What is Gender? (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

It’s been nearly two years since I posted Part 1, and I’ve always meant to return and finish this series. This part delves into the origins of the concept we now call gender, and is a bit speculative. Some of the concepts I discuss below might be controversial; these are my observations and impressions of what happened in the past and of what is currently happening, and I am not endorsing any concept unless I explicitly say so. I welcome respectful conversation on any of these concepts, and reserve the right to revise any and all of the below as my understanding continues to evolve.

I wrote the below shortly after Part 1, and it’s modeled on a conversation I had over Twitter back at that time. I still believe the concepts and logic below are valid, though I don’t believe that one must agree with them (or even be aware of them) in order to understand the concept of gender.

When we left off, we had covered the dictionary definition of gender and a few related concepts. We found that while gender and sex relate to each other, one does not dictate the other. And I left you with a question: do the words man and woman refer to sex, or to gender? Before we get to my answer, let’s explore some more.

Categorization: A Survival Strategy

As humans, we categorize. We sort the things we observe into groups based upon a variety of qualities. Size and shape are obvious, but we also evaluate on things that can’t be seen. Is it dangerous? Will it hurt me? Researchers at a Japanese university found that humans recognize snakes more accurately than other animals; this is thought to be a survival skill, as snakes are among the more threatening animals humans might encounter. We categorize things because it’s useful when looking for patterns. We might be able to identify plants which are more likely to make us sick if we eat them, and others which might taste really good. We might be able to tell which animals are dangerous, and which might be friendly (or might taste really good). And so we categorize other humans as well.

With humans, an obvious way to categorize is to look at our bodies. We can find traits which are shared across many people – skin color, height, size of feet, hair color, and, perhaps the most fundamental: the presence of either a penis or vulva. This last one is useful and makes a lot of sense: for the species to survive, humans must procreate, and procreation requires an egg and a sperm. Setting aside the topic of people who are intersex, the presence of these externally visible body parts is a mostly reliable way to tell who has which. Returning to our vocabulary, these are the categories we call the sexes; penis=male, vulva=female.

Since survival of the human species hasn’t always been a given, humans developed behaviors which further improved the chances of survival. We clumped together in small societies, and because of how reproduction works, fell into roles based upon our sex. Males, being able to reproduce with multiple partners and not being the ones carrying the offspring meant that they were both a little more expendable and therefore able to provide protection to the rest of the society. Males evolved into larger and stronger humans, as those traits gave an advantage for hunting and protecting the group. Females were more vulnerable during pregnancy and the loss of a female was more threatening to the survival of the species, so their role became that of producing offspring and nurturing that offspring until it was capable of taking care of itself. The roles were based upon an individual’s sex, and there was less space for deviation from those roles if species survival was the priority.

But humans haven’t been at risk of extinction since pre-historic times. And humans haven’t had to be concerned with survival to such a great degree that they don’t have time to exhibit other traits which make humans, well, humans. Humans could engage in creative endeavors, explore their environment, and construct buildings, systems of government, nuanced social strata and the like. When it comes to social organization and government, decisions are often made based upon who has power, and because of sex-based roles and behaviors, males had a physical advantage: they tended to be larger and stronger, which placed them at an advantage over females. Is it any wonder that patriarchy (literally, “ruling father”) has been the dominant theme in societies and governments for millennia? If a male and female disagreed on something, the male had the means to physically intimidate and even force the female into submission!

Rise of patriarchy and the emergence of Gender

The thing about power is that those who have it don’t often like to share it. Males had power, and they used that power to preserve their hold of it. Note: Please understand that while this might sound like I’m making males out to be villains, I’m just describing my understanding of the circumstances that led to where we are today. The various traits, roles and expectations which had previously been aligned with ensuring the survival of the species now moved into the realm of culture and social norms; instead of being about survival, they became about preserving a separation and imbalance of power between males and females. The traits were classified as masculine (those which males are expected to have or perform) or feminine (those which females are expected to have or perform). 

Men had a vested interest in remaining strong and physically dominant, so things like playing sports and building and maintaining muscles went into the masculine bucket. They wanted women to remain physically submissive, so things like softness and beauty went into feminine. As clothing advanced, men claimed advantages where they could: dropping open bottomed clothing (what we’d consider skirts) in favor of pants, as pants provided more protection to the legs and more mobility as there was no danger of exposing soft, vulnerable genitals due to vigorous movement. As pockets came into clothing, they tended to only be used in men’s clothing; having pockets meant those pockets could hold things, and things in your pockets means less things in your hands. Having your hands free is a tactical advantage – you are more capable of defending and attacking if you have both hands free (or have weapons in those hands). The relative scarcity of pockets (and lack of depth of those pockets which do exist) was and is explained away as “pockets in women’s clothing mess up the lines of the clothing” (read: showing off a woman’s body and curves). But by not having pockets, women were inclined to depend on men to carry some of their important items (money, etc), which meant that men could retain and withhold those same items from women.

If you don’t think that pockets are a big deal, you’ve never seen two women when one is showing off a new dress and exclaims “and look, it has pockets!!!” It’s a big deal.

Without getting into politics and activism, the takeaway from all of this is that males evolved to have physically dominant traits, and have (consciously or not) used those traits to take and retain power over females. 

I’ll stop here for now. My question remains: do the words man and woman refer to sex, or to gender? My answer is that it refers to both. I’ll get into why next time.


3 thoughts on “What is Gender? (Part 2)

Add yours

  1. I think the problem is we overload the terms. But I also think much of modern queer theory needs to come into the 21st century—mainstream culture is much more fluid than we care to admit. The androgyny with fashion, stay-at-home dads, broader trends in culture shows that we do not engender the world as much as intellectuals, stuck in their academic classrooms rather than venturing into the real world, like to think and teach.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Valid, and I think you’re highlighting an aspect of Gender which I plan to get to – the differences between a person’s experienced gender, their gender expression, and gender roles. The lines between these various aspects of gender are very much blurring, and there is increasing awareness that you can’t tell someone’s experienced gender by evaluating their gender expression or observing the roles they take on.

      Gender is such a deep and diverse topic!


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