A Brief History of Gender and its Significance

Daniel Patterson

Dan Patterson is an Australian writing a PhD on gender at the University of Aberdeen School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. He co-ordinates www.embraceidentity.org


The topic of gender has recently captured the public’s attention. One reason for this is the radical attempt by some organisations and theorists to “queer” gender. What follows describes, albeit in brief, the historical and theoretical backstory that has lead to the development and use of queer theory to achieve this end. Evangelical responses to this issue will be greatly enriched by better understanding the history that has brought us to this point. This article is not an attempt to engage the debate, but is focussed on the more modest task of explaining the historical and theoretical parameters of the debate. 

A Very Brief History

Questioning gender norms in the past has catalysed significant changes to culturally embedded gender norms. Following is a brief recount of how gender has been under question for over 100 years, and how each new wave of questioning of gender norms can be characterised by distinct emphases falling under the broad banner called feminism. The historical questioning of gender norms can be divided broadly into three feminist waves, each offering a depth of social analysis the previous wave did not achieve. 
It is not accurate to say that queer theory is feminism or even a kind of feminism, but one is able to identify queer theorisation as having emerged from and in response to perceived inadequacies of a particular formulation of feminism of the 1980s.1  


First-wave Feminism

First-wave feminism is the retrospective title given by Martha Lear in 1968 to the 19th to early 20th century movement, which sought to challenge gender norms regulated by the law. In the early stages of the movement the concern centred on contractual and property rights for women. This included the call to reform the institution of chattel marriage within which the wife and children were deemed the property of the husband. Eventually, the focus turned to the political goal of suffrage for women. This first feminist movement was concerned with securing women’s legal rights within the democratic nation state. 

Second-wave Feminism

Having generally secured democratic rights for women, a second wave of feminist activity began in the early 1960s and continued to the mid to late 1980s. This movement focussed on more subjective issue of gender inequality within society, and was bound to a broader social liberation movement that included the identification of oppression on the basis of race and class. 
In this period feminist theorists picked up on Simone de Beauvoir’s famous line penned in her 1949 book The Second Sex: “one is not born a woman, but becomes one.” Here de Beauvoir proffered the view that “woman” was a socially constructed idea defined in relation to man. De Beauvoir argued that woman was not simply not man, but was something in her own right. This view did not imply a rejection of gender as biologically grounded, but identified the gender norms to be challenged as those constituting a particular cultural script that limited what women could and could not do with their lives.2 
In 1963 a very influential book by Betty Friedan called The Feminine Mystique introduced “The problem that has no name”.3 This problem emerged from the silent disquiet experienced by housewives seduced by the myth that to be feminine was a woman’s highest calling. Women were to marry (young), have (many) children, keep the home (tidy), and service their husband’s (every) need. But Friedan observed that women’s lives were not fulfilled in the humdrum of wifery and motherhood. The challenging of gender norms that followed spurned gender (and sexuality) normdriven conservatism. If, as de Beauvoir concluded, one became a woman, then one could become another woman. 
But by the early 1980s little progress had been made in securing women’s equality with men. Women were still subjected to poor pay conditions and were hindered by limited education and vocation opportunities. Women also lacked representation in workers’ unions and so continually faced job insecurity. The glass ceiling, which remained firmly in place, is an instructive metaphor for comprehending the rise of third wave feminism that would soon follow. 
The ceiling is   a metaphorical barrier, an unseen cultural reality, restricting who or what one might become. It eludes one’s grasp, operating without reason or explanation to keep certain people in their place. That it evades being named otherwise than as a metaphor (glass ceiling) aptly demonstrates how resistant to defeat itis. This inaccessible and therefore unassailable structuring of society, inhibited (and arguably still inhibits) women’s equality with men. 
While first and second wave feminism achieved much with regard to legal rights and equality with men, their ideas and theories did not have the potency to break through the social structuring that kept women, and the increasingly visible and vocal sexual and gender minorities (gays, lesbians, and gender non-conforming people) in their place. Third-wave feminism would emerge in part as a reaction to this failure.3 What was desired was a powerful method that could be deployed to undermine the norms informing the society forming structures. 

Third-wave Feminism

Third-wave feminism was coined in 1992 by Rebecca Walters to describe a new wave of feminism that emerged in the mid 1980s.4 It was consolidated in the early 1990s, and continues to the present. Like the two previous waves of feminism the third wave targeted gender norms, but not those concerning women’s rights, as slaves to be liberated from the law (first-wave), or equality with men, as actors to be liberated from following a social script (second-wave). Third-wave feminists fought for liveable lives. Interestingly, defining what is a liveable life is not the primary focus of third wave feminism. The emphasis is on who or what decides is a liveable life. 
Engaging in the current gender debate, however, requires an understanding of the kind of politics involved. The third-wave feminist focus has led to a clash of two forms of “minority” politics—identity politics and queer politics—that are difficult to identify separately. 
In the 1970s and 1980s identity politics was the means of creating social change. This form of collective politics relied on minority groups becoming a movement which could then raise its voice to influence policy and law makers. This kind of minority politics still operates, where those who comprise an identity-driven group work together to define themselves, not according to the views of the prevailing power structures, but by how they see the identity they collectively inhabit. There are currently many feminist, LGBT, disability, and minority race movements reflecting this kind of politicking. 
During the 1980s, however, the original identity politics movements, especially those concerned with women, gays and lesbians, began to fracture internally, as it became evident that the respective movements did not, and could not, speak for their constituents. For example, the term “woman” meant something different for a heterosexual married woman than a woman who was a lesbian, or even a woman of African descent. The concept of “Woman” had been defined by a particular “Woman”, usually white, middle class, and heterosexual, which marginalised many other women who did not or could not fit within the definition. 
With the realisation that identity terms did not have representational coverage, the very idea of identity, and therefore identity politics, was thrown into question. This is the beginning of queer politics, which is essentially a more fundamental level of criticism of the linguistic concepts that structure gender. The term “woman”, for example, could not be used to describe all women because there was no definition of woman that could possibly represent all women. “Woman” or “Man”, it was argued, were not universal categories, ideals, ahistorical givens to be assumed, or an essential experienced gendered reality. “Woman” and “Man” were constructions in binary form (Man/Woman), inseparable, self-informing and self-reinforcing, words to be assumed, a myth that society had come to believe deeply, a myth that structured how society would understand a good, valid, and morally right human gendered and sexual existence. The deconstruction of the established meaning of words is the basis of queer politics.
Queer politics is developed by queer theorists, like Judith Butler, drawing on twentieth century French theorists, like Luce Irigaray, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. They viewed the person (called a subject) as a product of language, who was in constant production. Language was a tool used by the powerful to make and regulate subjects. If one was to seize control of language then one had secured the means to (re)produce and maintain one’s self, including their sexuality and gender. This deconstruction or queer theorisation of language enabled one to reject being defined (subjectified) by the law, medicine, the church, a social script, nature, or a collective identity. Instead one now had the tools (language) and the possibility to construct (re-subjectify) one’s self. A liveable life was now perhaps possible. 

Queering institutions

In order to understand the word “queer” in this context it is important to highlight what the term queerdoes not mean. Firstly, the term queer in this context is not a synonym for homosexual. Nor is queer to be narrowly associated with “camp” or effeminate personalities, or pejoratively as weird. Secondly, while it can be the case, the term queer should not be understood as necessarily being concerned with the promotion of gender diversity or, more dramatically, the eradication of gender. With these two clarifications in mind the possibility is raised that the term queer is not necessarily a word to be avoided simply because it describes lifestyles which one believes are contrary to Scripture. 
The term queer is difficult to describe, explain, and comprehend because it, by definition, resists definition. In brief, queer describes an action, something done, a method of action that undermines institutions which perpetuate norms. Queer-ing produces “outcomes” through a process of deconstruction or breaking down. These outcomes are not, however, the positive production or creation of something in particular, but what is left over after bringing down a system that determines what is normal. 
The result of queering, it is argued, cannot therefore be known until after the queering process occurs, which also means that one does not queer something to achieve or create a particular outcome. Queering focuses on eliminating the violence that results from imposing on people ways of living or being—norms. For example, theorists who seek to queer the institution of capitalism do not offer alternatives. Their goal is both more modest and more radical: to undermine the institution in question that structures “normal” lives, in order to reveal new ways of living apart from or even within the institution itself. These possibilities come to light incrementally as the institution under question crumbles.
Queer theorists see gender as an institution, by which they mean a social convention or arrangement sustained by a set of accepted determinative ideas—norms. It is for this reason that gender must be queered because it is a harmful institution that forcibly frames (constructs or makes) society’s subjects. Queer theory seeks to undermine (deconstruct) the view that the only valid existence is that which falls within the boundaries set by the institution of gender that is ordered by nature or biology. That is, queer theories reject bio logic: that the body (man/woman morphology) has inherent meaning demanding one to act in a certain way in society
(masculinity/femininity), and is desirous of and sexually active with the other kind of body (heterosexuality). Put crassly, queer theorists reject the fact that men have a penis, are masculine, and desire and have sexual relations with women; and they reject the fact that women have a vagina, are feminine, and desire and have sexual relations with men. Human gendered and sexuality experience, they argue, is much more diverse. Queering gender is therefore an attempt to reveal and legitimise other liveable gendered and sexuality realities apart from or besides those prescribed by the bio-logical man/woman gender binary.
By calling gender a constructed and an enforced myth, and exposing the violent nature of it (which will be addressed later), gender as bio-logical is slowly undermined—queered. Through queering gender, we learn that man and woman may be something other than that which we have always been told our bodies naturally tell us. Politically, the body loses its inherent significance, thereby relinquishing its capacity to tell society how each member of society should understand him or herself, and how each should act socially and sexually. 

Norms, violence, and institutions

Gender is a harmful institution because it frames society’s social subjects according to a particular set of norms. The queer theorist’s goal, therefore, is to break down the institution of gender by undermining the norms that constitute it. It is for this reason that queer theorists target norms. 
Norms function like the law, which invokes punishment—a “violent” consequence— if not upheld. But if the law is a myth, then any form of prosecution for transgressing the law is without warrant. Applying the analogy to gender, if gender is a myth then any form of “prosecution” for transgressing gender norms is without warrant. The perpetrated violence against those who do not comply with gender norms is therefore unjustified. 
Further to this, as a form of law, gender norms are regulating mechanisms policed by an institution. Throughout his work, Michel Foucault argues that the church, legal, and medical institutions have assumed the maintenance and enforcement of gender norms. Therefore norms are the grounds by which those who transgress gender norms (bodily5 in some cases and psychologically7 in others) are punished by social structuring institutions. 
Take for example the regulation and prosecution of homosexuality in Australia’s recent history, which might be used as evidence of the narrative of the transition of institutional violence. The colonies received their law from British law, which had its origins in ecclesial law. In Britain, The Buggery Act (1533) was pushed through parliament by Reformer, Thomas Cromwell. This was the first time sodomy, qualified as an unnatural act against God and man (theologised bio-logic), had been removed from the jurisdiction of the ecclesial (church) court. The punishment was death by hanging.6 In 1788, British laws, along with their ecclesial backing and founding, were transferred to the Australian colonies. Engaging in buggery or anal sex (un-natural sex) was a capital offence until 1899, which in Victoria was not repealed until 1949. Punishment became life imprisonment, which was slowly reduced until the law was repealed in full beginning in the A.C.T. in 1973.7 Carbery speculates that the lighter prison sentences were due to a social conscience change as the view of homosexuality as a sin, immoral, and against natural order changed to seeing it as something more akin to sickness in need of medical treatment.
This resonates with the wider sociological trend of the impact of Freud’s psychology and the waning influence of the church on society. Thus the decline of the legal regulation of homosexuality did not result in its wholesale deregulation, but rather its transferral to the medical institution for (re)regulation. Throughout the mid 20th century, while having escaped the gallows and imprisonment, homosexuals throughout the world were involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions where they were castrated, given aversion therapy, electric shock treatment and/or, at times, lobotomies.8 The link between gender norms (law), violence (punishment), and institutions (regulator) is evident in such narratives.
While hangings and lobotomies are not carried out on those who do not fit gender and sexuality norms in Australia today, gender theorists still observe different kinds of violence. For the right to impact school settings on these issues, studies describing such violence are appealed to by organisations like Safe Schools Coalition.9 The implication is that the education institution regulates and prosecutes oppressive and violent gender norms. The focus of such organisations is therefore the queering of gender (and therefore sexuality) as bio-logical. The aim is to perpetuate the claim that gender is a myth, a socially constructed idea, to be eradicated on the grounds that it perpetuates stigma, exclusion, harassment, bullying, etc.
Queering gender is also seen in the medical institution. The most recent revision of the Diagnostics Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the most prominent medical resource used by the medical profession to identify psychological disorders, renames Gender Identity Disorder as Gender Dysphoria (the condition when one’s gender self-identification does not match their body). The change in language is an attempt to distance the diagnosis from the notion of disorder, with the thought that the term “dysphoria” would better characterise the feelings of those affected, thereby reducing the attached stigma (violence).10 A cursory inquiry shows that the name change is not simply relabelling, but a substantial reconfiguring of how gender is conceived.
In the DSM-V, terminology has been revised to disconnect gender from biological sex. One no longer has a “sex”, but an “assigned gender”. This means that someone who is diagnosable with Gender Dysphoria no longer identifies only with the “other sex”—implying that there are only two— but identifies with the “other sex” or “some alternative gender different from one’s assigned gender”.11 The issue then is not whether one’s perceived gender is congruent with one’s biological sex, but whether one’s perceived gender is congruent with the gender one was assigned at birth. The possibility enabled by the revision becomes clear: if gender is assigned, then gender can be reassigned. The term “assign” is a metaphor that renders gender (boy/girl) identification at birth provisional pending either confirmation or replacement at a later stage. 
This example is not a comment on the often debilitating condition called Gender Dysphoria12 or the broad phenomenon called Transgender, but is an observation of how gender within institutions can be queered through undermining the language used to describe it. If gender as bio-logical is a myth then the changes made to the DSM-V would seem appropriate. If, however, gender is not a socially constructed myth, then the theorisation behind the language change in the DSM-V, as well as the language found in the Safe Schools Coalition program, inaccurately and inadequately describes and treats the kinds of gender and sexuality confliction that characterises human bodies. 

An important consideration

An evangelical Christian response to the queering of gender in society must include a treatment of queer theory’s foundational claim: that gender, traditionally understood, is a socially constructed myth and therefore violent. The difficulty with addressing this claim is that some aspects of gender are God-given and not socially constructed, while other aspects of gender are socially constructed, mythical, and violent: first and second wave feminism rightly recognised this. The fact is, gender is still the location of terrible violence. To give one current, highly complex example of gender violence is the placement of a transitioned male-to-female transgender person in a maximum security male prison in which she was raped over 2000 times in four years.13 It can be argued, therefore, that gender norms are mythical and still operate in ways that result in dreadful violence.
But the fact that gender norms can result in violence does not necessarily render gender norms mythical thereby necessitating their abolition. It is undoubtedly lamentable that some individuals experience various forms of violence. An evangelical response to queer theory requires serious rethinking about how the church can offer an alternate vision of Christian human flourishing that includes a norm driven notion of gender, while avoiding having those norms re-framed from being a God-given good into a “law” that is enacted “violently”. 
What does it mean to hold up Adam and Eve as gendered humans par excellence? That Adam was a man and Eve was a woman, and were perfect flourishing human creatures as God intended is without question. We trust the words of Scripture, and are encouraged by Jesus’ reference to Adam and Eve in Matthew 19 to instruct on marriage. Adam and Eve are instructive, but what instruction do they give? 
As humans par excellence, referencing Adam and Eve in discussions about gender can function like the Old Testament law. The Law functions by describing how one ought to live, but in doing so, also reveals those who are transgressing the Law. Applying this metaphorically, as perfect creations, Adam and Eve not only serve to describe a flourishing gendered and sexual life, but in this fallen age function as the ideal against which imperfect gendered and sexual humans are identified. 
But who can live up to the Adam and Eve gendered and sexual ideals? This is not an insignificant question. Through the Law, as Scripture reminds us, comes not righteousness, but the “knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). Reflect for a moment on John 8 in which Jesus confronts the Pharisees who were about to stone an adulterous woman. Jesus calls the Pharisees’ to acknowledge their own fallen-ness and in light of this to carry out their role of regulating the law. They put down their instruments of violence (stones), and walk away: not together, but one-by-one. As individuals the Pharisees were as guilty as the woman, able, yet now unwilling to carry out the role of punishing the women who transgressed sexuality law. 
Turning to Jesus, he did not stone the woman according to the law, or condemn the Pharisees who indicted themselves, but instead showed mercy to all. This display of mercy, however, does not assume a neglect of the law or that Jesus refused to make the “hard call” that the law had been transgressed. In the last verse of the text, Jesus calls the woman back to a holy (sex) life: “Go and sin no more.” This is the heart of the gospel: for the person who responds to Jesus’ call to repent and follow him, Jesus would take on himself their penalty for transgressing the law. It is for this reason that Jesus could utter the words, “I have not come to abolish the law, but fulfil it” (Matt 5:17).
To extend the metaphor, the Adam and Eve pre-fall ideal is not to be the measure by which some “perfect” humans are able to judge others who transgress God’s intentions for human life. Rather, the Adam and Eve ideal reveals that we all fall short of God’s intention for a flourishing gendered and sexual existence revealing the universal need to encounter Jesus, to receive his mercy and grace, and to embrace the call to live as God intends.
With this in mind, how might we conduct discussions about gender and sexuality in a new way? How can our discussions be renovated by acknowledging the possible façade behind which we present ourselves as perfect models of gendered and sexual human flourishing? How does the realisation that first and foremost we need mercy compel us to extend the mercy given to us by Jesus? And how can we hear and communicate to others the call to embrace God’s picture of human flourishing as particular created gendered and sexual beings? How can we communicate God’s intention for human flourishing without turning it into a “creation law”?
By approaching discussions about gender and sexuality in this way, queer theorists are not afforded the opportunity to control the terms of the discussion. This account repudiates the view that traditionally held Christian ideas about gender and sexuality are mythical, inherently violent, and in need of eradication. Rather, this account seeks to honestly acknowledge the way we tend to use gender norms to “prosecute” those who transgress God’s intentions for human flourishing. Moreover, we are challenged to show mercy and call people back to God’s intentions for human flourishing as gendered and sexual human beings. This, as we have seen, provides opportunity for a genuine gospel-encounter with Jesus.

1 In this article I am specifically referring to Anglo-American queer theory. 

2 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 301. Later, Judith Butler famously picks up this quote to develop her more radical distinction between sex and gender, which would become the theoretical background for her very influential book Gender Trouble. For Butler’s treatment of de Beauvoir, See Judith Butler, "Sex and Gender in Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex," Yale French Studies Special Addition, 72, Simone de Beauvoir: Witness to a Century (1986).3 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 2001, 1963), Chapter 1.  

3 See Rebecca Walker, "Becoming the Third Wave," Ms. Magazine1992, 39–41.

4 Ibid.

5 I.e., Intersex, and those with conditions like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. 7 I.e., Gender Dysphoria and Transgender more broadly.

6 “[T]he offenders being hereof convict [sic] by verdict, confession, or outlawry, shall suffer such pains of death”. Henry VIII in Kenneth Borris, ed. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), 82.

7 Graham Carbery, Towards Homosexual Equality in Australian Criminal Law: A Brief History (Parkville: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, 2014), 2.

8 Gisela Kaplan and Lesly J. Rogers, "Race and Gender Fallacies: The Paucity of Biological Determinist Explanations of Difference," in The Gender and Science Reader, ed. Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch (London: Routledge, 2001), 332–33.

9 For six such studies see Joel Radcliff, Roz Ward, and Micah Scott, "Safe Schools Do Better: Supporting Sexaul Diversity, Intersex and Gender Diversity in Schools," (Safe School Coalition Australia, 2013), 6.

10 www.dsm5.org/Documents/Gender%20Dysphoria%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf A. Lawrence, Archives of
Sexual Behavior (2010) 39: 1253-1260. http://www.annelawrence.com/gid_in_dsm-5.html

11 DSM-V, 452.

12 S. Giordano, Children with Gender Identity Disorder: A Clinical, Ethical, and Legal Analysis, Routledge Studies in Health and Social Welfare (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 61.

13 http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/news-life/a-transgender-woman-talks-about-life-in-amale-prison/news-story/a6da09f95a36857eeee95f16028b06eb [Last accessed on 26/07/2016]