Open a mainstream fashion magazine and what do you see? Lithe and lovely ladies, plucked bare and shaven smooth. For decades women have been told that their body hair is unclean and their facial hair unfeminine. We have been told to shave our beards—both the beard above and the beard below—for the sake of conforming to cultural norms and pleasing the male gaze.
Over the centuries, bearded women have held complex meanings. The medieval world sanctified them, in part because their facial hair brought them closer to “masculine perfection.” Later centuries debased them, accused them of stealing male power, objectified them as medical curiosities, and paraded them as freaks. Here in the twenty-first century, intersectional feminists and queer sisters are reclaiming the beard as an expression of self-love and feminine beauty beyond the binary.
Bearded Female Sanctity
According to medieval medical theory, the bearded woman was a virago—a woman so physically active that she produced enough vital heat to build muscles and grow body hair, just like a man. Closer to Aristotelian “male perfection,” she no longer produced a superfluity of blood and therefore didn’t menstruate. Was she strong? Yes, but her strength came from her proximity to maleness, which was outwardly manifested in her embodiment.
In medieval religious culture, the meaning of the bearded woman was far more convoluted. In the Carolingian period, the Virgin Mary was depicted with a beard as a sign of her strength, authority, and spiritual purity (Bynum). This paradigm is echoed in the fourteenth-century tale of Saint Wilgefortis.
Once upon a time, as the story goes, there was a beautiful Christian princess whose father promised her in marriage to a pagan king. To avoid the marriage, she consecrated her virginity to Christ, prayed that she be made ugly, and suddenly grew a beard. Repulsed, the pagan king bowed out of the marriage contract. Wilgefortis’ father crucified her for claiming authority over her own body and soul, and she was finally free.
Wilgefortis’ beard was a physical manifestation of her spiritual purity and her courage to contradict her father’s corrupt demands. Her iconography, both beard and crucifixion, bound her directly with Christ, who was himself seen as both father and mother, male and female. Nuns married Christ the bridegroom, and through ardent prayer came closer to his masculine perfection. For example, during a moment of mystical union, Lutgardis of Aywières ruptured a vein, soaked her tunic with blood, and never again menstruated, thereby transgressing her earthly female embodiment. At the same time, medieval monks called upon Jesus as Mother while cultivating his feminine qualities in themselves, sometimes calling each other sisters (Bynum). The spiritual culture that gave birth to Wilgefortis was one of gender flexibility; she might be seen as a sanctified creature of strength that slid along the binary toward the divine.
The sanctified bearded woman would have been equally familiar to medieval alchemists, who were fascinated with the transmutation of substances. In the modern world, the practice of alchemy is most often associated with the production of gold from base metal. The pure-hearted alchemist’s true goal, however, was the creation of the philosopher’s stone, which could cure illness and grant eternal life. In order to create this perfect substance, male and female elements had to be fused into a single entity, or Rebis, that was at once both genders and yet neither—a hint at non-binary perfection (DeVun).
The Female Beard Debased
The Early modern period was not one of tolerance. While it was a time of danger for all women, it was particularly perilous for those who lived independent lives in the sight of hateful patriarchies eager to assert their dominance. Following the dictum that “rebellion is the sin of witchcraft” (1 Samuel 15:23), some strong willed women were sent to the stake or the gallows. Others were mocked in misogynistic literature, including Lording Barry’s Ram Alley, or Merry Tricks (1608), a set of tales featuring liberated women who don beards. In the seventeenth century, male beards were fetishized as a symbol of masculine power (Johnston). Women were meant to be beardless—save for the “beard below,” a locus of male pleasure and reproduction. For a woman to don a beard was to steal masculine authority and threaten patriarchal order. To her to grow one made her at best curiosity or wonder, and at worst a monstrosity “against nature.”
In the following centuries, the bearded woman was further debased as a medical curiosity. She was probed and tested by male physicians who wanted to find the cause of her female facial fur. Much of their research focused on her reproductive capacity. Were her genitals normal? Could she bear children through her lower beard?
Soon, the bearded lady would move from the medical clinic to the circus—from one freak show to another. In the tightly-corseted and binary-gendered world of the nineteenth-century, bearded women such as Grace Gilbert, Annie Jones, and Julia Pastrana were collected from their homes and sent on tour as oddities. The red-bearded Gilbert claimed to have found a sort of freedom in being displayed. Pastrana, on the other hand, lived a life of near solitude as she traveled around Europe, hidden by veils. Billed as the “ugliest woman in the world” and an “ape woman,” even her humanity was stripped from her. She died in childbirth, after which she and her infant were mummified and put on display in traveling curiosity exhibits. She was finally laid to rest in her town in 2013—153 years after her harrowing death.
Beautiful Beards beyond the Binary
In the counter-cultural revolution of the mid-twentieth century, second-wave feminists reclaimed their bodies from the male gaze and gloried in the natural, unshaven beauty of womanhood. These “furry feminists” laid the groundwork for the current struggle against patriarchal oppression—one that moves beyond women’s rights and women’s bodies to include all bodies in search of intersectional justice beyond the gender binary. Harnaam Kaur, for example, embraces her beard as an extension of her essential being, sacred and whole. She is not “stealing male power.” Her beard is a sign of self-love and beauty—a power unto itself. While Kaur sees her beard as part of her womanhood, Mariam doesn’t see her beard as tied to either maleness or femaleness. Mariam’s body and beard are beyond the gender binary.
Across the infinite gender spectrum, queer beards abound. Individuals in states of transition and flux do not have to conform to ossified gender identities, but are free to exist in whatever form is natural to them. Glorious darkling night moths and day-dappled butterflies, each is unique, each free to fly.
Consider the non-binary beauty of bearded queens such as Mathu Andersen, Conchita Wurst, and LaQuisha St. Redfern. A native of New Zealand, LaQuisha identifies as non-binary and walks in beauty. She performs on stage, creates space-themed art, and advocates for queer rights. She also reads stories to children at her local library during Pride so that they will have non-binary role models.
Bearded women redefining the feminine, queering the beard beyond the binary. The modern-day Wilgefortis doesn’t aspire towards male “perfection,” doesn’t need divine sanction. Both genders and yet neither, she is wondrously whole unto herself—the Rebis of medieval alchemy, the philosopher’s stone at last.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
DeVun, Leah. “The Jesus Hermaphrodite: Science and Sex Difference in Pre-Modern Europe,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 69:2 (2008), 193-218.
Friesen, Ilse. The Female Crucifix:Images of Wilgefortis since the Middle Ages. (Ontario: Wilfred Laurier Press, 2001).
Johnston, Mark Albert. Beard Fetish in Early Modern England. (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2011).