The Duck of Minerva

Feminist IR 101, Post #1 … definitions of sex and gender

24 November 2010

(disclaimer: this is my attempt to define/illustrate; mistakes are mine, not to be assigned to feminist IR as a whole)

sex (noun?): traditionally used to refer to the biological characteristics of bodies based on their internal and external sex organs, where persons with “female” organs are “women,” and people with “male” organs are men. It can also be divided on the basis of chromosomal characteristics, where people with “XX” are “women,” and people with “xy” are men. In actuality, substantially more complicated than that, where there are more than a dozen chromosomal combinations on the “sex” chromosome, and more than 20 different combinations of sex organs that people are born with regularly enough to be documented (they total between half of one percent and one percent of the population, and include people labelled ‘trans,’ ‘intersex,”hermaphroditic’ (which is generally looked at as a pejorative description). Usually, babies born with ‘abnormal’ sex organ configurations are ‘corrected’ into a particular sex at birth, and their parents told that they just needed cosmetic surgery to make them appear the ‘sex’ they ‘really are.’ Many of these babies never find out what happened to them, while others struggle with their sex identity for most of their lives. To the extent that ‘sex’ is a valid category @ all, there are more than two ‘sexes.’ Still, the idea that the human species can be neatly divided into two ‘sexes’ by clear and recognizable criteria permeates almost every aspect of our daily lives. (see Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work)

to sex (infinitive)/sexing (gerund): to impute/(imputing) sex to a body, or some other object, and, in so doing, assume particular characteristics (see “gender” below), or distribute advantages or disadvantages, privileges or punishments, etc. (see, for example, Deirdre McCloskey’s memoirs for an illustrative treatment, and Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work cited above for a theoretical one)

sexed (adjective): a body or some other object which has (or has been assigned or imputed) a ‘sex’ (n.). About bodies, see Annie Potts’s the Science/Fiction of Sex; about an object, see the recent book Sexed Pistols, edited by Vanessa Farr, Henri Myrttinen, and Albrecht Schnabel.

(see below the fold for “gender”)

gender (noun?): 1) not equivalent to “sex.” 2) (actual definitional discussion) Gender is a system of symbolic meaning that creates social/material hierarchies based on perceived associations with masculinity/ies and femininity/ies (most often assigned by the shorthand of perceived biological sex). It is expectations, assumptions, and outcomes assigned to people, things, concepts, and ideas based on their association with one of those categories (and often their assumed membership in sex categories). People, things, concepts, and ideas that are associated with masculinity (including but not limited to most “men”) are usually valued differently than and often valued above people, things, concepts, and ideas associated with femininity (including but not limited to most “women”). Traits often associated with masculinity/ies include, but are not limited to, strength, rationality, autonomy, independence, aggression, protector-ability, assuredness, and the public sphere. Traits often associated with femininity/ies include, but are not limited to, helplessness, emotion, vulnerability/dependence, interdependence, peacefulness, maternalism/care, sensitivity, and the private sphere. These traits, and their gender-associations, vary over time and place.

to gender (infinitive)/gendering (gerund): to read/reading, or to assign/assigning, gender-based characteristics, into/onto a particular person, thing, concept, or idea (consciously or unconsciously through gender-related assumptions and/or performances.

gendered (adjective)/gendering (participle): a person, thing, concept, idea, process, or object which has (or has been assigned or imputed) a ‘gender’ or ‘genders (n.)

Next post(s): “Feminist IR 101 … post #2: a vocabulary for talking about sex/gender hierarchies;” “post #3: so what is “feminist” in “feminist IR?,” and post #4, “common misconceptions about feminist IR.” Feel free to let me know (by comment or backchannel) if there are other issues you’d like covered and/or other questions you’d like answered.