Born in Saint-Louis, Versailles, Marie-Louise Victoire Girardin (1754 -1794) had a tumultuous early life as one of nine children, and was married, widowed, and lost her only child within five years. Alone during the early years of the political turmoil that would give way to the French Revolution, Girardin gave birth to another child out of wedlock. Rather than face paternal wrath, Girardin fled to the port of Brest. Small and plain, she disguised herself in men’s clothing, went by the name Louis Girardin, and managed to find a job in 1791 as a steward on a ship, Le Jar Du Clesmeur’s Deux Freres. Soon after she was transferred to La Recherche, where she would remain for the course of its expeditions. There she enjoyed a private cabin and was exempt from medical examinations.
On board the French expedition, Girardin visited Recherche Bay on Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), New Caledonia, New Holland (Western Australia), Tenerife, the Cape of Good Hope, and Tongatapu. Although her shipmates had suspicions of her concealed identity, Girardin adamantly denied any accusations and defended her male identity for the rest of her life, even challenging a shipmate to a duel when he questioned her. Apart from a few incidents of tension with her crew, Girardin enjoyed relative freedom to dress and act how she chose, a freedom which was mostly unknown amongst French women at the time. Girardin died of dysentery on board a Dutch transport ship Dordrecht in 1794. Shortly after her death, the ship’s surgeon disclosed her biological sex. [Image right from a young adult fictional account of her life.]
For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: Women in the French Revolution.