Are there really only two genders?
And when did we start associating gender with certain roles in society?
When I hear the word binary, my mind immediately jumps to gender and 80s movies about computers.
And that's because outside of meaning something that has 2 sides or 2 parts, binary is often linked to the concept that there are 2 genders in the world and every person falls squarely into one of those categories.
And since lots of you origin of everything fans write in with questions and comments about things related to gender and gender norms, I wanted to spend this week getting down into an (abbreviated) history of how we got to the idea of binary gender, what the heck some of the differences between gender and sex are, how those two categories became linked, and why we started associating different tasks in society along the gender divide, with certain behaviors being ascribed to masculinity or femininity.
Ok so we have a lot to cover and very little time.
But the natural place to start here seems to be: What is gender?
And how does it differ from sex?
So to start things in something of an order from concrete to abstract, human sex is usually linked to biological and physical traits of the body.
These can include: Reproductive organs Hormones Chromosomes (with the old wisdom being that XX chromosomes signal females, while XY chromosomes are indicative of males) Outwards appearance of the genitalia And secondary sex characteristics, which kick in around puberty for humans.
These traits include things like growing breasts, getting hairy, or producing all of that lovely oil and grease that makes our pits stink and our t-zones shine bright like a diamond.
Although these are ways that sex is determined or identified, it also involves a bit of fluidity.
For example there are people who are intersex, meaning that they share a variety of these traits across the sexual divide.
People can have XX chromosomes associated with women, but present in most other ways as male and vice versa.
It's also possible to have a mixture of traits that aren't easily quantifiable and don't align neatly with "male" or "female" designations, although there are cases where parents and healthcare providers chose an assigned sex for a child born with a mixture of traits.
But while sex is mostly considered biological, gender is it's more loosely defined cousin.
Gender relates to the performance of roles, identities, and ideas surrounding masculine, feminine, or neutral traits.
And more often than not we link gender to both outward behaviors and internal ideas about ourselves.
A good example of performing gender in society would be a statement like, "Girls' favorite color is pink."
The first assumption is that girl lines up with female sex.
The second is that, given the choice, most if not all girls will not only chose pink as their favorite color but will also be naturally predisposed to liking pink over other colors.
But this idea confuses cultural conditioning with a presumed biological determinism.
And if you want more on pink for girls and blue for boys then this is the perfect time to hop over to our video on gendered clothing for a deeper explanation!
Gender also blossoms outwards into other areas of our lives and is often used as a measure for sexual desire, behavior, and societal roles.
We also apply gender pretty widely and often, even to concepts and inanimate objects (more so than biological sex).
Take for example some Indo-European languages like Spanish, German, and Latin where gender is used to conjugate certain verbs, or attached to nouns and pronouns.
So while both sex and gender are not hard and fast across the board, both are more often than not linked together and then described to us using two choices: male sex aligning with masculine gender and female sex aligning with feminine gender.
But while the concept of 2 sexes and 2 genders is ingrained in us as the cultural norm, this hasn't always been universally true.
And that leads us to our next question: What are alternatives to the binary gender model?
Well in fact, outside of the West, most cultures and countries have a history that recognize either gender fluidity or gender categories that exist beyond the binary.
Prior to colonization, the Incas worshipped a dual gendered god named chuqui chinchay, whose attendants (the quariwarmi) wore androgynous clothing and represented a third gender space.
Among the Sakalavas in Madagascar, boys who were considered feminine in appearance were raised as girls, and believed to have supernatural protection that prevented them from being harmed.
In Hawaii, Kanaka Maoli indigenous societies had the mahu, who could be aligned with any biological sex but expressed a gender role that was in between masculine and feminine.
And the Burrnesha of Albania are women who have sworn a vow of chastity and dress as men, a tradition that dates back as far as the 1400s (although their numbers have dwindled dramatically in recent years).
So the concept of more than 2 genders has existed and still exists worldwide.
But concepts that biological sex and gender could be fluid also existed in parts of Western Europe.
Prior to the 18th century and the rise of Enlightenment thinking in Europe, there was a theory that men and women's reproductive organs could belong to a common sex, even though they were assigned to different gendered roles.
So there was 1 sex, but two genders.
In the 2nd century AD Greek physician Galen noted: "Turn outward the woman's, turn inward, so to speak, and fold double the man's, and you will find the same in both in every respect."
That's right, he was of the opinion that women were essentially men with penises that had flipped up inside of their bodies and not fully developed and vice versa on the male side of things.
Which isn't so kooky when you consider that physicians at that time also believed that women's "female hysteria" was caused by wandering wombs.
And while this wasn't a universally held belief, the idea that male and female reproductive organs were somehow two sides of the same coin persisted until the renaissance.
And just like class, gender was given a hierarchy and attached to ideas about innate qualities.
So someone of high birth was considered "inherently" better than someone from a lower class, and the same went with gender which valued masculine traits and behaviors over all else.
And the category of gender was also linked with emerging categories (such as race) and long held beliefs (like class).
So white, male/masculine folks of high birth placed themselves at the top of the pyramid, and created complex systems that trickled outward from that center point.
But that doesn't mean that there weren't alternatives that existed across complex societies prior to colonization.
With the dawn of Enlightenment thinking and the resulting revolutionary uprisings around the world (think American Revolution, Haitian Revolution, and the French Revolution to name a few) we start to see language about the "rights of man" that looked to upset one key part of the hierarchy: class as it was associated with free, voting, white men.
Class that had been entrenched in societies that upheld an aristocracy based on rank and high birth had a major upset.
But all of this language about "men" having rights wasn't thinking of the universal term of "man" meaning all human beings as it had in the past, but rather specifically linked to race, gender, and sex.
So it's in the 18th and 19th century that we start to see a further codification of these accepted binaries, even though concepts of them existed prior to this point.
And according to Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn in their article "ON THE ORIGINS OF GENDER ROLES: WOMEN AND THE PLOUGH" some of this may be broken down to the assignment of labor roles.
They found that, "consistent with existing hypotheses, the descendants of societies that traditionally practiced plough agriculture today have less equal gender norms, measured using reported gender-role attitudes and female participation in the workplace, politics, and entrepreneurial activities."
So societies that spread more traditional agricultural roles, as a whole, had less gender equality and leaned towards a belief that men and women occupy different spheres than those that did not.
It comes as no surprise then that when the rise of colonization (which often looked to regulate and standardize farming practices across different regions) that we also see a solidification of gendered roles becoming the norm.
This is also coupled with the fact often people in colonized regions were severely punished for expressing any gender, sex, or sexual expression outside of the accepted norm of 2 genders.
But the word "gender" started circulating in academic discourse and broader cultural discussions around the midpoint of the 20th century as everyday people began to push back openly and critically about the role that gender played in their lives.
We see all of these conversations about gender and gender norms playing crucial roles in movements for LGBTQIA rights and visibility, Civil Rights, and Feminist critique.
So how does it all add up?
While this episode was kind of a tall order and gender is a massive and complex topic, I hope this gave a rough sketch to start your search process and enliven your debates.
And there are lots of other terrains I could have covered (like gender and religion, or gender and class, or gender and class and religion and race and even more labor), but condensed here for time.
But it still bears stating that this is just one of many threads in the story and gender is still circulating in our everyday lives from which color you paint your newborn's bedroom to which box we check off for our licenses at the DMV.
So what do you think?
Anything to add to my binary gender timeline?