Gender, What It Is and How It Exists in Politics
by Nicholas Homberg
In our current political sphere gender is a hot button topic. Gender’s existence in politics is not a matter of if, but how. They have both been inextricably linked, since the feminist wave of the 1970’s; and the intersectionality of both of these concepts is vast, with a wide array of topics. For the sake of efficiency, I’ll only be discussing a few of the ways that gender exists in politics: what gender is, brief history, gender identity, gender inequality, and the interplay of race with gender and politics.
Let’s start from the top: What is gender?
Gender is a social construct. We made it up. It encompasses predetermined societal/cultural characteristics that our brains use to more easily identify others, almost like a cheat sheet. For instance, using clothing color to identify someone, the adage that “boys wear blue, girls wear pink,” is a current westernized societal characteristic that people use to identify the gender of others.
The World Health Organization gives a very concise definition of gender itself, saying, “Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other.”
This is where terms like he/she, as well as, clothing, colors, and cultural expectations come into play. Now, maybe you’re thinking something along the lines of, “I thought gender was about biology? I can tell if someone is a man or woman based on their body.”
What’s happening is the conflation of the terms “sex” and “gender.” In fairness, sex is oft times erroneously used interchangeably with gender - and while it is involved with gender - it is ultimately different.
Sex (referring to the sexes) is the identification of someone based on physical and biological attributes. For example, “Understanding Gender” by http://genderspectrum.org
states, “Generally, we assign a newborn’s sex as either male or female… based on the baby’s genitals.” Therefore, genitals are sex characteristics; not gender characteristics.
So, we know sex and gender are different, but where does gender come from? Well, there’s two versions of gender we need to address here: gender
the concept and gender the term.
Where does the concept of gender come from?
The concept of gender is staggeringly old. There is no exact date, but we can look back throughout history at the gender roles that existed in other societies and how they affected those cultures.
According to an article, by the Smithsonian magazine, “[Child age] Franklin Delano Roosevelt [the 32nd U.S. President] sits primly on a stool, his white skirt spread smoothly over his lap, his hands clasping a hat trimmed with a marabou feather. Shoulder-length hair and patent leather party shoes complete the ensemble… social convention[s] of 1884, when FDR was photographed at age 2½ , dictated that boys wore dresses until age 6 or 7, [which was] also the time of their first haircut. Franklin’s outfit was considered gender-neutral.”
In Nordic countries during 800 - 1100 AD, also known as the Viking Age, the occupation of a viking was only for men.
“Like many traditional civilizations, Viking Age society at home and abroad was essentially male-dominated. Men did the hunting, fighting, trading and farming, while women’s lives centered around cooking, caring for the home and raising children. The majority of viking burials found by archaeologists reflect these traditional gender roles: Men were generally buried with their weapons and tools, and women with household items, needlework and jewelry,” according to Sarah Pruitt from http://history.com
“In ancient Egypt [3100 - 332 BC], social dignity was not based on gender, but rather on social status. This means that women held many important and influential positions in ancient Egypt and typically enjoyed many of the legal and economic rights given to the men within their respective social class… the historian Herodotus witnessed an exceptional display of humanity and equality in ancient Egypt that was not present in other ancient societies,” according to the article, “How Knowledge of ancient Egyptian Women Can Influence Today’s Gender Role: Does History Matter in Gender Psychology?”
We see gender roles continuing back past ancient Egypt, all the way to ancient Mesopotamia; and while the following is an educated guess, it seems likely that gender (and gender roles) have existed for as long as human society has. Even if there are some similarities between cultures, the roles can vary from culture to culture. After all, matriarchal societies have been a thing.
To throw a monkey wrench into the mix, some cultures even have more genders than the western binary of male and female.
(Feel free to use this resource for genders that other cultures view as outside of the male and female dichotomy
Where does the terminology of gender come from?
Here’s where gender, as we understand it, becomes entangled in politics. Wikipedia has a very well organized debrief about how the term gender came to be, how it was removed from being used strictly for grammar, and then how it pertains to its modern denotation.
“Sexologist John Money is often regarded as the first to introduce a terminological distinction between biological sex and ‘gender role’ (which, as originally defined, includes the concepts of both gender role, and what would later become known as gender identity) in 1955, although Madison Bentley had already in 1945 defined gender as the ‘socialized obverse of sex’, and Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 book The Second Sex
has been interpreted as the beginning of the distinction between sex and gender in feminist theory.
Before Money's work, it was uncommon to use the word gender to refer to anything but grammatical categories. However, Money's meaning of the word did not become widespread until the 1970s, when feminist theory embraced the concept of a distinction between biological sex and the social construct of gender.”
Unsurprisingly, feminism (being a political movement) popularizing the terminology of gender is what forever binds gender to politics. But, this is just one way in which gender and politics are linked; and now that we have all our definitions, let’s talk about gender identity.
What is gender identity?
This is a bit of a buzz phrase, so let’s — for the sake of argument — ignore the politics that go along with it, and speak objectively about what the definition is. If we google it, the definition says, “an individual's personal sense of having a particular gender.” So it’s essentially the same meaning as just gender outlined earlier, but specified by and to oneself.
Now, if we reintroduce the politics, I think the highly politicized idea of gender identity is where a lot of people’s brains go when they hear or talk about gender and politics; especially with buzzwords like gender politics. But, like gender itself, gender identity and politics are inseparable.
So, now let’s talk about the how, specifically in the modern context of what people are saying about the topic and what they believe.
It’s very likely you’ve at least heard of the LGBTQIA+ community, specifically non-binary and trans people. We know from above that gender is not about biology, instead it’s about cultural and societal identification, and we know gender identity is about self identification, and since we know that, we can talk about the existence of people who are transgender and non-binary.
Trans/transgender is, by definition, “an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth,” according to http://apa.org
. Essentially this is saying trans people do not identify with their assigned sex at birth and that often goes hand-in-hand with not identifying with their presumed gender, either.
Non-binary (enby) people are another group who don’t identify with the gender binary. As a side: there are other, similar genders like genderqueer, agender, bigender, which all have different meanings, but for simplicity we are going to use the popularized term of non-binary.
Non-binary people are not to be slotted into a third category that’s all together separate from male or female. They aren’t a third gender in a new trinary. They’re something different.
We haven’t quite touched on topics like feminine, androgynous, and masculine presenting, but essentially non-binary people can exist in any of these categories. If you’ve heard the term gender fluid, essentially what we’re talking about is an ever changing shift between genders.
A non-binary person may self identify as genderless (agender) or may self identify as being gender-fluid because perhaps they’re feeling more feminine today or more masculine another; they could identify with women more on a certain day, as well. Non-binary is a gender that exists both in and out of the binary and is up to the individual to determine where they feel most comfortable.
It’s also worth mentioning, in some definitions of transgender (such as, a person not identifying with their assigned gender) would include all non-binary people as trans, however not all trans people would be non-binary as some trans people want to actively transition from one sex to the other.
These are umbrella groupings for modern genders, not a comprehensive list. However, it is worth noting this is how people are viewing themselves, as well as how they view others. Now, let’s throw these beliefs into the political ring.
Modern Genders in Modern Politics
We need to talk about how trans and non-binary people fit in the political sphere and how people view and treat them. Keeping to the simplicity of U.S. politics, the article, “Republicans, Democrats have starkly different views on transgender issues,”
compares the beliefs of Republicans and Democrats from a 2017 Pew Research Center Survey.
“While eight-in-ten [80% of] Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say that whether someone is a man or a woman is determined by the sex they were assigned at birth, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (64%) take the opposite view and say a person’s gender can be different from the sex they were assigned at birth… About four-in-ten adults (39%) say society has not gone far enough in accepting people who are transgender, while 32% say society has gone too far and 27% say it has been about right. Partisanship is at play here as well, as Republicans and Democrats express opposite views. While 60% of Democrats say society hasn’t gone far enough, just 12% of Republicans say the same. Conversely, 57% of Republicans say society has gone too far, compared with 12% of Democrats.”
Now, if you asked a trans person if they feel society has been “too accepting” or “properly accepting,” you might find they have the opposite opinion. We need look no further than suicide rates in trans youths. “Fifty-six percent [56%] of youth reported a previous suicide attempt and 86% reported suicidality [meaning: deliberating hurting oneself with the intent to die]. Logistic regressions indicated that models for both lifetime suicide attempts and suicidality were significant.
Interpersonal microaggressions, made a unique, statistically significant contribution to lifetime suicide attempts and emotional neglect by family approached significance. School belonging, emotional neglect by family, and internalized self-stigma made a unique, statistically significant contribution to past 6-month suicidality,” according to ”Suicidality Among Transgender Youth: Elucidating the Role of Interpersonal Risk Factors”.
The way politics and gender interplay here is one of the major issues. As long as people disbelieve in the validity of trans people, the more they’re likely to support anti-trans politicians, leading to a larger risk to the lives of trans people. While we’ve talked about how people self identify and what overarching political views are, we haven’t talked about how those beliefs are put into practice.
“Since 2013, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has documented 256 incidents of fatal violence against trans and gender-nonconforming people. Over three quarters of victims in that period were 35 years old or younger, and one in ten was under 21. And Black trans women were disproportionately the victims of fatal violence this year, as well as in years past—in the years since HRC has been keeping record, at least 84% of those killed were people of color, 85% were trans women and 66% were Black trans women,” according to Time magazine.
According to the Oxford dictionary, ‘gender inequality’ is the, “Social process by which people are treated differently and disadvantageously, under similar circumstances, on the basis of gender.”
We’ve briefly discussed how trans people are affected by gender inequality; and, as explained earlier, there are other genders, too. More prominently we should talk about people who identify as women, and how they’ve been affected due to gender inequality.
We’ve heard about the pay gap between men and women, and while it’s improving, it’s still unequal. But that’s not the inequality we will focus on here, though it does deserve its own talk — which I’ll outline later. Instead, let’s look at a survey done by Pew Research Center (from a sample of 4914 adults), about other forms of workplace discrimination.
“The survey… found that, among employed adults, women are about twice as likely as men (42% versus 22%) to say they have experienced at least one of eight specific forms of gender discrimination at work…Women are roughly four times as likely as men to say they have been treated as if they were not competent because of their gender (23% of employed women versus 6% of men), and they are about three times as likely as men to say they have experienced repeated small [sleights] at work because of their gender (16% versus 5%). There are significant gaps on other items as well. While 15% of working women say they have received less support from senior leaders than a man who was doing the same job, only 7% of working men report having a similar experience.
One-in-ten working women say they have been passed over for the most important assignments because of their gender, compared with 5% of men. The survey… asked about sexual harassment in a separate question. It found that while similar shares of women and men say sexual harassment is at least a small problem in their workplace (36% versus 35%), women are about three times as likely as men to have experienced it personally while at work (22% versus 7%).”
also mentions a few other forms of gender inequality/discrimination in the work place like:
- “-being written up or disciplined for something that other employees of a different gender do all the time but never get punished for
- -being insulted, called derogatory names or slurs because of your gender identity, or hearing hostile remarks about people of a certain gender identity or sexual orientation
- -being intentionally or repeatedly called by a name or referred to as a different gender that you don’t identify with – such as when a transgender man is called by his dead name, or referred to as ‘Miss’”
It also provides resources about what people can do to fight workplace inequality and discrimination, as well as, what people who are facing it can do. Let’s get a bit more specific about how gender inequality (and workplace inequality) interact with politics.
Gender Inequality in Politics
So we see there’s workplace discrimination against women and other genders, but how does this affect politics? Politics are also a workplace.
“The facts about women in [the U.S.] political office:
-U.S. House of Representatives: 102; [23%]
-Senate: 25, [25%]
-Heads of state: About 24 women at any given time
-Women remain less than [⅓] of all elected officials in the nation in 2019…
Still, 100 years after women got the right to vote by amendment to the U.S. Constitution, women make up more than half the population, yet account for less than one-third of all elected officials at city, state and national levels combined.” These are statistics given by the article “Is there (still) a gender gap in politics?”
And the answer seems like: yes, especially when it comes to women. But, this doesn’t fully account for all women, we still need to talk about the ever present intersection of race.
The Intersection of Race and Gender in Politics
It can not be understated the effect race has on the previously discussed topics. To points made earlier about feminism and gender, feminism doesn’t exist as a monolith.
During the 1920s suffrage movement, white women went so far as to distance themselves from Black women in order to gain the ability to vote. Susan B. Anthony is quoted with saying, “And hear me swear, that I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the negro and not the woman,”
To the point of gender identity, it was something brought up by Black trans women (see: Stonewall riots), which was the foundation of the modern LGBTQIA+ Pride parades.
And while there are different types of workplace discrimination, race plays a very heavy role, especially in pay gap, “when looking at women’s wages across broad racial and ethnic categories among full-time, year-round workers, Hispanic women experience the largest pay gap, having earned just 0.57¢ for every $1.00 earned by white, non-Hispanic men in 2020… Black women also experience wide pay gaps, with data on Black women alone revealing that — despite consistently having some of the highest labor force participation rates — they earned just 0.64¢ for every $1.00 earned by white, non-Hispanic men in 2020,” according to the article, ”Women of Color and the Wage Gap”
This information is often left out of the conversation when it comes to gender and politics, but it is all connected and does interact with how people are perceived and treated.
So, how does gender exist in politics? Well, gender being a way to identify others with societal/cultural characteristics, has likely been around — at least in concept — since the dawn of society, but the term was popularized by feminists in the 1970’s, connected forever afterward with politics. Gender identity exists directly with politics as people’s views on gender politics can directly affect the lives of others; particularly trans and Black trans individuals. Political positions - and in workplaces - for women and other genders are severely lacking in equality. Lastly, the intersection of race in politics is incredibly important because not only did Black people spearhead this intersectionality, they are often left removed from the conversation altogether. And this is how gender exists in politics.
Kari, A. Gender and Health
Gender Spectrum. (2019). Understanding Gender https://genderspectrum.org/articles/understanding-gender
Maglaty, J. (2011). When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/
Pruitt, S. (2019). What Was Life Like For Women In the Viking Age? https://www.history.com/news/what-was-life-like-for-women-in-the-viking-age
Khalil, R. Moustafa, A. Moftah, M. Karim, A. (2017) How Knowledge of Ancient Egyptian Women Can Influence Today’s Gender Role: Does History Matter in Gender Psychology? https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.02053
Wikipedia.org. Gender https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender
Apa.org. (2014). What Does Transgender Mean? https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbtq/transgender
Brown, A. (2017). Republicans, Democrats have starkly different views on transgender issues https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/11/08/transgender-issues-divide-republicans-and-democrats/
Austin, A. Craig, S. D’Souza, S. McInroy, L. (2020). Suicidality Among Transgender Youth: Elucidating the Role of Interpersonal Risk Factors https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32345113/
Carlisle, M. (2021). Anti-Trans Violence and Rhetoric Reached Record Highs Across America in 2021 https://time.com/6131444/2021-anti-trans-violence/
Kent, M. (2007). The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science & Medicine (3 ed.) https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198568506.001.0001/acref-9780198568506-e-2834
Parker, K. Funk, C. (2017). Gender discrimination comes in many forms for today’s working women https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/12/14/gender-discrimination-comes-in-many-forms-for-todays-working-women/
Equal Rights Advocates. (2019). Gender Discrimination at Work https://www.equalrights.org/issue/economic-workplace-equality/discrimination-at-work/
Nikos-Rose, K. Davis, UC. (2020). Is there (still) a gender gap in politics? https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/there-still-gender-gap-politics
Bleiweis, R. Khattar, R. Frye, J. (2021). Women of Color and the Wage Gap