Article ID: CBB001201814

The “Case of a Bearded Woman”: Hypertrichosis and the Construction of Gender in the Age of Darwin (2011)


This essay analyzes the late-nineteenth-century epidemic of hypertrichosis, the disease of "superfluous hair," in the context of the U.S. reception of evolutionary theory. Between 1877 and 1920 scores of dermatologists reported at conferences and in medical journals that their female patients were traumatized by excessive facial and body hair. At the same time, the public flocked to see bearded ladies on display at circus sideshows. To make sense of hirsute women, specialists and popular observers alike often invoked evolutionary theory, especially Charles Darwin's theory of sexual selection as explained in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Studying the medical and popular fascination with female hirsutism sheds light on the understudied role that gender has played in the U.S. reception of evolutionary theory, reveals how the cultural norm of female hairlessness became naturalized, and helps us better understand the ongoing construction of gender, a highly racialized category.

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Authors & Contributors
Hamlin, Kimberly Ann
Vladimirovich, Suslov Andrey
Nikolaevich, Nikolenko Vladimir
Sergeevna, Kozhemiako Anastasia
Nikolaevich, Chairkin Ivan
Davidovna, Shepetovskaya Maria
Women's History Review
Journal of the History of Biology
Journal of British Studies
Endeavour: Review of the Progress of Science
Comptes Rendus Biologies
American Quarterly
University of Cambridge (United Kingdom)
University of Texas at Austin
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick
Arizona State University
University of Chicago Press
Science and gender
Science and race
Science and culture
Social Darwinism
Darwin, Charles Robert
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins
Sokolov, Ivan Matveevich
Pastrana, Julia
Blackwell, Antoinette Louisa Brown
Xenopoulos, Grēgorios
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
20th century
United States
Great Britain
South America
New Zealand

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