Marks on the Body
Dr. James Barry, stretch marks and politics creating a pregnancy
Warning: this post includes discussions of the supposed sexual assault of a child, childbirth, and pregnancy. It also includes an in-depth discussion of material that purposefully misgenders and biologically essentializes Barry while also perpetuating the forced feminizes of trans and masculine-presenting people. I have tried to discuss these topics while also adhering to the name and pronouns Barry chose and used for himself as best I can but this topic, by its nature, runs counter to that.
Shortly after Doctor James Barry died of a long and difficult illness his body was stripped naked and examined, most likely by the owner of the boarding house where he had been living and her maid. This examination was conducted against the express wishes Barry had made known during his life. Certain details about his body were then made publicly known, namely that he had been assigned female at birth.
For someone who had lived over fifty years as a man, this was quite the claim to make so the argument for his "womanhood" was backed up with certain details including stretchmarks, claimed to be from a pregnancy, that had been observed on Barry's stomach after his death.
These marks on Barry's body may or may not have been there, to begin with. They may or may not have been stretch marks and if they were we have no idea what caused them. According to the American Academy of Dermatology stretch marks can be caused by sudden growth, suddenly gaining or losing weight, gaining muscle mass, and certain genetic conditions, as well as pregnancy. So the existence of stretch marks alone is not particularly conclusive proof of pregnancy.
The idea that Barry might have given birth also did not play a large role in the 19th-century myth-making around Barry's life. "The Reputed Female Army Surgeon" by Edward Bradford published as a letter to the editor in the Medical Times and Gazette in 1865 includes no mention of Barry having a child and neither does the "A Female Member of the Army Medical Staff" published in 1895 in The Lancet.
Yet now the idea that Barry gave birth is not only taken as fact but considered an integral part of his story.
June Rose in her 1977 biography of Dr. James Barry not only gave credence to the idea he gave birth but hypothesized that he did so in 1819 before his 1820 arrival in Cape Town. Although he would have, at that point, been a young, active duty officer without much privacy so the idea that he would have been able to conceal a pregnancy and childbirth seems unlikely. In her book Rose also did not point to any historical documentation to support this claim.
The 1984 play, Barry: a Personal Statement, written by Fredrick Mohr, includes a scene where the young James Barry prepares to give birth. As Heilmann points out, Mohr uses young Barry's impending birth as a symbol of not only his 'feminine' identity but also his personal openness as he invites the audience to view him as he truly is; a woman, rather than his male identity which ultimately, in the play, only leads him to loneliness, toxicity and bitterness.
Similarly, the 1988 play Colours by Jean Binnie uses the image of Barry as a pregnant young woman to not only enforce Barry's 'true' gender but also Barry's heterosexuality. In the play, Barry's pregnancy comes after he has carried out sexual relationships with three of his (much older) mentors David Erskine, General Miranda, and Arthur Wellesley. Barry's embracing of his pregnant body is meant to show us Barry's 'real nature'; that of a cisgender, heterosexual woman. In their novel The Secret Life of James Miranda Barry (2000) Anne and Ivan Ktonenfeld depict Barry becoming pregnant by General Miranda's son when Barry's 'natural womanly instinct' to rear children becomes too much for him to suppress any longer.
The artist Rowena Hall also imagined Barry as a heavily pregnant cisgender woman, belly protruding from 'her' military jacket in order to "readjust the way the female body was historically represented" in her 2009 art series “History Bearing.” While the medical history podcast Sawbones claimed in 2017 that there was significant historical evidence that Barry had given birth and cited that fact as part of their argument for why they were unwilling to represent Barry as unequivocally a man as if the act of giving birth somehow counteracted his male identity.
Barry's Wikipedia page also includes this passage as part of their early history of Barry's life "A third child appeared in the Bulkley family and was named Juliana. Although presented as being Barry's sister, it is likely that she was Barry's daughter as a result of childhood sexual assault, as the charwoman who discovered Barry's sex when laying out the body stated that pregnancy stretch marks were present."
Wikipedia's claim, and mostly likely Sawbones's, are taken directly from the book Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time in which Jeremy Dronfield and Michael du Preez argue that Barry did give birth to a child after being sexually assaulted by his uncle, Raymond Barry, at about thirteen years old.
The child that was eventually born, Dronfield and du Preez claim, was passed off by Barry's parents as his sister, Julianna, in order to hide the fact that the birth and sexual assault had happened at all. Dronfield and du Preez use two footnotes for this passage neither one lead to a historical document backing up their theory. In fact, Dronfield and Du Preez cite no historical sources to support this argument.
(the only two footnotes Dronfield and du Preez provide for their argument that Barry was gave birth to a child after being sexually assaulted. Note neither footnote reference any historical source material)
The remaining documentation from Barry's family during this period actively contradict this argument though. For instance, Barry and his mother were thrown out of the house by Barry's father at the exact time that Barry would have been pregnant, and forced to live with various relatives. This would have been an unusual reaction for parents trying to cover up the fact that their extremely young daughter had been sexually assaulted. There is also no mention in the historical record of Barry being ill, sent away or confined during this period, which would have been more typical actions for the Bulkley family to have taken in order to cover up an out of wedlock pregnancy. Later that same year Mary Anne Bulkley, Barry's mother, wrote her brother to tell him and she and Barry had been allowed to come back home when her husband had 'made up his mind forgive her' although she did not include what she had done in the first place. Given this documentation it is, I think more likely that Julianna was, as she is referred to in all existing primary source material, Barry's sister, not his daughter. As Anne Heilmann writes in her book, if there was sexual misconduct involved in the estrangement of Barry's parents it was likely that Mary Anne, Barry's mother, had an affair, rather then Barry being sexually assaulted as a child.
Dronfield and du Preez use the story of Barry's sexual assault and pregnancy in order to play into the modern, homophobic and transphobic, theory that people assigned female at birth identity as male or masculine presenting because of childhood sexual trauma. This particularly evident in how they are careful to point out that Barry's supposed pregnancy and sexual assault left marks on his minds as well as his body. As well as Dronfield and du Preez portrayal of Barry as mentally and emotionally unstable throughout the book, due to Barry's resistance to conform to his 'true' feminine nature.
While the idea that Barry gave birth at some point in his life was not invented by 20th-century writers it seems evident that the importance currently placed on this detail is in fact modern. Unlike 19th century writers, 20th and 21st authors have to reckon directly with a society that has language and a systematic structure for recognizing gender variance and transgender identity. Barry through is actions, life and words clearly place himself within a (trans) male identity but 20th and 21st-century authors have been largely concerned with identifying him as purely a cisgender woman. In order to do this, they have most often focused on feminizing him and his actions, such as giving him the name Miranda and placing a greater emphasis on the details of his physical body. The idea that Barry was at one point pregnant has been used by authors of both fiction and nonfiction to more securely assign him a female identity. On top of this authors like Dronfield, du Preez, and Mohr have created narratives that portrays a feminized version of Barry as being natural and normal while portraying Barry's male identity as unhealthy, self-destructive, deceitful and a symptom of mental trauma. Using the image of Barry's pregnant body, along with other feminizing gestures, these authors seek to rewrite Barry's life and the narrative of historical gender to conform to purely modern ideas of correctly gendered bodies.
The June Rose Collection of papers re Dr. James Barry, Inspector General of Hospitals held by the Wellcome Library https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b18276556#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=3&z=-0.8194%2C-0.1467%2C2.6387%2C1.6575
The Perfect Gentleman by June Rose (1977)
Neo-/Victorian Biographilia and James Miranda Barry: A Study in Transgender and Transgenre by Ann Heliman (2018)
James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield (2016)
Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of Queen Victoria's Most Eminent Military Doctor by Rachel Holmes (2002)
"The Reputed Female Army Surgeon" by Edward Bradford. published as a letter to the editor in the Medical Times and Gazette in 1865 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044103089074&view=1up&seq=379
"A Female Member of the Army Medical Staff" by George A. Bright, MD. published October 12, 1895, as a letter to the editor of The Lancet, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/issue/vol146no3763/PIIS0140-6736(00)X3279-5
James Barry (surgeon) Wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Barry_(surgeon)
Sawbones: Dr. James Barry https://www.maximumfun.org/sawbones/sawbones-dr-james-barry
Rowena Hall "History Bearing" (2009) http://www.rowenahall.com/category/portfolio/history-bearing/
"Stretch marks: Why they appear and how to get rid of them" American Academy of Dermatology https://www.aad.org/public/skin-hair-nails/skin-care/stretch-marks