This is a description of a young American woman in the late 1950s, learning from her future mother-in-law everyday things that will make her a ‘good wife’. We can recognize Agnes learning the kinds of skills and characteristics that, at the time, were thought essential for being feminine, ‘ladylike’. This could be any

young woman learning from her elders. What is unusual is that Agnes spent the first 17 years of her life living as a boy. Harold Garfinkel encounters Agnes in his work at the gender clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he, as a social psychologist/sociologist, and a team of medical and psychiatric personnel headed by Robert Stoller were doing research on people who do not fit neatly into one of the two socially approved sex/gender categories. Agnes was born with a penis and a scrotum, and was identified as male and raised accordingly. When Garfinkel met her at age 19, she still had a penis, but also had a feminine body shape, including large breasts which had developed at puberty (Garfinkel reveals how this happened in an appendix to his book Studies in Ethnomethodology). Until the age of 17 everyone had recognized and treated Agnes as a boy. Then:

Two years later, Agnes met Bill and moved to the San Fernando Valley to be closer to him; shortly afterwards she was seen for the first time at UCLA, meeting weekly to talk to Garfinkel until and after a castration operation was performed and a vagina constructed. What is interesting for sociologists about Agnes is that she illustrates how gender is something that we learn to do and can relearn, although this may not be easy:

The only real difference between Agnes and other women is that Agnes had to learn how to do femininity rather late in life, and was more conscious of how she did things and more worried about getting it ‘wrong’ than most women. This process of learning to do gender has to take account of what kind of body you have, but is not determined by it.