I am Woman…part one

Claude Cahun

Claude Cahun

April Ashley

April Ashley

To what extent are you born a woman…and to what extent do you become one? It seems like an unusual question to ask but a recent visit to the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition, ‘Identity: Eight rooms, Nine lives’ challenges the very idea of gender and sex as fixed, immutable facts of biology.

The biological determinant of being a woman comes down to the possession of XX chromosomes – dictating the characteristic distribution of body fat; producing breasts, rounded buttocks and soft curves as well as the reproductive organs giving women the ability to carry a foetus to full-term and give birth. Yet such a clinical definition of obvious physical traits only tells part of the complex story of identity, as explored through the thought-provoking profiles featured in ‘Eight rooms, Nine lives’.

The exhibition featured two women in particular, whose differing responses to the issue of physicality, examines the extent to which women are determined by their biology. The first woman, Lucy Schwob (1894-1954) led her life as a true seeker. Against the narrow contemporary constraints of femininity, she explored her own belief of identity as shifting and amorphous through androgyny, transvestism and surrealism in her various plays, essays and self portraits. By the age of nineteen, she had changed her birth name to Claude Cahun. Her quest for originality and the courage of her convictions led to a full and colourful life; from her intellectual association with the Theosophist Society, which promoted the ‘Universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour’, to her dedication as a resistance activist in occupied Jersey during the Second World War.

Her curiosity and energy defined her life as a courageous journey to the core of her identity; daring to ask questions beyond the point where many others – even in the contemporary, more tolerant West – would have ceased such an enquiry for fear of confronting the discomfort of uncertainty.

The second woman, April Ashley was at the height of her career as a strikingly beautiful fashion model and society figure in 1960s Britain, when it was discovered that she had been born male. She paid heavily for this revelation in a humiliatingly public manner. Her husband, who she had wed in a high profile society wedding, sought to annul the marriage on the grounds that she was not a woman, despite the fact that she had undergone gender re-assignment surgery some years before, which he had been fully aware of when they had married. Subsequent to her ‘outing’, through her eloquent disclosures, she gave a valuable insight to her life-long internal struggle towards accepting her true identity – as a woman – for although she had been born male, from a very early age she had identified herself as psychologically female.

Her husband was granted the annulment, setting the legal precedent that gender is determined by birth, as opposed to the outcome of gender re-assignment. It would take another 30 years for a more compassionate reflection of the legal status of transsexuals – in the form of the Gender Recognition Act 2004.

Both of these women had a common thread running through their stories, of courageous defiance of convention in regard to anatomy being the main determinant of female identity. Their responses however were very different, for while Claude Cahun explored the varying degrees of her identity, as if viewing it as a spectrum of progression from the subtle to the extreme, April Ashley identified more acutely with one side of the traditional male/female dichotomy.

Even when viewed purely from a biological perspective, the concepts of sex and gender are fluid and difficult to contain. We have still yet to understand the entangled interplay of chromosomal, hormonal and psychological factors, which indicate that what appears to be a matter of simple biology is far from simple.


  1. by Sham Sandhu On March 22, 2010 at 12:34

    This is SUCH an important issue, D. Great you are shining a light.
    Here is the article in the New Yorker we discussed the other night.


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