same size. Her exhibition career began in 1885, when she entered the museum circuit, accompanied by a nurse, Mary Brown. Brown helped Fanny move from place to place, as her large feet made walking very difficult. Fanny’s promoters offered $5000 and a “well-stocked farm” to anyone willing to marry the big-footed girl. Eventually she did marry, to William Brown, the brother of her assistant. When she came down with an unknown illness in 1892, she retired from showbusiness, returning to her family’s farm with her husband. She died the same year.

Milroy disease (or Nonne-Milroy disease) was first described in 1891 and causes many anomalies aside from lymphedema, including spinal cysts, yellow nails, double eyelashes and hearing loss. It is most common in women (70-80% of patients are female) and is an autosomal dominant trait.

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