Let's Talk about Gender, Baby

Feminists have long been ridiculed for their efforts
to purge sexism from language by using words like chairperson and avoiding
the use of male pronouns as universal signifiers of both sexes. The results have
not always been pretty: "He knows what's good for him" is a far more felicitous
phrase than "He/she knows what's good for him/her." And we can probably achieve
equality without ever using the word herstory. Still, I'm grateful that
common usage no longer completely ignores the existence of women with words like

Besides, I grew up in a predigital age, when concern about grammar and usage
was not dismissed as pedantry. So in my view, while feminist language police are
sometimes hypervigilant, sometimes they're not vigilant enough. Why do they
tolerate, and even promote, use of the word woman (or the plural women)
as an adjective? It's a noun. We have "women doctors" and "women senators" but no
"men doctors" or "men senators." We do, however, have "manservants." It's not
hard to figure out why. Servants are presumptively female, just as senators are
presumptively male. When we incorrectly describe a female politician as a "woman
politician," we confirm that, like a "manchild," she's an oddity, an oxymoron.

Equally irritating is our conflation of sex and gender. In a society
that vacillates between Puritanism and permissiveness, there are obvious reasons
to avoid using the word sex. People fear that it arouses prurient interest by
recalling what teenagers do in the backseats of cars or what hookers do in the
front. But in addition to various acts, sex refers to the biological
categories male and female; gender refers (or used to refer) to cultural
norms of masculinity and femininity. To say that you're a member of the female
sex is simply to say that you're a woman. To say that you're a member of the
female gender is to say that you behave the way a woman is supposed to behave.
Sexual differences can only be accommodated; gender differences can and do
change. Men can't get pregnant, but they can learn to type, as the computer age
has shown.

So I don't think my complaint is mere pedantry. When we use these terms
interchangeably, we lose important distinctions between biology and culture and
risk confusing our standards of law. We shouldn't use the term gender
to describe discrimination against a person because she's a
female. Instead, it means (or should mean) discrimination against a woman who
dresses like a man, for example, or has adopted a masculine style. A sign that
says "No men need apply" constitutes sex discrimination. Gender discrimination is
a sign that says "No men in skirts need apply."

Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has managed, barely, to outlaw
discrimination based on gender, without ever recognizing how it differs from
discrimination based on sex. In the 1989 case Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, a
plurality of the Court ruled in favor of a woman who had been passed over for
partnership at the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse because she was deemed
insufficiently ladylike. One partner advised her to "walk more femininely, talk
more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and
wear jewelry."

Or consider the 1998 case of Joseph Oncale, a former oil rig worker who
claimed to have been subjected to highly sexualized, physical assaults and
threatened with rape by his male colleagues. In Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore
the Supreme Court allowed Oncale to pursue his "same-sex"
harassment case under federal equal-employment law. The Court stressed that
federal law prohibits sex discrimination, even when practiced by members of the
same sex against one another. The trouble is that Oncale suffered gender
discrimination, not sex discrimination. He was reportedly singled out for abuse
not because he is a man but because he is a relatively slight man whose
masculinity was questioned. There was no general hostility toward men in Oncale's
all-male workplace; there was, it seems, hostility toward men deemed to possess
insufficient machismo.

Misuse of sex and gender is steadily worsening: As if "single-sex
schools" weren't bad enough, we now have "single-gender schools," which I imagine
as places in which men learn to walk like women and women learn to whistle.
Instead of "transsexuals," we have "transgendered people"--a term that might
apply to any woman who exercises authority in what is labeled a masculine style
or to any man who carries a purse. We even have surveys asking us to specify our
"sex or gender." "Male gender," I replied once, when I was wearing a mannish
suit; "female sex."

How did we get so confused? Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is
sometimes blamed or credited for introducing the term gender discrimination
in the early 1970s, when she was arguing landmark sexual-equality cases before
the Supreme Court. According to my favorite rumor, she did not want to use the
word sex before the Court and so offered up the word gender. I've always
been quite grateful to Justice Ginsburg for the rights she helped secure, and I
understand that every revolution has its casualties. But why must language always
be among them?