Catalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World and Queer Theory

by Katie Leonard

Final Assignment

English 341 Gender and Sexuality in American Literature - Professor Laura Arnold


In this paper I will explore Catalina de Erauso's autobiography - the story of a seventeenth-century Basque nun turned soldier of fortune - using the methodology of Queer Theory. Originating with Michel Foucault, Queer Theory studies the ways in which alternate sexualities are clinicized, stigmatized, and presented as "deviations" in order to reinforce the norm of heterosexuality. Catalina de Erauso's life seems superficially to seriously question heterosexuality, but in her seventeenth-century context, her chosen lifestyle and behavior definitely works to reinforce rather than provide alternatives to heterosexuality. 

Click here for a review and synopsis of Lieutenant Nun by William Douglass  
I. Methodological introduction - Queer Theory

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume One: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990 

I will be using the methodology of Queer Theory to study Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, the life of Catalina de Erauso. Queer theory is a body of cultural analysis building on the work of Michel Foucault, who argued in his Introduction to the History of Sexuality that, rather than becoming more repressed and secretive about sexuality, Western culture has in the last three hundred years created an enormous discourse about sex. This discourse has served to make sex into a locus of power relations, based on ideas about normalcy and perversion. In light of this discourse, sexuality is not a "natural" category but a social one:            

Sexuality must not be described as a stubborn drive, by nature alien and of neccessity disobedient to a power which exhausts itself trying to subdue it . . . It appears rather as an especially dense transfer point for relations of power. (Foucault 103)            

The result of this discourse has been to transfer sexuality from activities to identities -- that is, a person no longer practices sodomy but is identified as a homosexual: first by doctors and psychologists, as a category of illness, and later by the individual, as a matter of pride and personal identity. (In much the same way, the term "queer" has developed from a pejorative or euphemistic term for homosexuality into a term of pride and a shorthand for an entire cultural perspective.) 


Monique Wittig, “One Is Not Born a Woman.” In Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, eds, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1993)

Queer theorists in the late twentieth century have developed new frameworks for thinking about sexuality, based on the premise that in every age, sexuality (including sexual activity, gender roles and sexual identity) is not natural but constructed. Lesbian theorist Monique Wittig, among others, extended the idea of sexual construction from the social to the political and economic arenas: in her view, heterosexuality not only orders society but is one of the ways in which women are actively oppressed. She writes that "the category 'woman' as well as the category 'man' are political and economic categories, not eternal ones." (Wittig 106)            

Wittig's work follows Foucault's, and both would agree that heterosexuality in the modern world is a political and economic system of power relations. Because heterosexuality (as an institution) takes its power from enforcing a definition of normalcy, "perversions" or aberrations from the norm might be read as resistance or subversion. Foucault would argue that the very construction of queer identities is a function of the power system, and that self-consciously constructing oneself as a lesbian simply reifies the clinical category of "lesbian" that was originally constructed as a way to enforce heterosexual femininity. Wittig seems to acknowledge that, since homosexual identities were first constructed as a means of oppression, using them in the name of resistance can be difficult. She argues, however, that since lesbians have historically been derided (and persecuted) as "unwomanly," the identity of lesbian offers the only real escape from the heterosexual power system.

Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. (New York and London: Routledge, 1992) Marjorie Garber, a queer theorist who studies transvestitism, follows Wittig's argument in a more academic, less personal/political mode. Garber writes that "cross-dressing . . . offers a challenge to easy notions of binarity, putting into question the categories of 'female' and 'male,' whether they are considered essential or constructed, biological or cultural." (Garber 10) She describes how the transvestite has often been described in terms of a "third sex," and goes on to discuss the analytical power of the third, in a binary system:            

The third is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a space of possibility. Three puts in question the idea of one: of identity, self-sufficiency, self-knowledge. . . . [the third] reconfigures the relationships between the original pair, and puts into question identities previously conceived as stable, unchallengeable, grounded, and "known." (Garber 13)            

Summarizing the work of Foucault, Wittig, and Garber, then, we understand gender and sexuality as a system of constructions, which create unequal balances of social, economic and political power between different people -- differences which are then naturalized as individual "identitities." In the context of oppression, however, those identities can be used as locations of resistance or subversion. I hope to use these theories to understand the cultural and political meaning of the life of Catalina de Erauso, the seventeenth-century Basque nun turned conquistador and hellraiser. Erauso's autobiography provides a unique opportunity to expore whether these theories about the meanings and uses of gender identity have meaning in the pre-modern era. In particular, I am interested in the extent to which Erauso's actions are subversive of heterosexuality.


Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” in Abelove, Barale, and Helperin, eds, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader

Queer theory holds a personal interest for me, stemming from the day that I read Adrienne Rich's article on "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." On first reading I was alternately intrigued, baffled and incensed by what I read. Rich discussed the ways in which heterosexuality operates more as a tool of oppression than a natural expression of the biological ways men and women interact. Her theoretical position posed a challenge to my own identity as a heterosexual feminist. I was perfectly prepared to understand gender as a construction, which served political and economic ends, e.g. the oppression of women. Somehow I had always assumed that beneath the historical comings and goings of gender norms there was a bedrock of truth, of natural behavior. Rich, however, argues that there is no reason for assuming that female heterosexuality is "natural," but that it has overwhelmingly been assumed so for the purposes of oppression, and other form of female experience and sexuality brutally repressed. The result of this repression, she writes, has been to blind women to the possibilities of non-heterosexual experience, perhaps even to generate a false consciousness in women, who are somehow tricked into believing that they are heterosexual.            

Her claim of false consciousness is the most inflammatory of her ideas, and the one that really bothered me. As a woman of the nineties, educated in gender history, I was prepared to identify myself as "generally heterosexual," not excluding the possibility of homosexual experience, but in general feeling most attracted to men -- rather along the lines of "Some of my best friends are lesbians . . ." No one likes to be told that their feelings are only delusions, or that they are the dupe of a system of oppression whose manifestations are all too clear. Yet Rich believes that as long as I constitute myself as heterosexual, I am consenting to my own oppression; that oppression is fundamentally and irrevocably built into sex between men and women. I disagree with this argument, and with its corrollary: that lesbianism is the only escape from sexual oppression. Most gravely, I believe that this argument eliminates the possibility of agency in women's choices about their sexual activities. It sounds to me hauntingly familiar to claims that lesbians aren't "really" attracted to women, they only think they are because of psychoses, illnesses, unhappy childhoods, etc., and that their sexuality is destructive to themselves. Turning the tables of persecution from lesbians to straight women is counterproductive, and arguing that lesbianism is automatically an escape from oppression ignores historical context.            

After having had this emotional response, however, I came to see that Rich's argument is quite compelling in its insistence on seeing heterosexuality as a institution. Much like the Catholic Church before the Reformation, heterosexuality is an institution that, while it might have intense personal relevance for individuals and cultures, is nevertheless a social fact, interested in control and power; similarly, the influence of the Catholic Church is not masterminded by one individual, but is made up of the collective actions of its members, some of whom are more powerful than others. In the same way, I believe that heterosexuality is an idea that, for better or worse, is compelling for large numbers of people; one which produces meaning, identity, and fulfillment, as well as economic, political, and social oppression, concentration of wealth, and dogma. Without Rich's article, I might not have seen the institutional aspects of heterosexuality, focused as I was on its fundamental "rightness." Rich helped me to problematize heterosexuality, and in this her article proves useful in Garber's terms. Rich constitutes herself as a separatist from heterosexuality; her life is lived as much as possible on a "lesbian continuum" that seeks to restore primary female relationships. Rich therefore has a different perspective on the culture that she and I broadly share, and her perspective has the analytical power of the third.            

This combination of defensiveness and improved understanding made me want to apply queer theory to Catalina de Erauso's life. By studying the ways in which people have altered or evaded heterosexuality, we can learn more about heterosexuality as an institution.

II. Analysis: Catalina de Erauso and the Subversion of Heterosexuality
Catalina de Erauso, Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. (Stepto trans.)(Boston: Beacon Press, 1996) Catalina de Erauso, the "Lieutenant Nun," provides in her autobiography a fascinating tale of a woman who lived the life of a man. Although modern queer studies might suggest a reading of Erauso as a saboteur of, or at least an escapee from, heterosexuality, Erauso's autobiography makes it clear that she has taken on the role of a heterosexual man, without questioning or altering gender oppression. She strongly rejects the role of heterosexual woman, with its inherent containment and subordination, but she replaces it with the role of heterosexual male, complete with exploitative and proprietary attidutes toward women. This interpretation is supported by Erauso's hints about her sexual behavior, and by the evidence of her social behavior. Erauso's historical context provides support for the contention that deviations from heterosexuality were not usually read as threats or alternatives to the prevailing system of gender relations.            

The action in Lieutenant Nun really begins when Erauso escapes from the convent, cuts men's clothes out of her woman's clothes, and sets off on her adventures. (Erauso 4) From that point on she never again plays the role of heterosexual woman, exept for brief stays with nuns in South America, and she died as a man, Antonio de Erauso, in Mexico. The primary event of the book, and the one that makes all her adventures possible, is her refusal of the role of woman.   


Marjorie Garber, "Foreword: The Marvel of Peru," p. xi, in Catalina de Erauso, Lieutenant Nun

What is most interesting about this transformation, from the perspective of the institution of heterosexuality, is that Erauso never appears to have been punished for her cross-dressing. Marjorie Garber, in the Foreword to Lieutenant Nun, points out that the Spanish state "punished homosexuality with death" and banned female cross-dressing "a number of times -- for example, in 1600, 1608, 1615, and 1641" (all these dates coincide with Erauso's lifetime). Yet Erauso herself, in her narrative, never mentions any sort of oppression or persecution, even after her cross-dressing is publically known. In fact, the bishop of Guamanga, after learning her secret, acclaims her as "one of the more remarkable people in this world," (Erauso 66) and she recounts that Pope Urban the Eight "graciously gave me leave to pursue my life in men's clothing," exhorting her only not to kill. (Erauso 78-79) The acceptance and esteem of these powerful, holy men cannot be reconciled with a societal need to punish gender-benders. Erauso's braggadocio may conceal certain uncomfortable or humiliating moments caused by her cross-dressing, but the overall course of her life indicates a lack of resistance to (in fact, a positive public adulation of) the "Lieutenant Nun." Possibly because the modern world incorporates so much direct persecution of cross-dressers, this kind of acceptance seems strange to us. We must ask in what ways Erauso's clothing and behavior indicated her sexual role, in the light of her contemporaries' understanding of gender, and why that sexual role was not threatening to the status quo.

Walter l. Williams offers examples from modern-day Yucatan in The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986). Garber makes the same point about Elizabethan pages in her "Foreword," and there is a discussion of the topic in early twentieth-century New York in George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Basic Books, 1994).

Not only did Erauso refuse the role of heterosexual woman, but she explicitly refused to be a sexually active woman. In fact, over her lifetime, she played the roles of young girl in a convent, nun, young man about the world, yet again a nun, and died as an old man. She never took on the role of a sexual, adult woman. Erauso's sexuality is extremely veiled in the text, but we may have recourse to the question of penetration (as blunt as it seems) to establish some certainties about her sexuality. It has been established that around this period, for men at least, there was no categorization of "heterosexual" (men who have sex only with women) and "homosexual" (men who have sex only with men), but rather a distinction between "tops" and "bottoms" -- so that for a man to have penetrative sex with another man did not alter his own maleness. The partner who was penetrated was constructed as female or female-like, such as young boys (the pages Garber discusses) or lower-status men (powerless like women). Erauso may not have penetrated anyone else sexually; it is impossible to know. What is certain is that she herself was verifiably not penetrated. That she was commended by the Pope for this impenetrability suggests that her intact hymen somehow reconciles her lifestyle and her biological sex. An unpenetrated woman may behave like a man; therefore, an unpenetrated woman is not really a woman. This supports Wittig's claim that            

 what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physcial obligation as well as economic obligation. (Wittig 108)            

Wittig does not make the connection explicit, but we can link the fact of penetration to the idea of servitude: since penetration in this period was asociated with the weaker, lower-status sex partner, it is a kind of servitude; it is subordination. Erauso was implicitly responsible for her intact virginity (there is no question that she could physically defend it, if necessary), and therefore was recognized by the Pope at least as having chosen her own non-femaleness.            

Significantly, Erauso is constantly penetrating other men in terms of swordplay, where she repeatedly stabs, slashes, and "runs through" her opponents. "I thrust the blade through his left side" (Erauso 12); "I ran my sword point through Reyes' friend -- where, I cannot say" (14); "I drew out my dagger and ran it into his chest" (22); "my point went home below his left nipple" (24) -- and these all in the first six chapters! The connection between penetration with a sword and sexual penetration is, of course, more speculative and suggestive than it is direct. It cannot be denied that in swordplay at least, Erauso has adorned her narrative with ample evidence of her "masculine" prowess. Might this constant penetration be emblematic of her prowess as a man?            

Erauso is, in fact, deeply involved in the role of man. The breeches and doublet she sews for herself in Chapter One are only the beginning of her construction of a male life. Throughout her life she is employed in male occupations: page, soldier, clerk (although one is hard pressed to think of an occupation open to both men and women at this time). She makes herself into a man by her appearance, by her occupation, and finally, by her social interaction. Erauso is so involved in the role of a man that she repeatedly fights men who call her a "cuckold." (Erauso 22, 40) This is an extremely interesting point in terms of gender relations, because a cuckold is a man whose wife is cheating on him. The insult implies either impotence (a man is unable to satisfy his wife, who takes a lover) or lack of authority (a man is unable to control his wife). Ultimately, the taunt "cuckold" implies a view of women as the property of their husband. A man is not cuckolded by his wife, but by her lover; the insult is man to man, a theft of property and honor. Why would Erauso be so enraged by this insult, which seems (in light of what she tells us about her life) to have no meaning for her? Even as a man, no woman is ever her specific property. The insult probably lies at a more general level (like "bastard" nowadays) but was certainly something that could only be applied to men. In taking on the identity of a man, Erauso has taken on the prerogatives and the insecurities as well: the freedom to treat women as property, as well as the anxiety that that property will be stolen.            

Erauso's participation in the objectification of women constitutes her masculine sexuality, to the extent that she poses a sexual threat to other men. She and her brother fight over the mistress they have both been seeing in Chapter 6, and she poses a threat to the innocence of Diego de Solarte's young sisters-in-law in Chapter 5. At the very moment we are given a glimpse into Erauso's sexuality -- Erauso has her "head in the folds of her skirt and she was combing my hair as I ran my hand up and down between her legs" (Eruaos 17) -- we are offered proof of her masculine capacity to appropriate women who are under the guardianship of another man. The possibility that Erauso is relating sexually to this woman as a woman is erased by Solarte's anxiety over the virtue of his wards -- Erauso as a woman would not be a threat at all. Erauso's "frolicking" in this instance is so threatening to Solarte that Erauso is summarily fired. Solarte's actions prove that Erauso was socially constituted as a virile male.            

Part of being male, then, lies in one's power relations with women, just as part of being female lies in the willingness to be subordinated. As we have seen, Erauso rejected the subordinate role of female, and accepted the domineering role of male. Were it not for the fact that she was admittedly born female, and acknowledges her female sex from time to time in her life, there would be no problem in understanding her life as that of a man. Her entire life confirms the understanding of gender as a construction. Her clothes, occupation, and social behavior make her a man, and only her confession and the examination by the bishop's women in Chapter 20 belie that identity. (Erauso 64-67)            

The life of Erauso made publically obvious the possibility of changing one's sex, and thereby changing one's place in the social and sexual order. Although her life was remarkable, I do not believe that she significanly subverted heterosexuality, in the sense of exposing its hollowness, or made any case for a different role for women in society. In fact, Erauso's life ultimately serves to glorify male privelege, rather than question it.   

See Ann Ferguson's article "Patriarchy, Sexual Identity, and the Sexual Revolution." Ferguson argues that "the development  
of a distinctive homosexual (and specifically lesbian) identity is a  
historical phenomenon, not applicable to all societies and all periods of  
history. [Rich's] idea that the degree to which a woman is sexually and  
emotionally independent of men while bonding with women measures  
resistance to patriarchy oversimplifies and romanticizes the notion of  
such resistance without really defining the conditions that make for  
successful resistance rather than mere victimization."
The question at stake is whether Erauso, as one born a woman who is attracted to women, identifies herself as a lesbian or as "queer" in any way; indeed, whether she in any way "feels" like a woman. Wittig writes            

 The refusal to become heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not. For a lesbian, this goes further than the refusal of the role "woman." It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man. (Wittig 105)            

Can we read this backward: that the refusal to become a woman meant the refusal of heterosexuality? Erauso certainly rejected men's power over her, but Wittig implies that lesbians will find refuge from heterosexuality's opression in the company of other women. Erauso does seem to enjoy the company of women, but in the context of heterosexuality, not a refusal of it. Erauso shows no inclination to reject heterosexuality as an institution from the point of view of either men or women. Although her entire life is a flight from the limitations of the role of the heterosexual woman, she shows no interest in questioning or altering the power relations between men and women at all. In fact, she partakes openly and gleefully in the sexual prerogatives of men. Her only interactions with women are flirtatious ones with young women (like Solarte's sisters-in-law, in Chapter Five), or client-patron relations with mistresses (like Doña Catalina de Chaves in Chapter 10), or evasive and exploitative relations with women seeking marriage (as in Chapter Seven). Most of these women end up looking foolish, and Erauso laughs at her ability to get the best of all of them.            

We cannot, in fact, call Erauso a lesbian at all. Her autobiography excludes the possibility of self-identification as a lesbian. All her sexual escapades occur in the context of her male disguise: women see her as an eligible bachelor, or a father worries that "he" is frolicking with his female relations. Wittig and other queer theorists define lesbian as one who identifies with and associates with women as much as possible; Rich even describes a "lesbian continuum," on which all woman-centered activity has a part. It seems obvious that despite Erauso's taste for "pretty faces," she is not particularly invested in the idea of being a woman. Her involvement with women always occurs as part of her role as a young, rootless male swashbuckler, who has casual sexual encounters along with his drinking, gambling and fighting. (One wonders whether an adventure at a house of prostitution is not part of the story she leaves out.) If she had truly preferred the company of women, sexually or not, why did she not remain at the nunneries? Marjorie Garber points out in the Foreword that "the transvestite effect is powerful in part because it seems both 'the point' of the story and somehow something 'beside the point.'" (Garber II, xvi) Erauso's cross-dressing lacks pointedness because it does not fundamentally contradict heterosexuality; it completely excludes the possibility of lesbianism. It is interesting, but beside the point, that Erauso was born a woman; the real point of the story is the male heterosexual interest apparent in Erauso's escapades.            

The "point" of the story, as a picaresque novel, is to relate Erauso's exciting, rascally life, not to provide a portrait of a woman's (or man's) inner life. Erauso's narrative is notably short on introspection: she never discusses her motivations, except in the most practical instances (" a doctor persuaded me to leave, so I set off"), and she never hints at her inner identity, preferring to allow the reader to draw conclusions from her actions and her ocassional declarations ("The truth is this: that I am a woman"). (Erauso 64, 70) Some additional insight into the ramifications of her life can be found by studying the cultural context of lesbianism and crossdressing in seventeenth-century Spain and the colonies.

Judith C. Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) Surviving reports of these practices are rare, especially for lesbianism. Judith C. Brown found only a handful of legal trials for female homosexuality in medieval and early modern Europe, and literary or anecdotal evidence relating to lesbians is also slim. (Brown 6) The consensus among religious writers seemed to have been that lesbianism was a sin, but not quite as grave a sin as male homosexuality because it did not involve "semination in a vessel not ordained for it," as male homosexuality did. (Brown 7) Primarily, there seems to have been too much confusion about what women might actually do together to permit extensive persecution. The really flagrant sin involved in lesbianism was the use of a "material instrument": a blasphemous attempt to recreate a penis where God had not intended one.(Brown 14)            

As we have seen above, Erauso never would have identified with lesbianism. Brown's work helps show how the concept of women loving women was difficult to imagine at this time, even for the participants. Brown discusses the case of Benedetta Carlini, a nun whose life was contemporaneous with Erauso and who was famous first as a mystic, then as a fraud and sexual sinner. Carlini repeatedly had sex with her assistant, another nun, while claiming to be the embodiment of either Christ or a male angel, Splenditello. The character of Splenditello figured in all of Carlini's sexual activity with the other nun, suggesting that sexual attraction between females was more understandable or perhaps acceptable when at least one was in the guise of a male. "What [Carlini] concealed in her personification of male angel was not just her breach of the nun's vow of chastity, but her transgression of society's gender and sexual roles." (Brown 127) Although Carlini was eventually prosecuted for these transgressions, the case implies that lesbian impulses were somewhat confusing, even for those who experienced them, and that a woman who believed she was a man was a more understandable (but still sinful) expression of women's love for each other. Heterosexuality is not questioned in the case of Carlini: lesbianism attempts to conceal itself in the guise of heterosexuality, but is in the end punished harshly, and the other nun involved denied that she had ever been a willing partner. Female sexual association comes out looking sordid and fraudulent.


Margaret R. Miles, Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West (Kent, Britain: Burns & Oates, 1992)

Another scholar, Margaret Miles, explored the question of women becoming men in her work on female early Christian martyrs and ascetics. Miles describes how early Christian women often incorporated fantasies of becoming male in their visions of salvation, and how Christian women were often praised for their manliness, "so that even in them that are women in body the manliness of their souls hides the sex of their flesh." (Miles 53) Furthermore, women were considered more virtuous and more manly when they were virgins; they could in effect "become male by living in ascetic virginity." (Miles 67) The holy, virginal woman is able to transcend her femaleness, and the sinfulness that femininity entails. She becomes "manly," but is in truth neither woman nor man. This approach is useful for understanding the Pope's commendation: he saw Erauso as following in the path of these martyrs, a sometime nun who had gone among the male sexual gladiators of the frontier without losing her virginity. Her virginity made her manliness a virtue, rather than a perversion. Erauso was probably aware of the trope of the manly virgin when she tells the Pope "the story of my life and travels, the fact that I was a woman, and that I had kept my virginity" (Erauso 69), and it seems probable that the Pope, and possibly the bishop, understood Erauso as this kind of "manly virgin."            

Of all the cultural ideas about sexuality available to Erauso, the "manly virgin" comes closest to truly subverting heterosexuality. A manly virgin was unlike a woman, in that she did not allow herself to be penetrated (and hence not subordinated) and eschewed the female experience of childbirth. She was also unlike a man, as she did not replace submissive femininity with aggressive manliness. She was most like a virginal man: a man with symbolic superiority, but not physical power, over women. The manly virgin is separate from the entire heterosexual sphere: a human who has eschewed her/his sexuality in order to better serve God. The problem is that it is more difficult to believe that Erauso understood her life this way; it is fairly obvious that she does not consider herself holy. Although she begins as a nun and returns to that life briefly, she has little patience for a contemplative life, and less for the institutions of the Church: at various points she calls herself "a self-professed Lutheran," spits out a holy wafer and calls on the protection of the church, and tells an archbishop that she has "no order, and no religion." (Erauso 42, 49, 69)It is easier to believe that Erauso was aware of the value her virginity held for others, without understanding herself as saintly. The male angel who legitimizes lesbianism and the manly virgin were cultural tropes available to Erauso, but there is ultimately no evidence that she saw herself as anything other than a brave, irreverent, hellacious soldier of fortune who happened to be, somewhere deep inside, a woman.