The Chevalière d’Éon

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Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, or the Chevalière d’Éon for short, was a French writer, soldier, spy, diplomat, fencing instructor, and subject of contentious betting pools on the topic of her sex. Her title ‘chevalière’ – the French word for knight and a shortening of ‘chevalier des ordres du Roi’ – was awarded after she drafted the peace treaty that ended the Seven Years’ War between France and England. Political warfare at court left her stranded in England, but she was able to negotiate a return in exchange for keeping some of the secrets she had learned as a spy to herself. However, she named as a condition that she be recognized as a woman, claiming that her parents had disguised her as a man for inheritance reasons; the French government agreed, on the condition that she wear women’s clothing. They even offered her money for a new wardrobe.

The latter part of d’Éon’s life passed in relative peace. She taught fencing and competed in tournaments for a living. Although she offered to go to war on multiple occasions she was rebuffed every time. Upon her death her body was examined and pronounced anatomically male.

D’Éon’s story is typically told with the understanding that she was a man who dressed as a woman for political reasons; to that end, male pronouns, including chevalier (the male form of chevalière), are employed. This post uses female pronouns for her because they were the ones she employed in her ghostwritten memoir, and because she repeatedly insisted that she was a woman. However, as with all deceased persons who left records that do not flawlessly map onto the present understanding of sexuality and gender, other interpretations – including some form of genderqueerness or gender fluidity – are possible.

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