NEH Fellowship Supports Engelstein’s Research on the Formation of Language and Ideas About Sex

Stefani Engelstein
Stefani Engelstein, professor of German Studies and Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies

Editor's Note: April 19, 2023

Since this article was first published on March 6, 2023, Engelstein has been selected as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar for 2023-2024 for Germany. Fulbright Scholar Awards are prestigious and competitive fellowships that provide unique opportunities for scholars to teach and conduct research abroad. She has also been named to this year's cohort of Guggenheim Fellows, which recognizes exceptional mid-career scholars and artists working in any field of knowledge or artform, under the freest possible conditions.

There is a simplicity to the idea of sexual difference as a paradigm of opposites — two sides of a coin or magnets that can attract or repel. But humans have always had distinct identities, dynamic relationships and roles in society that are ever-changing.

German Studies Professor Stefani Engelstein has always been interested in how definitions are made and how boundaries are drawn and has now turned these questions on ideas of sex, gender and sexuality. A fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities will enable Engelstein to continue her work in this area and expand it into a forthcoming book, “The Making of Oppositional Sexes.”

In a recent interview, she shared what inspires her research and why studying sex and gender differences helps us understand the origins of the language and ideas that shape culture.

What history and past scholarship have informed your research and forthcoming book?

When people today think about sex and sexuality, they may see that landscape as having gotten more complex, compared to an idea of sexual difference that they consider “traditional.” But actually, ideas about the sexes, about sexuality, about the roles of the two sexes — if we want to think of them as two sexes — have changed significantly over time.

The last moment in which there was really a big transformation was the 1700s. There has been quite a lot of historical work on the period, and it focuses on a couple of things: the economic changes — which basically invented wage labor — with people moving out of agricultural jobs, and also the political view, where the idea of a participatory politics is being reinvented in the modern era.

For both of those realms, a new ideal develops by which the man is supposed to go out into the workplace and also be part of this civic sphere, while women are supposed to stay home in a domestic sphere and do caretaking labor, which is unpaid but also credited with being related to certain attributes that women are then said to actually be better at — things like nurturing and empathy.

There has also been work on the history of marriage. In just a couple of generations, the expectations for marriage changed dramatically, from being primarily about alliances to including a form of love that had to do with companionship and also erotic attraction. Over a very short period, it came to be viewed as immoral for parents to persuade particularly their daughters, but also their sons, into a marriage where that wasn't felt.

Finally, there has also been work done in the scientific sphere where anatomists, physiologists and physicians were looking at the human body and developing views of that body as having more sexual dimorphism and relating those differences to expected roles and care. That science was also seen increasingly as the authority on the matter, where you turned to justify what was said about men and women's roles, the sphere of anatomy and body.

What new thinking are you bringing to this topic?

I've noticed that the language around sexes at the time was about otherness and not about oppositionality until you get to the end of 1700s. And then something changes.

In physiology, the view of sexual opposition comes to be seen as analogous to, for example, polar phenomenon in the physical sciences — like electricity and magnetism where there's a positive and a negative, and an attraction between them. And that, at least in the case of electricity, also discharges when they're brought together. This gets turned into a biological cycle of differentiation, the drive towards unification — sexual intercourse — and then the production of a next generation as a result.

I think it really adds to the picture when you see this idea of sex as two now-opposite identities develop together with both the physiology and the ethics of sexual intercourse, which is then related to a kind of continuity into the future. It's not just a question of roles. An extreme form of difference becomes tied to how nature and how society seemingly have to work, and human sexual intercourse itself becomes important not only to philosophical questions of ethics, but also of epistemology — or how we know, and of ontology — the nature of being itself.

What do you mean by the distinction between opposite and other?

One interesting thing is that around 1800 in English, for example, you see a phrase all over the place “the other sex.” You almost never see the phrase “the opposite sex” — it just wasn’t an expression. That changes over the course of the 19th century but really slowly, so that it only overtakes the “other sex” in the second decade of the 20th century. It's a pretty new idea that the sexes are actually not just different but opposed to each other in some way.

Google Ngrams charts shows the usage of the term "other sex" (left) at its peak in the 1800s and gradually fall as the term "opposite sex" (right) rises in usage during the 1900s and into present day.
Google Ngrams charts show the usage of the term "other sex" (left) at its peak in the 1800s. The term gradually fell as the term "opposite sex" (right) rises in usage during the 1900s. 
How does this research connect to German thinkers, philosophers and writers?

My own work is transnational and interdisciplinary, and most of my work focuses on both German and British history of science, philosophy and literature. I noticed that these ideas about the sexes as opposed to each other really do seem to have an intense moment of development in German thought in the 1790s, which is why I focus there for this book. This is an era in which disciplinary differences weren't fully-fledged. There was a lot of intellectual exchange between people who were working in the sciences and medicine with those in philosophy, people who are writing literature were also doctors or engineers or conducting research in botany. What people did with those thoughts in different fields was different. But there are ways in which all of those practitioners were grappling with really similar questions in those very different realms. So you see a lot of intersections at this moment that lead to a wide reach for ideas coming out of them. 

European cultures had been in contact with each other and then had a lot of impact on the wider world through processes of colonialism and globalization. It seems very important to think about ideas as things that move and spread, and to study where they come from and how that happens.

You mentioned that, within scholarship, people have considered roles and the biology of sex, but connections between these ideas and sexual interaction haven’t been drawn out. 

Exactly. Some people have been talking about sexual difference historically, but nobody’s been talking about sex in philosophy or literature and what role that’s playing and why that’s important.

Why do you think that is?

Some of it is just prudish! And then, I think a lot of scholars recognize that there are elements in this period that they don't agree with. And people often want to find things that are “still relevant,” which means things they think they can still build on in this work. It's easier to just say, “well, let's ignore that part of it; that's problematic.” But the “problematic” is tied into the entire systems of these thinkers. We ignore them at our own risk. If we want to see what's still valuable in these thinkers, we have to see their systems as a whole.

How do you engage with research that might be viewed as “problematic,” as it pertains to ongoing social debates?

Well, the last chapter of the book is going to be on the late 20th century through today. You can see how the idea of the sexes as complementary — as mutually supportive and mutually completing — is used to try to move women out of the workforce that they enter during the Second World War and back into the home. You see it move into religious discourse — both Catholic and fundamentalist — in the 1980s to nudge woman back towards domesticity and caretaking in the wake of the sexual revolution and the career woman. You see it increasingly in the 1990s and aughts in the courts and on television and radio as an argument against extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. But at the same time in the 1990s through today, in relation to marriage rights, to trans rights, and to abortion, the debate isn’t only about a biological definition of sex and its natural fit with gender, but also about intercourse, which is described by some as uniting certain couples — namely heterosexual ones — in ways that are privileged, and lead to pregnancies that also take on a privileged status. It’s the same pattern that you find developing in the 1790s. So my goal here is to show how certain sets of ideas remain linked together, even though there is never a monolithic period where everyone is saying the same thing. This historical view should allow us to think about ideas more flexibly, to give us more leeway in imagining our futures.   

What are you hoping that those outside your field take away from your research? 
Heinrich on Kleist, black and white chalk drawing
Chalk drawing of Heinrich von Kleist, German poet and playwright. (Photo courtesy of Marburg Picture Index)

One thing I think is important has to do with the role that literature plays in this. I think literature has a way of reflecting on things about the world and playing with those ideas to see what might happen. There's always an aesthetic dimension to literature that intersects with a dimension that has to do with social critique — even philosophical critique and epistemological critique. There's so much that you can find literature playing with.

Any favorite examples of this?

One of my favorites is Heinrich von Kleist, and he's far too little known in America. He was Kafka's favorite author, writing at the very beginning of the 19th century, and his stories and plays are very odd and really

interesting. One of his plays, “Penthesilea,” is about a mythological figure who was the queen of the Amazons — an all-female society and army — and he envisions them fighting in the Trojan War against both sides. He really forces the issue of what it means to see the world, what it means to have an interpersonal relationship, what it means to fall in love, where violence comes from. He forces us to ask some very interesting questions about ethics and autonomy and gender.

Why is this research important to you?

All of the work I do tends to revolve around the problems that boundaries present. As human beings, we like to categorize things and put them into groups and draw definitions. And those definitions are usually useful for something, but we've drawn them for reasons and those reasons can change over time. We tend to think of our categories as being real in the world around us, but often there are things that we've imposed because it makes certain things easier for us to think about. Those definitions always fascinate me, and I feel like I want to delve into why they're sometimes problematic.

The other way of answering is to say that the categories that we have in the world, the way that we think about the world — those things have histories and we're frequently not aware of those histories. We think that things are just the way we believe them to be and see them today. But actually, we've created the world in the way that we see it. Alternate histories would have been possible. I think it's important for people to be aware of the series of choices and coincidences that created things that we think are permanent and unchanging.