Features, Feminism

Why We Should Stop Using the Term ‘Gender’

Likely, we’ve all noticed that within each of the two human sexes there is a range of phenotypes stretching from masculine to feminine. We have distinctly feminine men and distinctly masculine women. The precise recipe for these phenotypes remains unclear, though there seems to be some combination of genetics and in utero endocrinology at work, interacting with ecological conditions. Certainly, while cultural attitudes have played some role in suppressing or encouraging the display of these differences at various times and places, their foundation is partly biological.

As soon as this is said, it must be acknowledged that this biological basis has not always had the degree of scientific evidence it does today, and there have long been people hostile to such biological explanations. The latter group were among those who latched onto the term “gender” to identify this sexual phenotypic diversity. One might ask what was wrong with the more precise “sexual phenotype diversity.”

Well, certainly “gender” was shorter and catchier. What I’d suggest here, though, is that there was something more involved in this semantic reassignment. A charitable interpretation would be that this choice of “gender” was motivated by either delicacy or a deep confusion, resulting in deleterious social and psychological consequences. A less charitable interpretation is that this choice was subversive and even mendacious and that to a large extent many of those consequences were actually intended. In fact, each interpretation is probably true for different people.

To state my thesis plainly: gender is a grammatical concept that has been co-opted as a means of confusing the uneducated about the biological facts of sexual dimorphism for distinctly ideological purposes. The strategy has widely worked. All those committed to scientific truth and biological reality should stop using the term in that way. Continuing to do so is playing into the hands of openly anti-science social constructionists. To claim there are only two genders is a confused response. It grants their core premise while ostensibly disputing their arguments. To clarify what I mean, let’s take a closer look at how we got here.

Speakers of English and the Romance languages were accustomed to thinking of gender as masculine and feminine. From that perspective, it might make sense to co-opt “gender” to refer to human sexual phenotypic diversity. This casual association though is misleading: gender actually has nothing to do with sex. It is simply a form of grammatical category and sex is just one of many possible organizing facts around which gender might be used. Unlike the Romance languages, in English of course gender is restricted to pronouns, so it isn’t surprising that the fallout from all this generated so much ideological heat around those pronouns. The ensuing debate has resulted in demands for the use of dozens of “gender” pronouns in acknowledgement of phenotypic diversity (real or imagined), supposedly required in the name of tolerance—or even compelled by law.

English speakers familiar with any of the Romance languages will know though that there’s at least two senses in which we use the term gender to refer to sexual distinctions in language. In English the usage is pretty much restricted to these pronouns; in French and Spanish, for instance, though, all nouns are gendered: e.g., they require one of two different articles for a grammatically correct sentence. Put le fromage on la table.

Those only familiar with English and the Romance languages, though, may be surprised to find out that masculine and feminine are not the only way of gendering nouns. Some languages gender them on the basis of whether they refer to animate or inanimate objects. Some do both. And, indeed, at least in principle, it seems that grammatical gender options have an uncertain upper limit, if any. According to Steven Pinker, in The Language Instinct, the Kivunjo language has sixteen genders. These include genders for precise and general locations, clusters or pairs of objects and abstract qualities. This is only confusing to English speakers, again, because we’re used to thinking of gendering exclusively in relation to our personal pronouns, distinguished by sex.

It turns out, though, that gendering nouns is the older of the two practices, including distinctions between animate and inanimate. All this makes more sense if we think of gender’s etymological roots, in genre and genus, indicating type, kind, or origin. It was only later that the term was applied to a pronoun distinction between the sexes. This grammatical gendering in language in general dates back at least to the dawn of the Indo-European languages. Before the advent of writing, knowing anything about grammar practices is rather dicey. What is clear though is that while an insistence on the coupling of “gender”—as the social constructionists want to define it—and sex may be unwarranted, the binary pronoun gender distinctions in such languages were never about identifying “gender” in the contemporary sense, but precisely about categorizing and distinguishing the sexes. The biology defying use of these ideas is in a fact a very recent and ideologically driven phenomenon.1

One interpretation is that the persistence of this sexually hazy usage of “gender” was rooted in the appeal of having a euphemistic term to distinguish the sexes, without getting too messily biological. This history seems to be also endorsed by Pinker, in The Language Instinct; he actually says here he refuses to use gender as a euphemism for the proper term of sex. The term gender, in this interpretation, would seem to be merely a delicate imposition in the interest of etiquette.

Yet, it’s not so clear that such an innocent reading of the history is justified. It appears that there was a modern, consistent effort to confuse these terms and concepts, initiated in the 1950s by the now-discredited sexologist John Money, who made a career out of promoting the indeterminacy and social construction of human sexuality, resulting in the famous and tragic John Reimer case. Reimer, injured as an infant in a botched circumcision, was raised under Money’s advice and guidance by his parents as if he were a biological girl. This exercise in sexual social engineering, based upon social constructionism’s premises, was a complete disaster. Reimer never accepted his sexual re-indoctrination and eventually transitioned back to being male – as much as could be done under his anatomical circumstances. He married a woman, but was plagued by depression, and eventually took his own life.

The degree to which someone like Money is driven by financial self-interest or ideology is always open to debate, but the resulting misery is not. The Intersex Society of North America is unabashed in accusing Money of lying about the results of his clinical practice, negatively affecting the lives of many intersex people to this day. More troublesome still was the role of social constructionist and androgynous feminists in the 1970s who embraced Money’s work as confirmation of their own ideologically driven anti-biology agenda of post-“gender” utopia.

Way back in 1981, the eminent scholar Jean Bethke Elshtain warned about the dangers of this creeping anti-biology agenda in a clarion call article. The first part of her article provides a nice intellectual history of how all this took shape in 1970s feminism, in the hands of those such as Ann Ferguson, Judith M. Bardwick, and Shulamith Firestone. It was precisely in an effort to find ammunition to support the case of a social constructionist/blank slate feminist social engineering agenda that “gender” was embraced as a conceptual move to evade the constraints of sexual biology.

What should be becoming increasingly clear in all of this is that while it is true that gender cannot be linked to binary sex, this is because it has nothing to do with sex, except as a confused allusion. The very logic that justifies decoupling “gender” from sex also militates against the misguided attempt to hijack the language in the name of such a decoupling. Our pronouns are sexed, not “gendered” (in anything more than a grammatical sense): and whatever “gender” non-binary identifiers claim, they are likely still one sex or the other.

If someone is intersex, a population the size of which the American Psychological Association says in unknown and hard to determine, and have not opted for either male or female, maybe there is some validity in considering a single third category. However, conviction in the existence of “gender” fluidity is not valid grounds for a demand to reinvent the pronoun structure of the language. Furthermore, the continued use of “gender” in an effort to defend the biological realism of the sexual binary facts of human life is a self-defeating trope. Allowing others to define your terms of reference is no recipe for success and “gender,” in its non-grammatical sense, is a horse that has long since left the barn door in the ideological and linguistic dust.

For the general public, all this gender pronoun debate seems to be based on a category error. Gender is the system of categorization; sexed pronouns are the material being categorized – which is to say gendered. Gender describes pronouns; pronouns do not describe gender! The subject and object have been reversed. For some this reversal is a confusion, for others it is a strategy. All the same, confusing the name of the category with the name of the thing being categorized is an error —at best. At worst, the appropriation of “gender” in “gender studies” or “gender activism” is an ideologically driven strategy, willfully blurring grammatical association to sex and biology. It is a bit much to expect everyone else to blindly pantomime dictates generated from a conceptual muddle—whether it be confusion or subversion.

And to my fellow pro-science, biological realists: stop trying to tie “gender” to sex, let them have as much non-binary fluidity as they want: human sexual phenotypes do constitute a wide spectrum. However, don’t give an inch when the anti-science social constructionists try to use “gender” in a way to surreptitiously implicate sex within their sublime valorization of “gender” subjectivity. This whole social constructionist agenda is premised on exploiting the broader public’s confusion about the meaning of the word “gender.” It’s there we need to draw the line. Standing up against the ideological agenda of this pronoun colonialism of the social constructionists is a pretty good place to start.


[1] While a full discussion is beyond the limits of this article, it is worth noting, as I have argued at length elsewhere, our communications, including our language, are a product of evolutionary pressures and therefore guided by fitness benefits to our genes. For a sexually reproducing species, sexual distinctions can be vitally important, across a range of social contexts. It can hardly be surprising that our pronouns evolved to distinguish between essential sex differences, rather than ecologically contingent phenotypic differences.

Filed under: Features, Feminism


Michael McConkey, an independent scholar with a Ph.D. in communications from McGill University, recently completed his book, Not for the Common Good: Evolution and Human Communications and is host of The Biological Realist podcast.