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09 January 2019

Robert Gaffney (1872 - ?) janitor.

Gaffney was raised on a farm in a religious family, and was married at 17 to a boy of the same age. They rambled, hunted and fished together, which gave her experience of wearing trousers and other men’s clothing.

After ten years of marriage they split. Gaffney then became Robert A Gaffney, moved to Spokane, Washington and found work as a photographer, a house painter and a janitor.

In 1911 Gaffney met Margaret Hart, an abandoned wife with one child and another on the way. He offered to look after her until she was able to do so by herself. For the sake of appearances, they were married by a Justice of the Peace. It is not clear when and to what extent Margaret realized that Robert was not a regular man. He lost his temper when she brought up the issue.

They moved to Seattle. He was employed as a janitor, and worked his way up to head janitor with 5 men and 10 women working for him. He earned $90 a month.

Then Margaret became pregnant and gave birth again. Neighbors congratulated him on his third child, but he felt that Margaret had broken their agreement. He disappeared, cycling all the way to California.

This left Mrs Gaffney and her three children destitute. The charity she turned to filed a charge under the 1913 “Lazy Husband” Act of Washington State.

Robert worked for a while in California, but then, being unemployed, he returned to Seattle, where he was arrested for abandoning his wife, and sentenced to hard labor (for which his wife would be paid $1.50 a day), which he did not care to do. All he had to do was to proclaim himself a woman, and
Newspaper cartoon implying
Margaret did not previously
know.  Skidmore p152.
dress in women’s clothes. He did so and was quickly released.

There was no law in Washington State nor in Seattle against cross-dressing. However his and Margaret’s marriage was declared void. The press went easy on both: Robert had stepped in to help a woman in distress; they accepted Margaret’s claim that she did not really know about Robert’s sex until the trial.

Gaffney said the required things about being a real woman, and wouldn't dress as a man again, despite still walking and looking like a man in women’s clothes, and having forgotten how to to cook, and how to sew. The best janitorial job that could be obtained now paid only $30 a month.

Gaffney left Seattle. A few months later, a reporter from the Seattle Star was invited to take an interview where he explained himself.  Gaffney pointed to his female dress: “It stands for all the follies of convention that makes men free and women slaves”.

Then Gaffney disappeared again.
  • “Story of Woman ‘Father’ of Family”: ‘Mr.’ Gaffney Tells How ‘He’ Came to Woo, Win and Marry ‘Margaret’”. The Daily Capital Journal, Feb 19, 1916. Online.
  • “Find ‘Lazy Husband’ In Reality Is Woman”. Tacoma Times, Feb 19, 1916. Online.
  • “Woman is ‘Man’ for 18 years”. Rogue River Courier, Feb 20, 1916. Online.
  • “She Longs for the Mental, Economic Freedom of Pants”. Seattle Star, Sept 7, 1916. Online.
  • Emily Skidmore. True Sex: The Lives of Trans men at the turn of the 20th Century. New York University Press, 2017: 150-6.
  • Kerry Segrave. ‘Masquerading in Male Attire”: Women Passing as Men in America, 1844-1920. McFarland Publishing, 2018: 193-5.
  • “100 years ago in Seattle: After 4 years of marriage, wife discovers husband she married in Spokane was a woman”. The Spokesman, January 08, 2019. Online

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