In many ways, we may consider this word pretty obvious and straightforward, but the reality may not be as simple as we automatically assume. Regardless of any ideals of social justice or personal identification, today’s term, gender, has a very muddled history, which may actually help to explain why we have such difficulty in defining it.
Having a basis in the Latin term genus/generis, which can be defined as ‘race, rank, order, family, etc.’ as well as ‘male or female sex’, gender comes into English via the Old French gendre, genre, which, like the Latin, can be translated as ‘kind, species, group, or sex’.
The first use of the term in English comes from a rather odd area: grammatical classification. Writing in 1878, Carl Horstmann, in his work, Sammlung Altenglischer Legenden (Collection of Old English Legends), quotes a work on St. Theodora circa 1350 which states that: “Her name, that was feminine of gender, she turned in to masculine.” Essentially, especially in Indo-European languages, this initial definition deals with how we group nouns and pronouns: for example, identifying a male, the pronouns he/his would be correct, while she/her would be the feminine, and it/its would be for a neuter/non-gender object.
Expanding on the idea of certain things having a commonality, John Trevisa, translating Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De Proprietatibus Rerum around 1398, writes that: “Beshining and light he diverse as Species and gender. For every shining is light, but not against ward”.
Adding into this concept several years later, the Northern Pauline Epistles, written around 1400, uses the term as a familiar bond as with having the traits of a specific lineage, exclaiming: “I am..of the gender of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, and Hebrew born of the Hebrews.”
Aside from groupings for grammar and ethnic/familial traits, the first known grouping of gender that specifically implied sex can be found in Charles Lethbridge Kingsford’s 1919 collection of Stonor Letters and Papers 1290-1483, which, providing a commentary of 15th century society and social life mentions a letter from 1474 stating: “He of himself of the masculine gender of his body lawfully begotten.”
While gender could mean biological sex or not, it seems as if these definitions largely coexisted until the 20th century, where we begin to see a distinction between biological sex and the social and cultural distinctions between the sexes. Writing in 1945, the American Journal of Psychology notes that: “In the grade-school years, too, gender (which is the socialized obverse of sex) is a fixed line of demarkation, the qualifying terms being ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’.”
Delving more deeply into the issue of gender differences during and immediately after the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, we can begin to see changes occurring based on the terminology. For instance, the first use of “gender-neutral” can be found in the 1963 volume of the Encyclopedia of Mental Health and, 8 years later, “gender equality” was initially mentioned in the academic journal Acta Sociologica. And 2 years later, in 1973, “gender discrimination” was first recorded in reference to men drawing more money than women, even in comparable job situations.
One of the most important social lessons the world learned from World War 2 was that, in many occupations, gender was never as big of barrier as once thought. Building on this, gender, along with other differences, such as race, and sexual preference, has, over the last several decades, become progressively less of a factor in determining job performance. On the local level, here at EVS Translations, we realize that gender does not determine ability, and, because of this, we are proud to be an equal opportunity employer who respects and appreciates candidates from all backgrounds.