Always dressed as a man, hiding her real gender and openly challenging the status quo of the period, Enriqueta Favez practiced medicine in Cuba ...
Always dressed as a man, hiding her real gender and openly challenging the status quo of the period, Enriqueta Favez practiced medicine in Cuba and went as far as to marry a local young woman, Juana de León, until she was brought to trial and submitted to a physical examination that confirmed the big suspicion: she was a woman.
Por andar vestida de hombre (For Dressing as a Man) is the title of the most recent publication by Cuban historian and professor at the University of Havana, Dr. Julio César González Pagés, who for more than a decade followed the steps of the polemical woman, moved by his desire to restore the true story that marked the course and actions of the transvestite doctor.
The life of Favez, born in Switzerland in 1791, was intense and fascinating, and although she was physically born a woman, she identified herself and lived as a man.
After becoming a widow at 18, with the support of a relative she dressed as a man and qualified as a medical doctor. She enrolled in Napoleon’s army, immigrated to America, practiced her profession in Cuba, fell in love and married a Cuban woman – Juana de León – in open defiance of the Catholic Church, and confronted the colonial authorities when she was put on trial until she was expelled from the Island.
Her sin consisted in hiding her true gender, getting her own way against the codes of the period, which restricted women’s role to bearing children and to the home.
Cubanow obtained some considerations and evaluations concerning this new publication by the author of Macho Varón Masculino (Macho Male Masculine) during the text’s launching by Editorial de la Mujer (Woman’s Publishers) in the Cuban capital. At the meeting Dr. González Pagés stated:
“This city expelled Favez because she was a different woman. She was a very unique woman about whom little is said. Immigrant, practicing a profession denied to women and lesbian: those were sufficient elements to condemn her in those days. However, they couldn’t try her for that; there was no legislation in the Cuba of colonial times that envisioned this case. In the records of the Cuban National Archive it appears that they indicted her ‘for dressing as a man;’ that’s why the book bears that title. At a certain moment during the trial, Enriqueta admits that she is a woman, but despite this, the epoch’s morbid curiosity causes them to take her to some doctors to verify it.
“This woman deserved a story about her life just as she lived it. That’s why we visited her home in Switzerland; the house still exists. We are striving to make her part of the history of that country. When the Swiss talk about William Tell we want them to talk about Enriqueta Favez, too. Because she really is the Swiss Joan of Arc, a woman who crossed more than twelve countries dressed as a man; fought with Napoleon’s army in Russia, Germany and Spain; studied medicine dressed as a man at the Sorbonne in Paris; traveled to Guadeloupe and to Cuba and became a surgeon.
“In the early decades of the 19th century, there were only three doctors in the eastern zone of Cuba, and Favez was the only ‘surgeon;’ everybody wanted to be his/her patient. She looked after persons with no means and also cared for the black population. She was really a very transgressing woman in everything she did, and that’s why I think it was important to reclaim her, the course of her life.
“The book for me is important because it is also an attempt to change the knowledge of History. We have traditionally taught a History of men; the books we have on women are not included in this discipline. If we don’t change the concept of History and include women like this one in it, I’m sure that few people are going to change this manner of approaching the past.
“I think it’s very difficult to be a woman all the time in a male chauvinistic society, and our society still has a lot of male chauvinistic backwardness. That’s why all of us who believe in these themes are joined in a crusade against male chauvinism that is not a mere slogan. If we really want to be a society of the future and a sustainable one, we must change many of our precepts, which are to be found in literature, in science, in the street and in almost all places where people who think differently are looked at with distrust, distrust that also puts men on the fringes when they don’t only wear men’s clothes; it also happens the other way around.
“We have to profit from the past. Beyond the History we are making, we are always repeating mistakes from the past. At present, the right sought by Enriqueta Favez, which is the right to marriage for couples of the same gender, is not institutionalized in Cuba.
”I would be very pleased if the book would also help to analyze all these issues that are still unsolved, because there are times when we think they belong to the past and feel superior in the contemporary epoch; that’s why I hope readers will enjoy the book.”
The author of Por andar vestida de hombre also admitted there’s a film project on the Swiss doctor’s life based on the book. Similarly, outstanding Cuban dancer Irene Rodríguez’ company of Spanish dance will create a piece with this storyline. “With it I hope that Enriqueta Favez will be present in Havana’s Gran Teatro visualized through dance,” remarked Pagés.
Enriqueta Favez died in 1856 in New Orleans at the age of 65. Hurricane Katrina followed the same route as Favez through the Caribbean and finally took away the tomb with her remains, but the author had previously visited it.
Translated by Olimpia Esperanza Sigarroa Santamarina
Revised by CF Ray