‘A woman and now a man’: The legitimation of sex-assignment surgery in the United States (1849–1886)

AHP readers will be interested in a new open-access piece in Social Studies of Science: “‘A woman and now a man’: The legitimation of sex-assignment surgery in the United States (1849–1886),” Maayan Sudai. Abstract:

Throughout much of recorded history, societies that assigned rights and duties based on sex were confounded by people with unclear sex. For the sake of maintaining social and legal order in those contexts, legal systems assigned these people to what they figured was the ‘most dominant’ sex. Then, in mid-19th century United States, a new classification mechanism emerged: sex-assignment surgery, which was imagined by some surgeons to ‘fix’ one’s physical and legal sex status permanently. Other surgeons, however, fiercely opposed the new practice. This article traces the controversy around sex-assignment surgery through three high-profile cases published in US medical journals from 1849 to 1886. Its central argument is that the more general effort to transform surgery into a scientific field helped legitimate the practice of sex-assignment surgery. Although such surgery was subject to intense moral criticism because it was thought to breach the laws of men and nature, over time, these concerns were abandoned or transformed into technical or professional disagreements. In a secondary argument, which helps explain that transformation, this article shows that surgeons gradually became comfortable occupying the epistemic role of sex-classifiers and even sex-makers. That is, whereas sex classification was traditionally a legal task, the new ability to surgically construct one’s genitals engendered the notion that sex could be determined and fixed in the clinic in a legally binding manner. Accordingly, I suggest that surgery became an epistemic act of fact-making. This evolution of the consensus around sex-assignment surgery also provides an early origin story for the idea of sex as plastic and malleable by surgeons, thus offering another aspect to the history of plastic sex.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.