The History of the concept of “Gender”

Recently the word gender has entered the Armenian vocabulary. Before that there was only ser (meaning sex). The physical bodies of males and females and social roles of men and women were discussed using this same term. The two concepts have now been separated for some important reasons, which this article will explore.

Until about the last quarter of the 20th century – there was no language with which scholars or activists could discuss how sex differences played social roles. “Sex” was not enough to describe the many ways in which human beings express their behavior in culture, their social environment, and personally. That is to say, “male” and “female,” became questionable terms and ways of understanding difference for those who wanted to talk about the ways in which cultural norms or traditions are created and how they can change. One’s physical body, after all, cannot explain how they live and are expected to live such different lives. For these reasons, the concept of “gender” is now used to describe the ways in which “men” and “women” are categories created by society in order to separate what men and women are supposed to do, how they are supposed to behave, and what value is given to each.

Margaret MeadIn the 1930s, anthropologist Margaret Mead did a study of three Samoan societies (in the South Pacific Ocean). She found that while females and males were present in all three societies, each society assigned different gender roles to males and females. Women and men across the three societies had very different ways of behaving, which Mead called temperament. From this, she concluded that while males and females exist, it cannot be true that “man” and “woman” are natural categories because they differ in every society. Therefore, the physical body does not mean that there are natural social roles because if this were true, social roles would have been the same in every culture. Armenian culture is what makes us understand women as caring and soft and men as strong, for example. For this reason, Mead proposed that social scientists start working with the concept of sex “temperament” instead of “sex.” This would enable them to see all the many ways for gender to be expressed. Mead also insisted that gender makes culture more interesting and that the more genders available to choose from, the more culture could thrive. What made Mead’s work so interesting in her time was that while “women” had been discussed in sociological and anthropological work up to this point, no text had been written that was wholly devoted to understanding how society creates gender roles. In fact, it was a long time until the topic was taken seriously and even that did not happen easily.

Gayle RubinIn 1975 Gayle Rubin, another anthropologist, argued that the idea that men and women were different and should thus have different social roles was established in the very beginning of human civilization. In fact, civilization was born through women being treated as objects that could be exchanged through marriage with other groups. In anthropology, this is called out-marriage. She argued that because of this exchange of women, societies started thinking of men and women as different from each other – women as objects to be traded, and men as those who could make decisions over women’s bodies. In this argument, then, gender was created at the moment when men and women were thought to have separate roles and these roles were not equal.

At the time that Rubin was writing this essay, the concept of “gender” was still being introduced into scholarly vocabulary – being used by some but not fully taken up yet. Feminists in the 1970s often used a naturalistic notion of “woman” – to understand woman’s social role through her biology. This concept later became criticized as essentialist – as naively believing that one’s physical body can have natural social meaning. Some scholars in the social sciences, like Sherry Ortner, tried to distance themselves from this biological understanding of gender by claiming that even though “women” globally may have nothing else in common, they do have in common the fact that they are oppressed everywhere. This idea was later criticized because some feminist scholars found that it may not be true that women are oppressed everywhere and that this may just be the way Western feminists understand it. In other words, those studying gender and the relationship between “women” and “men” around the world began to question what it means to have power.

By the 1980s, feminists developed different theories of how “woman” was created and began to use “gender,” rather than sex, as the main way of discussing the relationship between women and men. Some scholars, like Catherine MacKinnon, argued that woman is that who is available as a sexual object for men and becomes woman by this process of objectification. Therefore, the goal for many activists and scholars was to free “woman” and get rid of the category altogether. Some philosophers, like Monique Wittig, said that lesbians have already been freed from being sexual objects for men and thus are not women. Instead, “lesbian” itself is a gender category of those who are liberated from being women, but are not men. At this point, gender was becoming the norm for those within the humanities and social sciences and was also being used by popular media in Western Europe and the Americas, such as in magazines, television shows, etc.

However, there was (and still is) a general criticism that often when the word “gender” is used, what is really implied is “woman” – such as in “Gender Studies.” Many scholars and activists have worked to make bigger what “gender” means and to be critical of terms like “woman” and “man” by showing that many do not fit within these boxes and that the understanding of these categories do not exist in the same way throughout the world. The “coming out” and spreading of knowledge by those who are transgendered or intersexed is today still taking apart what is most commonly assumed about gender or sex: that there are only two.

Judith ButlerIn the 1990s, the development of postmodern theories in the humanities further cracked open (and some argue, broke) the concept of gender. Feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, argued that gender is a performance. It is performed from moment to moment by the way one acts: the way they sit, the way they may smoke a cigarette, the clothes that they wear, the way they talk, etc. If it was not for these performances, Butler argues, gender would not exist at all. She also argued that what is considered “sex” – the physical body – is already in itself only visible to us because of gender. It is the concept of gender – that there is difference between woman and man – that allows us to see sex in the first place.

The concept of gender could not have come about without feminism, feminist scholarship and the demand of women to understand how their roles in society had been created throughout history. Gender allows us to do and see what the limited concept of “sex” does not. Gender creates differences between males and females. Gender makes us see everyone as man or woman. But, on the other hand, gender allows us to understand that our social roles are not forever and that they can be changed.

Tamar Shirinyan