sex and gender

Sex and gender

"Sex" reflects biological differences between men and women whereas distinctions.

Gender Gender refers to cultural differences between the sexes, leading to feelings of superiority of men and inferiority of women and the assignment of inferior roles in society to women. Feminists view gender differences as the creation of patriarchal society and see them as not natural. Sex and gender stereotypes, such as typical female secretaries or male chief executives, are the result of such distinctions.

Feminists challenge the view that biology is inevitable and a matter of destiny by making a clear distinction between sex and gender. ‘Sex’ refers to biological differences between females and males; these differences are natural and therefore are unalterable. The most important sex differences are those that are linked to reproduction such as suckling babies and giving birth. ‘Gender’ is different because it is a cultural term which refers to the different roles that society ascribes to men and women. Gender differences are typically imposed through distinct stereotypes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out, ‘Women are made, they are not born’. One way to interpret Beauvoir's claim that one is not born a woman 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. Social forces either have a causal role in bringing gendered individuals into existence or (to some substantial sense) shape the way we are 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. 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) 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 where they learn to be passive, ignorant, docile, emotional helpmeets for men (Millett 1971). 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.

Conservative and traditional counter-feminist arguments tend to assert that gender divisions in society are ‘natural’ because women and men merely fulfil the social roles that nature designed them for. A woman's physical and anatomical make-up thus suits her to a subordinate and domestic role in society that in reality ‘biology is destiny’.

Conservative and traditional counter-feminist arguments tend to assert that gender divisions in society are ‘natural’ because women and men merely fulfil the social roles that nature designed them for. A woman's physical and anatomical make-up thus suits her to a subordinate and domestic role in society that in reality ‘biology is destiny’.



These male-dominated cultural attitudes tend to suggest that women are somehow inferior to men. This was largely because the roles of motherhood and homemaking were seen as less important than those of earning outside the home. In such a world, women were seen as less able to use their judgement and would have little need for more than basic education. Nor would they need to learn highly developed skills or specialised knowledge. The lack of education and occupational opportunities open to women reinforced the general cultural belief that men were superior and as Betty Friedan (1921–2006), suggested; cultural attitudes towards gender differences were so deep rooted that women themselves tended to share them with men.

Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”’ (The Feminine Mystique, 1963)

In traditional societies sex also refers to the physical differences between men and women – their body shape, size, and sexual and reproductive organs and gender differences are used to explain the ‘innate character’ of men and women – for example, women are sensitive, emotional and caring while men are confident, logical and responsible. Feminists argue that, whereas biological differences are clear; from culture to culture, the biological differences between men and women do not change, yet different cultures have very different ideas as to what constitutes masculinity and femininity. Also ideas and ideals of masculine and famine have changed over time. This shows that gender is learned behaviour imposed by society.

In society, the terms masculine and feminine are used to describe an ‘ideal’ gender type for men and women to aspire to. Feminists argue that this is a key part of the way society seeks to keep women in a subordinate position. It is no surprise that the key characteristics for women to aspire to are to be calm and passive, compassionate and thoughtful, poised and elegant. Virginia Woolf gives a telling description in A Room of One’s Own (1929), where she describes ‘the Angel in the House’:

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it – in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all – I need not say it – she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty – her blushes, her great grace. In those days, every house had its Angel.

Women are generally physically less powerful than men, with less developed musculatures. Although physical strength is important in agricultural or industrializing societies, it has little value in developed societies where tools and machinery are far more efficient than human strength. Indeed, the heavily muscled male may simply be redundant in a technological world of robots and microchips. In any case, physical hard work, for which the male body may be better suited, has traditionally been undertaken by people of low status, not by those in authority.


Women's social position tends to be linked to their capacity to bear children. Feminists argue that while women give birth, they need not accept the responsibilities of motherhood such as nurturing, educating and raising children by devoting themselves to home and family. The link between childbearing and child-rearing is cultural rather than biological: women are expected to stay at home, bring up their children and look after the house because of the structure of traditional family life. Domestic responsibilities could be undertaken by the husband, or they could be shared equally between husband and wife in so-called ‘symmetrical families’. Moreover, child-rearing could be carried out by the community or the state, or it could be undertaken by relatives, as in ‘extended families’.

Patriarchal ideas blur the distinction between sex and gender, and assume that all social distinctions between men and women are rooted in biology or anatomy. Most feminists believe that sex differences between men and women are relatively minor and neither explain nor justify gender distinctions. As a result, human nature is thought to be androgynous, incorporating the characteristics of both sexes. All human beings, regardless of sex, possess the genetic inheritance of a mother and a father, and therefore embody a blend of either female and male attributes or traits. Such a view accepts that sex differences are biological facts of life but insists that they have no social, political or economic significance. Women and men should not be judged by their sex, but as individuals, as ‘persons’. The goal of feminism is therefore the achievement of genderless ‘personhood’. Establishing a concept of gender that is divorced from biological sex had crucial significance for feminist theory. Not only did it highlight the possibility of social change – socially constructed identities can be reconstructed or even demolished – but it also drew attention to the processes through which women had been ‘engendered’ and therefore oppressed.

Feminists differ on their views of sex and gender

LIBERALS have traditionally regarded differences between women and men as being of entirely private or personal significance. In public and political life, all people are considered as individuals, gender being as irrelevant as ethnicity or social class. In this sense, individualism is ‘gender-blind’.

RADICAL FEMINISTS argue that sex is highly significant and may imply different roles for women and men. Women possess qualities as a consequence of their biology which make them different but not unequal- possibly even superior.

CONSERVATIVES have traditionally emphasised the social and political significance of gender divisions, arguing that they imply that the sexual division of labour between women and men is natural and inevitable. Gender is thus one of the factors that give society its organic and hierarchical character.

SOCIALISTS, like liberals, have rarely treated gender as a politically significant category. When gender divisions are significant it is usually because they reflect and are sustained by deeper economic and class inequalities.

Although most feminists have regarded the sex/gender distinction as empowering, others have attacked it. These attacks have been launched from two main directions. The first, advanced by so-called ‘difference feminists’, suggests that there are essential differences between women and men. From this ‘essentialist’ perspective, social and cultural characteristics are seen to reflect deeper biological differences. However, such a view differs from conservative anti-feminism, in that it takes ‘womanly qualities’ to include positive attributes, such as a capacity for nurturing, cooperation and intuition, rather than negative ones associated with submission and subordination.

Essentialists emphasise biological differences as they see it as more appropriate to the goals of the women’s movement. They believe that women should rejoice in that which makes them biologically different to men (such as giving birth and the ability to breastfeed). These biological abilities are superior to anything a man could ever do. Either way, there is an underlying assumption that women are biologically superior. On this basis, the psychologist Carol Gilligan claims that women adopt a fundamentally different and superior moral psychology to their male counterparts. Under patriarchy, women are under pressure to achieve an unrealistic goal that means suppression of the true self.

The second attack on the sex/gender distinction challenges the categories themselves. Postmodern feminists have questioned whether ‘sex’ is as clear-cut a biological distinction as is usually assumed. For example, the features of ‘biological womanhood’ do not apply to many who are classified as women: some women cannot bear children, some women are not sexually attracted to men, and so on. If there is a biology–culture continuum rather than a fixed biological/cultural divide, the categories ‘female’ and ‘male’ become more or less arbitrary, and the concepts of sex and gender become hopelessly entangled.