gender definition - Professor Errol miller


Gender is the sexual division of power in society. While gender is based on sex, which is biologically determined, gender is always socially constructed and not necessarily the same in all societies or the same throughout history.


Gender was originally constructed around women’s birth and life-preserving functions and responsibilities on the one hand and men’s life-taking responsibilities on the other hand. Life and death are universal to all human beings in all eras and in all places. This included the earliest human beings. Reproduction, the survival of offspring and group living were each critical to the continuation of the human species. Therefore, both life-preservation and like-taking were important to early human survival. Life-taking was not only restricted to the physical defense of the group but also in decisions with respect to how many members of the group could be sustained by available resources or in situations of disasters. In some circumstances it was which member was most valuable to group survival. Again, in some early human groups, life-taking became part of the ritual defense of the group. Some member needed to be sacrificed to the gods. In all these situations, it was not logical for both men and women to share equally in such decision-making and responsibilities. Sharing equally in such decision-making could compromise both life-preservation and life-taking responsibilities to the detriment of group. As was to be expected, these two sets of responsibilities were separated.


Because women gave birth to children it was only natural that the socialization of women should focus and foster some combination of traits, characteristics and attributes that are essential to giving birth and the preservation of the lives of group members. Femininity became defined by being attentive, tender, kind, sensitive, caring, nurturing, gentle, sympathetic, docile, passive, tolerant, non-confrontational, dependent and agreeable.

By default, life-taking fell to men. Also, men’s general greater size, strength, speed and stamina conferred on them an advantage in this role and responsibility. Hence, the socialization of men and masculinity centered on traits, attributes and characteristics that enable life-taking: aggressive, impersonal, decisive, callous, ruthless, brutal, courageous, valorous, insensitive, self-reliant, confrontational and protective.

This is not to say that these two sets of traits, attributes and characteristics are mutually exclusive and that there were not aggressive women and docile men or callous women and kind men. Rather, it is to say that the preponderance of one set of traits or the other differentiated masculinity from femininity. It is also to say that the preponderance of each of these sets of traits and attributes allowed for the differentiation between masculine women and feminine men, that is demonstrating the difference between sex and gender.


While women and men cooperated in the separation of the life-preservation and life-taking responsibilities, and also in the socialization processes that constructed gender differences in masculinity and femininity, over time life-taking proved to be to confer greater power on men. This contributed to the emergence of patriarchy, although the veneration of the mother-goddess is among the first etchings found in caves that were inhabited by human kind. In group living, while one may be forever grateful to the mother who gave birth to you, fearing the loss your life, on any given day, conferred greater power on the father. This contributed to the emergence of patriarchy as the original form of human social organisation.


The definition of gender as the sexual division of power in society differs from the definition of gender as the sexual division of labor/work. This is not to deny that there has been sexual division of labor/work but that the sexual division of power is primary and the former secondary.

Supporting arguments for the original definition of gender as the sexual division of come from several very controversial contemporary issues namely abortion, capital punishment, gang violence and terrorism. They all are centered on birth, life-taking and death as an instrument of power. Does a woman have the right to take the life of baby she is bearing? Does the father have any rights in abortion? Does the state, or anyone, have the right to take life? While these debates are occurring, young men are taking life with impunity in order to exercise power.


Sex is almost but is not completely binary. This has been true of every human population in every era. The reason is that the biological mechanisms which determine the sex of an individual is not 100 per cent accurate, but probably 99 per cent. The one per cent error rate is not fatal to the embryos but presents the individuals with some seeming gradation between male and female internal and external anatomical features, gonads and genitalia, and fertility. This leads to questions of whether such individuals are male or female and the basis of making such determination. Then again the physiological makeup of males and females include the hormones testosterone and estrogen which also factor into being male and female. Differences in the proportion of these hormones in some individuals can further blur the lines between the binary separation of women and men. There is no estimate of this category.

While these biological sex phenomena have always been, and will continue to be, a feature of all generations of humans, how they are treated by individuals and societies has not been constant but has changed and is changing. The source of the change is societal and related to their structure of power. That is, the change is related to gender, not sex. Hence, in lineage society where kinship collectives where the units of societal organisation thus giving families, clans and tribes right in people, sex and gender were coincidental and binary. Individuals affected by gradations, as identified above, concealed themselves, or were eliminated or hidden or treated as freaks. However, in contemporary nation-states where the individual is the unit of organization and are endowed with rights granted by constitutions and laws, gender is defined in the political arena and could be any number greater than two. Further, different states could define gender differently. Even then, gender will continue to be the sexual division of power in society and will continue to be a social construct.