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Critique History Humanities Nonfiction Social Sciences Western

Sex and “Unsex”: Histories of Gender Trouble in Eighteenth-Century North America

By Greta LaFleur, 2014

This article argues that residents of late eighteenth-century North America had access to a wide vocabulary for describing and experiencing variation in sexual behavior and self-presentation. Building on work in eighteenth-century science studies, this article reminds us that gender, a term that was used during the eighteenth century to describe groups of either sex, was increasingly understood as a way of characterizing men and women along specific behavioral or taxonomic lines. The article makes three claims: first, that the enormous body of scholarship on the relationality and contingency of eighteenth-century gender has not yet coalesced into an overarching narrative within eighteenth-century studies that reflects this understanding of the instability of gender during this period; second, that to center a historical narrative of the instability of eighteenth-century gender in our scholarship and teaching, we must center studies of gender that are theorized intersectionally (the history of gender in Caribbean colonies, rather than metropolitan spaces; the history of gender in working-class communities, rather than ruling-class communities; and so on) because this scholarship takes the relationality of gender as fundamental; and finally, that theorizing transhistorical ”similarity” (as distinct from continuity) bears important potential as a framework for imagining a historically rigorous relationship between the politics of gender in the eighteenth century and the politics of gender today.

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