The Biological Contributions to Gender Identity and Gender Diversity: Bringing Data to the Table


  • 1 Department of Complex Trait Genetics, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
  • 2 Center for Neurogenomics and Cognitive Research, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
  • 3 Department of Medical Psychology, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
  • 4 Center of Expertise on Gender Dysphoria, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
  • 5 Division of Endocrinology, Center for Andrology, George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA.
  • 6 Program for LGBTI Health, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA.
  • 7 Division of Nephrology & Hypertension, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA.
  • 8 Division of Endocrinology, Department of Medicine, Boston Children's Hospital, Boston, MA, USA.
  • 9 Department of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.
  • 10 Translational Neurogenomics Group, QIMR Berghofer, Brisbane, QLD, Australia.
  • 11 Department of Endocrinology and Gender Identity Unit, University Regional Hospital of Malaga, Malaga, Spain.
  • 12 Foundation Institute of Biomedical Research in Malaga (FIMABIS-IBIMA), Malaga, Spain.
  • 13 Department of Anesthesiology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA.
  • 14 Department of Surgery, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA.
  • 15 Department of Biomedical Informatics, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA.
  • 16 Department of Health Policy, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA.
  • 17 Department of Internal Medicine, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
  • 18 Department of Research, OCHIN, Inc., Portland, OR, USA.
  • 19 Divisions of Endocrinology and Psychiatry, Boston Children's Hospital, Boston, MA, USA.
  • 20 Program for LGBTI Health, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA. [email protected].
  • 21 Division of Genetic Medicine, Department of Medicine, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA. [email protected].
  • 22 Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA. [email protected].
  • 23 Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA. [email protected].
  • 24 23Vanderbilt University, 511-A Light Hall, 2215 Garland Ave, Nashville, TN, 37232, USA. [email protected].
  • PMID: 29460079
  • DOI: 10.1007/s10519-018-9889-z

The American Psychological Association defines gender identity as, "A person's deeply-felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or a male; a girl, a woman, or a female; or an alternative gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender neutral) that may or may not correspond to a person's sex assigned at birth or to a person's primary or secondary sex characteristics" (American Psychological Association, Am Psychol 70(9):832-864, 2015). Here we review the evidence that gender identity and related socially defined gender constructs are influenced in part by innate factors including genes. Based on the data reviewed, we hypothesize that gender identity is a multifactorial complex trait with a heritable polygenic component. We argue that increasing the awareness of the biological diversity underlying gender identity development is relevant to all domains of social, medical, and neuroscience research and foundational for reducing health disparities and promoting human-rights protections for gender minorities.

Keywords: Gender dysphoria; Gender identity; Genetics; Heritability; Transgender; Twin studies.

Publication types

  • Gender Dysphoria / genetics*
  • Gender Identity*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • Transgender Persons / psychology

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Why sex and gender matter in implementation research

Cara tannenbaum.

1 Insitute of Gender and Health, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Ottawa, Canada

2 Université de Montréal, Montréal, Canada

Lorraine Greaves

3 British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, Vancouver, Canada

Ian D. Graham

4 University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada

Associated Data

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article.

There has been a recent swell in activity by health research funding organizations and science journal editors to increase uptake of sex and gender considerations in study design, conduct and reporting in order to ensure that research results apply to everyone. However, examination of the implementation research literature reveals that attention to sex and gender has not yet infiltrated research methods in this field.

The rationale for routinely considering sex and gender in implementation research is multifold. Sex and gender are important in decision-making, communication, stakeholder engagement and preferences for the uptake of interventions. Gender roles, gender identity, gender relations, and institutionalized gender influence the way in which an implementation strategy works, for whom, under what circumstances and why. There is emerging evidence that programme theories may operate differently within and across sexes, genders and other intersectional characteristics under various circumstances. Furthermore, without proper study, implementation strategies may inadvertently exploit or ignore, rather than transform thinking about sex and gender-related factors. Techniques are described for measuring and analyzing sex and gender in implementation research using both quantitative and qualitative methods.

The present paper describes the application of methods for integrating sex and gender in implementation research. Consistently asking critical questions about sex and gender will likely lead to the discovery of positive outcomes, as well as unintended consequences. The result has potential to strengthen both the practice and science of implementation, improve health outcomes and reduce gender inequities.

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12874-016-0247-7) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

Efforts to integrate sex and gender throughout all phases of the health research cycle have been rising sharply over the past two decades [ 1 – 4 ]. Since 2010, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has been requiring researchers to indicate whether their research protocol accounts for sex or gender, using the term “sex” to refer to the biological attributes that distinguish male from female, and the term “gender” to refer to men and women’s socially constructed roles, identities and behaviors [ 5 , 6 ]. As of 2016, the U.S. National Institutes of Health Research asks applicants to explain how they plan to factor consideration of sex as a biological variable into their research design and analysis [ 7 , 8 ]. The Gender Advisory Group to the European Framework Program for Research and Innovation also mandates the Gender Dimension across all sectors [ 9 ]. Journal editors are encouraged to increase accountability around sex and gender reporting requirements, by using the Sex and Gender Equity in Research (SAGER) guidelines [ 10 , 11 ]. These events beg the question: how have research methods in implementation science addressed sex and gender? For the purpose of this article, we will use the term implementation research and practice (IRP) to include knowledge translation, implementation research and practice.

The opening argument for this debate article is that to date, despite the evidence on the impact of sex and gender on health, research methods in the field of implementation have neglected sex and gender considerations. An analysis of selected literature in IRP supports this proposition. For example, a review of the tables of contents and indexes of three popular implementation science texts [ 12 – 14 ] reveals that none devote a chapter to the role of sex and gender in implementation science. Only one includes gender in the index [ 14 ], which refers to a chapter in the text with a few lines describing how many sexually transmitted infection interventions targeting racial/ethnic minorities are gender specific and how the strategies to reach men and women may differ [ 15 ].

Searching the top 10 articles of 2015 as reported by Implementation Science (see Additional file 1 : Appendix 1) for the words sex or gender shows that only one makes a minor mention of gender as it relates to controlling for ‘clinician gender’ in a modeling exercise [ 16 ]. Sex and gender also do not appear to play a prominent role in implementation theories. For example, in Nilsen’s review [ 17 ] of implementation theories, models and frameworks, only 2 make minor references to gender [ 18 , 19 ]. One simply includes ‘gender’ as one of the barriers to optimal clinical practice under the category “health care professional/physician barriers” [ 18 ] and the other includes a footnote about a study they were citing, that “a fourth factor, gender of participants, was also related to program outcomes but was not included in their subsequent analysis” [ 19 ]. Furthermore, neither of the germinal papers on the Theoretical Domains Framework [ 20 , 21 ], a widely used and influential framework [ 22 ] that guides assessment of barriers to implementation, makes any reference to sex or gender. There is a domain in the framework that focuses on ‘social/professional role and identity’, which could capture elements of sex and gender, but usually tends to be limited to assessing professional roles and almost never identity, let alone sex or gender identity.

Turning to the knowledge synthesis literature on implementation, the Cochrane Collaboration’s Methods Equity group [ 23 ] is active in increasing awareness of the need and methods for sex and gender analysis in systematic reviews [ 23 – 25 ]. Both the Effective Practice and Organisation of Care (EPOC) and Consumers and Communication review groups have official guidance in their resources for authors on equity [ 26 , 27 ]. A recent assessment of a sample of systematic reviews from these two groups however, reveals limited consideration of sex and gender in the written report. For example, of 12 EPOC and seven Consumer and Communication reviews published between July 2014 and May 2015, none addressed sex or gender in the analysis or implications sections of the report (Personal Communication, Jennifer Petkovic, Peter Tugwell and Vivian Welch on behalf of the Campbell and Cochrane Equity Methods Group, April 13, 2016). It is possible that the review authors did consider sex and gender in their analyses and determined it was unimportant. However, they failed to report this.

Little research has been undertaken or reported to inform how sex and gender impact IRP, as evidenced by this analysis of key texts, well-used conceptual models, and Cochrane reviews on implementation strategies. The objective of this paper is to describe the rationale for why and how sex and gender should be considered in IRP.

What is sex? What is gender?

A first step for understanding how to integrate sex and gender in IRP involves operationalizing the two terms, and recognizing different components of gender. The term sex refers to a biological construct, whereby an individual is defined as being male or female according to genetics, anatomy and physiology [ 6 , 7 , 11 , 28 – 32 ]. Researchers should use the term sex when describing the number of male or female patients or committee members, or when stratifying outcomes by male versus female participants or health care providers. It is more appropriate to say what the distribution by sex of a sample or target audience is, than to use the term ‘gender distribution.’ This is because gender is a multifaceted and fluid construct, influenced in a temporal manner by social and cultural contexts and environments to create gender norms [ 6 , 7 , 11 , 28 , 30 – 35 ]. Gender norms influence commonly accepted ways of how people behave, how they perceive themselves and each other, how they act and interact, and the distribution of power and resources in society [ 6 , 28 , 31 – 35 ]. Gender can be structured by, and operating within ethnicity, indigenous status, social status, sexuality, geography, socioeconomic status, education, age, disability/ability, migration status, and religion, requiring an intersectional approach to implementing practices, programs and policies [ 36 , 37 ]. The acronym “PROGRESS” can be used to remember these variables: place of residence, race/ethnicity/culture/language, occupation, gender/sex, religion, education, socioeconomic status, and social capital [ 38 ]. Researchers often understand gender as a function of gender roles (e.g. child care, housework), gender identity (e.g. personality traits such as being sensitive to the needs of others or having leadership abilities), gender relations (e.g. social support), and institutionalized gender (e.g. career opportunities, personal income, educational background) [ 6 , 28 , 34 ]. Gender as a broad term can also refer to the expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people [ 39 , 40 ]. For this reason, definitions of sex and gender are evolving as science changes, and it remains challenging to easily separate the biological from the social. Sex and gender are often interrelated, interactive and potentially inseparable [ 6 , 11 ]. Given the epistemology of knowledge, and the social nature of implementation and behavior change, the effect of gender and other identity factors, either alone or in combination, can serve as barriers or enablers to the outcome or impact of IRP interventions.

Measuring and understanding sex and gender

Collecting and analyzing data on sex in IRP is relatively simple if using typical male and female categories. Sex can be self-reported, designated by an examination of external genitalia, or genetically determined based on an XX, XY or intersex genotype [ 11 ]. Data on sex-related factors can include measuring sex hormones, body and organ size, metabolism, or fat tissue distribution [ 41 ]. Gender is more complex, and can be operationalized along four different constructs: gender roles, gender identity, gender relations and institutionalized gender [ 6 , 28 , 31 , 32 ]. Table  1 defines these four constructs, gives examples of key questions that can be asked of each in IRP, and lists measures and methods for use in IRP research [ 6 , 28 , 31 , 32 , 42 – 44 ].

Relevance of four gender constructs to implementation research and practice

Traditionally, individuals are asked to categorize their sex as male or female and many assumptions, often based in gender and not biology, are made on the basis of their responses. Researchers are now rethinking this approach to be more inclusive of gender identity and expression [ 39 ]. A two-step approach to measuring sex and gender identity could first ask individuals to indicate their sex assigned at birth (male/female), and then ask the same individuals how they currently self-identify, which could include male, female, trans male/trans man, trans female/trans woman, gender queer/gender non-conforming; and provide space to self identify as another option not provided [ 40 ]. Similarly, participants could also be given the option to disclose sexual orientation and whether they consider themselves part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) community.

The scales in Table  1 list measures that can be used to quantify different dimensions of gender. Researchers can also create gender scales using gender-related variables of relevance to their particular research topic [ 45 , 46 ]. Pelletier et al. created a composite gender score using 7 characteristics: 1) status on primary earner; 2) personal income; 3) number of hours per week spent doing housework; 4) status of primary person responsible for doing housework; 5) level of stress at home; 6) masculine traits; and 7) feminine traits. They were able to demonstrate that gender, independent of sex, predicts poor outcome after acute coronary syndrome, pointing to new areas of intervention [ 44 ].

Qualitative methods are also useful for the collection of data on specific dimensions of gender. Case studies, ethnography, narrative and descriptive qualitative approaches can provide evidence and contextualized insight across a range of participants’ personal characteristics, including those of sex and gender. Qualitative methods can also be used to explore concepts of institutionalized gender, and to gain a more in-depth understanding of gender as a barrier or enabler to the use of implementation interventions, the uptake of the evidence-informed clinical interventions or program and the outcomes of implementation efforts. A number of texts, casebooks, examples and online courses are available that provide guidance on how to conduct sex and gender science using commonly employed quantitative and qualitative methods [ 6 , 32 , 42 , 43 ].

The case for considering sex and gender in implementation research methods

Emerging evidence suggests that sex and gender are important in decision-making, stakeholder engagement, communication and preferences for the uptake of interventions. Furthermore, when gender norms, identities and relations are ignored, unintended consequences may occur. The following five scenarios give examples of when and why sex and gender should be measured and considered in implementation research:

  • When the implementation of an intervention requires decision-making on the part of individuals or organizations . Decision-making is a critical component of behavior change interventions, and plays a key role in the uptake of new organizational practices and programs [ 47 ]. Research from the fields of business and management offer insights for IRP on important sex and gender factors related to decision-making [ 48 – 50 ]. Qualitative research conducted by Deloitte Consulting with 18 large business organizations suggests that female executives have a tendency to be more attuned to micro-level signaling during meetings, and may favour discovery options and iterative thinking during decision-making processes [ 48 ]. Male executives tend to end a conversation once they connect with a good idea or solution. Their female counterparts are inclined to be more inquisitive, wanting to hear everyone’s thoughts before deciding, and taking more time to find the ideal solution. Different leadership traits among male and female leaders can therefore influence the outcome of decision-making processes [ 49 , 50 ].
  • When sex and gender dynamics may play a role in stakeholder engagement and conflict resolution . A survey queried reasoning methods among 624 corporate board directors, of whom 75 % were male and 25 % female [ 51 ]. Female directors scored significantly higher scores on the complex moral reasoning dimension, which implies attending more to relationships and to the challenge of balancing multiple stakeholders’ interests. Females may also engage in more collaboration and consensus building, not only to make sound decisions but also to elicit common support for a course of action [ 49 , 50 ]. The outcome of an implementation intervention may therefore depend on the sex and gender dynamics in each particular context.
  • When communication strategies are being tested, as sex and gender may be differentially responsive to the choice of language used, the strength of persuasion of the communication strategy, and the way promotional information is processed . This is why sex and gender form the basis for market segmentation in the fields of marketing and consumer behaviour, where subtle changes in language and emotional appeal can have a differential effect on men and women’s attitudes towards the brand advertised and purchase intentions [ 52 ]. The way messages and interventions are primed or packaged to reflect gender norms or stereotypes may also influence the outcomes of health promotion interventions. For instance, priming individuals to the perception that women eat healthier foods than men leads both male and female study participants to prefer healthy foods, whereas priming masculinity results in unhealthy food preferences [ 53 ]. When the packaging and healthiness of the food are gender congruent (i.e., feminine packaging for a healthy food, masculine packaging for an unhealthy food) both male and female participants rate the product as more attractive, report that they would be more likely to purchase it, and even rate it as tasting better compared to when the product is stereotype incongruent.
  • When negative or harmful gender stereotypes may impede the uptake and outcomes of an IRP initiative [ 54 ]. A realist review of the implementation of school-based interventions to prevent domestic abuse for children and young people reported that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth felt excluded from the programmes, as the content did not address gender identity or sexual orientation in high-risk populations [ 55 ]. Similarly, data suggest that masculine norms around emotional control and self-reliance are associated with recurrent non-suicidal self-injury [ 56 ]. Stigma related to healthcare seeking for male depression and suicide [ 57 , 58 ], may explain why women are more likely to benefit from psychosocial treatment for the prevention of suicide and suicidal ideation compared to men [ 59 ]. Some studies purport that gender bias in prescription patterns among health care providers results in more women receiving treatment with antidepressants for mental health [ 60 ] and pain symptoms, but only among female clinicians [ 61 ]. Men, on the other hand, may be preferentially managed with orthopaedic surgery to manage knee arthritis [ 62 ].
  • When gendered power relations may inadvertently skew the uptake of information focused on women’s health needs, such as maternal and child health, sexual and reproductive health, or family planning [ 63 ]. This occurs in cultures and settings where male partners and head of households play a large role in female’s health-seeking behaviour due to their authority and decision-making role. For example, the introduction of health programs enhanced by mobile phone technologies overall fosters women’s empowerment in low-income countries [ 64 ]. However, in some cases these programs exacerbated gender relations and gender inequalities, such as when women were pressured to give the phones provided by the program to their husband if he did not already own a phone, or when conflicts about phone use led to cases of spousal abuse.

The World Health Organization outlines a spectrum of gender-responsive programs, illustrating the progression from the exploitative use of gender stereotypes in IRP messaging, through to accommodation and ultimate transformation to gender equity (Fig.  1 ) [ 65 , 66 ]. Making active choices reflecting content, messaging and decision-making processes during the implementation of an intervention can have a critical impact on gender equity for women and men. Gender transformative approaches are preferred as they anticipate unintended barriers and consequences and address the causes of gender-based health inequities where they exist [ 67 ]. For example, during implementation of a tobacco control program, investigators can decide to use motivational recruitment techniques that appeal to a person’s health and self-respect, as opposed to messaging that invokes and reinforces stereotypical gendered norms of sexual attractiveness, beauty claims or images based on masculinity or femininity [ 63 ]. Recent guidance based on qualitative research suggests de-linking messages for men and for women when promoting tobacco reduction during pregnancy and post partum, since the uptake of the intervention can be hindered by negative couple dynamics if the partners have different smoking behaviours or attitudes about smoking during this period [ 68 – 70 ]. Another transformative approach to encourage uptake of smoking cessation interventions would be to focus on a wider range of non-stereotypical gendered roles that include fathering for men and work for women as potential motivators.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 12874_2016_247_Fig1_HTML.jpg

A continuum of approaches for integrating sex and gender. Reproduced with permission from: Lorraine Greaves, Ann Pederson, Nancy Poole (Eds). Making It Better: Gender Transformative Health Promotion. Canadian Scholar’s Press/Women’s Press. 2014. Available at Accessed March 20, 2016

Sex and gender can be therefore be pivotal at multiple points along the IRP process, from the content and messaging surrounding the intervention, to decision making around the uptake and unintended consequences of an intervention. Asking sex and gender questions can also elucidate enablers and barriers to the adoption of complex behavioral interventions. For example, examining the outcome of implementing a multidisciplinary cardiac rehabilitation program merits asking whether women or men have less time to devote to recovery and prevention activities due to gender-based expectations regarding their responsibilities at home. The potential advantages of including sex and gender in the study of other complex behavioral interventions (e.g., hand hygiene, reducing clinician's opioid prescribing, reducing falls in hospital, increasing vaccination rates, and obesity prevention) require further investigation. Measuring the way sex and gender influences these interventions may help elucidate potential mechanisms and contexts behind the success or failure of various IRP efforts, as shown in the examples above on tobacco cessation, healthy eating, depression and suicide, pain, heart disease and domestic violence.

Some research questions to drive the selection of methods

Researchers can start by asking a series of questions about how sex and gender can have an impact on their implementation initiative in order to determine the best way to measure and analyze the effect of sex and gender. First, how might sex or gender affect decision-making and stakeholder engagement, or facilitate or impede the uptake of evidence-informed practice, programs, policies? Second, how might sex based characteristics or prevailing gender norms or gender roles serve as barriers or enablers to the uptake of evidence-informed practices, programs, policies? Third, when and how should the communication strategy, wording or messaging be tailored across sex, gender or other identity characteristics? Fourth, when using participatory/collaborative or integrated knowledge translation research approaches, could the sex and gender of the researchers and knowledge users matter, and if so, how? Similarly, how might gender relations as a function of dyads or interpersonal dynamics within an organization, community, workplace or institution influence the outcome of the intervention? And finally, should the research protocol consider examining whether there are unintended impacts of implementation that exacerbate or diminish sex, gender or other diversity-related inequities? Table  2 lists a series of questions for researchers to consider when designing their IRP research. Additional opportunities for integrating sex and gender in IRP as relates to models of health systems research have been reviewed in detail elsewhere [ 33 ].

Some sex and gender research questions for researchers studying implementation

Another way to study issues of sex and gender in IRP resides in the realist approach which attempts to answer the question, “What works, for whom, in what circumstances, and why?” [ 47 ] This is accomplished through the identification and examination of underlying generative mechanisms or program theories associated with the implementation intervention or program, the conditions or contexts under which the mechanisms operate, and the pattern of outcomes produced. Realist evaluators may wish to examine sex and gender through the lens of this Context-Mechanism-Outcomes configuration for the evaluation of new initiatives, programs and scale-up [ 71 , 72 ].

Through this lens, context can be defined as the particular sub-groups for whom the outcomes were successful, the gender relations between the stakeholders, the sex and/or gender of the individuals who implemented the intervention, and the institutional, socio-economic, cultural and political conditions. Mechanism refers to the explanation of how a particular program’s resources work to change the reasoning and responses of participants to bring about the adoption of the clinical intervention or program that results in both intended and unintended outcomes. Outcomes are the impacts of the intervention. Some questions of how sex and gender considerations can align with the Context-Mechanism-Outcomes configuration are: How do gender roles, gender identity, gender relations, and institutionalized gender influence the way in which an implementation strategy works, for whom, under what circumstances and why? Or, how do program theories operate/work within and across sexes, genders and other diversity characteristics, in what circumstances and why? Finally, research results should be disaggregated and reported by sex or gender groups [ 11 ]. It is important to report whether there are similar effects or differences.

When critically appraising the publications of implementation research, reviewers should increasingly ask whether the reports consider sex and gender during a study’s life cycle, and if so, how? Table  3 provides a beginning list of questions that can be asked of implementation research to help the reader assess whether sex and gender have been adequately considered, and the extent to which this may have influenced the study findings and conclusions.

Questions to ask when appraising an implementation research or practice initiative for inclusion of sex and gender considerations

This paper argues that sex and gender should always be considered in implementation research. Considering sex and gender should be an essential component of IRP. Failing to integrate sex and gender may neglect an important determinant of knowledge use, reducing the effectiveness of implementation interventions, inadvertently reinforcing sex neutral claims and negative gender stereotypes, and possibly creating or increasing gender and health inequities in care and health outcomes. Only by consistently investigating sex and gender in a critical and reflective manner that addresses underlying gender inequities, will the field of IRP reach its full potential for meeting the requirements of scientific rigour, excellence and maximal impact.


We express gratitude to Jo Rycroft-Malone, Professor of Implementation & Health Services Research, Bangor University, United Kingdom, for providing direction to get out of the “realist swamp.” We also thank Krystle van Hoof, Assistant Director of the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health for her thoughtful comments, and Justin Presseau, Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute for insightful discussions about sex and gender in implementation research and the Theoretical Domains Framework. IDG is a recipient of Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Foundation Grant Scheme, Inaugural competition, FDN #143237.

Institute of Gender and Health, Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Availability of data and materials

Authors’ contributions.

CT, LG and IDG conceived and drafted the article. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Consent for publication

All authors consented.

Ethics approval and consent to participate

Not applicable.


Additional file.

Appendix 1. List of the top implementation science papers published in 2015. (DOCX 19 kb)

Contributor Information

Cara Tannenbaum, Email: [email protected] .

Lorraine Greaves, Email: ac.cb.wc@sevaergl .

Ian D. Graham, Email: ac.irho@mahargi .

Biological Theories of Gender

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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What is the biological basis of being male or female?

Sex chromosomes primarily determine the biological basis of being male or female. In humans, males have one X and one Y chromosome (XY), while females have two X chromosomes (XX).

This chromosomal difference leads to the development of different sexual organs in the womb: XY leads to testes, and XX leads to ovaries.

Hormones produced by these organs (mainly testosterone for XY, and estrogen and progesterone for XX) drive the development of secondary sexual characteristics like body shape, voice pitch, and body hair during puberty.

Sex vs Gender

People often get confused between the terms sex and gender . Sex refers to biological differences between males and females. For example, chromosomes (female XX, male XY), reproductive organs (ovaries, testes), hormones (oestrogen, testosterone).

Gender refers to the cultural differences expected (by society / culture) of men and women according to their sex. A person’s sex does not change from birth, but their gender can.

In the past people tend to have very clear ideas about what was appropriate to each sex and anyone behaving differently was regarded as deviant.

Today we accept a lot more diversity and see gender as a continuum (i.e. scale ) rather than two categories. So men are free to show their “feminine side” and women are free to show their “masculine traits”.

The biological approach suggests there is no distinction between sex & gender, thus biological sex creates gendered behavior. Gender is determined by two biological factors: hormones and chromosomes.

Hormones are chemical substances secreted by glands throughout the body and carried in the bloodstream. The same sex hormones occur in both men and women, but differ in amounts and in the effect that they have upon different parts of the body.

Testosterone is a sex hormone, which is more present in males than females, and affects development and behavior both before and after birth.

Testosterone, when released in the womb, causes the development of male sex organs (at 7 weeks) and acts upon the hypothalamus which results in the masculinization of the brain.

Testosterone can typically cause male behaviors such as aggression, competitiveness, Visuospatial abilities, higher sexual drive etc. An area of the hypothalamus at the base of the brain called the sexually dimorphic nucleus is much larger in male than in females.

At the same time testosterone acts on the developing brain. The brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right. In all humans the left side of the brain is more specialized for language skills and the right for non-verbal and spatial skills.

Shaywitz et al (1995) used MRI scans to examine brain whilst men and women carried out language tasks and found that women used both hemispheres, left only used by men.

It appears that in males, brain hemispheres work more independently than in females, and testosterone influences this brain lateralization .

Empirical Evidence

The effects of testosterone have been confirmed in animal studies.

Quadango et al. (1977) found that female monkeys who were deliberately exposed to testosterone during prenatal development later engaged in more rough and tumble play than other females.

Young (1966) changed the sexual behavior of both male and female rats by manipulating the amount of male and female hormones that the rats received during their early development.

They displayed “reversed” sexual behavior and the effects were unchangeable. A number of non-reproductive behaviors in rats are also effected by testosterone exposure around birth. These included exploratory behavior, aggression and play.

Young believed that the exposure had changed the sexually dimorphic nucleus (SDN) in the brain, as male rats had a larger SDN than females. The results have proven to be highly replicable.

Critical Evaluation

Because this study was conducted in a lab it has low ecological validity. For example, in the lab hormones are injected in one single high dose. Whereas in real life, hormones tend to be released by the body in pulses, in a graduated fashion. Therefore, the results might not be generalizable outside of the lab, to a more naturalistic setting.

This study also raises the issue of whether it’s morally and/or scientifically right to use animals in research.

Ultimately psychologists must ask themselves whether in their research the ends justify the means. By this we mean that all research using human or non-human animals must be considered in terms of the value of the results when compared to the cost (both moral and financial) of carrying out the work. The main criterion is that benefits must outweigh costs. But benefits are almost always to humans and costs to animals.

We should be cautious when extrapolating the results of animal research to a human population. This is because the physiologies (e.g. brains) of humans and animals species are not identical. Also, the social and cultural variables within a human population are more complex when compared to social interactions between rats.

The consequence of this means the external validity of the research is uncertain. However, a study by Hines (1982) suggests it might be possible to generalize the results to humans.

Hines (1982) studied female babies born to mothers who had been given injections of male hormones during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage. They were found to be more aggressive than normal female children. Hines concluded that the extra testosterone in the womb had affected later behavior.


The normal human body contains 23 pairs of chromosomes. A chromosome is a long thin structure containing thousands of genes, which are biochemical units of heredity and govern the development of every human being.

Each pair of chromosomes controls different aspects of development, and biological sex is determined by the 23rd chromosome pair. Chromosomes physically resemble the letters X and Y.

  • Females = XX

SRY Gene  (Sex-determining Region Y gene)

At about 6 weeks, the SRY gene on the Y chromosome causes the gonads (sex organs) of the embryo to develop as testes.

If the embryo has no Y chromosome, it will not have the SRY gene, without the SRY gene, the gonads will develop as ovaries.

Sometimes the SRY gene is missing from the Y chromosome, or doesn’t activate. The foetus grows, is born, and lives as a little girl, and later as a woman, but her chromosomes are XY. Such people are, usually, clearly women to themselves and everyone else.

Koopman et al. (1991) found that mice that were genetically female developed into male mice if the SRY gene was implanted.

One of the most controversial uses of this discovery was as a means for gender verification at the Olympic Games, under a system implemented by the International Olympic Committee in 1992. Athletes with a SRY gene were not permitted to participate as females.

Atypical Chromosomes

Individuals with atypical chromosomes develop differently than individuals with typical chromosomes – socially, physically and cognitively.

Studying people with Turner’s syndrome and Klinefelter’s syndrome might help our understanding of gender because by studying people with atypical sex chromosomes and comparing their development with that of people with typical sex chromosomes, psychologists are able to establish which types of behavior are genetic (e.g. determined by chromosomes).

Turner’s Syndrome

Turner’s syndrome (XO) occurs when females develop with only one X chromosome on chromosome 23 (1 in 5000 chance).

The absence of the second X chromosome results in a child with a female external appearance but whose ovaries have failed to develop.

The physical characteristics of individuals with Turner’s syndrome include lack of maturation at puberty and webbing of the neck.

In addition to physical differences, there are differences in cognitive skills and behavior compared with typical chromosome patterns.

The affected individuals have higher than average verbal ability but lower than average spatial ability, visual memory and mathematical skills. They also have difficulty in social adjustment at school and generally have poor relationships with their peers.

Klinefelter’s Syndrome

Klinefelter’s syndrome (XXY) affects 1 in every 750 males. In addition to having a Y chromosome, these men also have an additional X on the 23rd chromosome, leading to the arrangement XXY.

Physically they appear male, though the effect of the additional X chromosome causes less body hair and under-developed genitals. The syndrome becomes noticeable in childhood, as the boy has poor language skills. At three years of age, the child may still not talk. At school, their poor language skills affect reading ability.

When they are babies, their temperament is described as passive and co-operative. This calmness and shyness remains with them throughout their lives.

This suggests that level of aggression have a biological rather than environmental component.

Evolutionary Explanations of Gender

As the evolutionary approach is a biological one, it suggests that aspects of human behavior have been coded by our genes because they were or are adaptive.

A central claim of evolutionary psychology is that the brain (and therefore the mind) evolved to solve problems encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors during the upper Pleistocene period over 10,000 years ago.

The evolutionary approach argues that gender role division appears as an adaptation to the challenges faced by the ancestral humans in the EEA (the environment of evolutionary adaptation).

The mind is therefore equipped with ‘instincts’ that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce.

The two sexes developed different strategies to ensure their survival and reproductive success. This explains why men and women differ psychologically: They tend to occupy different social roles.

To support the evolutionary perspective, the division of labour was shown to be an advantage. 10,000 years ago there was division of labour between males and females. Men were the hunter gathers, breadwinners, while the mother was at home acting as the ‘angel of the house’ and looking after the children.

Hunting for food required speed, agility, good visual perception. So men developed this skill.

If a women was to hunt, this would reduce the group’s reproductive success, as the woman was the one who was pregnant or producing milk. Although, the women could contribute to the important business of growing food, making clothing and shelter and so on.

This enhances reproductive success but it also important in avoiding starvation – an additional adaptive advantage.

Deterministic approach which implies that men and women have little choice or control over their behaviors: women are natural ‘nurturers’ and men are naturally aggressive and competitive.

The consequence are that in modern society equal opportunities policies are doomed to fail as men are ‘naturally’ more competitive, risk taking and likely to progress up the career ladder.

Biosocial Approach to Gender

The biosocial approach (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972) is an interactionist approach where by  nature and nurture  both play a role in gender development.

John Money’s (1972) theory  was that once a biological male or female is born, social labeling and differential treatment of boys and girls interact with biological factors to steer development. This theory was an attempt to integrate the influences of nature and nurture.

Gender role preferences determined by a series of critical events:

Prenatal : exposure to hormones on the womb (determined by chromosomes). It states that biology caused by genetics, XY for a boy and XX for a girl will give them a physical sex.

Postnatal : Parents and others label and react towards a child on the basis of his or her genitals.

  • Parents and other people label and begin to react to the child based on his or her genitals. It is when their sex has been labelled through external genitals, they gender development will begin.
  • The social labeling of a baby as a boy or girl leads to different treatment which produce the childs sense of gender identity.
  • Western Societies view gender as having two categories, masculine and feminine, and see man and women as different species.

The way they are treated socially in combination with their biological sex will determine the child’s gender.

The approach assumes that gender identity is neutral before the age of 3, and can be changed, e.g. a biological boy raised as a girl will develop the gender identity of a girl. This is known as the theory of neutrality.

Rubin et al., 1974, interviewed 30 parents and asked them to use adjective pairs to describe their babies. Although there were no measurable differences in size between the babies, parents consistently described boy babies as better coordinated, stronger and more alert than daughters. This shows that parents label their babies.

Feder, H. H., Phoenix, C. H., & Young, W. C. (1966). Suppression of feminine behavior by administration of testosterone propionate to neonatal rats.  Journal of Endocrinology, 34(1 ), 131-132.

Hines, M. (1982). Prenatal gonadal hormones and sex differences in human behavior.  Psychological Bulletin, 92(1) , 56.

Koopman, P., Gubbay, J., Vivian, N., Goodfellow, P., & Lovell-Badge, R. (1991). Male development of chromosomally female mice transgenic for Sry.  Nature, 351(6322) , 117-121.

Money, J., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972). Man and woman, boy and girl: Differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity.

Quadagno, D. M., Briscoe, R., & Quadagno, J. S. (1977). Effect of perinatal gonadal hormones on selected nonsexual behavior patterns: a critical assessment of the nonhuman and human literature.  Psychological Bulletin, 84(1 ), 62.

Shaywitz, B. A., Shaywltz, S. E., Pugh, K. R., Constable, R. T., Skudlarski, P., Fulbright, R. K., … & Gore, J. C. (1995).  Sex differences in the functional organization of the brain for language .


biological gender thesis

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Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender

Feminism is said to be the movement to end women’s oppression (hooks 2000, 26). One possible way to understand ‘woman’ in this claim is to take it as a sex term: ‘woman’ picks out human females and being a human female depends on various biological and anatomical features (like genitalia). Historically many feminists have understood ‘woman’ differently: not as a sex term, but as a gender term that depends on social and cultural factors (like social position). In so doing, they distinguished sex (being female or male) from gender (being a woman or a man), although most ordinary language users appear to treat the two interchangeably. In feminist philosophy, this distinction has generated a lively debate. Central questions include: What does it mean for gender to be distinct from sex, if anything at all? How should we understand the claim that gender depends on social and/or cultural factors? What does it mean to be gendered woman, man, or genderqueer? This entry outlines and discusses distinctly feminist debates on sex and gender considering both historical and more contemporary positions.

1.1 Biological determinism

1.2 gender terminology, 2.1 gender socialisation, 2.2 gender as feminine and masculine personality, 2.3 gender as feminine and masculine sexuality, 3.1.1 particularity argument, 3.1.2 normativity argument, 3.2 is sex classification solely a matter of biology, 3.3 are sex and gender distinct, 3.4 is the sex/gender distinction useful, 4.1.1 gendered social series, 4.1.2 resemblance nominalism, 4.2.1 social subordination and gender, 4.2.2 gender uniessentialism, 4.2.3 gender as positionality, 5. beyond the binary, 6. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries, 1. the sex/gender distinction..

The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean different things to different feminist theorists and neither are easy or straightforward to characterise. Sketching out some feminist history of the terms provides a helpful starting point.

Most people ordinarily seem to think that sex and gender are coextensive: women are human females, men are human males. Many feminists have historically disagreed and have endorsed the sex/ gender distinction. Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes human females and males depending on biological features (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones and other physical features); ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending on social factors (social role, position, behaviour or identity). The main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.

A typical example of a biological determinist view is that of Geddes and Thompson who, in 1889, argued that social, psychological and behavioural traits were caused by metabolic state. Women supposedly conserve energy (being ‘anabolic’) and this makes them passive, conservative, sluggish, stable and uninterested in politics. Men expend their surplus energy (being ‘katabolic’) and this makes them eager, energetic, passionate, variable and, thereby, interested in political and social matters. These biological ‘facts’ about metabolic states were used not only to explain behavioural differences between women and men but also to justify what our social and political arrangements ought to be. More specifically, they were used to argue for withholding from women political rights accorded to men because (according to Geddes and Thompson) “what was decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament” (quoted from Moi 1999, 18). It would be inappropriate to grant women political rights, as they are simply not suited to have those rights; it would also be futile since women (due to their biology) would simply not be interested in exercising their political rights. To counter this kind of biological determinism, feminists have argued that behavioural and psychological differences have social, rather than biological, causes. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir famously claimed that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, and that “social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature” (Beauvoir 1972 [original 1949], 18; for more, see the entry on Simone de Beauvoir ). Commonly observed behavioural traits associated with women and men, then, are not caused by anatomy or chromosomes. Rather, they are culturally learned or acquired.

Although biological determinism of the kind endorsed by Geddes and Thompson is nowadays uncommon, the idea that behavioural and psychological differences between women and men have biological causes has not disappeared. In the 1970s, sex differences were used to argue that women should not become airline pilots since they will be hormonally unstable once a month and, therefore, unable to perform their duties as well as men (Rogers 1999, 11). More recently, differences in male and female brains have been said to explain behavioural differences; in particular, the anatomy of corpus callosum, a bundle of nerves that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres, is thought to be responsible for various psychological and behavioural differences. For instance, in 1992, a Time magazine article surveyed then prominent biological explanations of differences between women and men claiming that women’s thicker corpus callosums could explain what ‘women’s intuition’ is based on and impair women’s ability to perform some specialised visual-spatial skills, like reading maps (Gorman 1992). Anne Fausto-Sterling has questioned the idea that differences in corpus callosums cause behavioural and psychological differences. First, the corpus callosum is a highly variable piece of anatomy; as a result, generalisations about its size, shape and thickness that hold for women and men in general should be viewed with caution. Second, differences in adult human corpus callosums are not found in infants; this may suggest that physical brain differences actually develop as responses to differential treatment. Third, given that visual-spatial skills (like map reading) can be improved by practice, even if women and men’s corpus callosums differ, this does not make the resulting behavioural differences immutable. (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, chapter 5).

In order to distinguish biological differences from social/psychological ones and to talk about the latter, feminists appropriated the term ‘gender’. Psychologists writing on transsexuality were the first to employ gender terminology in this sense. Until the 1960s, ‘gender’ was often used to refer to masculine and feminine words, like le and la in French. However, in order to explain why some people felt that they were ‘trapped in the wrong bodies’, the psychologist Robert Stoller (1968) began using the terms ‘sex’ to pick out biological traits and ‘gender’ to pick out the amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. Although (by and large) a person’s sex and gender complemented each other, separating out these terms seemed to make theoretical sense allowing Stoller to explain the phenomenon of transsexuality: transsexuals’ sex and gender simply don’t match.

Along with psychologists like Stoller, feminists found it useful to distinguish sex and gender. This enabled them to argue that many differences between women and men were socially produced and, therefore, changeable. Gayle Rubin (for instance) uses the phrase ‘sex/gender system’ in order to describe “a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention” (1975, 165). Rubin employed this system to articulate that “part of social life which is the locus of the oppression of women” (1975, 159) describing gender as the “socially imposed division of the sexes” (1975, 179). Rubin’s thought was that although biological differences are fixed, gender differences are the oppressive results of social interventions that dictate how women and men should behave. Women are oppressed as women and “by having to be women” (Rubin 1975, 204). However, since gender is social, it is thought to be mutable and alterable by political and social reform that would ultimately bring an end to women’s subordination. Feminism should aim to create a “genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love” (Rubin 1975, 204).

In some earlier interpretations, like Rubin’s, sex and gender were thought to complement one another. The slogan ‘Gender is the social interpretation of sex’ captures this view. Nicholson calls this ‘the coat-rack view’ of gender: our sexed bodies are like coat racks and “provide the site upon which gender [is] constructed” (1994, 81). Gender conceived of as masculinity and femininity is superimposed upon the ‘coat-rack’ of sex as each society imposes on sexed bodies their cultural conceptions of how males and females should behave. This socially constructs gender differences – or the amount of femininity/masculinity of a person – upon our sexed bodies. That is, according to this interpretation, all humans are either male or female; their sex is fixed. But cultures interpret sexed bodies differently and project different norms on those bodies thereby creating feminine and masculine persons. Distinguishing sex and gender, however, also enables the two to come apart: they are separable in that one can be sexed male and yet be gendered a woman, or vice versa (Haslanger 2000b; Stoljar 1995).

So, this group of feminist arguments against biological determinism suggested that gender differences result from cultural practices and social expectations. Nowadays it is more common to denote this by saying that gender is socially constructed. This means that genders (women and men) and gendered traits (like being nurturing or ambitious) are the “intended or unintended product[s] of a social practice” (Haslanger 1995, 97). But which social practices construct gender, what social construction is and what being of a certain gender amounts to are major feminist controversies. There is no consensus on these issues. (See the entry on intersections between analytic and continental feminism for more on different ways to understand gender.)

2. Gender as socially constructed

One way to interpret Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is to take it as a claim about gender socialisation: females become women through a process whereby they acquire feminine traits and learn feminine behaviour. Masculinity and femininity are thought to be products of nurture or how individuals are brought up. They are causally constructed (Haslanger 1995, 98): social forces either have a causal role in bringing gendered individuals into existence or (to some substantial sense) shape the way we are qua women and men. And the mechanism of construction is social learning. For instance, Kate Millett takes gender differences to have “essentially cultural, rather than biological bases” that result from differential treatment (1971, 28–9). For her, gender is “the sum total of the parents’, the peers’, and the culture’s notions of what is appropriate to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture, and expression” (Millett 1971, 31). Feminine and masculine gender-norms, however, are problematic in that gendered behaviour conveniently fits with and reinforces women’s subordination so that women are socialised into subordinate social roles: they learn to be passive, ignorant, docile, emotional helpmeets for men (Millett 1971, 26). However, since these roles are simply learned, we can create more equal societies by ‘unlearning’ social roles. That is, feminists should aim to diminish the influence of socialisation.

Social learning theorists hold that a huge array of different influences socialise us as women and men. This being the case, it is extremely difficult to counter gender socialisation. For instance, parents often unconsciously treat their female and male children differently. When parents have been asked to describe their 24- hour old infants, they have done so using gender-stereotypic language: boys are describes as strong, alert and coordinated and girls as tiny, soft and delicate. Parents’ treatment of their infants further reflects these descriptions whether they are aware of this or not (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 32). Some socialisation is more overt: children are often dressed in gender stereotypical clothes and colours (boys are dressed in blue, girls in pink) and parents tend to buy their children gender stereotypical toys. They also (intentionally or not) tend to reinforce certain ‘appropriate’ behaviours. While the precise form of gender socialization has changed since the onset of second-wave feminism, even today girls are discouraged from playing sports like football or from playing ‘rough and tumble’ games and are more likely than boys to be given dolls or cooking toys to play with; boys are told not to ‘cry like a baby’ and are more likely to be given masculine toys like trucks and guns (for more, see Kimmel 2000, 122–126). [ 1 ]

According to social learning theorists, children are also influenced by what they observe in the world around them. This, again, makes countering gender socialisation difficult. For one, children’s books have portrayed males and females in blatantly stereotypical ways: for instance, males as adventurers and leaders, and females as helpers and followers. One way to address gender stereotyping in children’s books has been to portray females in independent roles and males as non-aggressive and nurturing (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 35). Some publishers have attempted an alternative approach by making their characters, for instance, gender-neutral animals or genderless imaginary creatures (like TV’s Teletubbies). However, parents reading books with gender-neutral or genderless characters often undermine the publishers’ efforts by reading them to their children in ways that depict the characters as either feminine or masculine. According to Renzetti and Curran, parents labelled the overwhelming majority of gender-neutral characters masculine whereas those characters that fit feminine gender stereotypes (for instance, by being helpful and caring) were labelled feminine (1992, 35). Socialising influences like these are still thought to send implicit messages regarding how females and males should act and are expected to act shaping us into feminine and masculine persons.

Nancy Chodorow (1978; 1995) has criticised social learning theory as too simplistic to explain gender differences (see also Deaux & Major 1990; Gatens 1996). Instead, she holds that gender is a matter of having feminine and masculine personalities that develop in early infancy as responses to prevalent parenting practices. In particular, gendered personalities develop because women tend to be the primary caretakers of small children. Chodorow holds that because mothers (or other prominent females) tend to care for infants, infant male and female psychic development differs. Crudely put: the mother-daughter relationship differs from the mother-son relationship because mothers are more likely to identify with their daughters than their sons. This unconsciously prompts the mother to encourage her son to psychologically individuate himself from her thereby prompting him to develop well defined and rigid ego boundaries. However, the mother unconsciously discourages the daughter from individuating herself thereby prompting the daughter to develop flexible and blurry ego boundaries. Childhood gender socialisation further builds on and reinforces these unconsciously developed ego boundaries finally producing feminine and masculine persons (1995, 202–206). This perspective has its roots in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, although Chodorow’s approach differs in many ways from Freud’s.

Gendered personalities are supposedly manifested in common gender stereotypical behaviour. Take emotional dependency. Women are stereotypically more emotional and emotionally dependent upon others around them, supposedly finding it difficult to distinguish their own interests and wellbeing from the interests and wellbeing of their children and partners. This is said to be because of their blurry and (somewhat) confused ego boundaries: women find it hard to distinguish their own needs from the needs of those around them because they cannot sufficiently individuate themselves from those close to them. By contrast, men are stereotypically emotionally detached, preferring a career where dispassionate and distanced thinking are virtues. These traits are said to result from men’s well-defined ego boundaries that enable them to prioritise their own needs and interests sometimes at the expense of others’ needs and interests.

Chodorow thinks that these gender differences should and can be changed. Feminine and masculine personalities play a crucial role in women’s oppression since they make females overly attentive to the needs of others and males emotionally deficient. In order to correct the situation, both male and female parents should be equally involved in parenting (Chodorow 1995, 214). This would help in ensuring that children develop sufficiently individuated senses of selves without becoming overly detached, which in turn helps to eradicate common gender stereotypical behaviours.

Catharine MacKinnon develops her theory of gender as a theory of sexuality. Very roughly: the social meaning of sex (gender) is created by sexual objectification of women whereby women are viewed and treated as objects for satisfying men’s desires (MacKinnon 1989). Masculinity is defined as sexual dominance, femininity as sexual submissiveness: genders are “created through the eroticization of dominance and submission. The man/woman difference and the dominance/submission dynamic define each other. This is the social meaning of sex” (MacKinnon 1989, 113). For MacKinnon, gender is constitutively constructed : in defining genders (or masculinity and femininity) we must make reference to social factors (see Haslanger 1995, 98). In particular, we must make reference to the position one occupies in the sexualised dominance/submission dynamic: men occupy the sexually dominant position, women the sexually submissive one. As a result, genders are by definition hierarchical and this hierarchy is fundamentally tied to sexualised power relations. The notion of ‘gender equality’, then, does not make sense to MacKinnon. If sexuality ceased to be a manifestation of dominance, hierarchical genders (that are defined in terms of sexuality) would cease to exist.

So, gender difference for MacKinnon is not a matter of having a particular psychological orientation or behavioural pattern; rather, it is a function of sexuality that is hierarchal in patriarchal societies. This is not to say that men are naturally disposed to sexually objectify women or that women are naturally submissive. Instead, male and female sexualities are socially conditioned: men have been conditioned to find women’s subordination sexy and women have been conditioned to find a particular male version of female sexuality as erotic – one in which it is erotic to be sexually submissive. For MacKinnon, both female and male sexual desires are defined from a male point of view that is conditioned by pornography (MacKinnon 1989, chapter 7). Bluntly put: pornography portrays a false picture of ‘what women want’ suggesting that women in actual fact are and want to be submissive. This conditions men’s sexuality so that they view women’s submission as sexy. And male dominance enforces this male version of sexuality onto women, sometimes by force. MacKinnon’s thought is not that male dominance is a result of social learning (see 2.1.); rather, socialization is an expression of power. That is, socialized differences in masculine and feminine traits, behaviour, and roles are not responsible for power inequalities. Females and males (roughly put) are socialised differently because there are underlying power inequalities. As MacKinnon puts it, ‘dominance’ (power relations) is prior to ‘difference’ (traits, behaviour and roles) (see, MacKinnon 1989, chapter 12). MacKinnon, then, sees legal restrictions on pornography as paramount to ending women’s subordinate status that stems from their gender.

3. Problems with the sex/gender distinction

3.1 is gender uniform.

The positions outlined above share an underlying metaphysical perspective on gender: gender realism . [ 2 ] That is, women as a group are assumed to share some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines their gender and the possession of which makes some individuals women (as opposed to, say, men). All women are thought to differ from all men in this respect (or respects). For example, MacKinnon thought that being treated in sexually objectifying ways is the common condition that defines women’s gender and what women as women share. All women differ from all men in this respect. Further, pointing out females who are not sexually objectified does not provide a counterexample to MacKinnon’s view. Being sexually objectified is constitutive of being a woman; a female who escapes sexual objectification, then, would not count as a woman.

One may want to critique the three accounts outlined by rejecting the particular details of each account. (For instance, see Spelman [1988, chapter 4] for a critique of the details of Chodorow’s view.) A more thoroughgoing critique has been levelled at the general metaphysical perspective of gender realism that underlies these positions. It has come under sustained attack on two grounds: first, that it fails to take into account racial, cultural and class differences between women (particularity argument); second, that it posits a normative ideal of womanhood (normativity argument).

Elizabeth Spelman (1988) has influentially argued against gender realism with her particularity argument. Roughly: gender realists mistakenly assume that gender is constructed independently of race, class, ethnicity and nationality. If gender were separable from, for example, race and class in this manner, all women would experience womanhood in the same way. And this is clearly false. For instance, Harris (1993) and Stone (2007) criticise MacKinnon’s view, that sexual objectification is the common condition that defines women’s gender, for failing to take into account differences in women’s backgrounds that shape their sexuality. The history of racist oppression illustrates that during slavery black women were ‘hypersexualised’ and thought to be always sexually available whereas white women were thought to be pure and sexually virtuous. In fact, the rape of a black woman was thought to be impossible (Harris 1993). So, (the argument goes) sexual objectification cannot serve as the common condition for womanhood since it varies considerably depending on one’s race and class. [ 3 ]

For Spelman, the perspective of ‘white solipsism’ underlies gender realists’ mistake. They assumed that all women share some “golden nugget of womanness” (Spelman 1988, 159) and that the features constitutive of such a nugget are the same for all women regardless of their particular cultural backgrounds. Next, white Western middle-class feminists accounted for the shared features simply by reflecting on the cultural features that condition their gender as women thus supposing that “the womanness underneath the Black woman’s skin is a white woman’s, and deep down inside the Latina woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through an obscuring cultural shroud” (Spelman 1988, 13). In so doing, Spelman claims, white middle-class Western feminists passed off their particular view of gender as “a metaphysical truth” (1988, 180) thereby privileging some women while marginalising others. In failing to see the importance of race and class in gender construction, white middle-class Western feminists conflated “the condition of one group of women with the condition of all” (Spelman 1988, 3).

Betty Friedan’s (1963) well-known work is a case in point of white solipsism. [ 4 ] Friedan saw domesticity as the main vehicle of gender oppression and called upon women in general to find jobs outside the home. But she failed to realize that women from less privileged backgrounds, often poor and non-white, already worked outside the home to support their families. Friedan’s suggestion, then, was applicable only to a particular sub-group of women (white middle-class Western housewives). But it was mistakenly taken to apply to all women’s lives — a mistake that was generated by Friedan’s failure to take women’s racial and class differences into account (hooks 2000, 1–3).

Spelman further holds that since social conditioning creates femininity and societies (and sub-groups) that condition it differ from one another, femininity must be differently conditioned in different societies. For her, “females become not simply women but particular kinds of women” (Spelman 1988, 113): white working-class women, black middle-class women, poor Jewish women, wealthy aristocratic European women, and so on.

This line of thought has been extremely influential in feminist philosophy. For instance, Young holds that Spelman has definitively shown that gender realism is untenable (1997, 13). Mikkola (2006) argues that this isn’t so. The arguments Spelman makes do not undermine the idea that there is some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines women’s gender; they simply point out that some particular ways of cashing out what defines womanhood are misguided. So, although Spelman is right to reject those accounts that falsely take the feature that conditions white middle-class Western feminists’ gender to condition women’s gender in general, this leaves open the possibility that women qua women do share something that defines their gender. (See also Haslanger [2000a] for a discussion of why gender realism is not necessarily untenable, and Stoljar [2011] for a discussion of Mikkola’s critique of Spelman.)

Judith Butler critiques the sex/gender distinction on two grounds. They critique gender realism with their normativity argument (1999 [original 1990], chapter 1); they also hold that the sex/gender distinction is unintelligible (this will be discussed in section 3.3.). Butler’s normativity argument is not straightforwardly directed at the metaphysical perspective of gender realism, but rather at its political counterpart: identity politics. This is a form of political mobilization based on membership in some group (e.g. racial, ethnic, cultural, gender) and group membership is thought to be delimited by some common experiences, conditions or features that define the group (Heyes 2000, 58; see also the entry on Identity Politics ). Feminist identity politics, then, presupposes gender realism in that feminist politics is said to be mobilized around women as a group (or category) where membership in this group is fixed by some condition, experience or feature that women supposedly share and that defines their gender.

Butler’s normativity argument makes two claims. The first is akin to Spelman’s particularity argument: unitary gender notions fail to take differences amongst women into account thus failing to recognise “the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of ‘women’ are constructed” (Butler 1999, 19–20). In their attempt to undercut biologically deterministic ways of defining what it means to be a woman, feminists inadvertently created new socially constructed accounts of supposedly shared femininity. Butler’s second claim is that such false gender realist accounts are normative. That is, in their attempt to fix feminism’s subject matter, feminists unwittingly defined the term ‘woman’ in a way that implies there is some correct way to be gendered a woman (Butler 1999, 5). That the definition of the term ‘woman’ is fixed supposedly “operates as a policing force which generates and legitimizes certain practices, experiences, etc., and curtails and delegitimizes others” (Nicholson 1998, 293). Following this line of thought, one could say that, for instance, Chodorow’s view of gender suggests that ‘real’ women have feminine personalities and that these are the women feminism should be concerned about. If one does not exhibit a distinctly feminine personality, the implication is that one is not ‘really’ a member of women’s category nor does one properly qualify for feminist political representation.

Butler’s second claim is based on their view that“[i]dentity categories [like that of women] are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary” (Butler 1991, 160). That is, the mistake of those feminists Butler critiques was not that they provided the incorrect definition of ‘woman’. Rather, (the argument goes) their mistake was to attempt to define the term ‘woman’ at all. Butler’s view is that ‘woman’ can never be defined in a way that does not prescribe some “unspoken normative requirements” (like having a feminine personality) that women should conform to (Butler 1999, 9). Butler takes this to be a feature of terms like ‘woman’ that purport to pick out (what they call) ‘identity categories’. They seem to assume that ‘woman’ can never be used in a non-ideological way (Moi 1999, 43) and that it will always encode conditions that are not satisfied by everyone we think of as women. Some explanation for this comes from Butler’s view that all processes of drawing categorical distinctions involve evaluative and normative commitments; these in turn involve the exercise of power and reflect the conditions of those who are socially powerful (Witt 1995).

In order to better understand Butler’s critique, consider their account of gender performativity. For them, standard feminist accounts take gendered individuals to have some essential properties qua gendered individuals or a gender core by virtue of which one is either a man or a woman. This view assumes that women and men, qua women and men, are bearers of various essential and accidental attributes where the former secure gendered persons’ persistence through time as so gendered. But according to Butler this view is false: (i) there are no such essential properties, and (ii) gender is an illusion maintained by prevalent power structures. First, feminists are said to think that genders are socially constructed in that they have the following essential attributes (Butler 1999, 24): women are females with feminine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at men; men are males with masculine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at women. These are the attributes necessary for gendered individuals and those that enable women and men to persist through time as women and men. Individuals have “intelligible genders” (Butler 1999, 23) if they exhibit this sequence of traits in a coherent manner (where sexual desire follows from sexual orientation that in turn follows from feminine/ masculine behaviours thought to follow from biological sex). Social forces in general deem individuals who exhibit in coherent gender sequences (like lesbians) to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ and they actively discourage such sequencing of traits, for instance, via name-calling and overt homophobic discrimination. Think back to what was said above: having a certain conception of what women are like that mirrors the conditions of socially powerful (white, middle-class, heterosexual, Western) women functions to marginalize and police those who do not fit this conception.

These gender cores, supposedly encoding the above traits, however, are nothing more than illusions created by ideals and practices that seek to render gender uniform through heterosexism, the view that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is deviant (Butler 1999, 42). Gender cores are constructed as if they somehow naturally belong to women and men thereby creating gender dimorphism or the belief that one must be either a masculine male or a feminine female. But gender dimorphism only serves a heterosexist social order by implying that since women and men are sharply opposed, it is natural to sexually desire the opposite sex or gender.

Further, being feminine and desiring men (for instance) are standardly assumed to be expressions of one’s gender as a woman. Butler denies this and holds that gender is really performative. It is not “a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is … instituted … through a stylized repetition of [habitual] acts ” (Butler 1999, 179): through wearing certain gender-coded clothing, walking and sitting in certain gender-coded ways, styling one’s hair in gender-coded manner and so on. Gender is not something one is, it is something one does; it is a sequence of acts, a doing rather than a being. And repeatedly engaging in ‘feminising’ and ‘masculinising’ acts congeals gender thereby making people falsely think of gender as something they naturally are . Gender only comes into being through these gendering acts: a female who has sex with men does not express her gender as a woman. This activity (amongst others) makes her gendered a woman.

The constitutive acts that gender individuals create genders as “compelling illusion[s]” (Butler 1990, 271). Our gendered classification scheme is a strong pragmatic construction : social factors wholly determine our use of the scheme and the scheme fails to represent accurately any ‘facts of the matter’ (Haslanger 1995, 100). People think that there are true and real genders, and those deemed to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ are not socially sanctioned. But, genders are true and real only to the extent that they are performed (Butler 1990, 278–9). It does not make sense, then, to say of a male-to-female trans person that s/he is really a man who only appears to be a woman. Instead, males dressing up and acting in ways that are associated with femininity “show that [as Butler suggests] ‘being’ feminine is just a matter of doing certain activities” (Stone 2007, 64). As a result, the trans person’s gender is just as real or true as anyone else’s who is a ‘traditionally’ feminine female or masculine male (Butler 1990, 278). [ 5 ] Without heterosexism that compels people to engage in certain gendering acts, there would not be any genders at all. And ultimately the aim should be to abolish norms that compel people to act in these gendering ways.

For Butler, given that gender is performative, the appropriate response to feminist identity politics involves two things. First, feminists should understand ‘woman’ as open-ended and “a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or end … it is open to intervention and resignification” (Butler 1999, 43). That is, feminists should not try to define ‘woman’ at all. Second, the category of women “ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics” (Butler 1999, 9). Rather, feminists should focus on providing an account of how power functions and shapes our understandings of womanhood not only in the society at large but also within the feminist movement.

Many people, including many feminists, have ordinarily taken sex ascriptions to be solely a matter of biology with no social or cultural dimension. It is commonplace to think that there are only two sexes and that biological sex classifications are utterly unproblematic. By contrast, some feminists have argued that sex classifications are not unproblematic and that they are not solely a matter of biology. In order to make sense of this, it is helpful to distinguish object- and idea-construction (see Haslanger 2003b for more): social forces can be said to construct certain kinds of objects (e.g. sexed bodies or gendered individuals) and certain kinds of ideas (e.g. sex or gender concepts). First, take the object-construction of sexed bodies. Secondary sex characteristics, or the physiological and biological features commonly associated with males and females, are affected by social practices. In some societies, females’ lower social status has meant that they have been fed less and so, the lack of nutrition has had the effect of making them smaller in size (Jaggar 1983, 37). Uniformity in muscular shape, size and strength within sex categories is not caused entirely by biological factors, but depends heavily on exercise opportunities: if males and females were allowed the same exercise opportunities and equal encouragement to exercise, it is thought that bodily dimorphism would diminish (Fausto-Sterling 1993a, 218). A number of medical phenomena involving bones (like osteoporosis) have social causes directly related to expectations about gender, women’s diet and their exercise opportunities (Fausto-Sterling 2005). These examples suggest that physiological features thought to be sex-specific traits not affected by social and cultural factors are, after all, to some extent products of social conditioning. Social conditioning, then, shapes our biology.

Second, take the idea-construction of sex concepts. Our concept of sex is said to be a product of social forces in the sense that what counts as sex is shaped by social meanings. Standardly, those with XX-chromosomes, ovaries that produce large egg cells, female genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘female’ hormones, and other secondary sex characteristics (relatively small body size, less body hair) count as biologically female. Those with XY-chromosomes, testes that produce small sperm cells, male genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘male’ hormones and other secondary sex traits (relatively large body size, significant amounts of body hair) count as male. This understanding is fairly recent. The prevalent scientific view from Ancient Greeks until the late 18 th century, did not consider female and male sexes to be distinct categories with specific traits; instead, a ‘one-sex model’ held that males and females were members of the same sex category. Females’ genitals were thought to be the same as males’ but simply directed inside the body; ovaries and testes (for instance) were referred to by the same term and whether the term referred to the former or the latter was made clear by the context (Laqueur 1990, 4). It was not until the late 1700s that scientists began to think of female and male anatomies as radically different moving away from the ‘one-sex model’ of a single sex spectrum to the (nowadays prevalent) ‘two-sex model’ of sexual dimorphism. (For an alternative view, see King 2013.)

Fausto-Sterling has argued that this ‘two-sex model’ isn’t straightforward either (1993b; 2000a; 2000b). Based on a meta-study of empirical medical research, she estimates that 1.7% of population fail to neatly fall within the usual sex classifications possessing various combinations of different sex characteristics (Fausto-Sterling 2000a, 20). In her earlier work, she claimed that intersex individuals make up (at least) three further sex classes: ‘herms’ who possess one testis and one ovary; ‘merms’ who possess testes, some aspects of female genitalia but no ovaries; and ‘ferms’ who have ovaries, some aspects of male genitalia but no testes (Fausto-Sterling 1993b, 21). (In her [2000a], Fausto-Sterling notes that these labels were put forward tongue–in–cheek.) Recognition of intersex people suggests that feminists (and society at large) are wrong to think that humans are either female or male.

To illustrate further the idea-construction of sex, consider the case of the athlete Maria Patiño. Patiño has female genitalia, has always considered herself to be female and was considered so by others. However, she was discovered to have XY chromosomes and was barred from competing in women’s sports (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, 1–3). Patiño’s genitalia were at odds with her chromosomes and the latter were taken to determine her sex. Patiño successfully fought to be recognised as a female athlete arguing that her chromosomes alone were not sufficient to not make her female. Intersex people, like Patiño, illustrate that our understandings of sex differ and suggest that there is no immediately obvious way to settle what sex amounts to purely biologically or scientifically. Deciding what sex is involves evaluative judgements that are influenced by social factors.

Insofar as our cultural conceptions affect our understandings of sex, feminists must be much more careful about sex classifications and rethink what sex amounts to (Stone 2007, chapter 1). More specifically, intersex people illustrate that sex traits associated with females and males need not always go together and that individuals can have some mixture of these traits. This suggests to Stone that sex is a cluster concept: it is sufficient to satisfy enough of the sex features that tend to cluster together in order to count as being of a particular sex. But, one need not satisfy all of those features or some arbitrarily chosen supposedly necessary sex feature, like chromosomes (Stone 2007, 44). This makes sex a matter of degree and sex classifications should take place on a spectrum: one can be more or less female/male but there is no sharp distinction between the two. Further, intersex people (along with trans people) are located at the centre of the sex spectrum and in many cases their sex will be indeterminate (Stone 2007).

More recently, Ayala and Vasilyeva (2015) have argued for an inclusive and extended conception of sex: just as certain tools can be seen to extend our minds beyond the limits of our brains (e.g. white canes), other tools (like dildos) can extend our sex beyond our bodily boundaries. This view aims to motivate the idea that what counts as sex should not be determined by looking inwards at genitalia or other anatomical features. In a different vein, Ásta (2018) argues that sex is a conferred social property. This follows her more general conferralist framework to analyse all social properties: properties that are conferred by others thereby generating a social status that consists in contextually specific constraints and enablements on individual behaviour. The general schema for conferred properties is as follows (Ásta 2018, 8):

Conferred property: what property is conferred. Who: who the subjects are. What: what attitude, state, or action of the subjects matter. When: under what conditions the conferral takes place. Base property: what the subjects are attempting to track (consciously or not), if anything.

With being of a certain sex (e.g. male, female) in mind, Ásta holds that it is a conferred property that merely aims to track physical features. Hence sex is a social – or in fact, an institutional – property rather than a natural one. The schema for sex goes as follows (72):

Conferred property: being female, male. Who: legal authorities, drawing on the expert opinion of doctors, other medical personnel. What: “the recording of a sex in official documents ... The judgment of the doctors (and others) as to what sex role might be the most fitting, given the biological characteristics present.” When: at birth or after surgery/ hormonal treatment. Base property: “the aim is to track as many sex-stereotypical characteristics as possible, and doctors perform surgery in cases where that might help bring the physical characteristics more in line with the stereotype of male and female.”

This (among other things) offers a debunking analysis of sex: it may appear to be a natural property, but on the conferralist analysis is better understood as a conferred legal status. Ásta holds that gender too is a conferred property, but contra the discussion in the following section, she does not think that this collapses the distinction between sex and gender: sex and gender are differently conferred albeit both satisfying the general schema noted above. Nonetheless, on the conferralist framework what underlies both sex and gender is the idea of social construction as social significance: sex-stereotypical characteristics are taken to be socially significant context specifically, whereby they become the basis for conferring sex onto individuals and this brings with it various constraints and enablements on individuals and their behaviour. This fits object- and idea-constructions introduced above, although offers a different general framework to analyse the matter at hand.

In addition to arguing against identity politics and for gender performativity, Butler holds that distinguishing biological sex from social gender is unintelligible. For them, both are socially constructed:

If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. (Butler 1999, 10–11)

(Butler is not alone in claiming that there are no tenable distinctions between nature/culture, biology/construction and sex/gender. See also: Antony 1998; Gatens 1996; Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999.) Butler makes two different claims in the passage cited: that sex is a social construction, and that sex is gender. To unpack their view, consider the two claims in turn. First, the idea that sex is a social construct, for Butler, boils down to the view that our sexed bodies are also performative and, so, they have “no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute [their] reality” (1999, 173). Prima facie , this implausibly implies that female and male bodies do not have independent existence and that if gendering activities ceased, so would physical bodies. This is not Butler’s claim; rather, their position is that bodies viewed as the material foundations on which gender is constructed, are themselves constructed as if they provide such material foundations (Butler 1993). Cultural conceptions about gender figure in “the very apparatus of production whereby sexes themselves are established” (Butler 1999, 11).

For Butler, sexed bodies never exist outside social meanings and how we understand gender shapes how we understand sex (1999, 139). Sexed bodies are not empty matter on which gender is constructed and sex categories are not picked out on the basis of objective features of the world. Instead, our sexed bodies are themselves discursively constructed : they are the way they are, at least to a substantial extent, because of what is attributed to sexed bodies and how they are classified (for discursive construction, see Haslanger 1995, 99). Sex assignment (calling someone female or male) is normative (Butler 1993, 1). [ 6 ] When the doctor calls a newly born infant a girl or a boy, s/he is not making a descriptive claim, but a normative one. In fact, the doctor is performing an illocutionary speech act (see the entry on Speech Acts ). In effect, the doctor’s utterance makes infants into girls or boys. We, then, engage in activities that make it seem as if sexes naturally come in two and that being female or male is an objective feature of the world, rather than being a consequence of certain constitutive acts (that is, rather than being performative). And this is what Butler means in saying that physical bodies never exist outside cultural and social meanings, and that sex is as socially constructed as gender. They do not deny that physical bodies exist. But, they take our understanding of this existence to be a product of social conditioning: social conditioning makes the existence of physical bodies intelligible to us by discursively constructing sexed bodies through certain constitutive acts. (For a helpful introduction to Butler’s views, see Salih 2002.)

For Butler, sex assignment is always in some sense oppressive. Again, this appears to be because of Butler’s general suspicion of classification: sex classification can never be merely descriptive but always has a normative element reflecting evaluative claims of those who are powerful. Conducting a feminist genealogy of the body (or examining why sexed bodies are thought to come naturally as female and male), then, should ground feminist practice (Butler 1993, 28–9). Feminists should examine and uncover ways in which social construction and certain acts that constitute sex shape our understandings of sexed bodies, what kinds of meanings bodies acquire and which practices and illocutionary speech acts ‘make’ our bodies into sexes. Doing so enables feminists to identity how sexed bodies are socially constructed in order to resist such construction.

However, given what was said above, it is far from obvious what we should make of Butler’s claim that sex “was always already gender” (1999, 11). Stone (2007) takes this to mean that sex is gender but goes on to question it arguing that the social construction of both sex and gender does not make sex identical to gender. According to Stone, it would be more accurate for Butler to say that claims about sex imply gender norms. That is, many claims about sex traits (like ‘females are physically weaker than males’) actually carry implications about how women and men are expected to behave. To some extent the claim describes certain facts. But, it also implies that females are not expected to do much heavy lifting and that they would probably not be good at it. So, claims about sex are not identical to claims about gender; rather, they imply claims about gender norms (Stone 2007, 70).

Some feminists hold that the sex/gender distinction is not useful. For a start, it is thought to reflect politically problematic dualistic thinking that undercuts feminist aims: the distinction is taken to reflect and replicate androcentric oppositions between (for instance) mind/body, culture/nature and reason/emotion that have been used to justify women’s oppression (e.g. Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The thought is that in oppositions like these, one term is always superior to the other and that the devalued term is usually associated with women (Lloyd 1993). For instance, human subjectivity and agency are identified with the mind but since women are usually identified with their bodies, they are devalued as human subjects and agents. The opposition between mind and body is said to further map on to other distinctions, like reason/emotion, culture/nature, rational/irrational, where one side of each distinction is devalued (one’s bodily features are usually valued less that one’s mind, rationality is usually valued more than irrationality) and women are associated with the devalued terms: they are thought to be closer to bodily features and nature than men, to be irrational, emotional and so on. This is said to be evident (for instance) in job interviews. Men are treated as gender-neutral persons and not asked whether they are planning to take time off to have a family. By contrast, that women face such queries illustrates that they are associated more closely than men with bodily features to do with procreation (Prokhovnik 1999, 126). The opposition between mind and body, then, is thought to map onto the opposition between men and women.

Now, the mind/body dualism is also said to map onto the sex/gender distinction (Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The idea is that gender maps onto mind, sex onto body. Although not used by those endorsing this view, the basic idea can be summed by the slogan ‘Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs’: the implication is that, while sex is immutable, gender is something individuals have control over – it is something we can alter and change through individual choices. However, since women are said to be more closely associated with biological features (and so, to map onto the body side of the mind/body distinction) and men are treated as gender-neutral persons (mapping onto the mind side), the implication is that “man equals gender, which is associated with mind and choice, freedom from body, autonomy, and with the public real; while woman equals sex, associated with the body, reproduction, ‘natural’ rhythms and the private realm” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). This is said to render the sex/gender distinction inherently repressive and to drain it of any potential for emancipation: rather than facilitating gender role choice for women, it “actually functions to reinforce their association with body, sex, and involuntary ‘natural’ rhythms” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). Contrary to what feminists like Rubin argued, the sex/gender distinction cannot be used as a theoretical tool that dissociates conceptions of womanhood from biological and reproductive features.

Moi has further argued that the sex/gender distinction is useless given certain theoretical goals (1999, chapter 1). This is not to say that it is utterly worthless; according to Moi, the sex/gender distinction worked well to show that the historically prevalent biological determinism was false. However, for her, the distinction does no useful work “when it comes to producing a good theory of subjectivity” (1999, 6) and “a concrete, historical understanding of what it means to be a woman (or a man) in a given society” (1999, 4–5). That is, the 1960s distinction understood sex as fixed by biology without any cultural or historical dimensions. This understanding, however, ignores lived experiences and embodiment as aspects of womanhood (and manhood) by separating sex from gender and insisting that womanhood is to do with the latter. Rather, embodiment must be included in one’s theory that tries to figure out what it is to be a woman (or a man).

Mikkola (2011) argues that the sex/gender distinction, which underlies views like Rubin’s and MacKinnon’s, has certain unintuitive and undesirable ontological commitments that render the distinction politically unhelpful. First, claiming that gender is socially constructed implies that the existence of women and men is a mind-dependent matter. This suggests that we can do away with women and men simply by altering some social practices, conventions or conditions on which gender depends (whatever those are). However, ordinary social agents find this unintuitive given that (ordinarily) sex and gender are not distinguished. Second, claiming that gender is a product of oppressive social forces suggests that doing away with women and men should be feminism’s political goal. But this harbours ontologically undesirable commitments since many ordinary social agents view their gender to be a source of positive value. So, feminism seems to want to do away with something that should not be done away with, which is unlikely to motivate social agents to act in ways that aim at gender justice. Given these problems, Mikkola argues that feminists should give up the distinction on practical political grounds.

Tomas Bogardus (2020) has argued in an even more radical sense against the sex/gender distinction: as things stand, he holds, feminist philosophers have merely assumed and asserted that the distinction exists, instead of having offered good arguments for the distinction. In other words, feminist philosophers allegedly have yet to offer good reasons to think that ‘woman’ does not simply pick out adult human females. Alex Byrne (2020) argues in a similar vein: the term ‘woman’ does not pick out a social kind as feminist philosophers have “assumed”. Instead, “women are adult human females–nothing more, and nothing less” (2020, 3801). Byrne offers six considerations to ground this AHF (adult, human, female) conception.

  • It reproduces the dictionary definition of ‘woman’.
  • One would expect English to have a word that picks out the category adult human female, and ‘woman’ is the only candidate.
  • AHF explains how we sometimes know that an individual is a woman, despite knowing nothing else relevant about her other than the fact that she is an adult human female.
  • AHF stands or falls with the analogous thesis for girls, which can be supported independently.
  • AHF predicts the correct verdict in cases of gender role reversal.
  • AHF is supported by the fact that ‘woman’ and ‘female’ are often appropriately used as stylistic variants of each other, even in hyperintensional contexts.

Robin Dembroff (2021) responds to Byrne and highlights various problems with Byrne’s argument. First, framing: Byrne assumes from the start that gender terms like ‘woman’ have a single invariant meaning thereby failing to discuss the possibility of terms like ‘woman’ having multiple meanings – something that is a familiar claim made by feminist theorists from various disciplines. Moreover, Byrne (according to Dembroff) assumes without argument that there is a single, universal category of woman – again, something that has been extensively discussed and critiqued by feminist philosophers and theorists. Second, Byrne’s conception of the ‘dominant’ meaning of woman is said to be cherry-picked and it ignores a wealth of contexts outside of philosophy (like the media and the law) where ‘woman’ has a meaning other than AHF . Third, Byrne’s own distinction between biological and social categories fails to establish what he intended to establish: namely, that ‘woman’ picks out a biological rather than a social kind. Hence, Dembroff holds, Byrne’s case fails by its own lights. Byrne (2021) responds to Dembroff’s critique.

Others such as ‘gender critical feminists’ also hold views about the sex/gender distinction in a spirit similar to Bogardus and Byrne. For example, Holly Lawford-Smith (2021) takes the prevalent sex/gender distinction, where ‘female’/‘male’ are used as sex terms and ‘woman’/’man’ as gender terms, not to be helpful. Instead, she takes all of these to be sex terms and holds that (the norms of) femininity/masculinity refer to gender normativity. Because much of the gender critical feminists’ discussion that philosophers have engaged in has taken place in social media, public fora, and other sources outside academic philosophy, this entry will not focus on these discussions.

4. Women as a group

The various critiques of the sex/gender distinction have called into question the viability of the category women . Feminism is the movement to end the oppression women as a group face. But, how should the category of women be understood if feminists accept the above arguments that gender construction is not uniform, that a sharp distinction between biological sex and social gender is false or (at least) not useful, and that various features associated with women play a role in what it is to be a woman, none of which are individually necessary and jointly sufficient (like a variety of social roles, positions, behaviours, traits, bodily features and experiences)? Feminists must be able to address cultural and social differences in gender construction if feminism is to be a genuinely inclusive movement and be careful not to posit commonalities that mask important ways in which women qua women differ. These concerns (among others) have generated a situation where (as Linda Alcoff puts it) feminists aim to speak and make political demands in the name of women, at the same time rejecting the idea that there is a unified category of women (2006, 152). If feminist critiques of the category women are successful, then what (if anything) binds women together, what is it to be a woman, and what kinds of demands can feminists make on behalf of women?

Many have found the fragmentation of the category of women problematic for political reasons (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Bach 2012; Benhabib 1992; Frye 1996; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Martin 1994; Mikkola 2007; Stoljar 1995; Stone 2004; Tanesini 1996; Young 1997; Zack 2005). For instance, Young holds that accounts like Spelman’s reduce the category of women to a gerrymandered collection of individuals with nothing to bind them together (1997, 20). Black women differ from white women but members of both groups also differ from one another with respect to nationality, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and economic position; that is, wealthy white women differ from working-class white women due to their economic and class positions. These sub-groups are themselves diverse: for instance, some working-class white women in Northern Ireland are starkly divided along religious lines. So if we accept Spelman’s position, we risk ending up with individual women and nothing to bind them together. And this is problematic: in order to respond to oppression of women in general, feminists must understand them as a category in some sense. Young writes that without doing so “it is not possible to conceptualize oppression as a systematic, structured, institutional process” (1997, 17). Some, then, take the articulation of an inclusive category of women to be the prerequisite for effective feminist politics and a rich literature has emerged that aims to conceptualise women as a group or a collective (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Ásta 2011; Frye 1996; 2011; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Stoljar 1995, 2011; Young 1997; Zack 2005). Articulations of this category can be divided into those that are: (a) gender nominalist — positions that deny there is something women qua women share and that seek to unify women’s social kind by appealing to something external to women; and (b) gender realist — positions that take there to be something women qua women share (although these realist positions differ significantly from those outlined in Section 2). Below we will review some influential gender nominalist and gender realist positions. Before doing so, it is worth noting that not everyone is convinced that attempts to articulate an inclusive category of women can succeed or that worries about what it is to be a woman are in need of being resolved. Mikkola (2016) argues that feminist politics need not rely on overcoming (what she calls) the ‘gender controversy’: that feminists must settle the meaning of gender concepts and articulate a way to ground women’s social kind membership. As she sees it, disputes about ‘what it is to be a woman’ have become theoretically bankrupt and intractable, which has generated an analytical impasse that looks unsurpassable. Instead, Mikkola argues for giving up the quest, which in any case in her view poses no serious political obstacles.

Elizabeth Barnes (2020) responds to the need to offer an inclusive conception of gender somewhat differently, although she endorses the need for feminism to be inclusive particularly of trans people. Barnes holds that typically philosophical theories of gender aim to offer an account of what it is to be a woman (or man, genderqueer, etc.), where such an account is presumed to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for being a woman or an account of our gender terms’ extensions. But, she holds, it is a mistake to expect our theories of gender to do so. For Barnes, a project that offers a metaphysics of gender “should be understood as the project of theorizing what it is —if anything— about the social world that ultimately explains gender” (2020, 706). This project is not equivalent to one that aims to define gender terms or elucidate the application conditions for natural language gender terms though.

4.1 Gender nominalism

Iris Young argues that unless there is “some sense in which ‘woman’ is the name of a social collective [that feminism represents], there is nothing specific to feminist politics” (1997, 13). In order to make the category women intelligible, she argues that women make up a series: a particular kind of social collective “whose members are unified passively by the objects their actions are oriented around and/or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the other” (Young 1997, 23). A series is distinct from a group in that, whereas members of groups are thought to self-consciously share certain goals, projects, traits and/ or self-conceptions, members of series pursue their own individual ends without necessarily having anything at all in common. Young holds that women are not bound together by a shared feature or experience (or set of features and experiences) since she takes Spelman’s particularity argument to have established definitely that no such feature exists (1997, 13; see also: Frye 1996; Heyes 2000). Instead, women’s category is unified by certain practico-inert realities or the ways in which women’s lives and their actions are oriented around certain objects and everyday realities (Young 1997, 23–4). For example, bus commuters make up a series unified through their individual actions being organised around the same practico-inert objects of the bus and the practice of public transport. Women make up a series unified through women’s lives and actions being organised around certain practico-inert objects and realities that position them as women .

Young identifies two broad groups of such practico-inert objects and realities. First, phenomena associated with female bodies (physical facts), biological processes that take place in female bodies (menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth) and social rules associated with these biological processes (social rules of menstruation, for instance). Second, gender-coded objects and practices: pronouns, verbal and visual representations of gender, gender-coded artefacts and social spaces, clothes, cosmetics, tools and furniture. So, women make up a series since their lives and actions are organised around female bodies and certain gender-coded objects. Their series is bound together passively and the unity is “not one that arises from the individuals called women” (Young 1997, 32).

Although Young’s proposal purports to be a response to Spelman’s worries, Stone has questioned whether it is, after all, susceptible to the particularity argument: ultimately, on Young’s view, something women as women share (their practico-inert realities) binds them together (Stone 2004).

Natalie Stoljar holds that unless the category of women is unified, feminist action on behalf of women cannot be justified (1995, 282). Stoljar too is persuaded by the thought that women qua women do not share anything unitary. This prompts her to argue for resemblance nominalism. This is the view that a certain kind of resemblance relation holds between entities of a particular type (for more on resemblance nominalism, see Armstrong 1989, 39–58). Stoljar is not alone in arguing for resemblance relations to make sense of women as a category; others have also done so, usually appealing to Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ relations (Alcoff 1988; Green & Radford Curry 1991; Heyes 2000; Munro 2006). Stoljar relies more on Price’s resemblance nominalism whereby x is a member of some type F only if x resembles some paradigm or exemplar of F sufficiently closely (Price 1953, 20). For instance, the type of red entities is unified by some chosen red paradigms so that only those entities that sufficiently resemble the paradigms count as red. The type (or category) of women, then, is unified by some chosen woman paradigms so that those who sufficiently resemble the woman paradigms count as women (Stoljar 1995, 284).

Semantic considerations about the concept woman suggest to Stoljar that resemblance nominalism should be endorsed (Stoljar 2000, 28). It seems unlikely that the concept is applied on the basis of some single social feature all and only women possess. By contrast, woman is a cluster concept and our attributions of womanhood pick out “different arrangements of features in different individuals” (Stoljar 2000, 27). More specifically, they pick out the following clusters of features: (a) Female sex; (b) Phenomenological features: menstruation, female sexual experience, child-birth, breast-feeding, fear of walking on the streets at night or fear of rape; (c) Certain roles: wearing typically female clothing, being oppressed on the basis of one’s sex or undertaking care-work; (d) Gender attribution: “calling oneself a woman, being called a woman” (Stoljar 1995, 283–4). For Stoljar, attributions of womanhood are to do with a variety of traits and experiences: those that feminists have historically termed ‘gender traits’ (like social, behavioural, psychological traits) and those termed ‘sex traits’. Nonetheless, she holds that since the concept woman applies to (at least some) trans persons, one can be a woman without being female (Stoljar 1995, 282).

The cluster concept woman does not, however, straightforwardly provide the criterion for picking out the category of women. Rather, the four clusters of features that the concept picks out help single out woman paradigms that in turn help single out the category of women. First, any individual who possesses a feature from at least three of the four clusters mentioned will count as an exemplar of the category. For instance, an African-American with primary and secondary female sex characteristics, who describes herself as a woman and is oppressed on the basis of her sex, along with a white European hermaphrodite brought up ‘as a girl’, who engages in female roles and has female phenomenological features despite lacking female sex characteristics, will count as woman paradigms (Stoljar 1995, 284). [ 7 ] Second, any individual who resembles “any of the paradigms sufficiently closely (on Price’s account, as closely as [the paradigms] resemble each other) will be a member of the resemblance class ‘woman’” (Stoljar 1995, 284). That is, what delimits membership in the category of women is that one resembles sufficiently a woman paradigm.

4.2 Neo-gender realism

In a series of articles collected in her 2012 book, Sally Haslanger argues for a way to define the concept woman that is politically useful, serving as a tool in feminist fights against sexism, and that shows woman to be a social (not a biological) notion. More specifically, Haslanger argues that gender is a matter of occupying either a subordinate or a privileged social position. In some articles, Haslanger is arguing for a revisionary analysis of the concept woman (2000b; 2003a; 2003b). Elsewhere she suggests that her analysis may not be that revisionary after all (2005; 2006). Consider the former argument first. Haslanger’s analysis is, in her terms, ameliorative: it aims to elucidate which gender concepts best help feminists achieve their legitimate purposes thereby elucidating those concepts feminists should be using (Haslanger 2000b, 33). [ 8 ] Now, feminists need gender terminology in order to fight sexist injustices (Haslanger 2000b, 36). In particular, they need gender terms to identify, explain and talk about persistent social inequalities between males and females. Haslanger’s analysis of gender begins with the recognition that females and males differ in two respects: physically and in their social positions. Societies in general tend to “privilege individuals with male bodies” (Haslanger 2000b, 38) so that the social positions they subsequently occupy are better than the social positions of those with female bodies. And this generates persistent sexist injustices. With this in mind, Haslanger specifies how she understands genders:

S is a woman iff [by definition] S is systematically subordinated along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction.
S is a man iff [by definition] S is systematically privileged along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction. (2003a, 6–7)

These are constitutive of being a woman and a man: what makes calling S a woman apt, is that S is oppressed on sex-marked grounds; what makes calling S a man apt, is that S is privileged on sex-marked grounds.

Haslanger’s ameliorative analysis is counterintuitive in that females who are not sex-marked for oppression, do not count as women. At least arguably, the Queen of England is not oppressed on sex-marked grounds and so, would not count as a woman on Haslanger’s definition. And, similarly, all males who are not privileged would not count as men. This might suggest that Haslanger’s analysis should be rejected in that it does not capture what language users have in mind when applying gender terms. However, Haslanger argues that this is not a reason to reject the definitions, which she takes to be revisionary: they are not meant to capture our intuitive gender terms. In response, Mikkola (2009) has argued that revisionary analyses of gender concepts, like Haslanger’s, are both politically unhelpful and philosophically unnecessary.

Note also that Haslanger’s proposal is eliminativist: gender justice would eradicate gender, since it would abolish those sexist social structures responsible for sex-marked oppression and privilege. If sexist oppression were to cease, women and men would no longer exist (although there would still be males and females). Not all feminists endorse such an eliminativist view though. Stone holds that Haslanger does not leave any room for positively revaluing what it is to be a woman: since Haslanger defines woman in terms of subordination,

any woman who challenges her subordinate status must by definition be challenging her status as a woman, even if she does not intend to … positive change to our gender norms would involve getting rid of the (necessarily subordinate) feminine gender. (Stone 2007, 160)

But according to Stone this is not only undesirable – one should be able to challenge subordination without having to challenge one’s status as a woman. It is also false: “because norms of femininity can be and constantly are being revised, women can be women without thereby being subordinate” (Stone 2007, 162; Mikkola [2016] too argues that Haslanger’s eliminativism is troublesome).

Theodore Bach holds that Haslanger’s eliminativism is undesirable on other grounds, and that Haslanger’s position faces another more serious problem. Feminism faces the following worries (among others):

Representation problem : “if there is no real group of ‘women’, then it is incoherent to make moral claims and advance political policies on behalf of women” (Bach 2012, 234). Commonality problems : (1) There is no feature that all women cross-culturally and transhistorically share. (2) Delimiting women’s social kind with the help of some essential property privileges those who possess it, and marginalizes those who do not (Bach 2012, 235).

According to Bach, Haslanger’s strategy to resolve these problems appeals to ‘social objectivism’. First, we define women “according to a suitably abstract relational property” (Bach 2012, 236), which avoids the commonality problems. Second, Haslanger employs “an ontologically thin notion of ‘objectivity’” (Bach 2012, 236) that answers the representation problem. Haslanger’s solution (Bach holds) is specifically to argue that women make up an objective type because women are objectively similar to one another, and not simply classified together given our background conceptual schemes. Bach claims though that Haslanger’s account is not objective enough, and we should on political grounds “provide a stronger ontological characterization of the genders men and women according to which they are natural kinds with explanatory essences” (Bach 2012, 238). He thus proposes that women make up a natural kind with a historical essence:

The essential property of women, in virtue of which an individual is a member of the kind ‘women,’ is participation in a lineage of women. In order to exemplify this relational property, an individual must be a reproduction of ancestral women, in which case she must have undergone the ontogenetic processes through which a historical gender system replicates women. (Bach 2012, 271)

In short, one is not a woman due to shared surface properties with other women (like occupying a subordinate social position). Rather, one is a woman because one has the right history: one has undergone the ubiquitous ontogenetic process of gender socialization. Thinking about gender in this way supposedly provides a stronger kind unity than Haslanger’s that simply appeals to shared surface properties.

Not everyone agrees; Mikkola (2020) argues that Bach’s metaphysical picture has internal tensions that render it puzzling and that Bach’s metaphysics does not provide good responses to the commonality and presentation problems. The historically essentialist view also has anti-trans implications. After all, trans women who have not undergone female gender socialization won’t count as women on his view (Mikkola [2016, 2020] develops this line of critique in more detail). More worryingly, trans women will count as men contrary to their self-identification. Both Bettcher (2013) and Jenkins (2016) consider the importance of gender self-identification. Bettcher argues that there is more than one ‘correct’ way to understand womanhood: at the very least, the dominant (mainstream), and the resistant (trans) conceptions. Dominant views like that of Bach’s tend to erase trans people’s experiences and to marginalize trans women within feminist movements. Rather than trans women having to defend their self-identifying claims, these claims should be taken at face value right from the start. And so, Bettcher holds, “in analyzing the meaning of terms such as ‘woman,’ it is inappropriate to dismiss alternative ways in which those terms are actually used in trans subcultures; such usage needs to be taken into consideration as part of the analysis” (2013, 235).

Specifically with Haslanger in mind and in a similar vein, Jenkins (2016) discusses how Haslanger’s revisionary approach unduly excludes some trans women from women’s social kind. On Jenkins’s view, Haslanger’s ameliorative methodology in fact yields more than one satisfying target concept: one that “corresponds to Haslanger’s proposed concept and captures the sense of gender as an imposed social class”; another that “captures the sense of gender as a lived identity” (Jenkins 2016, 397). The latter of these allows us to include trans women into women’s social kind, who on Haslanger’s social class approach to gender would inappropriately have been excluded. (See Andler 2017 for the view that Jenkins’s purportedly inclusive conception of gender is still not fully inclusive. Jenkins 2018 responds to this charge and develops the notion of gender identity still further.)

In addition to her revisionary argument, Haslanger has suggested that her ameliorative analysis of woman may not be as revisionary as it first seems (2005, 2006). Although successful in their reference fixing, ordinary language users do not always know precisely what they are talking about. Our language use may be skewed by oppressive ideologies that can “mislead us about the content of our own thoughts” (Haslanger 2005, 12). Although her gender terminology is not intuitive, this could simply be because oppressive ideologies mislead us about the meanings of our gender terms. Our everyday gender terminology might mean something utterly different from what we think it means; and we could be entirely ignorant of this. Perhaps Haslanger’s analysis, then, has captured our everyday gender vocabulary revealing to us the terms that we actually employ: we may be applying ‘woman’ in our everyday language on the basis of sex-marked subordination whether we take ourselves to be doing so or not. If this is so, Haslanger’s gender terminology is not radically revisionist.

Saul (2006) argues that, despite it being possible that we unknowingly apply ‘woman’ on the basis of social subordination, it is extremely difficult to show that this is the case. This would require showing that the gender terminology we in fact employ is Haslanger’s proposed gender terminology. But discovering the grounds on which we apply everyday gender terms is extremely difficult precisely because they are applied in various and idiosyncratic ways (Saul 2006, 129). Haslanger, then, needs to do more in order to show that her analysis is non-revisionary.

Charlotte Witt (2011a; 2011b) argues for a particular sort of gender essentialism, which Witt terms ‘uniessentialism’. Her motivation and starting point is the following: many ordinary social agents report gender being essential to them and claim that they would be a different person were they of a different sex/gender. Uniessentialism attempts to understand and articulate this. However, Witt’s work departs in important respects from the earlier (so-called) essentialist or gender realist positions discussed in Section 2: Witt does not posit some essential property of womanhood of the kind discussed above, which failed to take women’s differences into account. Further, uniessentialism differs significantly from those position developed in response to the problem of how we should conceive of women’s social kind. It is not about solving the standard dispute between gender nominalists and gender realists, or about articulating some supposedly shared property that binds women together and provides a theoretical ground for feminist political solidarity. Rather, uniessentialism aims to make good the widely held belief that gender is constitutive of who we are. [ 9 ]

Uniessentialism is a sort of individual essentialism. Traditionally philosophers distinguish between kind and individual essentialisms: the former examines what binds members of a kind together and what do all members of some kind have in common qua members of that kind. The latter asks: what makes an individual the individual it is. We can further distinguish two sorts of individual essentialisms: Kripkean identity essentialism and Aristotelian uniessentialism. The former asks: what makes an individual that individual? The latter, however, asks a slightly different question: what explains the unity of individuals? What explains that an individual entity exists over and above the sum total of its constituent parts? (The standard feminist debate over gender nominalism and gender realism has largely been about kind essentialism. Being about individual essentialism, Witt’s uniessentialism departs in an important way from the standard debate.) From the two individual essentialisms, Witt endorses the Aristotelian one. On this view, certain functional essences have a unifying role: these essences are responsible for the fact that material parts constitute a new individual, rather than just a lump of stuff or a collection of particles. Witt’s example is of a house: the essential house-functional property (what the entity is for, what its purpose is) unifies the different material parts of a house so that there is a house, and not just a collection of house-constituting particles (2011a, 6). Gender (being a woman/a man) functions in a similar fashion and provides “the principle of normative unity” that organizes, unifies and determines the roles of social individuals (Witt 2011a, 73). Due to this, gender is a uniessential property of social individuals.

It is important to clarify the notions of gender and social individuality that Witt employs. First, gender is a social position that “cluster[s] around the engendering function … women conceive and bear … men beget” (Witt 2011a, 40). These are women and men’s socially mediated reproductive functions (Witt 2011a, 29) and they differ from the biological function of reproduction, which roughly corresponds to sex on the standard sex/gender distinction. Witt writes: “to be a woman is to be recognized to have a particular function in engendering, to be a man is to be recognized to have a different function in engendering” (2011a, 39). Second, Witt distinguishes persons (those who possess self-consciousness), human beings (those who are biologically human) and social individuals (those who occupy social positions synchronically and diachronically). These ontological categories are not equivalent in that they possess different persistence and identity conditions. Social individuals are bound by social normativity, human beings by biological normativity. These normativities differ in two respects: first, social norms differ from one culture to the next whereas biological norms do not; second, unlike biological normativity, social normativity requires “the recognition by others that an agent is both responsive to and evaluable under a social norm” (Witt 2011a, 19). Thus, being a social individual is not equivalent to being a human being. Further, Witt takes personhood to be defined in terms of intrinsic psychological states of self-awareness and self-consciousness. However, social individuality is defined in terms of the extrinsic feature of occupying a social position, which depends for its existence on a social world. So, the two are not equivalent: personhood is essentially about intrinsic features and could exist without a social world, whereas social individuality is essentially about extrinsic features that could not exist without a social world.

Witt’s gender essentialist argument crucially pertains to social individuals , not to persons or human beings: saying that persons or human beings are gendered would be a category mistake. But why is gender essential to social individuals? For Witt, social individuals are those who occupy positions in social reality. Further, “social positions have norms or social roles associated with them; a social role is what an individual who occupies a given social position is responsive to and evaluable under” (Witt 2011a, 59). However, qua social individuals, we occupy multiple social positions at once and over time: we can be women, mothers, immigrants, sisters, academics, wives, community organisers and team-sport coaches synchronically and diachronically. Now, the issue for Witt is what unifies these positions so that a social individual is constituted. After all, a bundle of social position occupancies does not make for an individual (just as a bundle of properties like being white , cube-shaped and sweet do not make for a sugar cube). For Witt, this unifying role is undertaken by gender (being a woman or a man): it is

a pervasive and fundamental social position that unifies and determines all other social positions both synchronically and diachronically. It unifies them not physically, but by providing a principle of normative unity. (2011a, 19–20)

By ‘normative unity’, Witt means the following: given our social roles and social position occupancies, we are responsive to various sets of social norms. These norms are “complex patterns of behaviour and practices that constitute what one ought to do in a situation given one’s social position(s) and one’s social context” (Witt 2011a, 82). The sets of norms can conflict: the norms of motherhood can (and do) conflict with the norms of being an academic philosopher. However, in order for this conflict to exist, the norms must be binding on a single social individual. Witt, then, asks: what explains the existence and unity of the social individual who is subject to conflicting social norms? The answer is gender.

Gender is not just a social role that unifies social individuals. Witt takes it to be the social role — as she puts it, it is the mega social role that unifies social agents. First, gender is a mega social role if it satisfies two conditions (and Witt claims that it does): (1) if it provides the principle of synchronic and diachronic unity of social individuals, and (2) if it inflects and defines a broad range of other social roles. Gender satisfies the first in usually being a life-long social position: a social individual persists just as long as their gendered social position persists. Further, Witt maintains, trans people are not counterexamples to this claim: transitioning entails that the old social individual has ceased to exist and a new one has come into being. And this is consistent with the same person persisting and undergoing social individual change via transitioning. Gender satisfies the second condition too. It inflects other social roles, like being a parent or a professional. The expectations attached to these social roles differ depending on the agent’s gender, since gender imposes different social norms to govern the execution of the further social roles. Now, gender — as opposed to some other social category, like race — is not just a mega social role; it is the unifying mega social role. Cross-cultural and trans-historical considerations support this view. Witt claims that patriarchy is a social universal (2011a, 98). By contrast, racial categorisation varies historically and cross-culturally, and racial oppression is not a universal feature of human cultures. Thus, gender has a better claim to being the social role that is uniessential to social individuals. This account of gender essentialism not only explains social agents’ connectedness to their gender, but it also provides a helpful way to conceive of women’s agency — something that is central to feminist politics.

Linda Alcoff holds that feminism faces an identity crisis: the category of women is feminism’s starting point, but various critiques about gender have fragmented the category and it is not clear how feminists should understand what it is to be a woman (2006, chapter 5). In response, Alcoff develops an account of gender as positionality whereby “gender is, among other things, a position one occupies and from which one can act politically” (2006, 148). In particular, she takes one’s social position to foster the development of specifically gendered identities (or self-conceptions): “The very subjectivity (or subjective experience of being a woman) and the very identity of women are constituted by women’s position” (Alcoff 2006, 148). Alcoff holds that there is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals on the grounds of (actual or expected) reproductive roles:

Women and men are differentiated by virtue of their different relationship of possibility to biological reproduction, with biological reproduction referring to conceiving, giving birth, and breast-feeding, involving one’s body . (Alcoff 2006, 172, italics in original)

The thought is that those standardly classified as biologically female, although they may not actually be able to reproduce, will encounter “a different set of practices, expectations, and feelings in regard to reproduction” than those standardly classified as male (Alcoff 2006, 172). Further, this differential relation to the possibility of reproduction is used as the basis for many cultural and social phenomena that position women and men: it can be

the basis of a variety of social segregations, it can engender the development of differential forms of embodiment experienced throughout life, and it can generate a wide variety of affective responses, from pride, delight, shame, guilt, regret, or great relief from having successfully avoided reproduction. (Alcoff 2006, 172)

Reproduction, then, is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals that takes on a cultural dimension in that it positions women and men differently: depending on the kind of body one has, one’s lived experience will differ. And this fosters the construction of gendered social identities: one’s role in reproduction helps configure how one is socially positioned and this conditions the development of specifically gendered social identities.

Since women are socially positioned in various different contexts, “there is no gender essence all women share” (Alcoff 2006, 147–8). Nonetheless, Alcoff acknowledges that her account is akin to the original 1960s sex/gender distinction insofar as sex difference (understood in terms of the objective division of reproductive labour) provides the foundation for certain cultural arrangements (the development of a gendered social identity). But, with the benefit of hindsight

we can see that maintaining a distinction between the objective category of sexed identity and the varied and culturally contingent practices of gender does not presume an absolute distinction of the old-fashioned sort between culture and a reified nature. (Alcoff 2006, 175)

That is, her view avoids the implausible claim that sex is exclusively to do with nature and gender with culture. Rather, the distinction on the basis of reproductive possibilities shapes and is shaped by the sorts of cultural and social phenomena (like varieties of social segregation) these possibilities gives rise to. For instance, technological interventions can alter sex differences illustrating that this is the case (Alcoff 2006, 175). Women’s specifically gendered social identities that are constituted by their context dependent positions, then, provide the starting point for feminist politics.

Recently Robin Dembroff (2020) has argued that existing metaphysical accounts of gender fail to address non-binary gender identities. This generates two concerns. First, metaphysical accounts of gender (like the ones outlined in previous sections) are insufficient for capturing those who reject binary gender categorisation where people are either men or women. In so doing, these accounts are not satisfying as explanations of gender understood in a more expansive sense that goes beyond the binary. Second, the failure to understand non-binary gender identities contributes to a form of epistemic injustice called ‘hermeneutical injustice’: it feeds into a collective failure to comprehend and analyse concepts and practices that undergird non-binary classification schemes, thereby impeding on one’s ability to fully understand themselves. To overcome these problems, Dembroff suggests an account of genderqueer that they call ‘critical gender kind’:

a kind whose members collectively destabilize one or more elements of dominant gender ideology. Genderqueer, on my proposed model, is a category whose members collectively destabilize the binary axis, or the idea that the only possible genders are the exclusive and exhaustive kinds men and women. (2020, 2)

Note that Dembroff’s position is not to be confused with ‘gender critical feminist’ positions like those noted above, which are critical of the prevalent feminist focus on gender, as opposed to sex, kinds. Dembroff understands genderqueer as a gender kind, but one that is critical of dominant binary understandings of gender.

Dembroff identifies two modes of destabilising the gender binary: principled and existential. Principled destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ social or political commitments regarding gender norms, practices, and structures”, while existential destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ felt or desired gender roles, embodiment, and/or categorization” (2020, 13). These modes are not mutually exclusive, and they can help us understand the difference between allies and members of genderqueer kinds: “While both resist dominant gender ideology, members of [genderqueer] kinds resist (at least in part) due to felt or desired gender categorization that deviates from dominant expectations, norms, and assumptions” (2020, 14). These modes of destabilisation also enable us to formulate an understanding of non-critical gender kinds that binary understandings of women and men’s kinds exemplify. Dembroff defines these kinds as follows:

For a given kind X , X is a non-critical gender kind relative to a given society iff X ’s members collectively restabilize one or more elements of the dominant gender ideology in that society. (2020, 14)

Dembroff’s understanding of critical and non-critical gender kinds importantly makes gender kind membership something more and other than a mere psychological phenomenon. To engage in collectively destabilising or restabilising dominant gender normativity and ideology, we need more than mere attitudes or mental states – resisting or maintaining such normativity requires action as well. In so doing, Dembroff puts their position forward as an alternative to two existing internalist positions about gender. First, to Jennifer McKitrick’s (2015) view whereby gender is dispositional: in a context where someone is disposed to behave in ways that would be taken by others to be indicative of (e.g.) womanhood, the person has a woman’s gender identity. Second, to Jenkin’s (2016, 2018) position that takes an individual’s gender identity to be dependent on which gender-specific norms the person experiences as being relevant to them. On this view, someone is a woman if the person experiences norms associated with women to be relevant to the person in the particular social context that they are in. Neither of these positions well-captures non-binary identities, Dembroff argues, which motivates the account of genderqueer identities as critical gender kinds.

As Dembroff acknowledges, substantive philosophical work on non-binary gender identities is still developing. However, it is important to note that analytic philosophers are beginning to engage in gender metaphysics that goes beyond the binary.

This entry first looked at feminist objections to biological determinism and the claim that gender is socially constructed. Next, it examined feminist critiques of prevalent understandings of gender and sex, and the distinction itself. In response to these concerns, the entry looked at how a unified women’s category could be articulated for feminist political purposes. This illustrated that gender metaphysics — or what it is to be a woman or a man or a genderqueer person — is still very much a live issue. And although contemporary feminist philosophical debates have questioned some of the tenets and details of the original 1960s sex/gender distinction, most still hold onto the view that gender is about social factors and that it is (in some sense) distinct from biological sex. The jury is still out on what the best, the most useful, or (even) the correct definition of gender is.

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Gender Issues and Philosophy Education pp 219–241 Cite as

Male, Female, x – Gender Between Biological Determination and Social Construction

  • Sophia Peukert 3  
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The developed unit “Male, female, x – Gender between biological determination and social construction” focuses on the topic of gender with reference to two works of literature for young people and thus takes up a problem that has only played a marginal role in the subject didactics of ethics/philosophy up to now (Cf. Marsal, Eva/Takara Dobashi: Zur Situation der Geschlechterforschung in der Fachdidaktik Ethik. In: Handbuch Geschlechterforschung und Fachdidaktik. Ed. by Marita Kampshoff and Claudia Wiepcke. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag 2012, p. 127.). However, the topic has its philosophical and didactical justification. On the one hand, anthropology with the question “What is man?” represents one of the central learning areas in ethics teaching. To determine the question of what man is, his gender should also be included in order to do greater justice to the essence of man (Cf. Golus, Kinga: Geschlechtsblindheit und Androzentrismus in der traditionellen philosophischen Bildung. In: ZDPE 36 (2014), H. 3, p. 25. Cf. Thein, Christian: Ist Geschlecht Kultur oder Natur? In: ZDPE 36 (2014), H. 3, p. 27). Furthermore, philosophy pretends to be gender neutral. It treats “the human being.” However, Kinga Golus convincingly argues that “man” usually means “the man”. Women are not considered in this concept, as man is determined as a rational being. The gender theories presented have made it clear that the ability to reason has long not been attributed to women in the history of philosophy. In the classroom, it is therefore necessary to critically question the concepts (Cf. Golus 2014, p. 19 ff, 24 f). From a didactic perspective, the topic is relevant insofar as a central goal of teaching ethics is the “promotion and strengthening [...] of personal identity formation” (Marsal/Dobashi 2012, p. 128). In order to answer the question “Who am I, who do I want to be?” (Marsal/Dobashi 2012, p. 131) it is especially important for adolescents in puberty to address gender. The developed unit gives detailed and controversial space to the topic.

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Cf. Marsal, Eva/Takara Dobashi: Zur Situation der Geschlechterforschung in der Fachdidaktik Ethik. In: Handbuch Geschlechterforschung und Fachdidaktik. Ed. by Marita Kampshoff and Claudia Wiepcke. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag 2012, p. 127.

Cf. Golus, Kinga: Geschlechtsblindheit und Androzentrismus in der traditionellen philosophischen Bildung. In: ZDPE 36 (2014), H. 3, p. 25. Cf. Thein, Christian: Ist Geschlecht Kultur oder Natur? In: ZDPE 36 (2014), H. 3, p. 27.

Cf. Golus 2014, p. 19 ff, 24 f.

Marsal/Dobashi 2012 , p. 128.

Marsal/Dobashi 2012 , p. 131.

Cf. Peters 2006 .

Levithan 2015 .

Marsal/Dobashi 2012 , p. 132.

Golus, Kinga: Geschlechtsblindheit und Androzentrismus in der traditionellen philosophischen Bildung. In: Zeitschrift für Didaktik der Philosophie und Ethik 36 (2014), H. 3, S. 19–26.

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Levithan, David: Letztendlich sind wir dem Universum egal . Roman. Aus dem Amerikanischen von Martina Tichy. Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer FJB 2015.

Marsal, Eva/Dobashi, Takara: Zur Situation der Geschlechterforschung in der Fachdidaktik Ethik. In: Handbuch Geschlechterforschung und Fachdidaktik . Hrsg. von Marita Kampshoff und Claudia Wiepcke. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag 2012, S. 127–140.

Peters, Julie Anne: Luna . Roman. Aus dem Amerikanischen von Catrin Fischer. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag 2006.

Thein, Christian: Ist Geschlecht Kultur oder Natur? Die Gender Debatte als anthropologisches Thema im Philosophie- und Ethikunterricht. In: Zeitschrift für Didaktik der Philosophie und Ethik 36 (2014), H. 3, S. 27–38.

Further Reading

Butler, Judith: Heterosexualität ist ein Fantasiebild. In: Philosophie Magazin (2013), H.1, S. 64–69.

Kneser, Jakob u. a.: Junge oder Mädchen? Warum es mehr als zwei Geschlechter gibt. 2018,–100.html (02.07.2018)

Notz, Gisela u. a.: Frauen in Deutschland . 2009 u. a, [02.07.2018].

o. A.: Bundesverfassungsgericht für drittes Geschlecht im Geburtenregister. 2017, ? [30.06.2018].

o. A.: Von der Keimzelle zum Kind. 2012, [02.07.2018].

Piepenbrink, Johannes u. a.: Mannsbilder. In: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 40 (2012), [02.07.2018].

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biological gender thesis

In Humans, Sex is Binary and Immutable

Georgi K. Marinov

Academic Questions

  • Academic Questions
  • Summer 2020

Georgi K. Marinov is Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Department of Genetics, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305; [email protected] .

This article says nothing novel. It discusses a fact as well-established as the billions of years of evolution that shaped our species. We live in a world, however, that increasingly ignores such truths, and in which the combination of awareness and courage to set the record straight appears rare.

A disclaimer: I am not a tenured faculty member and have no job security; I am well aware that my career prospects could be jeopardized by this essay. I also write from a perspective—not widely shared—that anyone who pledges allegiance to any political party or ideology cannot rightly call himself a scientist. Political and ideological loyalties, in my view, violate the epistemic practices scientists are supposed to follow.

Denying the Sex Binary

In late 2018, the current U.S. presidential administration circulated a memo directing government agencies to adopt a definition of gender “determined by the genitals that a person is born with.” 1 Much outrage followed, even including protest rallies at prestigious medical schools. More than 2,600 scientists signed a statement claiming that “There are no genetic tests that can unambiguously determine gender, or even sex.” 2 Nature , the world’s premier science journal, ran an editorial stating that “the research and medical community now sees sex as more complex than male and female”' and “the idea that science can make definitive conclusions about a person's sex or gender is fundamentally flawed.” 3

These are remarkable statements as they are equivalent to outright denial of humans’ biological nature. Numerous publications promoted such positions. Nature had previously published an editorial titled “Sex Redefined,” boldly stating that “The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.” 4 Popular science magazines such as Scientific American and National Geographic told readers that “the science is clear and conclusive: sex is not binary,” 5 a view even more aggressively pushed in mainstream media, where we regularly read that “biologists now think the idea of two sexes is inaccurate.” 6

Much has been written by feminist authors about the non-binary nature of “gender,” where “gender” is defined as something “socially constructed,” distinct from sex. But biological sex itself is also under attack. Feminist philosophers such as Judith Butler and Anne Fausto-Sterling initially advanced the view that both gender and sex are “socially constructed,” denying the objective reality of binary biological sex, and academic writings promoting this view continue to be produced. 7

Usually this is done by taking a list of criteria for dividing humans into two sexes—anatomical/gonadal/hormonal/chromosomal/genetic/genomic/brain/neural sex—and matching that list to examples of “intersex” conditions not fitting neatly on either side, supposedly discrediting the binary. But the topics that truly matter for understanding sex—gametes, reproduction, and evolutionary selection pressures—are missing from such treatments.

Yet this has become mainstream, and an unquestionable dogma too, even within the hard sciences. This is disastrous, as the objective truth is that sex in humans is strictly binary and immutable, for fundamental reasons that are common knowledge to all biologists taking the findings of their discipline seriously. Denying that sex in humans is binary attacks the very foundations of biological sciences. This needs to be properly summarized and openly articulated.

The Nature of Self-replicators and Organisms

To understand the nature of human sex, we need to review our place in the grander scheme of life on Earth. We do not know exactly how life appeared on our planet but we do know some of the features it had from the beginning. Key among these is the self-replicating nature of genetic material and its relationship to the organism. Because of our anthropocentric bias, we tend to see genes as existing with the “purpose” of encoding for the organism. However, to the extent we can speak of “purpose” in biology, the relationship is exactly the opposite—the organism exists to propagate its genetic material, and this is the sole “meaning” of its existence. 8 Getting that relationship backwards is the ultimate cause of most falsehoods propagated in the debates around gender and sex.

There are two broad hypotheses regarding life’s origins, usually shortened as “metabolism-first”' and “genetics/replicators-first.” Both hypotheses converge onto a state, in which evolution is Darwinian (i.e. descent with modifications of genetic material), and life is one unbroken succession of self-replicators making more copies of themselves. Cells (and complex multicellular organisms) can be seen as being put together around self-replicators to facilitate the process. This realization mandates a radical rethinking of who and what we are. This understanding, however, has not yet spread very far into public consciousness because much of what makes it obvious and uncontroversial has been learned only in the last few decades.

One such important piece of the puzzle is the nature of prokaryote genomes. The concept of “species” was developed based on observing and studying multicellular organisms and does not really make sense for prokaryotes. By force of habit, “species” were traditionally assigned to bacterial strains, and it was assumed that each such strain had a “genome.” But once multiple genomes were sequenced for different strains, a striking discovery emerged—there was no such thing as a species’ genome. Instead, each strain contains a relatively small number of common genes, together with some small portion of a larger set belonging to a “pan-genome.” 9 Genes in the pan-genome are exchanged, often quite rapidly, through various mechanisms for horizontal gene transfer (HGT).

Such discoveries dramatically shift our focus towards a gene-centric view of evolution—genes are exchanged, creating new combinations and phenotypes, on which natural selection acts, determining how successful the propagation of those genes is, with the individual cells being rather ephemeral temporary entities.

Mobile genetic elements (MGEs) and viruses take that principle to the extreme—if gene propagation is the primary evolutionary objective, there is no requirement for any “progress” towards more “complex” entities. There can just as well be no organism involved as long as genetic material is replicated. This is the strategy adopted by viruses (only “alive” when inside a cell they have hijacked) and MGEs (not even encoding for viral particles, their sole capacity being ensuring their replication).

What sex is and how and why it evolved can only be properly understood in this context.

Why There is Sex

There are two types of cellular life on Earth: prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Prokaryotes have a simple organization, usually lacking the hallmark features of eukaryotes, such as nucleus, endomembrane systems, mitochondria, etc. Life is also divided into two lineages, not coinciding with the prokaryote/eukaryote divide. Prokaryotes are split into bacteria and archaea, with eukaryotes evolving as a result of a fusion between an archaeal host and a bacterial endosymbiont. 10

The subsequent complexification of eukaryotes gave rise to their modern features, one of them being meiosis (reductive cell division creating haploid cells/gametes) and sexual reproduction. Prokaryotes reproduce asexually and lack meiosis. They do, however, employ mechanisms for exchanging genetic material, which they do on a massive scale. 11

The ubiquity of genetic material exchange mechanisms strongly suggests that recombination is advantageous. Although it is not possible to concisely summarize the vast literature on the subject, 12 we will focus on just a few crucial points.

The first key concept is evolutionary fitness. Fitness is most often expressed as a selection coefficient s , which ranges from -1 to infinity, where s = -1 corresponds to lethality/complete sterility.

Sexual reproduction is costly to an individual as it involves producing gametes, yet only half of one's genes are transmitted to the next generation. The classical argument for why there is sex is that it helps create new favorable combinations of alleles. 13 However, just as it can create favorable combinations, recombination can also break up existing ones. Asexually reproducing organisms would naively be expected to have an advantage. So why have sex?

The “Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection” 14 states that the increase in mean fitness due to natural selection equals the additive genetic variance in fitness. In real organisms, different loci are physically linked in various ways; fitness is therefore affected by the associations of alleles with each other. If negative such associations (i.e. between beneficial and maladaptive alleles) predominate, recombination will act to increase variance in fitness; mechanisms for recombination will thus be selected through their association with generating favorable variation and the overall higher fitness of the recombining genotypes.

An additional consideration is that real-life populations are finite and stochastic fluctuations of allelic frequencies (“genetic drift”) play a major role. Without recombination, genetic drift, and linkage disequilibrium together lead to linked loci interfering with each other's response to selection.

Absence of recombination is predicted to result in irreversible accumulation of deleterious mutations (“Muller's ratchet”). This is indeed what is observed. Obligate asexuals arise occasionally among eukaryotes, but they tend to go extinct quickly. The one notable exception are bdelloid rotifers, which have been asexual for around 70 million years. However, this is an exception proving the rule, as it appears that HGT (otherwise rare in eukaryotes) plays the role of recombination in these animals. 15

Bdelloids and prokaryotes illustrate an important point: meiosis and recombination are not the same thing. Recombination can be accomplished through a variety of mechanisms. In eukaryotes that mechanism is meiosis. Why exactly it evolved in its current form is not clear. Eukaryotes cannot exchange DNA freely the way prokaryotes do, because of the presence of the nucleus and the physical organization of their chromatin. Some alternative was needed, but we cannot be certain whether meiosis was the only possible solution. In any case, evolve it did, and very early in eukaryote evolution too, prior to the Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor (LECA). 16

Sex Determination and Mating Systems

Eukaryotes are immensely diverse, and exhibit much variation in sexual reproduction mechanisms and life cycles. But two variables are key: the alternation of generations and the size of gametes. The eukaryote life cycle follows a general pattern of alternating haploid (1 n set of chromosomes) and diploid (2 n ) generations. Diploid cells can undergo meiotic divisions, producing haploid cells, while haploid cells can fuse into a diploid cell. Whether haploid and diploid cells undergo nonreductive mitotic divisions determines the type of life cycle. Animals are diplontic (only diploid cells divide). Most fungi are haplontic (only haploid cells do), land plants are haplodiplontic (both generations divide), algae and protozoans exhibit a wide diversity of life cycles.

There are also three types of fertilization: isogamy, anisogamy and oogamy. Isogamy features morphologically similar gametes, and is common in unicellular eukaryotes. Almost certainly it was the ancestral LECA  condition.

On multiple occasions, isogamy evolved into anisogamy, i.e. production of two different gametes. In some lineages, anisogamy further evolved into oogamy, the classic example being practiced by animals. By convention, larger gametes are taken to be the egg/”female” while smaller gametes are the sperm/“male.” Why has anisogamy evolved? The traditional model proposes that eggs will become bigger if fitness increases non-linearly with increased egg size. Although a rather unusual assumption, it does appear to hold in multicellular organisms. 17

Several important points follow:

  • Meiosis and gamete fusion evolved to allow for recombination to happen; once they came to exist, generations must inevitably alternate. The organismal complexity of the two generations can be immense, but it is of little importance for what is actually happening—haploid gametes fuse to form a diploid cell, from which, or from its lineage, haploid gametes have to then again be produced to restart the cycle. Overt focus on human-specific complexities often obscures these deeper underlying processes.
  • At the level of gametes, sex in eukaryotes is inherently digital—two gametes fuse together to form one zygote. Yet it need not be binary—more than two mating types can exist,. Indeed, this is what many unicellular eukaryotes practice (some can have >100 mating types.) 18 However, “non-binary” sex does not mean “non-digital” sex. Mating types are distinct and finite in number, with no continuum between them, and they mate pairwise.
  • Having more than two mating types is restricted to isogamous lineages. Anisogamy is inherently binary, and the fusion of one of each gamete type is necessary for reproduction.
  • The type of gametes produced is a very objective criterion for classifying the sex of an individual, and is its fundamental defining feature. In metazoans, there are only two types of gametes, although they do exhibit enormous diversity in the relationship between the individual and gamete production and fertilization. Numerous species practice parthenogenesis, many are predominantly hermaphroditic (e.g. earthworms and snails), while individuals of some species can change their sex (e.g. clownfish).

However, no such examples have ever been observed in mammals, in which binary sexual reproduction appears to be extremely strongly enforced.

Why is that? Genetic imprinting is the most likely answer. A subset of genes are only expressed from either the parental or maternal chromosome, with DNA methylation controlling the pattern. Why imprinting evolved in mammals is another evolutionary puzzle; 19 for our purposes its existence is of primary importance.

That both a male and a female gamete contribute to the zygote is vitally necessary -- debilitating human diseases result from disturbing the imprinting of even single genes (Prader-Willi syndrome, Angelman syndrome, etc.). Yet 100 or more genes are imprinted in total. Disrupting imprinting for all of them is incompatible with life. This explains why the male-female binary at the organismal level is so tightly locked in place in mammals.

Admittedly, imprinting explains why there is no parthenogenesis, but does not fully explain why there are no true hermaphrodites (i.e. individuals producing both sperm and eggs). This is inherently near-impossible because in mammals the two gonads inhibit each other's embryonic development (e.g. the Anti-Mullerian Hormone inhibits the development of the female reproductive system in males).

Why “Intersex” Conditions Do Not Invalidate the Sex Binary

But what about “intersex” individuals? Unfortunately, confusion and misunderstanding reign when it comes to their existence. Humans are indeed born with a variety of “intersex” conditions at low frequency, but that does not mean that these conditions are part of normal healthy variation. Humans are also born with a great variety of devastating congenital deformities and diseases, and if alien exozoologists were to write a description of Homo sapiens based on extensive observations of the population, such a description would never feature, for example, anencephaly, and neither would it include anything else but binary sex.

Extremely deleterious phenotypes, especially when their fitness is invariant with respect to environmental conditions, cannot be part of that description, as they are by definition actively eliminated from the population. The mathematics of natural selection is remorseless. For the human population, even an allele with an initial frequency as low as 0.01 and selection coefficient s = 0.05 is nearly ensured fixation. On the other hand, that should not be taken to mean that natural selection is all powerful. First, even if an allele is strongly deleterious, its frequency will not be zero, as it is constantly reintroduced by mutations at some rate µ. Second, alleles with small selective (dis)advantages are not ensured fixation. Genetic drift can lead to fixation of alleles with small selective coefficients irrespective of their effects, as long as s < ~1/ N e ( N e is the effective population size).

Therefore we cannot expect “perfection” from biological processes. Imagine that a biochemical reaction runs with a given accuracy in a finite population. The selective advantage of mutations improving its accuracy will generally be at most the fractional improvement that they confer. Thus it is not possible for selection to push the system towards absolute perfection as further fractional improvements are “invisible” to it if smaller than the selection barrier ~1/ N e . Errors are thus expected to occur everywhere, and indeed they do. This is why important genes get mutated, developmental processes get disrupted, and the results are newborns with very low fitness.

These facts bear on how we are to think about “intersex”' people. The great diversity of such conditions cannot be explored here in detail. These include Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (feminization of males due to androgen receptor mutations), Klinefelter's syndrome (47,XXY karyotype), XX male syndrome (46, XX “males” due to translocation of the master regulator SRY to the X), Turner's syndrome (45,X0) and many others.

These conditions present with a variety of phenotypes intermediate between typical male and female features, but they have one crucial commonality—individuals afflicted are almost invariably sterile; 20 on the few occasions where fertility is possible, the phenotypes are mild and it is hard to even call them “intersex.” Their evolutionary fitness is therefore as negative as fitness could possibly be short of being stillborn ( s = -1 for sterile individuals). Importantly, these fitness reductions are invariant to environmental variables. It is possible for a condition that is a debilitating disease under some circumstances to be beneficial under others (e.g. sickle-cell anemia and malaria). But this does not apply to the inability to produce viable gametes, which makes one unable to reproduce under all circumstances.

All “intersex” conditions, when examined, clearly arise from single-gene mutations or chromosomal aberrations on a genetic background that would have indisputably been producing male or female gametes had these mutations not occurred, and, rarely, due to chimerism (i.e. individuals made up of both male and female cells). True hermaphrodites possessing both sets of functional gonads and genitalia have never been observed in Homo sapiens .

Therefore the “intersex” argument against the sex binary is simply not valid. Intersex individuals exist only because of continuous de novo reintroduction of the relevant mutations in the population, recessive genes becoming unmasked, or disruptions of normal embryonic development.

Sex in mammals is on a fundamental level binary and immutable, and claims that “intersex'” individuals disprove that can only be made in the absence of any consideration of the biological nature of humans and how our evolutionary history has shaped our biology. Which brings us to the most worrying aspect of the widespread adoption of such denial.

The Coming Battle

The reasoning outlined above rests on two assumptions. First, population genetics is true, and second, common descent from the original self-replicators is true. That “population genetics is true” means that our knowledge of inheritance mechanisms is broadly correct, i.e. we understand molecular biology sufficiently well, and “random’’ events (mutations and gamete segregation) are truly random, i.e. they happen with no foreknowledge of their future consequences.

If these assumptions are accepted, what I have argued here regarding the binary nature of biological sex in humans is incontrovertibly true. It follows directly from the basic relationship between genes, organisms, recombination, and reproduction. If mutations are random and undirected, then genetic material is the key entity in the center of the evolutionary process, not organisms. The inverse is also true—if the binary nature of biological sex in humans is to be denied, that automatically requires the rejection of one or both of these assumptions, for otherwise the binary nature of sex cannot be denied.

As these assumptions are foundational for modern science, a troubling realization follows—a direct attack against the hard sciences can be expected from the people who deny the binary nature of human sex. So far it has not happened, but there have been warning signs and it might just be a matter of time and of little understanding of the deep philosophical contradictions involved.

Certain parallels can perhaps be made with battles over the teaching of evolution, but there is one critical difference—the ideas in question here are coming directly from within the highest ranks of academia, where they appear to have significant institutional support, and, as recent years have demonstrated, their proponents are more than willing to use aggressive tactics outside the scholarly realm to silence their critics. There is also little understanding of the seriousness of the situation within the scientific community, which, whether for political reasons or due to lack of awareness, has been willingly supporting outright “bio-denialism.’’

 I hope that this text will help prevent the potential damage by providing the plain statement of the fundamental biological facts that currently does not exist, and that it will serve as a foundation for a push back towards a future return to sanity.

1 Erica L. Green, Katie Benner, Robert Pear, “ ‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration,” New York Times, October 21, 2018.

2 Transgender, Intersex, and Gender Non-Conforming People #WontBeErased by Pseudoscience, October 26, 2018,

3 “US proposal for defining gender has no basis in science,” Nature 563 (2018):5

4 Claire Ainsworth. “Sex redefined,” Nature 518 (2015):288—291.

5 Robin M. Henig, “How science is helping us understand gender,” National Geographic, January 2017; The Editors, “The New Science of Sex and Gender,” Scientific American , September 1, 2017.

6 Anne Fausto-Sterling , “Why Sex Is Not Binary,” The New York Times , October 25, 2018.

7 V. Sanz, “No Way Out of the Binary: A Critical History of the Scientific Production of Sex,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 43 (2017):1-27

8 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

9 H. Tettelin, V. Masignani, M.J. Cieslewicz et al., “Genome analysis of multiple pathogenic isolates of Streptococcus agalactiae : implications for the microbial ‘pan-genome’,” Proc Natl Acad Sci U.S.A. 102 (2005):13950-13955.

10 E.V. Koonin, “The origin and early evolution of eukaryotes in the light of phylogenomics,” Genome Biol 11 (2010): 209.

11 P. Puigbo, Y.I. Wolf, E.V. Koonin, “The tree and net components of prokaryote evolution,” Genome Biol Evol 2 (2010):745--756.

12 N.H. Barton, “Why sex and recombination?,” Cold Spring Harb Symp Quant Biol 74 (2009):187--195.

13 A. Weismann, “The significance of sexual reproduction in the theory of natural selection,” in Essays upon heredity and kindred biological problems, ed. E.B. Poulton, S. Schonland, A.E. Shipley (Oxford: Clarendon, 1889), 251—332.

14 Ronald A. Fisher, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (Oxford: Clarendon, 1930).

15 J. Felsenstein, “The evolutionary advantage of recombination,” Genetics 78 (1974):737—756; H.J. Muller, “Some genetic aspects of sex,” Am Nat 66, no. 703 (1932):118-138; N.A. Moran, “Accelerated evolution and Muller's rachet in endosymbiotic bacteria,” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 93 (1996):2873—2878.

16 D. Speijer, J. Lukes, M. Elias, “Sex is a ubiquitous, ancient, and inherent attribute of eukaryotic life,” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 112 (2015):8827--8834.

17 E.R. Hanschen, M.D. Herron, J.J. Wiens, et al., “Multicellularity Drives the Evolution of Sexual Traits,” Am Nat 192 (2018):E93--E105.

18 S.S. Phadke, R.A. Zufall, “Rapid diversification of mating systems in ciliates,” Biol J Linnean Society 98 (2009):187-197.

19 T. Moore, and D. Haig, “Genomic imprinting in mammalian development: a parental tug-of-war,” Trends Genet 7 (1991):45--49.

20 J.P. Van Batavia, T.F. Kolon, “Fertility in disorders of sex development: A review,” J Pediatr Urol 12 (2016):418-425.

Image: Tim Mossholder, Public Domain

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11.1 Understanding Sex and Gender

Learning objectives.

  • Define sex and gender and femininity and masculinity.
  • Critically assess the evidence on biology, culture and socialization, and gender.
  • Discuss agents of gender socialization.

Although the terms sex and gender are sometimes used interchangeably and do in fact complement each other, they nonetheless refer to different aspects of what it means to be a woman or man in any society.

Sex refers to the anatomical and other biological differences between females and males that are determined at the moment of conception and develop in the womb and throughout childhood and adolescence. Females, of course, have two X chromosomes, while males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. From this basic genetic difference spring other biological differences. The first to appear are the different genitals that boys and girls develop in the womb and that the doctor (or midwife) and parents look for when a baby is born (assuming the baby’s sex is not already known from ultrasound or other techniques) so that the momentous announcement, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” can be made. The genitalia are called primary sex characteristics , while the other differences that develop during puberty are called secondary sex characteristics and stem from hormonal differences between the two sexes. In this difficult period of adolescents’ lives, boys generally acquire deeper voices, more body hair, and more muscles from their flowing testosterone. Girls develop breasts and wider hips and begin menstruating as nature prepares them for possible pregnancy and childbirth. For better or worse, these basic biological differences between the sexes affect many people’s perceptions of what it means to be female or male, as we shall soon discuss.

Gender as a Social Construction

If sex is a biological concept, then gender is a social concept. It refers to the social and cultural differences a society assigns to people based on their (biological) sex. A related concept, gender roles , refers to a society’s expectations of people’s behavior and attitudes based on whether they are females or males. Understood in this way, gender, like race as discussed in Chapter 7 “Deviance, Crime, and Social Control” , is a social construction . How we think and behave as females and males is not etched in stone by our biology but rather is a result of how society expects us to think and behave based on what sex we are. As we grow up, we learn these expectations as we develop our gender identity , or our beliefs about ourselves as females or males.

These expectations are called femininity and masculinity . Femininity refers to the cultural expectations we have of girls and women, while masculinity refers to the expectations we have of boys and men. A familiar nursery rhyme nicely summarizes these two sets of traits:

What are little boys made of?

Snips and snails,

And puppy dog tails,

That’s what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?

Sugar and spice,

And everything nice,

That’s what little girls are made of.

As this nursery rhyme suggests, our traditional notions of femininity and masculinity indicate that we think females and males are fundamentally different from each other. In effect, we think of them as two sides of the same coin of being human. What we traditionally mean by femininity is captured in the adjectives, both positive and negative, we traditionally ascribe to women: gentle, sensitive, nurturing, delicate, graceful, cooperative, decorative, dependent, emotional, passive, and weak. Thus when we say that a girl or woman is very feminine, we have some combination of these traits, usually the positive ones, in mind: she is soft, dainty, pretty, even a bit flighty. What we traditionally mean by masculinity is captured in the adjectives, again both positive and negative, our society traditionally ascribes to men: strong, assertive, brave, active, independent, intelligent, competitive, insensitive, unemotional, and aggressive. When we say that a boy or man is very masculine, we have some combination of these traits in mind: he is tough, strong, and assertive.

Twin babies side by side

Infant girls traditionally wear pink, while infant boys wear blue. This color difference reflects the different cultural expectations we have for babies based on their (biological) sex.

Abby Bischoff – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

These traits might sound like stereotypes of females and males in today’s society, and to some extent they are, but differences between men and women in attitudes and behavior do in fact exist (Aulette, Wittner, & Blakeley, 2009). For example, women cry more often than men do. Men are more physically violent than women. Women take care of children more than men do. Women smile more often than men. Men curse more often than women. When women talk with each other, they are more likely to talk about their personal lives than men are when they talk with each other (Tannen, 2001). The two sexes even differ when they hold a cigarette (not that anyone should smoke). When a woman holds a cigarette, she usually has the palm of her cigarette-holding hand facing upward. When a man holds a cigarette, he usually has his palm facing downward.

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation refers to a person’s preference for sexual relationships with individuals of the other sex ( heterosexuality ), one’s own sex ( homosexuality ), or both sexes ( bisexuality ). The term also increasingly refers to transgendered individuals, those whose behavior, appearance, and/or gender identity fails to conform to conventional norms. Transgendered individuals include transvestites (those who dress in the clothing of the opposite sex) and transsexuals (those whose gender identity differs from the physiological sex and who sometimes undergo a sex change).

It is difficult to know precisely how many people are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. One problem is conceptual. For example, what does it mean to be gay or lesbian? Does one need to actually have sexual relations with a same-sex partner to be considered gay? What if someone is attracted to same-sex partners but does not actually engage in sex with such persons? What if someone identifies as heterosexual but engages in homosexual sex for money (as in certain forms of prostitution) or for power and influence (as in much prison sex)? These conceptual problems make it difficult to determine the extent of homosexuality.

A second problem is empirical. Even if we can settle on a definition of homosexuality, how do we then determine how many people fit this definition? For better or worse, our best evidence of the number of gays and lesbians in the United States comes from surveys of national samples of Americans in which they are asked various questions about their sexuality. Although these are anonymous surveys, obviously at least some individuals may be reluctant to disclose their sexual activity and thoughts to an interviewer. Still, scholars think the estimates from these surveys are fairly accurate but that they probably underestimate by at least a small amount the number of gays and lesbians.

A widely cited survey carried out by researchers at the University of Chicago found that 2.8% of men and 1.4% of women identified themselves as gay/lesbian or bisexual, with greater percentages reporting having had sexual relations with same-sex partners or being attracted to same-sex persons (see Table 11.1 “Prevalence of Homosexuality in the United States” ). In the 2008 General Social Survey, 2.2% of men and 3.5% of women identified themselves as gay/lesbian or bisexual. Among individuals having had any sexual partners since turning 18, 2.2% of men reported having had at least some male partners, while 4.6% of women reported having had at least some female partners. Although precise numbers must remain unknown, it seems fair to say that between about 2% and 5% of Americans are gay/lesbian or bisexual.

Table 11.1 Prevalence of Homosexuality in the United States

Source: Data from Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality . Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

If it is difficult to determine the number of people who are gay/lesbian or bisexual, it is even more difficult to determine why some people have this sexual orientation while most do not have it. Scholars disagree on the “causes” of sexual orientation (Engle, McFalls, Gallagher, & Curtis, 2006; Sheldon, Pfeffer, Jayaratne, Feldbaum, & Petty, 2007). Some scholars attribute it to unknown biological factor(s) over which individuals have no control, just as individuals do not decide whether they are left-handed or right-handed. Supporting this view, many gays say they realized they were gay during adolescence, just as straights would say they realized they were straight during their own adolescence. Other scholars say that sexual orientation is at least partly influenced by cultural norms, so that individuals are more likely to identify as gay or straight depending on the cultural views of sexual orientation into which they are socialized as they grow up. At best, perhaps all we can say is that sexual orientation stems from a complex mix of biological and cultural factors that remain to be determined.

The Development of Gender Differences

What accounts for differences in female and male behavior and attitudes? Do the biological differences between the sexes account for other differences? Or do these latter differences stem, as most sociologists think, from cultural expectations and from differences in the ways in which the sexes are socialized? These are critical questions, for they ask whether the differences between boys and girls and women and men stem more from biology or from society. As Chapter 2 “Eye on Society: Doing Sociological Research” pointed out, biological explanations for human behavior implicitly support the status quo. If we think behavioral and other differences between the sexes are due primarily to their respective biological makeups, we are saying that these differences are inevitable or nearly so and that any attempt to change them goes against biology and will likely fail.

As an example, consider the obvious biological fact that women bear and nurse children and men do not. Couple this with the common view that women are also more gentle and nurturing than men, and we end up with a “biological recipe” for women to be the primary caretakers of children. Many people think this means women are therefore much better suited than men to take care of children once they are born, and that the family might be harmed if mothers work outside the home or if fathers are the primary caretakers. Figure 11.1 “Belief That Women Should Stay at Home” shows that more than one-third of the public agrees that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” To the extent this belief exists, women may not want to work outside the home or, if they choose to do so, they face difficulties from employers, family, and friends. Conversely, men may not even think about wanting to stay at home and may themselves face difficulties from employees, family, and friends if they want to do so. A belief in a strong biological basis for differences between women and men implies, then, that there is little we can or should do to change these differences. It implies that “anatomy is destiny,” and destiny is, of course, by definition inevitable.

Figure 11.1 Belief That Women Should Stay at Home

Belief that women should stay home. 65.1% disagree, and 34.9% agree

Agreement or disagreement with statement that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2008.

This implication makes it essential to understand the extent to which gender differences do, in fact, stem from biological differences between the sexes or, instead, stem from cultural and social influences. If biology is paramount, then gender differences are perhaps inevitable and the status quo will remain. If culture and social influences matter much more than biology, then gender differences can change and the status quo may give way. With this backdrop in mind, let’s turn to the biological evidence for behavioral and other differences between the sexes and then examine the evidence for their social and cultural roots.

Biology and Gender

Several biological explanations for gender roles exist, and we discuss two of the most important ones here. One explanation is from the related fields of sociobiology (see Chapter 2 “Eye on Society: Doing Sociological Research” ) and evolutionary psychology (Workman & Reader, 2009) and argues an evolutionary basis for traditional gender roles.

Scholars advocating this view reason as follows (Barash, 2007; Thornhill & Palmer, 2000). In prehistoric societies, few social roles existed. A major role centered on relieving hunger by hunting or gathering food. The other major role centered on bearing and nursing children. Because only women could perform this role, they were also the primary caretakers for children for several years after birth. And because women were frequently pregnant, their roles as mothers confined them to the home for most of their adulthood. Meanwhile, men were better suited than women for hunting because they were stronger and quicker than women. In prehistoric societies, then, biology was indeed destiny: for biological reasons, men in effect worked outside the home (hunted), while women stayed at home with their children.

Evolutionary reasons also explain why men are more violent than women. In prehistoric times, men who were more willing to commit violence against and even kill other men would “win out” in the competition for female mates. They thus were more likely than less violent men to produce offspring, who would then carry these males’ genetic violent tendencies. By the same token, men who were prone to rape women were more likely to produce offspring, who would then carry these males’ “rape genes.” This early process guaranteed that rape tendencies would be biologically transmitted and thus provided a biological basis for the amount of rape that occurs today.

If the human race evolved along these lines, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists continue, natural selection favored those societies where men were stronger, braver, and more aggressive and where women were more fertile and nurturing. Such traits over the millennia became fairly instinctual, meaning that men’s and women’s biological natures evolved differently. Men became, by nature, more assertive, daring, and violent than women, and women are, by nature, more gentle, nurturing, and maternal than men. To the extent this is true, these scholars add, traditional gender roles for women and men make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, and attempts to change them go against the sexes’ biological natures. This in turn implies that existing gender inequality must continue because it is rooted in biology. As the title of a book presenting the evolutionary psychology argument summarizes this implication, “biology at work: rethinking sexual equality” (Browne, 2002).

A couple sitting on a bench

According to some sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, today’s gender differences in strength and physical aggression are ultimately rooted in certain evolutionary processes that spanned millennia.

Vladimir Pustovit – Couple – CC BY 2.0.

Critics challenge the evolutionary explanation on several grounds (Hurley, 2007; Buller, 2006; Begley, 2009). First, much greater gender variation in behavior and attitudes existed in prehistoric times than the evolutionary explanation assumes. Second, even if biological differences did influence gender roles in prehistoric times, these differences are largely irrelevant in today’s world, in which, for example, physical strength is not necessary for survival. Third, human environments throughout the millennia have simply been too diverse to permit the simple, straightforward biological development that the evolutionary explanation assumes. Fourth, evolutionary arguments implicitly justify existing gender inequality by implying the need to confine women and men to their traditional roles.

Recent anthropological evidence also challenges the evolutionary argument that men’s tendency to commit violence, including rape, was biologically transmitted. This evidence instead finds that violent men have trouble finding female mates who would want them and that the female mates they find and the children they produce are often killed by rivals to the men. The recent evidence also finds those rapists’ children are often abandoned and then die. As one anthropologist summarizes the rape evidence, “The likelihood that rape is an evolved adaptation [is] extremely low. It just wouldn’t have made sense for men in the [prehistoric epoch] to use rape as a reproductive strategy, so the argument that it’s preprogrammed into us doesn’t hold up” (Begley, 2009, p. 54).

A second biological explanation for traditional gender roles centers on hormones and specifically on testosterone, the so-called male hormone. One of the most important differences between boys and girls and men and women in the United States and many other societies is their level of aggression. Simply put, males are much more physically aggressive than females and in the United States commit about 85%–90% of all violent crimes (see Chapter 7 “Deviance, Crime, and Social Control” ). Why is this so? As Chapter 7 “Deviance, Crime, and Social Control” pointed out, this gender difference is often attributed to males’ higher levels of testosterone (Mazur, 2009).

To see whether testosterone does indeed raise aggression, researchers typically assess whether males with higher testosterone levels are more aggressive than those with lower testosterone levels. Several studies find that this is indeed the case. For example, a widely cited study of Vietnam-era male veterans found that those with higher levels of testosterone had engaged in more violent behavior (Booth & Osgood, 1993). However, this correlation does not necessarily mean that their testosterone increased their violence: as has been found in various animal species, it is also possible that their violence increased their testosterone. Because studies of human males can’t for ethical and practical reasons manipulate their testosterone levels, the exact meaning of the results from these testosterone-aggression studies must remain unclear, according to a review sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences (Miczek, Mirsky, Carey, DeBold, & Raine, 1994).

Another line of research on the biological basis for sex differences in aggression involves children, including some as young as ages 1 or 2, in various situations (Card, Stucky, Sawalani, & Little, 2008). They might be playing with each other, interacting with adults, or writing down solutions to hypothetical scenarios given to them by a researcher. In most of these studies, boys are more physically aggressive in thought or deed than girls, even at a very young age. Other studies are more experimental in nature. In one type of study, a toddler will be playing with a toy, only to have it removed by an adult. Boys typically tend to look angry and try to grab the toy back, while girls tend to just sit there and whimper. Because these gender differences in aggression are found at very young ages, researchers often say they must have some biological basis. However, critics of this line of research counter that even young children have already been socialized along gender lines (Begley, 2009; Eliot, 2009), a point to which we return later. To the extent this is true, gender differences in children’s aggression may simply reflect socialization and not biology.

In sum, biological evidence for gender differences certainly exists, but its interpretation remains very controversial. It must be weighed against the evidence, to which we next turn, of cultural variations in the experience of gender and of socialization differences by gender. One thing is clear: to the extent we accept biological explanations for gender, we imply that existing gender differences and gender inequality must continue to exist. This implication prompts many social scientists to be quite critical of the biological viewpoint. As Linda L. Lindsey (2011, p. 52) notes, “Biological arguments are consistently drawn upon to justify gender inequality and the continued oppression of women.” In contrast, cultural and social explanations of gender differences and gender inequality promise some hope for change. Let’s examine the evidence for these explanations.

Culture and Gender

Some of the most compelling evidence against a strong biological determination of gender roles comes from anthropologists, whose work on preindustrial societies demonstrates some striking gender variation from one culture to another. This variation underscores the impact of culture on how females and males think and behave.

Margaret Mead (1935) was one of the first anthropologists to study cultural differences in gender. In New Guinea she found three tribes—the Arapesh, the Mundugumor, and the Tchambuli—whose gender roles differed dramatically. In the Arapesh both sexes were gentle and nurturing. Both women and men spent much time with their children in a loving way and exhibited what we would normally call maternal behavior. In the Arapesh, then, different gender roles did not exist, and in fact, both sexes conformed to what Americans would normally call the female gender role.

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead made important contributions to the anthropological study of gender. Her work suggested that culture dramatically influences how females and males behave and that gender is rooted much more in culture than in biology.

U.S. Library of Congress – public domain.

The situation was the reverse among the Mundugumor. Here both men and women were fierce, competitive, and violent. Both sexes seemed to almost dislike children and often physically punished them. In the Mundugumor society, then, different gender roles also did not exist, as both sexes conformed to what we Americans would normally call the male gender role.

In the Tchambuli, Mead finally found a tribe where different gender roles did exist. One sex was the dominant, efficient, assertive one and showed leadership in tribal affairs, while the other sex liked to dress up in frilly clothes, wear makeup, and even giggle a lot. Here, then, Mead found a society with gender roles similar to those found in the United States, but with a surprising twist. In the Tchambuli, women were the dominant, assertive sex that showed leadership in tribal affairs, while men were the ones wearing frilly clothes and makeup.

Mead’s research caused a firestorm in scholarly circles, as it challenged the biological view on gender that was still very popular when she went to New Guinea. In recent years, Mead’s findings have been challenged by other anthropologists. Among other things, they argue that she probably painted an overly simplistic picture of gender roles in her three societies (Scheper-Hughes, 1987). Other anthropologists defend Mead’s work and note that much subsequent research has found that gender-linked attitudes and behavior do differ widely from one culture to another (Morgan, 1989). If so, they say, the impact of culture on what it means to be a female or male cannot be ignored.

Extensive evidence of this impact comes from anthropologist George Murdock, who created the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample of almost 200 preindustrial societies studied by anthropologists. Murdock (1937) found that some tasks in these societies, such as hunting and trapping, are almost always done by men, while other tasks, such as cooking and fetching water, are almost always done by women. These patterns provide evidence for the evolutionary argument presented earlier, as they probably stem from the biological differences between the sexes. Even so there were at least some societies in which women hunted and in which men cooked and fetched water.

More importantly, Murdock found much greater gender variation in several of the other tasks he studied, including planting crops, milking, and generating fires. Men primarily performed these tasks in some societies, women primarily performed them in other societies, and in still other societies both sexes performed them equally. Figure 11.2 “Gender Responsibility for Weaving” shows the gender responsibility for yet another task, weaving. Women are the primary weavers in about 61% of the societies that do weaving, men are the primary weavers in 32%, and both sexes do the weaving in 7% of the societies. Murdock’s findings illustrate how gender roles differ from one culture to another and imply they are not biologically determined.

Figure 11.2 Gender Responsibility for Weaving

Gender Responsibility for Weaving: 60.9% women predominate, 31.9% men predominate, 7.2% neither sex predominates

Source: Data from Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.

Anthropologists since Mead and Murdock have continued to investigate cultural differences in gender. Some of their most interesting findings concern gender and sexuality (Morgan, 1989; Brettell & Sargent, 2009). Although all societies distinguish “femaleness” and “maleness,” additional gender categories exist in some societies. The Native Americans known as the Mohave, for example, recognize four genders: a woman, a woman who acts like a man, a man, and a man who acts like a woman. In some societies, a third, intermediary gender category is recognized. Anthropologists call this category the berdache , who is usually a man who takes on a woman’s role. This intermediary category combines aspects of both femininity and masculinity of the society in which it is found and is thus considered an androgynous gender. Although some people in this category are born as intersexed individuals (formerly known as hermaphrodites ), meaning they have genitalia of both sexes, many are born biologically as one sex or the other but adopt an androgynous identity.

An example of this intermediary gender category may be found in India, where the hirja role involves males who wear women’s clothing and identify as women (Reddy, 2006). The hirja role is an important part of Hindu mythology, in which androgynous figures play key roles both as humans and as gods. Today people identified by themselves and others as hirjas continue to play an important role in Hindu practices and in Indian cultural life in general. Serena Nanda (1997, pp. 200–201) calls hirjas “human beings who are neither man nor woman” and says they are thought of as “special, sacred beings” even though they are sometimes ridiculed and abused.

Anthropologists have found another androgynous gender composed of women warriors in 33 Native American groups in North America. Walter L. Williams (1997) calls these women “amazons” and notes that they dress like men and sometimes even marry women. In some tribes girls exhibit such “masculine” characteristics from childhood, while in others they may be recruited into “amazonhood.” In the Kaska Indians, for example, a married couple with too many daughters would select one to “be like a man.” When she was about 5 years of age, her parents would begin to dress her like a boy and have her do male tasks. Eventually she would grow up to become a hunter.

The androgynous genders found by anthropologists remind us that gender is a social construction and not just a biological fact. If culture does affect gender roles, socialization is the process through which culture has this effect. What we experience as girls and boys strongly influences how we develop as women and men in terms of behavior and attitudes. To illustrate this important dimension of gender, let’s turn to the evidence on socialization.

Socialization and Gender

Chapter 3 “Culture” identified several agents of socialization, including the family, peers, schools, the mass media, and religion. While that chapter’s discussion focused on these agents’ impact on socialization in general, ample evidence of their impact on gender-role socialization also exists. Such socialization helps boys and girls develop their gender identity (Andersen & Hysock, 2009).

A father rough housing with his son

Parents play with their daughters and sons differently. For example, fathers generally roughhouse more with their sons than with their daughters.

Jagrap – Roughhousing – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Socialization into gender roles begins in infancy, as almost from the moment of birth parents begin to socialize their children as boys or girls without even knowing it (Begley, 2009; Eliot, 2009). Many studies document this process (Lindsey, 2011). Parents commonly describe their infant daughters as pretty, soft, and delicate and their infant sons as strong, active, and alert, even though neutral observers find no such gender differences among infants when they do not know the infants’ sex. From infancy on, parents play with and otherwise interact with their daughters and sons differently. They play more roughly with their sons—for example, by throwing them up in the air or by gently wrestling with them—and more quietly with their daughters. When their infant or toddler daughters cry, they warmly comfort them, but they tend to let their sons cry longer and to comfort them less. They give their girls dolls to play with and their boys “action figures” and toy guns. While these gender differences in socialization are probably smaller now than a generation ago, they certainly continue to exist. Go into a large toy store and you will see pink aisles of dolls and cooking sets and blue aisles of action figures, toy guns, and related items.

Peer influences also encourage gender socialization. As they reach school age, children begin to play different games based on their gender (see the “Sociology Making a Difference” box). Boys tend to play sports and other competitive team games governed by inflexible rules and relatively large numbers of roles, while girls tend to play smaller, cooperative games such as hopscotch and jumping rope with fewer and more flexible rules. Although girls are much more involved in sports now than a generation ago, these gender differences in their play as youngsters persist and continue to reinforce gender roles. For example, they encourage competitiveness in boys and cooperation and trust among girls. Boys who are not competitive risk being called “sissy” or other words by their peers. The patterns we see in adult males and females thus have their roots in their play as young children (King, Miles, & Kniska, 1991).

Sociology Making a Difference

Gender Differences in Children’s Play and Games

In considering the debate, discussed in the text, between biology and sociology over the origins of gender roles, some widely cited studies by sociologists over gender differences in children’s play and games provide important evidence for the importance of socialization.

Janet Lever (1978) studied fifth-grade children in three different communities in Connecticut. She watched them play and otherwise interact in school and also had the children keep diaries of their play and games outside school. One of her central aims was to determine how complex the two sexes’ play and games were in terms of such factors as number of rules, specialization of roles, and size of the group playing. In all of these respects, Lever found that boys’ play and games were typically more complex than girls’ play and games. She attributed these differences to socialization by parents, teachers, and other adults and argued that the complexity of boys’ play and games helped them to be better able than girls to learn important social skills such as dealing with rules and coordinating actions to achieve goals.

Meanwhile, Barrie Thorne (1993) spent many months in two different working-class communities in California and Michigan observing fourth and fifth graders sit in class and lunchrooms and play on the school playgrounds. Most children were white, but several were African American or Latino. As you might expect, the girls and boys she observed usually played separately from each other, and the one-sex groups in which they played were very important for the development of their gender identity, with boys tending to play team sports and other competitive games and girls tending to play cooperative games such as jump rope. These differences led Thorne to conclude that gender-role socialization stems not only from practices by adults but also from the children’s own activities without adult involvement. When boys and girls did interact, it was often “girls against the boys” or vice versa in classroom spelling contests and in games such as tag. Thorne concluded that these “us against them” contests helped the children learn that boys and girls are two different and antagonistic sexes and that gender itself is antagonistic, even if there were also moments when both sexes interacted on the playground in more relaxed, noncompetitive situations. Boys also tended to disrupt girls’ games more than the reverse and in this manner both exerted and learned dominance over females. In all of these ways, children were not just the passive recipients of gender-role socialization from adults (their teachers), but they also played an active role in ensuring that such socialization occurred.

The studies by Lever and Thorne were among the first to emphasize the importance of children’s play and peer relationships for gender socialization. They also called attention to the importance of the traits and values learned through such socialization for outcomes later in life. The rise in team sports opportunities for girls in the years since Lever and Thorne did their research is a welcome development that addresses the concerns expressed in their studies, but young children continue to play in the ways that Lever and Thorne found. To the extent children’s play has the consequences just listed, and to the extent these consequences impede full gender inequality, these sociological studies suggest the need for teachers, parents, and other adults to help organize children’s play that is more egalitarian along the lines discussed by Lever, Thorne, and other scholars. In this way, their sociological work has helped to make a difference and promises to continue to do so.

School is yet another agent of gender socialization (Klein, 2007). First of all, school playgrounds provide a location for the gender-linked play activities just described to occur. Second, and perhaps more important, teachers at all levels treat their female and male students differently in subtle ways of which they are probably not aware. They tend to call on boys more often to answer questions in class and to praise them more when they give the right answer. They also give boys more feedback about their assignments and other school work (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). At all grade levels, many textbooks and other books still portray people in gender-stereotyped ways. It is true that the newer books do less of this than older ones, but the newer books still contain some stereotypes, and the older books are still used in many schools, especially those that cannot afford to buy newer volumes.

Glamour/Fashion Retouching by Tucia

Women’s magazines reinforce the view that women need to be slender and wear many cosmetics in order to be considered beautiful.

Photo Editing Services – Glamour /Fashion Retouching by Tucia – CC BY 2.0.

Gender socialization also occurs through the mass media (Dow & Wood, 2006). On children’s television shows, the major characters are male. On Nickelodeon, for example, the very popular SpongeBob SquarePants is a male, as are his pet snail, Gary; his best friend, Patrick Star; their neighbor, Squidward Tentacles; and SpongeBob’s employer, Eugene Crabs. Of the major characters in Bikini Bottom, only Sandy Cheeks is a female. For all its virtues, Sesame Street features Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, and other male characters. Most of the Muppets are males, and the main female character, Miss Piggy, depicted as vain and jealous, is hardly an admirable female role model. As for adults’ prime-time television, more men than women continue to fill more major roles in weekly shows, despite notable women’s roles in shows such as The Good Wife and Grey’s Anatomy . Women are also often portrayed as unintelligent or frivolous individuals who are there more for their looks than for anything else. Television commercials reinforce this image (Yoder, Christopher, & Holmes, 2008). Cosmetics ads abound, suggesting not only that a major task for women is to look good but also that their sense of self-worth stems from looking good. Other commercials show women becoming ecstatic over achieving a clean floor or sparkling laundry. Judging from the world of television commercials, then, women’s chief goals in life are to look good and to have a clean house. At the same time, men’s chief goals, judging from many commercials, are to drink beer and drive cars.

Women’s and men’s magazines reinforce these gender images (Milillo, 2008). Most of the magazines intended for teenaged girls and adult women are filled with pictures of thin, beautiful models, advice on dieting, cosmetics ads, and articles on how to win and please your man. Conversely, the magazines intended for teenaged boys and men are filled with ads and articles on cars and sports, advice on how to succeed in careers and other endeavors, and pictures of thin, beautiful (and sometimes nude) women. These magazine images again suggest that women’s chief goals are to look good and to please men and that men’s chief goals are to succeed, win over women, and live life in the fast lane.

Another agent of socialization, religion, also contributes to traditional gender stereotypes. Many traditional interpretations of the Bible yield the message that women are subservient to men (Tanenbaum, 2009). This message begins in Genesis, where the first human is Adam, and Eve was made from one of his ribs. The major figures in the rest of the Bible are men, and women are for the most part depicted as wives, mothers, temptresses, and prostitutes; they are praised for their roles as wives and mothers and condemned for their other roles. More generally, women are constantly depicted as the property of men. The Ten Commandments includes a neighbor’s wife with his house, ox, and other objects as things not to be coveted (Exodus 20:17), and many biblical passages say explicitly that women belong to men, such as this one from the New Testament:

Wives be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22–24)

Several passages in the Old Testament justify the rape and murder of women and girls. The Koran, the sacred book of Islam, also contains passages asserting the subordinate role of women (Mayer, 2009).

This discussion suggests that religious people should believe in traditional gender views more than less religious people, and research confirms this relationship (Morgan, 1988). To illustrate this, Figure 11.3 “Frequency of Prayer and Acceptance of Traditional Gender Roles in the Family” shows the relationship in the General Social Survey between frequency of prayer and the view (seen first in Figure 11.1 “Belief That Women Should Stay at Home” ) that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” People who pray more often are more likely to accept this traditional view of gender roles.

Figure 11.3 Frequency of Prayer and Acceptance of Traditional Gender Roles in the Family

Frequency of Prayer and Acceptance of Traditional Gender Roles in the Family

Percentage agreeing that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”

A Final Word on the Sources of Gender

Scholars in many fields continue to debate the relative importance of biology and of culture and socialization for how we behave and think as girls and boys and as women and men. The biological differences between females and males lead many scholars and no doubt much of the public to assume that masculinity and femininity are to a large degree biologically determined or at least influenced. In contrast, anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists tend to view gender as a social construction. Even if biology does matter for gender, they say, the significance of culture and socialization should not be underestimated. To the extent that gender is indeed shaped by society and culture, it is possible to change gender and to help bring about a society where both men and women have more opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Key Takeaways

  • Sex is a biological concept, while gender is a social concept and refers to the social and cultural differences a society assigns to people based on their sex.
  • Several biological explanations for gender roles exist, but sociologists think culture and socialization are more important sources of gender roles than biology.
  • Families, schools, peers, the mass media, and religion are agents of socialization for the development of gender identity and gender roles.

For Your Review

  • Write a short essay about one or two events you recall from your childhood that reflected or reinforced your gender socialization.
  • Do you think gender roles are due more to biology or to culture and socialization? Explain your answer.

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Aulette, J. R., Wittner, J., & Blakeley, K. (2009). Gendered worlds . New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Barash, D. P. (2007). Natural selections: Selfish altruists, honest liars, and other realities of evolution . New York, NY: Bellevue Literary Press.

Begley, S. (2009, June 29). Don’t blame the caveman. Newsweek 52–62.

Begley, S. (2009, September 14). Pink brain, blue brain: Claims of sex differences fall apart. Newsweek 28.

Booth, A., & Osgood, D. W. (1993). The influence of testosterone on deviance in adulthood: Assessing and explaining the relationship. Criminology, 31 (1), 93–117.

Brettell, C. B., & Sargent, C. F. (Eds.). (2009). Gender in cross-cultural perspective (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Browne, K. (2002). Biology at work: Rethinking sexual equality . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Buller, D. J. (2006). Adapting minds: Evolutionary psychology and the persistent quest for human nature . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Card, N. A., Stucky, B. D., Sawalani, G. M., & Little, T. D. (2008). Direct and indirect aggression during childhood and adolescence: A meta-analytic review of gender differences, intercorrelations, and relations to maladjustment. Child Development, 79 (5), 1185–1229. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01184.x.

Dow, B. J., & Wood, J. T. (Eds.). (2006). The SAGE handbook of gender and communication . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Eliot, L. (2009). Pink brain, blue brain: How small differences grow into troublesome gaps—and what we can do about it . Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Engle, M. J., McFalls, J. A., Jr., Gallagher, B. J., III, & Curtis, K. (2006). The attitudes of American sociologists toward causal theories of male homosexuality. The American Sociologist, 37 (1), 68–67.

Hurley, S. (2007). Sex and the social construction of gender: Can feminism and evolutionary psychology be reconciled? In J. Browne (Ed.), The future of gender (pp. 98–115). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

King, W. C., Jr., Miles, E. W., & Kniska, J. (1991). Boys will be boys (and girls will be girls): The attribution of gender role stereotypes in a gaming situation. Sex Roles, 25 , 607–623.

Klein, S. S. (Ed.). (2007). Handbook for achieving gender equity through education (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lever, J. (1978). Sex differences in the complexity of children’s play and games. American Sociological Review, 43 , 471–483.

Lindsey, L. L. (2011). Gender roles: A sociological perspective (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mayer, A. E. (2009). Review of “Women, the Koran and international human rights law: The experience of Pakistan” [Book review]. Human Rights Quarterly, 31 (4), 1155–1158.

Mazur, A. (2009). Testosterone and violence among young men. In A. Walsh & K. M. Beaver (Eds.), Biosocial criminology: New directions in theory and research (pp. 190–204). New York, NY: Routledge.

Mead, M. (1935). Sex and temperament in three primitive societies . New York, NY: William Morrow.

Miczek, K. A., Mirsky, A. F., Carey, G., DeBold, J., & Raine, A. (1994). An overview of biological influences on violent behavior. In J. Albert, J. Reiss, K. A. Miczek, & J. A. Roth (Eds.), Understanding and preventing violence: Biobehavioral influences (Vol. 2, pp. 1–20). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Milillo, D. (2008). Sexuality sells: A content analysis of lesbian and heterosexual women’s bodies in magazine advertisements. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 12 (4), 381–392.

Morgan, M. (1988). The impact of religion on gender-role attitudes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11 , 301–310.

Morgan, S. (Ed.). (1989). Gender and anthropology: Critical reviews for research and teaching . Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Murdock, G. (1937). Comparative data on the division of labor by sex. Social Forces, 15 , 551–553.

Nanda, S. (1997). Neither man nor woman: The Hirjas of India. In C. B. Brettell & C. F. Sargent (Eds.), Gender in cross-cultural perspective (2nd ed., pp. 198–201). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Reddy, G. (2006). With respect to sex: Negotiating Hirja identity in South India . New Delhi, India: Yoda.

Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing at fairness: How America’s schools cheat girls . New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1987). The Margaret Mead controversy: Culture, biology and anthropological inquiry. In H. Applebaum (Ed.), Perspectives in cultural anthropology (pp. 443–454). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Sheldon, J. P., Pfeffer, C. A., Jayaratne, T. E., Feldbaum, M., & Petty, E. M. (2007). Beliefs about the etiology of homosexuality and about the ramifications of discovering its possible genetic origin. Journal of Homosexuality, 52 (3/4), 111–150.

Tanenbaum, L. (2009). Taking back God: American women rising up for religious equality . New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tannen, D. (2001). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation . New York, NY: Quill.

Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Thornhill, R., & Palmer, C. T. (2000). A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Williams, W. L. (1997). Amazons of America: Female gender variance. In C. B. Brettell & C. F. Sargent (Eds.), Gender in cross-cultural perspective (2nd ed., pp. 202–213). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Workman, L., & Reader, W. (2009). Evolutionary psychology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Yoder, J. D., Christopher, J., & Holmes, J. D. (2008). Are television commercials still achievement scripts for women? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32 (3), 303–311. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00438.x.

Sociology Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Dissertations and Theses

If you're interested in learning more about recent and past Women's Studies/Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies graduate students' dissertation and thesis research, please click the following links to view more information on OhioLink Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Center . 

Dissertation and Thesis List

Morrison, Shannon (MA) Navigating Secret Societies: Black Women in the Commercial Airline Industry

Tobin, Erin Campy Feminisms: The Feminist Camp Gaze in Independent Film

Branfman, Jonathan Millennial Jewish Stars: Masculinity, Racial Ambiguity, and Public Allure

Lee, Juwon (MA) The Globality of the Seoul Queer Culture Festival: Subverting the Neocolonial Queer Narrative

Strand, Lauren   Toward the Transformative Inclusion of Students with Nonvisible Disabilities in STEM: An Intersectional Exploration of Stigma Management and Self-Advocacy Enactments

Austin, Sierra   Black Girl Genius: Theorizing Girlhood, Identity and Knowledge Production

Cumpstone, Tess (MA)  Acts of Public Survival: The Role of Artivism in Exposing the Sexist-Ableist Nexus in Campus Rape Culture

Demiri, Lirika (MA)  Stories of Everyday Resistance, Counter-memory, and Regional Solidarity: Oral Histories of Women Activists in Kosova

Rodriguez-Arguelles Riva, Sara Thickening Borders: Deterrence, Punishment, and Confinement of Refugees at the U.S. Border

Serpico, Jaclyn (MA)  Age, Race, Parity, and Access to Same-Day IUD Insertion at Obstetrician-Gynecology Practices in Ohio: A Mystery Client Study

Benson, Krista   Generations of Removal: Child Removal of Native Children in Eastern Washinton State Through Compulsory Education, Foster Care, Adoption, and Juvenile Justice

Fuller, Denise A.   Creating Resistance on the Border: Coalitions and Counternarratives to S.B. 1070

Isoke, Saidah (MA)   “Thank God for Hip-hop”: Black Female Masculinity in Hip-hop Culture

Gabbard, Sonnet D.   Old Ties and New Binds: LGBT Rights, Homonationalisms, Europeanization and Post-War Legacies in Serbia

Sengupta, Anindita   The Desired Baby: Assisted Reproductive Technology, Secrecy, and a Cultural Account of Family Building in India

DasGupta, Debanuj   Racial Regulations and Queer Claims to Livable Lives

Livingston, Katherine G.   Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates and the Politics of Birthmotherhood in Ohio, 1963-2014

Swenson, Haley S.   Reproducing Inequality: Cooking, Cleaning, and Caring in the Austerity Age

Tai, Yu-Chen   (W)holistic Feminism: Decolonial Healing in Women of Color Literature  

Tu, Angela Wen-Chun (MA) The Construction of Legal Credibility for Rape Survivors Who Are International Students

Husain, Taneem   Empty Diversity in Muslim America: Religion, Race, and the Politics of U.S. Inclusion

Dean, MacRorie (MA)  Affective Intervention: Beyond Campus Rape Prevention

Nieto, Nicole   Recipes of Recovery and Rebuilding: The Role of Cookbooks in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Chitnis, Varsha Sanjeev  Women’s Lives, Women’s Stories: Examining Caste Through Life History Interviews in Baroda

Day, Allyson L.   The Ability Contract The Ideological, Affective, and Material Negotiations of Women Living with HIV

Kaedbey, Dima   Building Theory Across Struggles: Queer Feminist Thought from Lebanon

Rossie, Amanda   New Media, New Maternities: Representations of Maternal Femininity in Postfeminist Popular Culture

McKee, Kimberly Devon   The Transnational Adoption Industrial Complex: An Analysis of Nation, Citizenship, and the Korean Diaspora

Roy, Raili   ”Jagoron: Awakening” to Gender in Non Governmental Organizations in Contemporary Bengal

Genetin, Victoria A.   Shifting Toward A Spiritualized Feminist Pedagogy: Gloria E. Anzaldúa And Thich Nhat Hanh in Dialogue

Mkhize, Gabisile Promise   African Women: An Examination of Collective Organizing Among Grassroots Women in Post Apartheid South Africa

Popielinski, Lea Marie   Noncorporeal Embodiment and Gendered Virtual Identity

Brown, Adriane J.   Distinctly Digital: Subjectivity and Recognition in Teenage Girls' Online Self-Presentations  (2011)

Kock, Stacia L.   Towards Inclusion: Expanding And Challenging Citizenship Through Intersectional Antipoverty Activism  (2011)

Linder, Kathryn E.   Narratives of Violence, Myths of Youth: American Youth Identity in Fictional Narratives of School Shootings  (2011)

Brennan, Susan Catherin e  Cinematic Adaptation and the Problem of Citizenship: Mapping Women’s Diasporic Authorship in a Post-9/11 World

Cochran, Shannon M.   Corporeal (isms): Race, Gender, and Corpulence Performativity in Visual and Narrative Cultures

Holmes, Christina M.   Chicana Environmentalisms: Deterritorialization as a Practice of Decolonization

Mitchell, Anne Michelle   Civil Rights Subjectivities and African American Women’s Autobiographies: The Life-Writings of Daisy Bates, Melba Patillo Beals, and Anne Moody

Isbister, Dong   The “Sent-Down Body” Remembers: Contemporary Chinese Immigrant Women’s Visual and Literary Narratives

Smith, Sarah Anne   Love, Sex, and Disability: The Ethics and Politics of Care in Intimate Relationships

Heo, Min Sook Globally Agreed Upon, Locally Troubled: The Construction of Anti-Violence Legislation, Human Rights Discourse, and Domestic Violence in South Korea

Johnson, Lakesia Denise   The Iconography of the Black Female Revolutionary and New Narratives of Justice

Schrock, Richelle D. Cultural Divides, Cultural Transitions: The Role of Gendered and Racialized Narratives of Alienation in the Lives of Somali Muslim Refugees in Columbus, Ohio

Zhang, Lu Transnational Feminisms in Translation: The Making of a Women’s Anti-Domestic Violence Movement in China

Tell Magazine

A scan of the first page of the notes from the interrogation of John / Eleanor Rykener, the Guildhall, London, December 1394–January 1395

Born This Way

Are we Really ‘Born this Way’?

On December 11, 1395, Eleanor Rykener was questioned in a London court of law because she was living as a woman, despite her male biology. When asked why, the report states that, “a certain Anna, the whore of a former servant of Sir Thomas Blount, first taught [her] to practice this detestable vice in the manner of a woman. [She] further said that a certain Elizabeth Bronderer first dressed him in women's clothing.” [1] Undoubtedly, this is not the whole story, and it is filtered through a scribe who condemns Rykener’s sexual activity as detestable , a word Rykener likely did not use herself. Nonetheless, it highlights a transgender experience very different from the modern one. Increasingly, modern transgender and queer individuals describe themselves as being ‘born this way.’ Rykener’s statement suggests that her transgenderism was a communal creation and a choice, possibly her choice, but definitely other’s choice. As a subject, her identity, like that of many other medieval transgender individuals, is relational and follows Teresa de Lauretis’ and Linda Alcoff’s argument that subjectivity is created by “fluid interactions in constant motion and open to alteration by self-analyzing practice” (425) [2] . Gender, for many transgender medieval individuals that we have record of, is created by cascading and fluid moments of choice and creation.

The ‘born this way’ narrative suggests that the only way to be or have ever been queer is to have always been so. But this makes it nearly impossible to talk about queerness in the medieval period, where same-sex attraction and transgenderism was a matter of choice and circumstance, and not simply being. Medieval individuals, who in written accounts are frequently biological women living as men, rarely become men for gendered reasons. They do not declare that they have always been men, and they often decide to be men for the social benefits. Some of them even return to life as a woman. It is also important to note that none of these individuals ever declare themselves queer , at least in part because words like transgender and queer simply did not exist, and the terms that did exist do not express the concept I discuss here. But the lack of language does not mean the concept does not exist. For this reason, I follow Alicia Spencer-Hall and Black Gutt’s lead and use the term transgender , even though transgender carries many connotations that do not fit very well into the medieval period. [3] Acknowledging that queerness in the medieval period is very different from modern queerness, and that queerness may be fluid and a choice rather than a matter of birth, uncovers aspects of queer history that would otherwise stay hidden and opens up what being trans and queer can mean in the modern day. [4]

One common medieval reason for being transgender is that an individual is put into a situation they are unable or unwilling to perform in their current gender. In the romance Yde et Olive , Yde (initially female) dresses as a man when his father attempts to marry him. St. Matrona of Perge, St. Euphrosyne, and Juana de la Cruz Vázquez y Gutiérrez run away to monasteries to escape overbearing husbands (or the possibility of such). St. Marinos’ father decides to join a monastery, and so as to not be abandoned, Marinos begs his father to let him dress as a boy and come as well. Some of these individuals will retain their maleness despite hardship until the end of their life, some will not.

Another popular reason is that someone else decides it will be so. In The Romance of Silence , Silence’s parents declare their biologically female child male because of the king’s recent decree that women cannot inherit. If I may be so bold as to include Joan of Arc in this list, Joan said that it was God who commanded her to dress in men’s clothes and go into battle. Rykener could also fit into this category.

These latter cases tend to be fairly complicated. After some debate, Silence chooses maleness, and knighthood specifically. Yet, though they do not consent to the reveal of their biology, it cannot be said with certainty that they are opposed to their transition to femininity and the life they have thereafter. Joan’s male clothing is a reoccurring point of conflict in her trial, and one that she is (mostly) adamant about maintaining. But she does not claim to be male. Although we know little about Rykener, of these three examples, she seems the most certain about her gender. She dresses and acts as a woman, takes a female name and pronouns, and maintains her femaleness even when questioned.

These individuals’ gender is not fixed at their birth, nor, importantly, over the course of their lives. When accused of sleeping with a woman, St. Eugenia tears open her clothes and reveals her breast, before returning to life as a woman. Silence and Juana also return to a public femininity, although Juana goes on to make many statements about her maleness. A view of queerness that necessitates fixity would say that St. Eugenia cannot be queer, especially in comparison to someone like St. Marinos who is also accused of sleeping with a woman and chooses to be kicked out of the monastery rather than reveal his biology. Jack Halberstam sees “embodiment as a series of ‘stopovers’ in which the body is lived as an archive rather than a dwelling.” [5] Halberstam’s vision of queerness allows doubt, change, and fluidity. The end, or the beginning, need not define everything in between.

Marquis Bey’s comments on the ‘born this way’ narrative were what first allowed me to articulate the ideas I’ve put forward here. Bey argues, “I in fact do not believe that I, or anyone, is born any particular way, if that is to be taken as having some legible innate desire or identification preexistent to and independent of the ways we are socialized, the language available to us, the other entities we have to interrelate and thus emerge in the world with and through.” [6] This echoes Simone de Beavoir’s “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” [7] The ‘born this way’ narrative is powerful, but it cannot be the only one, not only because it erases queer history but because it limits modern queer experience. Bey’s queerness is created over time through relationships, community, language, and choice, and considering medieval queerness as a messy tangle of relationships, social circumstances, and choice provides a more complex view of queer history and the opportunity to open up what queerness can mean today.

Works Cited

Alcoff L. Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society . 1988;13(3):405–36.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex . Jonathan Cape, 2009, 273.

Bey, Marquis. Cistem Failure: Essays on Blackness and Cisgender . Duke University Press, 2022, 17.

Halberstam, Jack. Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability . Oakland, University of California, 2018, 24.

“The Questioning of Eleanor Rykener (also known as John), A Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395.” Translated by David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras. Fordham , 1998,

Spencer-Hall, Alicia, and Blake Gutt, editors. Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography . Amsterdam University Press, 2021.

[1] Translation by David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras. The original Latin is: “Anna, meretrix quondam cuiusdam famuli domini Thome Blount, primo docuit ipsum vitium detestabile modo muliebri exercere,” (

[2] Alcoff L. Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society . 1988;13(3):405–36.

[3] Spencer-Hall, Alicia, and Blake Gutt, editors. Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography . Amsterdam University Press, 2021.

[4] I explore three genres, and thus three types of individuals. The first genre is romances, and the individuals therein are purely literary. The second is saints lives, which would have been read as true in the medieval period, but frequently had fictitious elements. Third is historical records, especially court cases, which detail historic individuals, including Juana de la Cruz Vázquez y Gutiérrez, Eleanor Rykener, and Joan of Arc.

[5] Halberstam, Jack. Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability . Oakland, University of California, 2018, 24.

[6] Bey, Marquis. Cistem Failure: Essays on Blackness and Cisgender . Duke University Press, 2022, 17.

[7] Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex . Jonathan Cape, 2009, 273.

biological gender thesis

Under Proposed Legislation, ‘Trans Women’ Could Be Counted as Biological Females in One Country

Madeline Leesman

Townhall has reported time and time again how LGBTQ+ advocates have pushed for policies that would erase women. This includes allowing men who believe they are “trans women” to compete in women’s sports, robbing them of awards and opportunities. Now, one country will go a step further to change their laws to redefine “woman” to be “inclusive” to this group.

This week, reports broke that the government in Wales is planning to redefine “women” to include biological male “trans women.” 

The proposal, the Gender Quotas Bill, was revealed on Sunday to The Telegraph . The leaked draft proposes that half the candidates to be members of the Welsh Parliament, known as the Senedd, be women. But, it reportedly states that the definition of “woman” could include men “transitioning.” 

Now, women’s rights advocates are claiming that this could fill the Welsh Parliament with men who say they are women.

“The Gender Quotas Bill should be about improving the representation of women on electoral lists and potentially selection for the Senedd,” Cathay Larkman, who represents Women’s Rights Network Wales, said, according to Daily Mail . 


biological gender thesis

“However, what it will actually achieve, based upon the detail of the draft Bill we have seen, is likely to be males self-identifying as women in order to greatly improve their chances of selection, and thereby muscling actual women out.”

Heather Binning, the founder of WRN UK, said that gender self-identification is “devious and disingenuous.” 

“It must be resisted,” she added. 

A spokesperson for the Welsh government told Daily Mail: “Our proposed model for quotas is designed to maximise the chances of achieving a Senedd comprised of at least 50 per cent women. Work is ongoing on the Bill.”

"It is astonishing that the government is spending public funds and using a gender quotas bill to promote an agenda which undermines the rights of half the population of Wales,” Larkman told BBC . 

"It is shameful that they are high-jacking legislation that should benefit women and increase female participation in political life, to embed a toxic and misogynistic ideology,” she added. "The government does not have the legal powers to push this through and are highly likely to fail when it is challenged in the courts, as it will be."

biological gender thesis

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biological gender thesis


Eminem’s genderfluid child opens up about their love life

Posted: November 2, 2023 | Last updated: November 2, 2023

Eminem’s younger child, Stevie Laine Mathers [ above right ], has opened up about being in their first, serious, adult relationship.

Stevie, 21, went on the podcast of their older sister, Hailie Jade Mathers [ above left ]. Hailie and Stevie share the same mom: Eminem’s ex, Kim Scott.

Eminem is Hailie’s biological father. She was born in 1995. After Eminem and Kim divorced in 2001, Kim entered into another relationship and gave birth to Stevie. Kim later re-married Eminem and he adopted Stevie in 2005. Eminem and Kim divorced within a year of marrying. Stevie’s biological father died in 2019.

If the family history is a little complicated, what’s clear is that Stevie and Hailie enjoy a sibling bond.

Hailie gently prodded Stevie—who identifies as genderfluid and uses he/she/they pronouns—about their love life. Followers of Stevie on social media will know they’ve been dating as last year they dropped occasional photos and videos of someone who’s clearly very special to them.

On the ‘ Just A Little Shady ’ podcast, they went further and talked about their boyfriend.

“My boyfriend, his name is Jase. He moved in with me like last year in December. It’s going really well.”

Stevie said the relationship started out as long-distance. Hailie remarked on how hard that must have been.

“It’s hard but I feel like if you really have a connection with someone, it can work, especially if you make time for it to work. It’s a hard thing, but it’s a lot easier and it’s worth it when you get to live together and actually experience those things. But yeah, it’s been really fun. It’s been a learning experience too. I’d say this is my first like serious relationship in my adult life.”

Stevie shared several photos of Jase on their Instagram in late 2022, but nothing since that time. They are more active on TikTok, which also has a link to their cute, online art store.

However, following yesterday’s podcast, Stevie posted more photos of Jase to Instagram last night and wished him a happy birthday.

“Happiest birthday my love … you’re the brightest star in the sky.”

Stevie came out as genderfluid in a TikTok video in 2021, during which they announced they’d chosen the name Stevie for themselves. Eminem has mentioned their adopted child in past lyrics, but using the name they previously used.

In another part of the interview, Hailie revealed how excited she was when Stevie was born.

“I was so happy to have a little sister,” the 27-year-old said, before joking, “Oh my god, am I going to get emotional? I’m old!”

“When you were born,” Hailie told Stevie, “I was like, “A baby for me! It’s mine!'”

Hailie praised Stevie for appearing unfazed about their famous, unconventional family, and also for their love of animals.

“When we were growing up, our papa had a Great Dane and we were obsessed,” Hailie recalled her sibling. “They’re the sweetest dogs in the world but they’re just so huge. I remember we fell in love with papa’s dog, Timber, and then—when you got Duke—we were like, ‘Where are we gonna put this horse because they’re so big!'”

You can watch the whole discussion below. Stevie talks about their relationship just after the four-minute mark.

Top image: @JustALittleShadyPodcast/Instagram

Related: I Never Thought I’d Say This, But Good for Eminem I guess? 10 Queer Rappers You Need to Know

Eminem’s genderfluid child opens up about their love life

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  1. Biological essentialism? #gender #mentalhealth #bipolar


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    A common assumption that biological differences are inevitable is more troublesome. In a sense, we can avoid even that most biological of sex differences, reproduction, with contraception. Future technology may make it possible (not to say prudent or desirable) to abolish other biological sex differences, though modifiability by social and cultural

  22. 11.1 Understanding Sex and Gender

    Sex refers to the anatomical and other biological differences between females and males that are determined at the moment of conception and develop in the womb and throughout childhood and adolescence. Females, of course, have two X chromosomes, while males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome.

  23. Dissertations and Theses

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