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.


  1. Leo Leclair says

    I am hoping that this article was written tongue in cheek. If not, my response is, I do not care what the deemed genre convention of words is in the English language. However, when it comes to biology, gender is a most useful categorization (Female/Male/Other) works. “sexual phenotype diversity” – really? Instead of describing something as Black or White, perhaps we can just describe it as falling at one of the rather extreme ends of “bipolar monochromatic diversity”.

    • Uri Harris says

      His point is that the replacement of the word ‘sex’ with the word ‘gender’ is part of a strategy to cultivate the idea that sexual differences are socially constructed. (By implicitly suggesting that they are unjustified categorisations, since the word ‘gender’ simply means ‘type’ or ‘category’, whereas the word ‘sex’ refers to something in nature: the observable differences between men and women.) It has nothing to do with whether or not one can use the terms male/female/other in particular contexts.

      • Sarka says

        Sexual differences are not wholly or merely socially constructed, but it is clear from the merest most superficial knowledge of social history, anthropology etc etc…that there is a lot of “social construction” (culture) going on around sexual difference. Hence ideas of masculinity and femininity, male and female roles (legally, in terms of custom, concepts in religion, or art or whatever) have significantly differed between periods and/or between societies…How otherwise could we explain why e.g. the position of women in Afghan society today is so different from the position of women in Californian society?, or why 17th-century English values and practices surrounding sex differences differed markedly from Ancient Roman ones?

        Using the term “gender” has – in sensible hands – been simply a way of recognising the cultural-social component in sex differences and all their cultural ramifications as subjects of study, and does not equate to the claim that all sex differences are cultural (“constructed”). Yeah, there are a load of appallingly idiotic and thick-headed “feminists” out there esp. in silly academic depts, who seem not just to adopt social constructivism as pure dogma but also to have an impoverished understanding of social constructs (cultural history, theories of how societies work), but there is no need – however annoying they are – to jump to the opposite extreme and imply that there is no such thing as culture at all, but only biology in some narrow sense.

        • BM says

          Sarka, The word “gender” provides absolutely zero information about those cultural differences and historical differences. In fact “gender”. You can see this by asking simple questions like is a African tribeswoman, African-American woman, and a white woman form the US representative of three different “genders”. Are hwhite women of today a different gender than white women before sufferage? Are black women of today a different gender than pre-antibellum black women? Of course not. So none of what you claimed is factored into gender as you claimed.

          Also sexual preferences are not genders. Nor the flavor of ice cream you like when having sex. Thinking you are a woman when you are a man also is not a “gender”. It’s a mental condition.

    • Dennis Zea says

      I’m not hoping this comment was written tongue in cheek. It’s obvious it was not.

      The second sentence is crippled grammatically; nevertheless, the keyword is present: “useful”. You got that right, whether you realize it or not.

      Second observation: Note keywords later in the comment: “perhaps” and “describe”. Leo, in science, we don’t “describe”, we *define*. We don’t “perhaps”; we *definitively*. It’s not about feeling good; it’s about pursuing truth, whether we like what it looks like or not, or where it takes us.

      “Bipolar monochromatic diversity” = nonsense.

      You missed the premise and arguments of this formidable article completely. I don’t think it’s because you’re stubborn. I think it’s because you are incapable of discerning them.

  2. Feminine and Masculine are qualities which are present in all human beings. Patriarchal society ignored this and delegated that which is called Feminine to women and that which is called Masculine to men. A healthy human being expresses all qualities to lesser and greater degrees.

    Gender is biology. There are only Male and Female genders. There are some males or females who are born deformed and now we have quite a few who are made deformed through the use of the knife and the drug, but there are only two genders.

    Males have a penis and testes and females have uterus, ovaries and vagina. Females are born with eggs and Males produce Sperm. Only Females can get pregnant, give birth and breastfeed as a natural exercise.

    There are hormones at work in Males which create the biological realities and hormones at work in Females which do the same.

    Whether a Male or Female chooses to express themselves with qualities once called Feminine, or a woman with qualities once called Masculine is a different issue and does not and cannot change the fact there are only two genders – male and female.

    Anyone who raises boys and girls knows from the beginning there are differences and sensible parents allow their children to grow up expressing themselves across the spectrum.

    That however does not and will never change their gender. Even if surgery and drugs are used they will not change their gender but simply become deformed male or female.

    • Anonymous says

      You neither addressed the authors concerns about the way gender is used, nor gave any reason to think he was wrong. Comments like this are not helpful.

      • The Comments section is well-named. It means it is a place to Comment from whatever perspective the author might have triggered in his or her article.

        There are no demands that the author’s concerns be met.

        • Anonymous says

          There may be no demand, but there is an expectation.

          When it isn’t met, as it isn’t here, the comment is supercilious.

          • I respect your opinion but it is only your opinion.

            The thing about social media is that it is an experiment and people are different. What you see or choose to believe is not a given for everyone.

            What you expect is not what I expect and not necessarily that most expect. Your assumption is that what you expect is a norm. It is not.

            No Comment is supercilious – all comments are just comments. Which is why it is named Comments Section.

          • Anonymous says

            Look around you. The norm is there. People respond to articles by _responding to them_. Not by ignoring what was said for a personal expression of something else. You made no effort to engage with the author. Hence, supercilious. But the relativism explains why you think you can violate norms without accepting that you’ve done so. Just don’t expect anyone else to assent to you bad social manners!

          • The fact remains, what we call gender, or the sex of a human, is determined solely by a pair of chromosomes,. Not by a “feeling”, or anything else. And that is a biological fact, not an opinion.

    • LFP2016 says

      “there are only two genders”

      If that’s the case, what is the utility of the word “gender”? Why not just say “there are only two sexes”?

      Gender is a meaningless concept. Barring rare birth defects, there are two sexes (XX and XY), each with its own genetics, anatomy, and behavior. It’s the “behavior” part that gets the social constructionists in a tizzy. However, I’d suggest looking at cultures across the world and throughout history, at toddlers, and even at other primates and you’ll find that “masculine” behaviors (eg, aggression) are much more associated with the male sex and “feminine” behaviors (eg, social intelligence) are much more associated with the female sex.

      Ideology cannot trump biology, no matter how hard third-wave feminists try. The “gender essentialism” they mock is an inconvenient fact.

      • Sure. Gender/sex are the same but gender is a term which is common.

        I agree there are only males and females and not variations on the biological theme unless there is deformity.

        As to behaviour patterns, there is no doubt that hormones play a major role but there are variations on the theme and all humans contain both masculine and feminine qualities, whatever the source.

        It is hard to define, having had a patriarchal age for many thousands of years, how much ‘masculine’ behaviours are the result of hormones, ditto for ‘female’ behaviours, and how much a result of circumstance and nurturing and social expectation.

        It is the insanity of pretending that a male can be turned into a female, or vice-versa, through the use of surgery and toxic drugs which is destructive and foolhardy.

    • R.C. says

      You say,
      “Gender is biology. There are only Male and Female genders. There are some males or females who are born deformed and now we have quite a few who are made deformed through the use of the knife and the drug, but there are only two genders.”

      Um, I agree with everything you said after this paragraph. But you’re still using the word “gender” when you are actually referring to sex.

      Sex is biology. (You see it in the chromosomes in every nucleated cell.) There are only Male and Female sexes. There are some males or females who are born deformed…but there are only two sexes.

      Just make that single fix in your post, and it becomes entirely correct and commendably commonsense.

      Leave it as it is, though, and it’s (a.) factually false; (b.) abusive of the English language; and, (c.) playing into the ideological strategems of people who despise you and would like to see your commonsense views punished, and you ostracized.

      Don’t let them!

      • By all means replace gender with sex. I agree with what you say. However, gender is a common expression for sex and depending on your culture, not the travesty you assume.

    • BM says

      “Feminine and Masculine are qualities which are present in all human beings.” So you think Danny Trejo has feminine qualities? I dare you to say that to his face. Maybe if your sex is female you wouldn’t get a beating because Trejo recognizes such things.

      • You make the mistake of thinking Female and Male when what I said was, Feminine and Masculine qualities are present in everyone.

        Patriarchy dished out certain qualities defined as Feminine to Females and those defined as Masculine to Males but this is a huge and destructive error.

        Females who do not express their ‘Masculine’ qualities and Males who do not express their ‘Feminine ‘ qualities are dysfunctional and the dysfunction will manifest in various ways.

        Your example is perfect. If Trejo, whoever that is, beats someone up for pointing out he has ‘Feminine’ qualities then he is dysfunctional and in ignorance of those qualities.

  3. Uri Harris says

    Excellent article. Will be looking for more of your work.

  4. Dolbear says

    Most humans are XX or XY which gives biological gender, there are some rare chromosomal syndromes that lead to xx males etc. The rest is irrelevant, dress how you like wear what you like, have sex with whatever consenting adults you like. Gender is a biological fact. However it is a category error to define someones sexual preferences, dress sense or behaviour by their biological gender.

  5. The article would be helped if it was actually accurate about etymology. “Gender” comes from “genus,” and is a superb word for how it is used. The original proto-Indo-European word meant classes, types, kinds arising from birth: “gend.” Gentry, pregnant, gene and dozens of other words in all IE languages reflect this etymology: (social) classification based on birth. It is absolutely an intersection of nature and nurture word.

    From O.E.D.
    1474   in C. L. Kingsford Stonor Lett. & Papers (1919) I. 142 (MED),   His heyres of the masculine gender of his body lawfully begoten.

    The author repeats a very widely believed fallacy, based on the first entry in the O.E.D., without attention to the other meanings or the full IE semantic domain.

    But even the reference of the word is incorrect in the article, I’m afraid. It begs many controversial questions to suggest there is a spectrum from male to female. In fact, the best data says this is *not* so, but rather human nature is genuinely binary, though many *specific* traits do seem to scale male to female. Overall, there are two distinct but diverse sub-populations in our species. This makes sense, and is evident in others. It allows for intra- and inter-sexual competition.

    I really appreciate the extremely well-written and irenic nature of the article, but disagree with the basic facts it actually only glosses over at quite an intuitive level, in fact one informed by contemporary debate, not traditional understanding or actual data.

    Tomboys are real and I love them. “Smooth” men are real and should have their space too. But they are varieties of socially expressed male and female diversity, not mediations or conflations of the two sexes. Tomboys evidence many female-typical traits, and “smooth” men many masculine traits. It is a matter of convenience only that because some more visible traits are more commonly associated with the other sex we view such people as intermediate in some sense. That’s OK for common parlance, but it is not accurate science. Liking rough and tumble play as a tomboy just shows that trait is not in one-to-one isomorphism with psychological sexual dimorphism. We’re complex creatures, and “gender” is complex too. But we’re dichotomous, not on a spectrum, unless measuring *specific* traits. As far as I can tell, we don’t yet have any single trait that demarcates the difference, but in aggregate we *can* already distinguish between the genders.

    Legally, I’m libertarian: let people do what is sustainable in the market, without constraining them by regulations based on sex. Scientifically, I’d expect that to mean parts of the market serve women or men better and are supplied by men or women better, but in many cases, *gender* or sex wouldn’t matter two hoots. Those who want strict roles (right) or those who want homogeneity (left) are *both* wrong. Thank God for a two-party system, eh?

  6. Max Dohle says

    In Dutch ‘gender’ is the word for how one feels about his sex. ‘Geslacht’ is reserved for the biology: the phenotype or genotype. Gender is psychology and socioloy. So your geslacht could be male but your gender female.

  7. jill says

    Before anyone suggests that I am anti-scientific, allow me to say there is ample scientific literature that supports a variety of biological differences between males and females. We are not blank slates. That said, I still believe gender conotes a concept beyond the biological differences between males and females. Sex refers to male or female, whereas gender refers to masculine or feminine. According to Merrim-Webster masculine is defined as “having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man.” Deciding what is “appropriately” masculine or feminine is not merely based on biology, rather it may vary depending on cultural background or even personal perspective. This is why we often hear the terms “gender role” and “gender identity” which are both socially construed concepts.

    Overall, I agree with Sarka’s comments above.

  8. Gender (heretofore known as the sex of a human being) is determined by the configuration of particular pair of chromosomes. Nothing else. Not “what I feel like today”

  9. Bill Haywood says

    The author complains that gender studies uses the word “gender.” This strikes me as objecting to the evolution of language — a futile complaint about something happening rapidly in every field and clique. People wanted to discuss how traditions define acceptable behavior of the sexes and have developed “gender” as a technical term. That’s what happens. The kids are using “twig” as a verb meaning “to understand.” I may long for the arboreal usage, but that’s the way it goes. Everyone understands that behavior stems from a mix of biology and custom. We need a word for the contingent, tradition-bound component of behavior, whatever it is, and “gender” is what’s being used. The author is welcome to try and popularize something else, but it is silly to label a field of study as antiscience based on one sliver of how the term gender might be misused when loads of people do not use “gender” to mean there is no biological component to sex or gender. This is yet another Quillette article that names no villains nor provides an example of someone who says no aspect of sex is biological and that it’s all constructed.

  10. Bill Haywood says

    Still struggling to find the point. but the author seems to be arguing that gender originally meant just whether a speech article was masculine or feminine. It is now used to discuss varying constructions of behavior, and therefore must be a fallacious claim that the biological categories of male/female are also constructed. Nonsense. Because we use a term one way today does not mean we also mean all previous definitions. When I say my computer boots up, I am not making an ideological argument against welfare and in favor of pulling ones bootstraps. When I say the Fifties housewife archetype was constructed partially to militate against Rosie the Riveter, that does not mean I deny that muscle-to-fat ratios vary by sex. The article is confused.

  11. Sorry, but as a biological human male, when I have a desire to mate I’m looking for a female. I don’t want a pretender. Call me whatever you want.

  12. Frederick Bartlett says

    None of the languages I am even slightly familiar with which have masculine and feminine genders do not also have a neuter gender; yet a neutral sex among humans is not widely attested.

  13. Martinh says

    Government forms changed from sex to gender during the Clinton administration. Bush, being an idiot, didn’t change it back. It was clear that something was up, but they slept on it for 20 years. Marxists play the long game.

  14. Anonymous says

    Words have gender, people have sex.

  15. Jules Maigret says

    Straight to the nucleus of Gender Theories, McConkey! Attack it by its name. Way to go! Slap me and call me nominalist!

    • Jules Maigret says

      Just kidding. I’m certain no social constructionist ignores the difference between sex and gender (the latter being the part that’s socially constructed, c’est-à-dire: the normative representations socially made of how the sexes should act, according to their sex). They just need to look under their pants. So perhaps it is a concept ideologically-driven, which (to me) pursues a clear objective: to counter the way such gender representations imply ways of oppression

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