What is gender?
I’ve been coming up against this question a lot lately, as it seems to be in the zeitgeist lately (at least in the circles I frequent). There are debates going on right now about gender and its implications in the real world, such as the announcement in the UK of a consultation for reforming the Gender Recognition Act of 2004, the ongoing introduction and debate of so-called bathroom bills in states across the US, and more personally, I was asked to consult with a local municipality regarding some changes in signage for public bathrooms in order to make them more inclusive. The word “gender” keeps coming up, and it seems that there is a lot of disagreement about exactly what it means. I’ve written previously on gender (Gender ≠ Sex), but only scraped the surface. Looking back to where I was at the time I wrote it, I had already done massive amounts of research on the topic, and I know now that I still didn’t understand it very well at all. I’m not claiming to be an expert now, but I’ve learned a lot more, and have developed thoughts and theories to explain some of the issues we face now. I’m going to try to describe everything here, but be warned, this is likely to be long, and will probably get dense and confusing at times. I’ll try to break it into smaller chunks to make it easier to digest, but if you get confused or have any questions at any point, please reach out to me. My own understanding is still evolving, and I’ve found that questions and challenges to my perspective helps me to refine my views and understanding. So you ready? I’m not, but let’s give it a shot!
As you’ve probably figured, I like to start with finding authoritative sources on a topic to set my baseline understanding of it — to set boundaries and rules. So let’s start with an obvious source: the dictionary.
noun gen·der \ ˈjen-dər \
1a : a subclass within a grammatical class (such as noun, pronoun, adjective, or verb) of a language that is partly arbitrary but also partly based on distinguishable characteristics (such as shape, social rank, manner of existence, or sex) and that determines agreement with and selection of other words or grammatical forms
b : membership of a word or a grammatical form in such a subclass
c : an inflectional form (see inflection 3a) showing membership in such a subclass
2a : sex
- the feminine gender
b : the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex
I’ll pull in one more resource before we dig in: a paper titled “The Inexorable Rise of Gender and the Decline of Sex: Social Change in Academic Titles, 1945–2001“
[of the period 1945-2001] At the beginning of this period, uses of gender were much rarer than uses of sex, and often used in the sense of a grammatical category. By the end of this period, uses of gender outnumbered uses of sex in the social sciences, arts, and humanities.
The beginnings of this change in usage can be traced to Money’s introduction of the concept of “gender role” in 1955 (J. Money, 1955).
So prior to 1955, the word “gender” referred to grammatical categories used in some languages to form an agreement between a noun and other aspects of language, like adjectives, articles, pronouns, etc. For instance, when I took Spanish in high school and college, we learned that nouns had a masculine or feminine form, and that the gender of the noun informed which forms of adjectives and articles you’d use in conjunction. For instance, the Spanish word for theater, “teatro”, is masculine, so when referring to “a theater”, you’d use the masculine article “un” (un teatro = a theater), and for “the theater”, you’d use the masculine “el” (el teatro = the theater). Similarly, when you use the feminine noun “rosa” (rose), you’d use the feminine articles “una” and “la” (una rosa = a rose, la rosa = the rose). For adjectives, many had both masculine and feminine forms, such as “pretty” – “bonito/bonita”. So you would have a “bonito teatro” and a “bonita rosa” – the gender of the adjective matches the noun’s gender. Make sense?
Old English made use of grammatical gender, but mostly stopped with Middle English. We still have a few references to gender in Modern English, such as pronouns (he and she), and nouns associated with some animals (man/woman, stallion/mare, ram/ewe, etc), but is largely gender-neutral (see Gender in English wikipedia article for more).
Looking at the Merriam-Webster definition for gender, the first definition refers to these grammatical uses. While interesting, it’s not what were here for is it? (maybe it is… more on that later)
In definition 2b, we have “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex”. I’ll assume we know what “behavioral, cultural [and] psychological” mean, but let’s make sure we understand a few of the other words.
noun \ ˈtrāt , British usually ˈtrā \
1a : a distinguishing quality (as of personal character) · curiosity is one of her notable traits
b : an inherited characteristic
2a : a stroke of or as if of a pencil
b : touch, trace
Definition 2 seems to be irrelevant for our purposes, but definition 1 is useful. “A distinguishing quality (as of personal character)” – when using “trait” with a person, it’s something that distinguishes them from other people. While 1a points out that traits can be related to “personal character” (behavior), 1b adds an element of inheritance or genetics into the mix.
noun \ ˈseks \
Definition of sex
1: either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male especially on the basis of their reproductive organs and structures
2: the sum of the structural, functional, and behavioral characteristics of organisms that are involved in reproduction marked by the union of gametes and that distinguish males and females
3a : sexually motivated phenomena or behavior
b : sexual intercourse
Definition 1 appears to be the most relevant here. Sex refers to the forms (bodies) of individuals within a species, distinguished on the basis of reproductive organs and structures. In humans, the presence of a penis and testicles is used to designate males, and the presence of a vagina, uterus and ovaries to designate females.
Back to Gender, definition 2b: “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex”. “Typically associated with” – commonly (but not always) found in members of [one sex]. So “sex” and “gender” have associations / relationships with each other, but one does not determine the other. They are distinct, albeit related, concepts.
So far, so good? I’m going to dig a lot deeper, but I think this is a good baseline for where to start, and it’s a good stopping place for this time. Until next time, I’ll leave you with a question: Do the words “man” and “woman” refer to sex, or to gender?