Trivia Time: Rebecca and her Daughters

In honor of North Carolina and a whole host of conservative states manufacturing an issue around trans people peeing in the bathroom that best suits the gender they live in, we bring you a special trivia time where we look at the real historic dangers of cross dressing men, Rebecca and her Daughters.

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The scene is Wales and the year is 1842. Wales has been, even down to this day, a reluctant and uneasy part of the English crown. The list of Anglo-Welsh wars and Welsh uprising spans over a thousand years and you can find websites dedicated to Welsh independence even today.

The issue in 1842 was a combination of dropping agricultural prices and static rents, taxes and tolls on Welsh farmers, causing many poor farmers to become even poorer. So one night a huge man by the name of Thomas Reese approached the tollgate at Yr Efail Wen in Carmarthenshire in woman’s clothes. He claimed to be Rebecca and demanded to be let through the toll booth to see his children. When refused, he attacked the guards and destroyed the gate. The Rebecca Riots had begun.

Historians often state that the name Rebecca was drawn from the bible. Genesis 24:60 “And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.” Local legend however, insists that Rebecca was the name of the woman to which the dress in question had belonged. There is no evidence for this assertion and we may never know.

At any rate the Merched Becca, which translates as Rebecca’s Daughters, continued Thomas’s work throughout 1842 and into 1843. They would approach toll booths dressed as woman and with blackened faces. Sometimes they would pretend to be blind old woman and then pretend to be surprised to find the toll booth in their way. They would smash them and riot.

The riots were put down in 1843 by an increased military presence in the region. However in the aftermath of the riots, there was a commission and the Turnpike Act of 1844, which improved road conditions and made the tolls fairer. Toll booths all but disappeared over the next hundred years and the movement became little more than a foot note in history, and an interesting piece of trivia.

But why did they cross dress?

It makes sense that peasants planning to commit acts of sabotage would want a disguise. But women’s clothing might seem an odd choice to modern readers.

One possible answer lies in the ancient Welsh Ceffyl Pren, or wooden horse. The wooden horse was used to punish men who had transgressed the morality of the time by beating their wives, fathering bastard children or being unfaithful. The men were strapped to the wooden horse and dragged through the village to be ridiculed and scorned by all.

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What does the Ceffyl Pren have to do with cross dressing? It was customary for the judges who oversaw the trial and punishment to wear women’s clothes and blacken their faces. This makes a certain sense in context, they are administering punishment in the name of women in most of these cases, so they symbolically take on that role. Perhaps Rebecca and her daughters meant to shame the English for their rape of the Welsh countryside and abuse of her lands?

Or perhaps it was like the masquerade masks the nobles often wore to balls. They aren’t much of a disguise to modern eyes, but they weren’t meant to be. They meant merely to give others a degree of plausible deniability, an easy way to pretend you don’t know who that man or woman really is. One can imagine a group of Welsh farmers shrugging at the local constable and saying, “Don’t know, it was some woman that did it.”

Yet another explanation lies in medieval carnivals. Carnival days were often celebrated by groups like the “Abbeys of Misrule.” The men in these groups cross dressed, went by names like “princess” and “dame.” They mocked the powers that be and hypocrisy, all from the safety of their disguise. Authorities tended to look the other way, a once yearly carnival was an easy release valve for tensions that might otherwise turn into revolution or rebellion.

What does this have to do with transgender people?

Nothing, at least not directly. Rebecca and her daughters were not trans people. There is no evidence that they continued any sort of cross gender behavior outside of the revolt. There may well have been a few trans people who lived their whole year waiting for that one carnival day when they could truly be themselves, but overall the carnival princesses have more in common with the drag queens of today, more a performance than an identity.

And yet, as Leslie Feinberg point out in Transgender Warriors, the whole notion of men cross dressing to perform acts of rebellion is a far cry from modern stereotypes of crossdressers or trans people. Leslie goes on to point out that even those these people weren’t transgender, we can draw some pride in the fact they choose violating gender norms as a way to show their strength, not as something to be ashamed of.

What does this have to do with the bathroom bills?

Again, nothing. But it might be a lot of fun, the next time some conservative is sharing unrealistic fears of what might happen if trans people are allowed to pee in peace, to remind them that historically speaking, Welsh peasants wrecking up the joint is one of the possibilities.

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