In a variety of different contexts, gender refers to the masculinity or femininity of words, persons, characteristics, or non-human organisms. The classification into masculine and feminine is analogous to the biological sexes of male and female, often by physical or syntactical analogy, linguistic decay, misunderstandings, societal norms, or personal choice.
The nature of this categorisation varies depending on the context. For example, gender can be used to refer to the differences in biological sex between two members of a species, or different characteristics of electrical connectors.
On the other side, in feminist theory, gender is used to refer solely to socially constructed differences between male and female behaviour, and the gender of a noun in many languages may have nothing to do with the concept described by it. Controversy surrounds the reasons, history, validity, and usefulness of many of these classifications.
Etymology and usage
Gender comes from Middle English gendre, from Latin genus, all meaning “kind”, “sort”, or “type”. Ultimately from the proto Indo European root, gen, which is also the root for “kind”, “king” and many others. It appears in Modern French in the word genre (type, kind) and is related to the Greek root gen- (to produce), appearing in gene, genesis and oxygen. As a verb, it is used for “to breed” in the King James Bible:
Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind. — Leviticus, 19:19
According to Aristotle, the Greek philospher Protagoras used the terms masculine, feminine, and neuter to classify nouns, introducing the concept of grammatical gender. Since the 14th century, the word is also used as a synonym for (biological) sex. Examples:
The Psyche, or soul, of Tiresias is of the masculine gender — Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia I may add the gender too of the person I am to govern — Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Black divinities of the feminine gender — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities Our most lively impression is that the sun is there assumed to be of the feminine gender — Henry James, Essays on Literature
By 1900, this usage was considered jocular by some. In 1926, Fowler’s Modern English Usage suggested that “gender…is a grammatical term only. To talk of persons…of the masculine or feminine g[ender], meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder.” From Maven’s Word of the Day:
Despite such pronouncements, which may be found in similar forms in many usage books, the use of gender to refer to sex has been increasingly common in the last several decades. This use of gender is comparably common, if not more common, than the equivalent use of sex. A few examples from this year: “The state has to justify any discrimination based on race, gender, national origin [etc.]” (New Republic); “No residential college at Yale prohibits visits by either gender” (New York Times Magazine); “Can clever readers really tell a writer’s gender from his or her prose?” (Harper’s). The growth of this usage, sometimes blamed on “feminists,” is probably a result of the increased frequency of the word sex in the sense of sexual intercourse; gender is employed to avoid the potential physical connotations of sex.
In some parts of the social sciences, following a usage shift that began in the 1950s and was largely completed in the 1980s, gender has been used increasingly to refer to socially constructed aspects, in contrast to biologically determined, using the word sex for the latter. Example (again from MWofD) “Today a return to separate single-sex schools may hasten the revival of separate gender roles”.
Another example: “The effectiveness of the medication appears to depend on the sex (not gender) of the patient”, but “In peasant societies, gender (not sex) roles are likely to be more clearly defined.” This distinction has been advocated vociferously by some, who consider the use of gender as a euphemism for sex incorrect.
In the last half of the 20th century, the use of gender in academia has increased strongly, now outnumbering the occurrences of the word sex in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. However, use of the term gender includes the meaning biological sex, and the distinction between sex and gender is only fitfully observed. (Haig, 2004)
In linguistics, grammatical gender is a type of inflection. We say that a language has grammatical genders, or noun classes, when nouns are divided into groups according to natural characteristics of the concepts which they represent.
This division can manifest itself in two ways: through morphological characteristics of the nouns themselves, and through morphological changes in other parts of speech that refer to nouns (gender agreement). For example, in Spanish, most nouns that end in -o are masculine and most nouns that end in -a are feminine. Thus, niño means “boy”, and niña means “girl”. This allows new nouns with a similar meaning to be readily created in a different class, by analogy: given the noun empresario (businessman), it was straightforward to make the new noun empresaria for “businesswoman”, when women reached the work market.
This kind of class shift can also have more subtle uses, such as making a collective noun like fruta (group of fruits) from a singular noun like fruto (fruit). To understand gender agreement, consider the sentences “The man is tall” and “The woman is tall”. In English, the only word that differs between them is the noun “man/woman”, which has a direct semantic association with sexual identity.
In Spanish, however, one says “El hombre es alto” and “La mujer es alta“, respectively. Not only do the words for “man” and “woman” change, (hombre vs. mujer), but so do the article (el, la) and the adjective (alto, alta). When a noun belongs to a certain class, other parts of speech that refer to that noun must be inflected to be in the same class. This is similar to number agreement, whereby parts of speech that refer to a noun are inflected to agree with the grammatical number of that noun.
Gender can refer to the (biological) condition of being male or female, applied to humans, animals, plants, and other sexual species. In this sense, the term is a synonym for sex, a word that has undergone a usage shift itself, having become a synonym for sexual reproduction. Haig:
“Among the reasons that working scientists have given me for choosing gender rather than sex in biological contexts are desires to signal sympathy with feminist goals, to use a more academic term, or to avoid the connotation of copulation.”
Since 1950 an increasing part of the academic literature, and of the public discourse uses gender for the perceived or projected (self-identified) masculinity or femininity of a person. The terms was introduced by Money (1955):
“The term gender role is used to signify all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. It includes, but is not restricted to, sexuality in the sense of eroticism.”
A person’s gender is complex, encompassing countless characteristics of appearance, speech, movement and other factors not solely limited to biological sex. Societies tend to have binary gender systems in which everyone is categorised as male or female, but this is not universal.
Some societies include a third gender role; for instance, the Native American Two-Spirit people and the Hijras of India. There is debate over to what extent gender is a social construct and to what extent it is a biological construct.
At the extremes of these views you have social constructionism, which suggests that it is entirely a social construct, and essentialism which suggests that it’s entirely a biological construct. Gender associations are constantly changing as society progresses. For example, the color pink was considered masculine in the early 1900s and is now seen as feminine.
In feminist theory
During the 1970s there was no consensus about how the terms were to be applied. In the 1974 edition of Masculine/Feminine or Human, the author uses “innate gender” and “learned sex roles”, but in the 1978 edition, the use of sex and gender is reversed. By 1980, most feminist writings had agreed on using gender only for socioculturally adapted traits.
In English, both sex and gender are used in contexts where they could not be substituted ( sexual intercourse; anal sex; safe sex; sex worker; sex slave). Other languages, like German, use the same word Geschlecht to refer both to grammatical gender and to biological sex, making the distinction between sex and gender advocated by some anthropologists difficult.
In some contexts, German has adopted the English loan-word gender to achieve this distinction. Sometimes ‘Geschlechtsidentitaet‘ is used as gender (although it literally means gender identity) and ‘Geschlecht‘ as sex (translation of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble). More common is the use of modifiers: biologisches Geschlecht for sex, Geschlechtsidentität for gender identity and Geschlechtsrolle for gender role etc.
- Chafetz, J. S. Masculine/feminine or human? An overview of the sociology of sex roles. 1st ed. 1974, 2nd ed. 178. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.
- Haig, D. The inexorable rise of gender and the decline of sex: social change in academic titles, 1945-2001. Archives of Sexual Behavior 33: 87-96, 2004
- Money, J. Hermaphroditism, gender and precocity in hyperadrenocorticism: Psychologic findings. Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, 96, 253–264, 1955.
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