The amazing life of Mademoiselle Chevalier D’eon - an intersex trans woman, spy, soldier, ambassador and professional fencer. 5th October, 1728 – 21st May, 1810.
Source: National Portrait Gallery
Chevalier D’Eon is one of the most amazing figures of the 18th century Europe. The National Portrait Gallery houses a gorgeous portrait of her and the V&A has an extensive collection of original 18th century engravings of the mademoiselle.
Born into an impoverished aristocratic French family, D’eon was raised as a boy and lived the first part of her life as a man but always possesed androgynous features and often dressed as female in public. She excelled at school as a kid, started publishing original literary works from the age of 21 and joined a secret network of spies called the Secret du Roi in 1756. It was during one of her missions as a spy that she started to live several years of her life as a woman while undercover. D’eon first came to London as a french soldier and ambassador from 1762-1777 to help negotiate the Peace of Paris, which ended the Seven Years' War. Before that she spent years in Russia as an undercover agent and successfully infiltrated the royal court of Catherine the Great as one of her favourite maids of honour.
As a reward for her involvement in ending the Seven Years' Wars she recieved the Croix de St Louis, one of the highest military honours in France at the time. Despite this, d’Eon refused to return to France when recalled. Instead, she published several works revealing the widespread corruption of the french crown and blackmailed king Louis XVI. Why did she do it? She, rightfully, demanded that the french monarchy had to recognize her as a woman, claiming she was born as female all along and that it was her father that raised her as a boy so to claim his in-laws inheritance. Furthermore, she fully expected to receive her well deserved pension and keep military awards regardless (You go, girl!)
And she won, in 1775 the King made unprecedented conditions for her to receive her pension and ordered that D’eon had henceforth to live and dress as a woman. Sadly she was forbidden to participate in french politics and the military again, which stopped her from getting involved in the United States War of independence despite her wish to support the American Revolutionaries. In 1779, d'Éon published a book of her memoirs: La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d'Éon.
She then spent the rest of her days amongst London’s society from 1786-1810. She was politically active and gave several fencing demonstrations across Britain until she was badly wounded in Southampton in 1786.
Despite constant speculation of her gender, which also resulted in a public trial, she was ultimately recognised as a woman. That was also because the stereotype of a woman dressing as a man to join the army, often in pursuit of her sweetheart was widely recognised in 18th century europe. She was well liked by contemporary artists, writers and by the british public. Her unique story made her one of the most. While in London she continued to publish several books and treaties about her life, military administration, and the french government. She also spent the later years of her life cohabiting with a widow, Mrs. Cole.
Initially she was a supporter of the French Revolution but that changed when the royal family was executed. In 1792, d'Éon even sent a letter to the French National Assembly offering to lead a division of female soldiers against the Habsburgs, but unfortunately the offer was rebuffed. Furthermore,Her pension was also cut as the monarchy collapsed and most of her inheritance was then requisitioned. D'Éon then became paralyzed following a fall, and spent a final four years bedridden, dying in poverty in London on 21 May 1810 at the age of 81.
Despite her unfortunate end, D’eon was also upheld by contemporary pioneering feminists such as Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft as an example of female fortitude to which British women might aspire. She also was one of the few trans women in history that shared her life and experience with the society of her days and that left to posterity several first hand accounts of her incredible life as a spy diplomat and badass fencer. We stan!