Was as Ulrike von Kleist a real woman? Certainly not according to her half-brother, the writer Heinrich von Kleist. In a letter dating from 1801, he complains that although he adores Ulrike, nature must have made a mistake in creating a creature that is “neither man nor woman, and shifts, like an amphibian, between two species.”
Of course, Ulrike may not have viewed herself in such presciently non-binary terms. What we do know is that she was fiercely independent, ignoring her sibling’s advice that it was her destiny to be a wife and mother, and that she often took to wearing men’s clothing while travelling. Is this enough to make a person “neither man nor woman”? It’s always been my view that Kleist’s letter tells us far more about his sexism (and that of his background) than Ulrike’s gender. But then again, maybe I’m wrong. Over 200 years after his death, it seems our most progressive voices would now be taking his side.