A fantasy landscape with ancient ruins and figures, Barbara Regina Dietzsch. Public Domain.

The Journey of Gender: There and Back Again

It is sometimes said that “gender” had an exclusively grammatical sense before the 1950s, as in “The gender of ‘chaise’ in French is feminine.” Henry Fowler, the English philologist and author of the quirky 1926 style guide A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, sternly pronounced that the word “is a grammatical term only. To talk of persons or creatures of the masculine or feminine g., meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder.”

But the (non-jocular) use of “gender” to mean sex—male and female—goes back centuries, with the Oxford English Dictionary recording an example from 1474 (“His heyres [heirs] of the masculine gender…”). These days there is an embarrassment of riches: “gender” is used to mean social roles and norms attaching to the two sexes, or masculinity and femininity, or an internal sense of being male/female/neither, and more. Many words have multiple meanings, which usually doesn’t produce incomprehension, but “gender” is a kind of lexical brainworm, a parasite eating away at understanding. As Abigail Favale puts it in a recent essay, it’s “a word with no stable definition that is nonetheless endlessly deployed, shifting meanings to suit a particular agenda.” This “linguistic bedlam” prompts her to ask whether we should “abandon the word” or “attempt to redeem” it.

This is an excellent and pressing question! There is plenty for me to agree with in Favale’s essay, and in her fine book The Genesis of Gender, which I wish I had read before writing my own, Trouble with Gender. Still, we disagree about what to do with that troublesome word, which is the topic of the present essay.

The Instability of “Gender”

Although Favale and I take the dizzying instability of “gender” as a defect to be fixed, others think it’s a feature, not a bug. In the introduction to her 2009 book Gender: The Genealogy of an Idea, for example, Jennifer Germon writes that she has “chosen not to offer a fixed, delimited definition of the central organizing concept, gender.” That’s because, Germon explains, a definition would “defeat one of the primary objectives of this project: to make plain the dynamic nature of gender as a concept, since it is that very dynamism that makes it such a potent conceptual device.”

Consider a recent talk by the renowned gender-maven Judith Butler. Butler begins by saying that the meaning of “gender” has never “been firmly established across time and space” and that the word “emerges into a field of contestation about its very meaning.” The question “What is gender?” she continues, “may not be the right question at all.” All that would be fine if Butler took Favale’s option of junking the word, but of course she doesn’t. The title of Butler’s talk is “Who’s afraid of gender?”—which is also the title of her error-riddled book. Oddly enough, Butler does answer the question “What is gender?” at the end of her talk—even if her answer is far from clear. While acknowledging debates “about how best to define gender and whether to define it at all,” she says that the word “names the apparatus that comes to bear on the practice of sex assignment, which is why sex does not precede gender as some natural surface or site of potential cultural inscription.”

Going by Butler’s talk, the question “What is your gender?” makes no sense. Gender, on Butler’s view, is some kind of social practice or institution, not a feature of individual people: “the term ‘gender’ does not actually describe a person,” as she puts it. That is a departure from Butler’s most famous book, Gender Trouble. Although she says at one point that “gender” “designate[s] the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established,” the word is also used in Gender Trouble for the categories man and woman. Butler’s talk notwithstanding, her new book, Who’s Afraid of Gender, tacks back to the usage in Gender Trouble.

Should We Ditch “Gender”?

Faced with this confusion of tongues, one simple solution is to avoid the word “gender” entirely, unless grammar is the topic. Favale mentions the Catholic writer Dale O’Leary, “who argues that we should not say gender when we mean sex.” O’Leary’s stated reason for this prohibition would be entirely convincing, were it true: “While many people believe that gender is a synonym for sex, it is not.” Here, O’Leary agrees with the sexologist Harry Benjamin, who wrote in his 1966 classic The Transsexual Phenomenon, “According to the dictionary, sex is synonymous with gender. But, in actuality, this is not true.” One of Benjamin’s early patients was Christine Jorgensen, the first famous US male-to-female transsexual. No doubt Benjamin and O’Leary agree on little else.

“Jelly” and “Jam” are sometimes thought to be synonyms, but they aren’t. This is why you should avoid the word “jelly” if you want a jam sandwich. However, O’Leary and Benjamin are mistaken about “sex” and “gender.” Both words (like most words—including “jelly” and “jam”) have multiple meanings. But by any reasonable test, “sex” and “gender” have one sense or meaning in common: either of the two reproductive categories, male and female. To borrow an OED example, when the UK’s Sunday Times printed in 1970, “Adolescents of both genders strode along… with books and long flaxen unisexual hair,” the newspaper did not choose the wrong word.

The use of “gender” to mean sex isn’t going away, because it’s useful, particularly in recent times. Writing a few years before Gender Trouble was published in 1990, the Harvard philosopher W. V. Quine gave a plausible explanation:

Social change has linguistic repercussions…The latter-day upheaval in sexual mores has increased the frequency of occasions for referring politely to copulation, and has thus created a demand for a short but equally polite word for the practice. The word sex has been pressed into that service, and thus rendered less convenient as a means of referring to the sexes. The resulting need has been met in turn by calling the sexes genders.

Given that “gender” (in one sense) is synonymous with “sex” (in one sense), it follows that non-human animals have genders. Numerous scientific publications attest as much. A paper about motor neuron disease in Scientific Reports mentions mice of “both genders.” Bees have genders too, according to a paper in the Journal of Agricultural Research. Since uses of “gender” to mean sex are usually readily detectable, are unlikely to befuddle, and have utility, refusing to use the word is a little perverse.

And, indeed, that is not Favale’s preferred option. As she points out, the Catholic Women’s Forum’s The Gender Project was rebranded as “The Person and Identity Project.” Switching to “The Sex Project” would have likely led the faithful astray, because sometimes the copulation interpretation of “sex” is too tempting to ignore. “The Gender Project,” with “gender” understood as sex—male and female—was the perfect title all along.

Favale’s Sex/Gender Distinction

Although Favale recommends keeping “gender,” she thinks we should give it another meaning, in a way that represents something of an alignment with Butler. As I mentioned, on one use of “gender” in Gender Trouble (and Who’s Afraid of Gender), woman and man are examples of genders. And that is how Favale proposes to “regenerate” the word: “‘gender’ is to woman as ‘sex’ is to female.”

Admittedly, Favale does not endorse Butler’s claim that the female body is the “arbitrary locus of the gender ‘woman’” (i.e. that there could be male women), or that the female body could be “the locus of other constructions of gender” (i.e. that there are many more “genders” than woman and man). But on the question of whether woman or female is a gender, Favale and Butler seemingly agree: woman is, but female is not.

Favale thus endorses one kind of “sex/gender distinction.” That is, on her recommended usage, sex and gender are not the same. As she says, “Gender, in this usage, includes sex, but carries a fuller meaning, because it is indicative of a person rather than a reproductive niche.” She is making two points here. First, every woman must be female, but not conversely (for example, my cat Lola is female and not a woman). Similarly for men: every man must be male, but not conversely. The second point is that all women must be people—that is, human beings—but some females (such as Lola) are not people. (Again, similarly for men.)

Now, girls and boys are the juvenile counterparts of women and men. If Taylor Swift has a gender, then surely a 12-year-old female Swiftie has a gender too. Taylor Swift’s gender in Favale’s sense is apparently woman. What about the youthful Swiftie, who is too young to be a woman? Favale presumably would not want to say that the Swiftie has no gender, in which case her gender must be girl. That is, if Favale wants to count woman and man as genders, she should include girl and boy as well.

Using “gender” in this way, then, there are more than two genders. Usually, those who agree that there are more than two think that the total number of genders is considerably higher. According to a medical doctor writing on the website MedicineNet, there are seventy-four genders (including, confusingly, male and female). One may conjecture that more genders remain to be discovered, like unknown species of mold. But the present position is more economical: leaving aside speculation about angelic genders, there are exactly four.

If Favale thinks four is too many genders, she could deny that woman is a gender, and count women and girls as having the same gender. On this alternative proposal, the two genders are woman-or-girl, and boy-or-man. The alternative proposal goes with a revised slogan. Instead of “‘gender’ is to woman as ‘sex’ is to female,” the slogan should be “‘gender’ is to woman-or-girl as ‘sex’ is to female.”

Either way, why does Favale want to appropriate “gender” for women, men, girls and boys? Other proposals for what the word should mean face a similar question. For instance, the UCLA psychiatrist Robert Stoller defined “gender” his 1968 book Sex and Gender as masculinity and femininity (more exactly, albeit rather obscurely, as “the amount of masculinity and femininity found in a person”). Masculinity and femininity are interesting subjects, but there is no obvious reason why we need a special word to talk about them. The words “masculinity” and “femininity” will do quite nicely.

To take another example, “gender” is sometimes understood to refer to sex-typed social roles, “the social roles expected for males and females within a given culture,” which we do not want to ignore. But again, alternative terminology is ready to hand: “sex roles” is a decent compact label, and “gender roles” is even better, with “gender” understood to mean sex. Abbreviating “sex roles” or “gender roles” with the single word “gender” only makes the intended meaning less clear.

As to women, men, girls, and boys, there is no need to introduce any new vocabulary, because we already have the appropriate words. If we want to talk about women, men, girls and boys collectively, we can use “people” or “humans.” If we want to talk about women and girls, a single word will do the trick, namely “female.” That is because “female” has a restricted sense in which it applies to “a person of the sex that can bear offspring,” to quote the OED. (That is actually the first entry for the noun “female” in that dictionary; the broader sense in which the word applies to Lola is the second entry.)

More importantly, we must contend with the sense of “gender” on which it is a synonym of “sex.” As the moon pulls the sea to the shore, “the latter-day upheaval in sexual mores” pulls “gender” towards sex, male and female. Resistance is as useless as King Canute’s attempt to stop the incoming tide. Favale’s proposal inevitably introduces an unwelcome ambiguity where there was none before. In one sense, Taylor Swift’s gender is female. In Favale’s sense, Swift’s gender is either woman (the four-gender version), or else woman-or-girl (the two-gender version).

“Sex” and “Gender” as Synonyms

The better idea, I suggest, is to go with the flow and use “gender” only as a synonym for sex. Other distinctions that are sometimes made using that word can be made more clearly with other words. The uninhibited use of “gender” has already ruined swathes of philosophy, not to mention the public discourse; we can each do our part to limit the damage.

Even if there were a case for introducing yet another meaning of “gender,” the practical obstacles are formidable. True, words sprout new meanings all the time. Occasionally, this can be traced to the efforts of a single individual, as when the rapper Lil B managed to make “based” (meaning: not caring what others think) common currency, at least among the youth. But even when this happens, the process is unpredictable, and any success is a fluke. English and other natural languages are not under anyone’s control. Stipulating that “gender” will mean such-and-such in an academic article is one thing; altering its meaning in everyday talk is quite another.

Favale recognizes this herself: her audience is “the ordinary person in the pew”—and perhaps also the ungodly, for they want to know about the trouble with gender too. Ideally, one should speak “the pedestrian language of the uninitiated, the uninformed, the supposed ignorami,” not bemuse them by using familiar words with unfamiliar meanings. However, Favale suggests that the laity are already on board with her usage: they “blithely conflate gender with sex… instinctively assum[ing] that men are male and women are female.” She’s right about the conflation and the instinctive assumption, but wrong to connect the two. Gender should be conflated with sex, because (in one sense) the two are identical. That has nothing to do with terms like “woman” and “man.” An entirely separate claim is that women are female and men are male. That instinctive assumption is also correct, but it is not the result of conflating gender and sex.

Unfortunately, we can be confident that the high priests of genderology will not see the light, and use “gender” as a synonym for “sex.” As Favale notes in her book, glossaries of the new approved terms for speaking about sex and sexuality will typically use “gender” numerous times, but without ever defining the word. Gender, like God, is ineffable. The parallel is quite strong. According to Christianity, God makes Himself known through the mystery of the incarnation; according to genderology, gender makes itself (themself?) known through the mystery of another kind of incarnation, one sex embodied in the flesh of the other.

We may have to live with the ineffability of the divine, but gender needs to return to its roots, back to that fundamental division of the human animal into male and female.