An Exploration of the History behind Perceptions of Intersex People in America Presentation by Joanie Gentile
Intro to Presentation This presentation is an exploration of the history of intersex people in America from 1620 until 1960. The presentation is based of Elizabeth Reis’s article “ I m possible Hermaphrodites: Intersex in America, 1620-1960”
Intro to Presentation Continued This presentations aims to provide an overview of the main points and arguments of Reis’s article as well as providing information on the most important case studies and publications discussed in the article
The main goal of this presentation is to break down Reis’s article in a way that is easy for an audience outside of the field of sex and gender to understand.
The presentation will begin with the 1600’s and move through each decade ending with a look into the future
This article was published in the Journal of American History , a leading scholarly publication on American history.
Reis’s article is an exploration of the cultural and social history of intersex people in America from 1620-1960 and how the perceptions of intersex people has changed throughout the years.
Intro to Article
About the Author
She received a PHD in history from the University of California at Berkeley.
Her research focuses on the history of sexuality, women and religion, and women in early America.
Elizabeth Reis is an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Oregon.
Image from University of Oregon
Hermaphrodite- an animal or plant having both male and female reproductive organs
Intersex- intermediate in sexual characters between a typical male and a typical female
Definitions From Merriam-Webster dictionary Image from logresfarm.com
Since 1741 with James Parsons publication of “A Mechanical and Critical Enquiry into the Nature of Hermaphrodites” , it has been generally accepted that no true hermaphrodites exist in the human race.
What we find within the human race are intersex people who have ambiguous genitalia, but not complete male and female anatomy.
Although the terms hermaphrodite and intersex are not analogous, these terms are often incorrectly used as synonyms
Reis’s article uses the term hermaphrodite because that is the term that was used in the case studies and publications she is referring to
Be aware that the article is generally referring to intersex people when the term hermaphrodite is being used
Written in 1684, The Masterpiece was the most popular medical manual throughout the American colonies and influenced early American beliefs about intersex births
This publication links intersex people to mythological monsters setting the stage for the view of intersex people as monsters
Masterpiece Image from Aristotle's Master-Piece, 1697
Masterpiece Continued This publication suggested that the thoughts and actions of pregnant women could result in birth deformities (including intersex births) Image from Showhistory.com
The punishment was usually linked to anything considered to be against social norms (women who were fighting for more rights, those who questioned the church)
Based of the Masterpiece, early Americans believed intersex births were monstrous and a punishment from god for deserving parents
Image from Suite101.com
The idea of intersex babies being a punishment for parents lead to the belief that these children were not real humans but instead somehow subhuman.
This same argument was often used for people of different races during this time period.
Thomas/ Thomasine Hall
In 1629 Thomas/ Thomasine Hall was brought before the Virginia General Court for being a man dressed in women’s clothing.
During the trial it came to light that Hall had ambiguous genitalia and had lived some years as a man and others years as a women.
Image from apfn.org
After much consideration the court agreed to acknowledge that Hall embodied physical qualities of both sexes.
Instead of choosing a sex for Hall (which was common at the time), Hall was ordered to wear men’s clothing but also wear a bonnet on his head and an apron as to alert everyone around that he was not fully a man.
Conclusions on Hall As Reis points out, the courts decision was probably not a case of a progressive court accepting intersex people, but more likely the court trying to make Hall out as a public embarrassment discouraging others to follow his/her example. Image from Uen.org
“ A Mechanical and Critical Enquiry into the Nature of Hermaphrodites” (1741 )
In his publication Dr. James Parson “maintained that hermaphrodites could be found among earthworms, snails, and some reptiles, but not among humans” (420).
Therefore intersex births were not a case of hermaphrodites but simply a case of mistaken sex.
Parsons believed that mistaken sex was generally due to the fact that there was very little known about female anatomy particularly the clitoris.
He claimed that most cases of mistaken sex was simply a woman with an enlarged clitoris
Parsons Conclusions He concluded that a sex must be chosen for all intersex babies based on the the male or female anatomy they most closely matched.
During this time period the emergence of information sharing and medicine as a profession moved the issues of intersex people into a medical discipline
Intersex births are now seen as a medical condition rather than a punishment from god.
1800’s-1900’s Continued Even with the advances in medicine, intersex people still carry the stigma of monsters and are generally viewed as deceitful, untrustworthy, and unnatural people. Image from letthedogin.com
The New Masterpiece
In 1806 a new edition of Aristotle’s Masterpiece was reprinted
This new edition discussed the similarities between the clitoris and penis
‘“ The next thing is the clitoris . . . [which] in the same manner as the side ligaments of the yard [penis] suffers erection and falling in the same manner, and both stirs up lust and gives delight in copulation’” (421).
The New Masterpiece Continued
This edition of the book suggested that the way in which to determine a persons true sex was by whether they experienced sexual pleasure from the clitoris or the penis.
Although this eventually forced people into choosing one sex or another, it also granted the patient some right to determine their own sex based on sexual pleasure.
This also allowed intersex children the opportunity to wait until puberty to fully commit to one sex or the other.
The New Masterpiece Continued
Following the lead of other scholars such as Samuel Farr and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, in 1840 John North published a two part article asserting that true hermaphrodites were impossible among humans.
With this assertion that hermaphrodites were impossible, intersex people began to be labeled as "hybrid,” "impostor," "unfortunate monstrosity” (423).
With the continued idea of the impossible hermaphrodite 20 th century doctors established a precedent of “correcting” intersex births.
It became the doctors job to determine the best fit sex of an intersex baby and to use surgery to correct the ambiguous genitalia.
Image from vosizneias.com
Early misconceptions and fears about intersex births have lead to a continued negative view towards intersex people
This negative view has influenced to belief in and push towards a rigid two sex system
As we have seen throughout time this two sex system does not correctly define the various sexual conditions found within the human race.
Modern activists are now fighting against the idea of a rigid two sex system.
It is becoming more apparent that there are more sexual categories than simply male and female
The role of surgery as the best option for dealing with intersex conditions is currently being argued against
References Reis, Elizabeth. I m possible Hermaphrodites: Intersex in America, 1620-1960. The Journal of American History 92 (2005): 411-441. Print. reis-intersex-us-1620-1960.pdf