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What is Gender?

From Women in European History

How can we define gender?

A category that neutralizes physical differences between the sexes and views their relationship in terms of social and cultural contexts. [1] This relationship is a study between the sexes (i.e. of women to men and of men to women) as well as within the sexes (i.e. among men and among women). [2]

I don't think we should completely neutralize the physical differences between sexes in our definition. Many of the social and cultural relationships we wish to study are to some extent connected with these physical differences (gender may be a study of social relationships, but as Scott writes many of those relationships are "based on perceived differences between the sexes"). [3]

Physical differences have (justifiably or not) been used to explain social or cultural perceptions of or policies toward women in the past, and in some cases physiological differences are the basis for the development of a cultural group (for example, midwives)-- so we can't ignore them.

Since biological differences can not be denied nor can the various and diverse affects that culture has on our understanding, in order to define gender we must define the sexes. Male and female as sexes include not only physical differences but also, contradicting or opposing behaviors, attitudes, and social status which are all constructs of society and culture. Therefore, gender becomes the interplay and relationship between these differences; as well as, a representation of societal structure.

The basis of gender on perceived differences between the sexes is correct according to Scott's definition. However, in her article, these differences are not restricted to, nor do they explicitly exclude, physical differences. She notes that these perceived differences result from cultural symbols, concepts that explain those cultural symbols, the influence of social institutions, and "subjective identity."[4]

Gender is not to be described as the biological differences between sexes. Gender is the social relationship both inter-relations and intra-relations amongst males and females. These relationships are specified by and defined by context. Thus, gender does not create an overall model for interactions between humans, but more so refers to specific historical instances.

As Joan W. Scott articulates, gender should have academic legitimacy, in which the term is then neutral and non-threatening. Neutralizing and rejecting biological differences is therefore key to such a cultural construction. Although Scott may write that many of the relationships between the sexes were "based on perceived differences between the sexes", she also calls on a genuine historicization and deconstruction of the terms of sexual difference, emphasizing the possibility for negation, resistance, and reinterpretation of these relationships.[5] It has to be taken into account that men wrote most of the ideas about women in history, influencing the notions held by future generations.[6] As a result, these opinions and ideas were regarded as scientific truths, attempting to parallel the scientific evidence in physical differences.

A definition is not worth the effort unless it has explanatory power. To me, gender is a particular fixed effect that explains why a subset of humanity behaves a certain way. This fixed effect may have a variety of causal powers depending on culture, location, and various other variables. The most efficient and complete instrument for detecting gender is probably biological difference, although this approach may bias the data somewhat due to over-aggregation. Over a large data set that we have of humanity this bias may or may not converge to zero asymptotically. (Frank Cheng)

Joan W. Scott posits that "gender" as a term has a "connection to grammar" which is "both explicit and full of unexamined possibilities."[7] The type of "gender" that Scott drives home is the same type that the Oxford English Dictionary says is "In mod. (esp. feminist) use, a euphemism for the sex of a human being, often intended to emphasize the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological, distinctions between the sexes." If Scott wants us to consider the connection between gender and grammar, it is also important to consider the ways in which it is used in various parts of speech at present, and not only as a descriptor.

I think it is also worth noting a further connection to grammar that exists within certain languages and cultures. Although this is not true in English, many other languages connect a gender or lack of gender with each and every word. I think it is interesting and important to this discussion to further notice that there does not seem to be a necessary connection between the gender of a word and the function or societal connections for that word. Although one could attempt to analyze a lot about the history of a culture through these gender associations, just as often they seem completely disconnected from preconceived notions of gender or even the sex that gender might infer.

The term "gender" in the historical context refers to the study of the relationship between men and women throughout history. "Gender" was first used by American feminists to "insist on the fundamentally social quality of distinctions based on sex"[8] However, the term seriously downplays the biological differences between the sexes that unarguably impacts the way men and especially women live. Although "gender history" concerns the relationship bewteen men and female, recent years in academia have seen a shift towards substituting "women's history" with "gender history" to minimize the possible threatening implication that women should be the main subject of legitimate historical analysis.[9] Furthermore, it is crucial to acknowledge and recognize that "gender" also includes study within the sexes: between men and men, as well as woman and women. (Sandra Park)


  1. Gisela Bock, “Women’s History and Gender History: Aspects of a Debate,” Gender and History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1989), pp. 20.
  2. Bock, 16.
  3. Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," The American Historical Review. Vol. 91, No. 5 (1986), pp.1067
  4. Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," The American Historical Review. Vol. 91, No. 5 (1986), pp.1067-68
  5. Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," The American Historical Review. Vol. 91, No. 5 (1986), pp.1065
  6. Merry Wiesner-Hanks, "Ideas and Laws Regarding Women," Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Third Edition (2008), pp.17
  7. Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," The American Historical Review. Vol. 91, No. 5 (1986)
  8. Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," The American Historical Review. Vol. 91, No. 5 (1986)
  9. Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," The American Historical Review. Vol. 91, No. 5 (1986)

While I do not agree that gender neutralizes physical differences between the sexes, I think it should neutralize their relationship in terms of social and cultural contexts. I do not believe that physical differences should play a role in gender's social or cultural context because that would allow for the physical demeanor of a human being to dominate its categorization. I see man/woman as the subset of gender; they further explain each in terms of gender. By having men and women as the subset of gender one can understand that gender is a relationship between the sexes (i.e. of women to men and of men to women) as well as within the sexes (i.e. among men and among women). [2] -Denver Barrows

When I think of gender, I think of it very much as a "symbolic" category than something that can be definitively identified or proven by physical means. While the term "sex" serves to recognize the biological differences between people and can generally be viewed as a binary--male vs. female--"gender" is an entirely social category and can be seen more as a spectrum. People experience varying levels of gender identification, and it is much more difficult to pinpoint. This may sound somewhat silly, but it seems to me like society is largely tolerant of allowing people to be whichever "gender" they choose (or abstain from choosing).

An intuitive definition of ‘gender’ might hold that it is the same as ‘sex’ for all intents and purposes. A slightly less intuitive – and more modern – definition of ‘gender’ might designate it as a sociocultural categorization (as opposed to ‘sex’ which is a biological classification). However, Bock and Scott seem to have ideas on ‘gender’ that are more complicated and thus more difficult to concisely articulate. One interpretation of Bock might suggest that women’s history (gender history par excellence) is gender history. But this formulation seems problematic because it implicitly regards women as the gendered sex. Maybe this is not what Bock had in mind, but it is difficult to glean a clear definition of ‘gender’ or ‘gender history’ from Bock’s article. Scott seems to be a bit more straightforward. Some of her ideas seem to be inspired by a Foucauldian framework.‘Gender,’ for Scott, might be understood to be a composite of power relationships founded on the male-female power dynamic in the social and cultural sense of male and female and not the biological.

To me gender seems to be the differences between the two sexes defined by society. This can include many aspects. Gender doesn't follow the strict binary of sex, where you are a man or a woman, but instead we can see effeminate males and masculine females.

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