April Ashley was a British supermodel and fashion icon in the 1950s and ‘60s. And when she announced her marriage to Arthur Corbett, the heir of Lord Rowallen, she also became Great Britain’s most famous transsexual.
Dan O’Connor, a lecturer in the University of Wisconsin’s department of medical history and bioethics, explores the gaps between the medical and legal definitions of sex and the popular cultural signs of gender in the Lawrence University address “‘Wife a Man’: The April Ashley Divorce Trial and the Definition of Sex in Postwar Britain.”
O’Connor’s presentation, Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 4:15 p.m. in Lawrence’s Science Hall, Room 102, is free and open to the public.
A one-time member of the British merchant navy, Ashley spent two years as a showgirl at the Carousel, Paris’ famous female impersonator nightclub before undergoing sex reassignment surgery in 1960. Three years later in Gibraltar, she married Corbett, a transvestite and likely a homosexual, who was well aware of the facts of Ashley’s gender. Their marriage was never consummated, leading to a landmark court battle.
In a 1969 trial — the first case in which an English court has been called upon to decide the sex of an individual — the judge rules ‘wife a man’ on the grounds that although Ashley had a sex change operation, she was, by three biological criteria, a male “at birth” and the marriage was annulled.
The ruling was subsequently applied beyond the scope of marriage to deny transsexual British citizens basic civil rights and left them unable to legally change their sex in the UK until 2003 when it was repealed.
O’Connor is teaching at UW as a visiting research fellow from the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick in England. He is currently completing his Ph.D. dissertation “Sex Signs: Transsexuality, Writing and the Languages of Male and Female in Britain and the U.S., 1950-2000.”