Herculine Barbin

October 10, 2023

“I am twenty-five years old, and, although I am still young, I am beyond any doubt approaching the hour of my death.”
-Herculine Barbin

“Do we truly need a true sex? With a persistence that borders on stubbornness, modern Western societies have answered in the affirmative. They have obstinately brought into play this question of a ‘true sex’ in an order where one might have imagined that all that counted was the reality of the body and the itensities of its pleasures.”
-Michel Foucault

Herculine Barbin was a 19th century hermaphrodite who became widely known after her/his memoirs were discovered by Foucault and published along with an important introduction by him.

“It seems that nobody who looked at it was aware of his somewhat awkward, graceless body, which become more and more abnormal in the company of those girls among whom he grew up. Yet it exercised over everybody, or rather over every female, a certain power of fascination that misted their eyes and stopped every question on their lips. The warmth that this strange presence gave to the contacts, the caresses, the kisses that ran through the play of those adolescent girls was welcomed by everybody with a tenderness that was all the greater because no curiosity mingled with it.”
-Michel Foucault

After living as a female within various religious institutions, Herculine (also known as Alexina or Abel) is subjected to a medical examination that established a definitive sex, and she is forced to live as a man. At the age of 30, alone and depressed, he commits suicide.

“As the pressures mount, Alex/ina is driven to relieve them through confession. The mandate to confess defines the predicament to be a fault or rift within Alex/ina h/erself, rather than, say, a dissonance between the cultural configuration of gender normality and culturally inscribed bodies/desires that do not mesh uniformly with this contingent configuration.”
-William E. Connolly

“When Alexina composed her memoirs, she was not far from her suicide; for herself, she was still without a definite sex, but she was deprived of the delights she experienced in not having one, or in not entirely having the same sex as the girls among whom she lived and whom she loved and desired so much.”
-Michel Foucault