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Doubting Sex: How Bodies Changed and Selves Appeared in Nineteenth Century Hermaphrodite Case Histories

Wednesday, May 2, 2012
11 AM
BCRW, 101 Barnard Hall
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Geertje Mak bookcover

Sponsored by The Barnard Center for Research on Women.

Anna Barbara Meier and Emma R. both grew up as females in Germany, and were in their adult lives both medically declared to be male. However, there was a time gap of more than one century between the two cases. In her lecture, Geertje Mak shows that hermaphroditism itself changed profoundly over the course of the nineteenth century. Until the 1860s, in cases of doubt someone’s sex was medically examined on the basis of outer appearance and the patient’s own statements mainly. Around 1900 sex had become something turned inwards: both microscopically established and anchored in the psychic self. Moreover, dealing with such cases of doubt changed profoundly. In the first half of the century, policies of secrecy and containment prevailed, protecting a person’s initial inscription as man or woman in society in order to avoid social disorder and dislocation. Increasingly, an urge to reveal the ‘inner truth’ of the body emerged. This had to be understood and ‘managed’ in its relation to an interiorised sex of self. The physician’s role thereby transformed from being an expert arbiter in cases in which doubtful sex caused a social problem, into offering medical-psychological advice and therapy concerning the individualized problem of the relation between body and self.

Geertje Mak is Assistant Professor at the Institute for Gender Studies and the History Department of the Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. This year she published Doubting Sex: Inscriptions, Bodies and Selves in Nineteenth-Century Hermaphrodite Case Histories (Manchester University Press). She has published two books (in Dutch) and several international articles on masculine women, hermaphrodites, migrant history, and gender history. Currently she is working on a project about fabrications of identity.

May 2 2012 - 11:00am