Chevalier d’Eon. A Forgotten pioneer – William Rogers

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Histories of sexuality emerged dramatically towards the end of the twentieth century with historical figures’ sexuality emerging into greater public attention. Stories of Alexander the Great, Wilfred Owen and Alan Turing showed that many major figures struggled with societal pressures and laws, yet the story of Chevalier d’Eon is often forgotten, despite presenting one of the most amazing stories in history. Due to the troubles of the period and historical problems, assigning pronouns can be problematic, yet I shall use he to describe events until 1771 when he stated that he was actually a female.

Born in central France in 1728, d’Eon was a French diplomat who appeared publicly as a man, yet spent 4 years spying in the Russian court of Elizabeth of Russia, disguised as a woman. Following his death, his autopsy revealed that he had a perfectly formed masculine body, yet there were also many feminine characteristics, meaning that he has subsequently been described as androgynous. 

D’Eon fought during the Seven Years’ War as a dragoon in the French army, yet following the war people around Europe started to suspect that he was actually a woman. D’Eon was a successful diplomat who negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and a military hero, yet the eighteenth century was not a period of great sexual tolerance, so his true self, like so many figures in history, may never have actually been seen. 

The issue is also fascinating for historians, especially those of gender and sexuality, since one can analyse his political status as a man, a woman, and an androgynous person, a rare perspective throughout history. In 1771, d’Eon stated that she was female, claiming that that was the gender she had been assigned from birth, and lived as a woman from 1777 until her death in 1810. 

D’Eon has always presented an interesting narrative for early-modern historians. He represents a figure who held military and political power, despite questions over his gender, sexuality and relationships. Many figures, such as David Bowie, Marilyn Manson and Prince, have androgynous features which have been accepted by society. This trailblazing position is often forgotten by the public, yet Edmund Burke described him as the, “most extraordinary person of the age”, demonstrating his prestige amongst historians. Other feminists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, have used him as what female figures are capable of doing, even if they have to use male characteristics to gain their status. This can be seen as women using their intelligence, even in a deeply patriarchal society, to gain political influence, a fact that Voltaire emphasized greatly.

The overall question remains about d’Eon, his place in society, and his place in history. We will never know the truth about d’Eon, his sexuality, his pronouns, and his gender. However, public historians must investigate and publicize his role and legacy as an androgynous, potentially transgender, figure in a world which did not except this sort of lifestyle. A truly inspiring figure who deserves a greater place in public knowledge.