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Biology, Psychology and Identity: What Makes Your Gender?

In 1911, physician Frederick Parkes Weber published a paper reflecting on the relation of the “tertiary sex characteristics” to mental health. By this term, Weber meant the psychological traits that tended to be associated (by him and other doctors) particularly with men or women. According to Weber, hysteria – that vague and slippery Victorian “nervous” malady – was a disorder of these tertiary characteristics. He explained this in social evolutionary terms.

“In past ages,” Weber concluded, “simulation or deception of various kinds must often have been serviceable to the weaker female in protecting herself from the stronger (and sometimes cruel) male, as well as in enabling her sometimes to get her own way ... therefore, at the present time the facility (instinct) for deception is probably greater in the average female than in the average male.”1

Weber was not alone among Edwardian doctors in assuming that women were “naturally” manipulative. Indeed, while the abruptness of his statement may sound ridiculous to twenty-first-century ears, there are certainly aspects of Weber’s ideas that retain common currency today.

In particular, Weber made a clear divide – biologically and psychologically – between male and female. This rigid binary has been challenged many times in subsequent years, yet it continues to inform both popular and scientific assumptions about gender. Many people can probably think of occasions when they have struggled with these norms.

Last year, we were lucky enough to have some involvement in a project by Gendered Intelligence at the Science Museum, which opened up debate around perceptions and expectations of gender. The group’s project, Who Am I? Hacking into the Science Museum, explored the ways in which science has been both ‘friend and foe’ to young trans people. The Science Museum collections include many objects which illustrate how science has played its part in distinguishing between male and female. However, medical practice has also been vital in empowering many trans people to express who they are.

The project resulted in a display in the Science Museum’s ‘Who Am I?’ gallery, which was curated by the young people. The display offered some interesting reflections on the scientific and cultural contexts of gender identity through objects, interviews and personal stories.