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  • Unbecoming Women: Sex Reversal in the Scientific Discourse on Female Deviance in Britain, 1880–1920
  • Lisa Carstens (bio)

The male organization is one, and the female organization another. . . . It will not be possible to transform a woman into a man.

—Henry Maudsley, 1874

There are men-women and women-men, with mixed mental characteristics quite independent of complete sexual separateness.

—Anonymous editorial, British Medical Journal, 1906

In every normal male or female individual, traces are found of the apparatus of the opposite sex.

—Sigmund Freud, 1905

If it be true that all humans are potentially bisexual, . . . [then it is possible] that sex may be reversed after it has once been established. . . . Such changes are notoriously more difficult to effect after puberty than before it.

—F. H. A. Marshall, 1910

Finally, there is evidence that a change in the metabolism, even in comparatively late life, whether induced by castration or the introduction of another gonad or arising primarily from a different cause, may initiate changes in the direction of the opposite sex, or even bring about a complete sex-reversal.

—F. H. A. Marshall, 1922

The most militant of the English women suffragists of 1905–14 were called many names in the press of their day, including “naughty children,” “excited ladies,” “misguided ladies,” “wild women,” “howling fanatics,” [End Page 62] “shrieking sisterhood,” “masculine women,” “viragoes,” and the term they themselves came to adopt, “suffragettes.”1 If these terms run the gamut from patronizing containment to demonization of the female sex, the suffragettes’ boldness in the streets also provoked frequent accusations of their being altogether “unsexed.”2 But what did it mean to call a woman “unsexed”? Within popular discourse it largely meant that she looked and acted in ways counter to normative feminine behavior—whether because she spurned such conventions as feminine dress, marriage, and motherhood or because she did so symbolically by proclaiming her right to pursue male education, professions, and politics.3 Prominent medical authorities [End Page 63] further meant that the pursuit of masculine activities could actually damage or retard women physiologically, an unsexing that harmed both mental and reproductive health.4 Yet, there is a dimension to this medical story of unsexed women that has gone overlooked: scientists working in the new field of reproductive physiology provided grounds for the much more radical claim that unwomanly pursuits could effect a literal, physiological sex reversal. If most of the scientists toying with the possibilities of spontaneous or postwomb sex change merely hinted at the implications for human society, one prominent scientist, Walter Heape, connected the dots between the discourses in reproductive physiology and the social/political discourse on women’s emancipation, arguing in a 1913 study that higher education and political activism would necessarily trigger a physiological reversal of sex in women, with dire consequences to women as well as to the destiny of the English race and nation.5

How could a scientist reach such a conclusion and argue it plausibly in 1913? He could do so by combining incomplete understandings of physiological sex and evolution with the uninterrogated belief that women, unlike men, were reproduction machines all the way down. The epigraphs above indicate how incipient understandings of chromosomal sex determination came to support the increasingly persuasive view that sexual difference was unstable: the professor of medicine (and from 1862 to 1868 the editor of the Journal [End Page 64] of Mental Science) Henry Maudsley may have argued in 1874 that women are women and men are men, but his need to assert it may have stemmed in part from the contrary scientific consensus already coalescing in the 1870s, that every developing fetus showed evidence of both male and female potential. The statements after 1900 variously tangled with the implications of this fundamentally bisexual human constitution.6 That a hermaphroditic structure hid within every body served as a premise for Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychosexual development. The anonymous 1906 editorial on women’s suffrage published in the British Medical Journal suggested that this underlying hermaphroditic constitution could affect basic gender identity, expressing itself in hermaphroditic personalities. Francis H. S. Marshall, a Cambridge professor of agricultural physiology whose textbooks educated a generation of medical practitioners, offered...


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pp. 62-94
Launched on MUSE
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