What was a woman?
Doctors in the 1970s knew there was no such thing as a sex change. So where did all the misinformation come from?
“I have no bosom worth mentioning, and I've spent over $6,000 to have hair removed from my face—and still it comes back. … But the worst thing of all is the eyes of men who find out about my surgery. The warm admiration disappears, and the eyes get a vacant searching look. It's an awful hurt, one I didn't expect.”
Those are the words of Claire, described by the New York Times in 1972 as “a former male and now a slender woman in her late 30's, with a face and figure that attracts whistles.”
It’s tempting to make fun of men who insist they’re women because some are assholes. But not every trans-identified man is like the weight lifter who makes fun of his female rivals for being weak. The fact is, gender doctors sell a vision of sex transformation to unwell patients, and major institutions like the New York Times and courts back them up by referring to men as women. And this has been going on for over fifty years.
In this post I’ll answer the question, “What was a woman in the 1970s?” First I’ll lay out what doctors thought. Then I’ll break down the answers that judges gave, which will illustrate what points broke through to normal-ish Americans back then. Finally I’ll discuss the media.
I want to know who made Claire believe he could be a woman.
The Medical View of Women
A 1972 article described doctors routinely injuring the clitoris in surgery (permanently), refusing to answer women patients’ questions about their genitals, and learning how to handle pelvic procedures from diagrams that left out clitoral nerves. One elder doctor recalled learning that female genitals were “a ‘failure’ of male genital formation.”
Just kidding. That article was published in 2022, not 1972. Fifty years ago we were really in trouble. In Everything Below the Waist, Jennifer Block relates the story of the Feminist Women’s Health Center, a Los Angeles group that educated women about their bodies in the 1970s. They tried to learn anatomy from medical textbooks, but they found that recent editions were actually less accurate – publishers had started deleting references to the clitoris in the 1940s, even as they expounded on penises for pages. “Women’s sexual anatomy was the vagina, and that was it,” in the words of one researcher. (They ultimately gathered intel by examining each other.)
“Women’s sexual anatomy was the vagina, and that was it.”
Nevertheless, doctors knew the difference between a man and a woman.
A 1965 report adopted by the New York City Board of Health found that “male-to-female transsexuals are still chromosomally males while ostensibly females[.]” A state court later characterized the board’s opinion:
“[S]urgery for the transsexual is an experimental form of psychotherapy by which mutilating surgery is conducted on a person with the intent of setting his mind at ease, and that nonetheless, does not change the body cells governing sexuality.”
Even gender doctors didn’t believe that patients could change sex, or that wanting to be the opposite sex made them so.
Harry Benjamin, the endocrinologist who founded the organization that became WPATH, wrote in 1963:
“Many transsexual men feel that they are women in male bodies. The more sophisticated ones know better but like the idea. Frequently they abhor their sex organs which are to them a deformity. They want them altered by surgery in order to live permanently as women, sexually, socially, and legally.”
Benjamin wrote in The Transsexual Phenomenon (1966) that post-op male transsexuals were still men “if pedantry and technicalities prevail.”
Georges Burou was a world-famous gender surgeon based in Casablanca. In 1974 he told Time Magazine:
"I don't change men into women. I transform male genitals into genitals that have a female aspect. All the rest is in the patient's mind."
In 1979, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, Renee Richards lined up an all-star cast of sexperts to persuade a New York judge that he was entitled to compete against women in tennis. None of them actually said he was a woman, but rather that he should be considered a woman.
(The gender doctors’ careful parsing is striking because nowadays, the party line is that gender identity determines sex. In 2024 Richards could probably find a medical doctor to testify that he is a woman, full stop.)
That’s not to say gender doctors were entirely honest. If they used the term “sex reassignment,” they implied that surgeons were changing the patient’s sex (other terms in use were “gender realignment” and “transsexual surgery”). Also, we don’t know what gender doctors said to patients like Claire behind closed doors. Did they nod along with patients’ misconceptions instead of setting them straight? Did they speak in euphemisms?
A psychologist went a step further than the gender doctors, arguing that sex was complicated. Charles Annicello, one of Money’s colleagues at Johns Hopkins’ Gender Identity Clinic, testified in a 1976 New Jersey family law case about a marriage between two men, one of them transsexual, called MT v. JT. In the court’s words:
“[Annicello] demonstrated through slides the various methods by which scientists define whether a person is male or female. The witness said that transsexualism represented only one sexual variant although it was not known whether its cause was chromosomal, gonadal or hormonal. Annicello expressed the opinion that if a person had a female psychic gender and underwent a sex reassignment operation, that person would be considered female although no person is ‘absolutely’ male or female.”
This tracked Benjamin’s arguments, and in fact Benjamin provided testimony along those lines to a small town court in 1960, by his own account. “I explained that there were all kinds of interpretations of ‘sex,’” he told a colleague. (This is drawn from the book How Sex Changed.) I haven’t seen evidence he engaged in that sort of wordplay in any later cases.
You didn’t need a medical degree to realize in the 1970s that surgeons couldn’t build women. The feminists of DYKE Magazine were quite exasperated about it, as Eva Kurilova recounts. Janice Raymond published her feminist takedown of gender, The Transsexual Empire, in 1979.
A Word on Pronouns in Court Decisions
Most of the old judicial opinions I’ve read used preferred pronouns. I don’t think this indicates that the judges believed transsexuals were the opposite sex, or even necessarily that they sympathized with the transsexual.
First, some judges noted they were deferring to the pronoun practices in the “medical literature.”
Second, pandering to litigants over inconsequential points is a standard feature of American judge behavior. The idea is that litigants must feel like they’re being treated fairly (questions of actual fairness are secondary). Nowadays this pseudo-populist mindset is formalized by the Procedural Justice project at Yale Law School.
View #1: Don’t Know, Don’t Care
Some judges refused to say whether the transsexual in front of them was male or female. For example, in Grossman v. Bernards Township, an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by a transsexual elementary school teacher, the federal judge wrote:
“The Court finds it unnecessary and, indeed, has no desire, to engage in the resolution of a dispute as to the plaintiff's present sex. Rather, we assume for the purpose of this action that the plaintiff is a member of the female gender.”
The court found that the transsexual was not discriminated against as a woman.
View #2: It’s Plastic Surgery
An appellate panel reviewing Renee Richards’ divorce litigation referred to Richards’ metamorphosis as “transsexual plastic surgery.” It was just an aside since that wasn’t an issue in the litigation; perhaps if it had been, Richards would have dazzled the judges with sexologist witnesses.
This view was rare. In my survey of Medicaid caselaw I found that lowly “hearings officers” in welfare offices sometimes viewed genital surgery as cosmetic – and then, when the transsexual filed an appeal, the judges would scoff at the welfare offices. Some judges politely questioned the surgery’s efficacy, but they never went so far as to call bullshit.
A Queens judge in 1971 thought maybe post-operative male transsexuals were still male:
“The court finds as a fact that the defendant was not a female at the time of the marriage ceremony. It may be that since that time the defendant's sex has been changed to female by operative procedures, although it would appear from the medical articles and other information supplied by counsel, that mere removal of the male organs would not, in and of itself, change a person into a true female.”
View #3: A More Hole-istic Approach
Most judges thought genital surgery mattered. It may not literally change a person’s sex (they dodged that point) but it should qualify them to “be considered” members of the opposite sex – particularly if the newly created “sex organ” was “functional.”
A state court judge in New York City, reviewing a challenge to the state’s birth certificate laws in 1973, took into account the “sum effect” of the transsexual’s medical operations:
“The petitioner was born a male in 1933, and presumably functioned as such during childhood, service in the armed forces, and as a father of a child of his marriage which terminated in divorce in 1971. Medical affidavits accompanying the petition reveal that in April 1970, the petitioner underwent surgery removing the male sex organs and creating a functional female primary sex organ. This surgery was supplemented by breast implants in June 1970. The sum effect of these operations rendered the petitioner physiologically and psychologically a female, termed medically a transsexual.”
That said, he still upheld the statute, which allowed transsexuals to remove the sex marker from their official records but not add a new sex marker.
A very strident dissent in Holloway (1977), a Ninth Circuit employment discrimination case, insisted that genital surgery was a matter of “a person completing surgically that part of nature's handiwork which apparently was left incomplete somewhere along the line.” Still, the judge didn’t say the man had changed sex. Rather:
“Assuming that this plaintiff has now undergone her planned surgery, she is, presumably, female, at least for most social purposes.”
The judge in Renee Richards v. US Tennis Association held sex was a matter of “circumstances” other than chromosomes, and delicately alluded to Richards’ new hole: “her internal sex is that of a female who has been hysterectomized and ovariectomized[.]”
In MT v. JT, the New Jersey divorce case, the panel used similar language: the transsexual litigant’s new hole was "the same as a normal female vagina after a hysterectomy."
Those New Jersey judges used the term “gender” to paper over the question of sex change. They opined that the litigant had always belonged to the female gender but now, post-surgery, could be “considered a member of the female sex” (emphasis added):
“In this case the transsexual's gender and genitalia are no longer discordant; they have been harmonized through medical treatment. Plaintiff has become physically and psychologically unified and fully capable of sexual activity consistent with her reconciled sexual attributes of gender and anatomy. Consequently, plaintiff should be considered a member of the female sex for marital purposes. It follows that such an individual would have the capacity to enter into a valid marriage relationship with a person of the opposite sex and did do so here. In so ruling we do no more than give legal effect to a fait accompli, based upon medical judgment and action which are irreversible. Such recognition will promote the individual's quest for inner peace and personal happiness, while in no way disserving any societal interest, principle of public order or precept of morality.
By contrast, a Brooklyn judge found in 1974 that a female transsexual was not male:
“While it is possible that defendant may function as a male in other situations and in other relationships, defendant cannot function as a husband by assuming male duties and obligations inherent in the marriage relationship. … Apparently, hormone treatments and surgery have not succeeded in supplying the necessary apparatus to enable defendant to function as a man for purposes of procreation.”
When MT v. JT, the New Jersey appeal, discussed this Brooklyn case, it pointed out the female transsexual “was incapable of performing sexually as a male.” This was an escalation of the diss; the Brooklyn judge had only said she couldn’t procreate as a man.
Back in 1966 Benjamin suggested that transsexual surgery for women should “include the closing of the vagina” to “justify the statement later on that the patient could no longer function as a female[.]” Great legal advice, but would it get musty?
So judges didn’t (quite) say transsexual men were women. Gender doctors didn’t (quite) lie, either.
But the media did. Time Magazine called the operations “sex changes” in 1974. And New York Times’ health reporter, Jane E. Brody – a respected journalist who retired from that outlet in 2022 – repeatedly stated in her coverage that these men were women and their surgery was a “sex change” operation. A 1975 CBS medical drama featured a man whose doctor colleagues helped him “become a woman.” (Thanks to Hazel-rah for that stirring clip.)
Recall from last week that the Erickson Educational Fund, which funded and worked closely with gender doctors, was lobbying journalists and TV networks behind the scenes. It looks as though gender-medicine advocates smuggled their unscientific claims into the discourse through the back door, while remaining scrupulous in their public statements.
Gay marriage supporters in the 2000s cast their cause as pure and romantic, in contrast to their opponents’ fixation on holes and poles. The old arguments about transsexuals provided fodder.
In 2006, New Jersey’s highest court considered legalizing gay marriage and decided not to. A dissenter wrote:
“I gather from M.T. [v. J.T.] that a relationship qualifies as a lawful marriage if the genitalia of the partners are different so that they can engage in sexual intercourse. … Constitutional rights should not be limited by genitalia or the ability to engage in a particular form of sexual intimacy.”
Some opponents of gay marriage actually embraced the genital argument. For example, Renee Richards explained why lesbian marriage didn’t work to a reporter in 2007:
“It’s like a female plug and an electrical outlet.”
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