One Hundred Years of Instability: Sex, Law, and Transgender Rights

One Hundred Years of Instability: Sex, Law, and Transgender Rights

By Anne Caldwell, University of Louisville

Five years before the famous Seneca Falls Meeting in which a gathering of women demanded suffrage, Levi Suydam already had encountered the problem that sex posed for suffrage. Suydam, a 23-year-old man who supported the Whigs, petitioned to vote in 1843. The opposing party challenged his petition “on the grounds that ‘he was more a female than a male, and that, in his physical organization, he partook of both sexes’” (Reis 2009, 34). Because the Whigs won by one vote, Suydam’s status was central to the election outcome. After several medical exams in which different doctors reached different conclusions about Suydam’s true sex, Suydam was determined to be “more female than male” (Reis 2009, 35). Suydam’s case presents an important corollary to a more famous case of voting “fraud” after Susan B. Anthony voted in the 1872 presidential election. The 1873 trial and conviction of Anthony was straightforward: as a woman, she could not vote. Suydam posed a greater challenge to political order insofar as neither law nor medicine could pin down Suydam’s sex within a framework of binary sex. The Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited the denial of the vote “on account of sex,” might have rendered the uncertainty of sex politically and legally moot. It did not.

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