'The Discovery of Jeanne Baret'

    • 51 posts
    September 30, 2012 9:18 AM BST

    I've just been reading a book which my son brought back from his holiday in the USA. It's called called, 'The Discovery of Jeanne Baret' by Glynnis Ridley, published in paperback by Broadway Books in 2011. Baret was a French woman who, between 1767 and 1775, became the first woman to circumnavigate the world. She went as assistant to her lover and associate, Commerson, who was the botanist on the voyage and, because women were banned from going on French ships, she undertook much of the voyage crossdressed as a man.
    Her true status came to light in Tahiti in 1768 when she was read by some natives. It seems that the reason for this was because, as in many traditional cultures gender variance was commonplace and actually seen as a positive thing to do and someone doing this was known as 'Mahu'. As Ridley puts it, 'Young men wishing to dress and behave as women would, after puberty, be integrated into the households of married women (other than their mothers) where they would assist with tasks typically undertaken by women, such as the care of children and care of children.' p. 167.
    From this, and other accounts of traditional and ancient cultures I've read about, gender variance has been known about, accepted and often celebrated since time began. The question for me then is, what are the forces in our culture which have led to the imposition of a binary gender model?


    The book is a fascinating account of Baret's life who overcame the barriers imposed by her gender and social class. I am full of admiration for her and in my opinion her story deserves to be more widely known.
    Best wishes,
    Nell x