The History of Gender

Posted on November 1, 2019

As you might know, gender and sex are different. Gender is determined commonly by our social constructs, identities, and expressions, whereas sex is set according to biological facts. There are raging debates and cultural confusion when talking about gender. In order for people to understand gender to a greater degree, this essay will outline the history of the term and its origins.

Beginning in France

You can say that the separation between gender and sex became known and/or popularized by Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986). She was a French writer and intellectual that had a significant influence on feminist theory and thought. In her main work, The Second Sex (1949 French; 1953 English translation), she deconstructs what it means to be a woman: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine” (Yenor, Scott). In fact, Beauvoir believed that women were molded from birth to become what men wanted them to be (passive, accommodating, primed for household work) through culture and media. In her perspective, women were indoctrinated to be feminine, rather than that being a natural course.

Continued in America

The next important text on gender came from American writer Betty Friedan (1921-2006) with her book The Feminine Mystique (1963). She was heavily inspired by Beauvoir’s work. According to The Heritage Foundation, “Friedan brought Beauvoir’s abstract endorsement of “transcendence,” suggestive of making human beings into gods, down from the heavens and packaged it in terms more consistent with America’s dedication to individual rights. The prevailing Progressive ideology, captured in America’s universities, put the new science in the service of cultural reconstruction to support healthy, chosen human identities. A woman who allows society to define her life for her has what Friedan calls a “forfeited self” with “no goal, no purpose, no ambition patterning her days into the future, making her stretch and grow beyond the small score of years in which her body can fill its biological function”’ (Yenor, Scott). Friedan also focuses on “self-actualization” which psychologist Abraham Maslow coined as a term. In this sense, Friedan wanted women to think beyond their “femaleness” and to ponder their “humanness.” In turn, she wanted people to be free to choose who they are as a human in terms of gender and expression.

Kate Millet’s revolution

The book Sexual Politics (1970) by Kate Millet is the first major text that details the space between gender and sex. In it, Miller recommends methods for making a world without gender. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “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.” 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. However, since these roles are simply learned, we can create more equal societies by ‘unlearning’ social roles” (Mikkola, Mari). So, Millet’s principal work was to reduce social learning in connection with gender, especially with women. She also strove to create a sexual revolution by abolishing the ideology of male supremacy, changing the “patriarchal proprietary family,” and ending sexual inhibitions and “sins” (Yenor, Scott).

Looking back, we can see that the separation of sex and gender began in the feminist movement by such greats as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Kate Millet. It started with deconstructing who a woman truly is. This process expanded into the political arena for a fight for individual rights and free expression of being human. Finally, it culminated as a revolution to reduce male supremacy, patriarchy, and sexual conditioning and taboos. Now, most western cultures consider gender to be fluid and wide-ranging.

Works Cited
Yenor, Scott. “Sex, Gender, and the Origin of the Culture Wars: An Intellectual History.” The Heritage Foundation,
Mikkola, Mari. “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 25 Oct. 2017,

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