Q: When I was a law student at Columbia, Prof. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she used “gender” in Supreme Court briefs because the (all male) justices might be uncomfortable hearing a woman lawyer use “sex.” Is she responsible for this usage shift?
A: No, she’s not responsible for the shift from “sex” to “gender” in referring to someone’s sexual identity, though she may have helped it along.
As we noted in a 2007 post, both “sex” and “gender” have been used for hundreds of years in reference to maleness and femaleness.
Interestingly, the use of “sex” for sexual intercourse is a relatively recent phenomenon that didn’t show up until the 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
But the increasing use of “sex” for intercourse over the last century has led many to prefer the use of “gender” for maleness and femaleness. We’ll have more on this later.
Although Ginsburg isn’t responsible for the shift, she may have helped popularize this use of “gender” when she was a law professor and argued cases before the Supreme Court.
In 1993, a few months after becoming an associate justice on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg spoke about the usage on a visit to Columbia Law School to receive an award and take part in a panel discussion.
During the discussion, she said her decision to use “gender” for “sex” in Supreme Court briefs was the result of advice from her secretary at Columbia, where she taught from 1972 to 1980.
“I owe it all to my secretary at Columbia Law School, who said, ‘I’m typing all these briefs and articles for you and the word sex, sex, sex is on every page. Don’t you know that those nine men—they hear that word, and their first association is not the way you want them to be thinking? Why don’t you use the word gender? It is a grammatical term and it will ward off distracting associations.’ ”
It’s true that “gender” began life as a grammatical term, but it’s been used since as far back as the 15th century in reference to sexual identity.
The earliest example in the OED is from the 1474 will of Thomas Stonor: “His heyres of the masculine gender of his body lawfully begoten.”
Oxford defines this sense of “gender” as “males or females viewed as a group” as well as “the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups.”
The dictionary says it means the same as the word “sex” used for “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.”
The earliest OED example for “sex” used this way is from the Wycliffe Bible, written sometime before 1382:
“Of all þingez hauyng soule of eny flesch: two þou schalt brynge in to þe ark, þat male sex & female: lyuen with þe.” (“Of all things having soul of any flesh, you shall bring into the ark that of the male sex and female living with that male.”)
As we’ve said, the noun “sex” (from the Latin sexus) wasn’t used in the sense of sexual intercourse until the early 20th century. The first example in the OED is from Love and Mr. Lewisham, a 1900 novel by H. G. Wells:
“We marry in fear and trembling, sex for a home is the woman’s traffic, and the man comes to his heart’s desire when his heart’s desire is dead.”
The next example is from “Pansies,” a satirical 1929 poem by D. H. Lawrence: “If you want to have sex, you’ve got to trust / At the core of your heart, the other creature.”
And this more recent example is from the Oct. 16, 1971, issue of the Spectator: “Not for nothing is the youth culture characterized by sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.”
Getting back to “gender,” the OED says its sense of sexual identity comes from its grammatical use to describe how some languages categorize words (masculine, feminine, neuter, common).
The noun “gender” in its original, grammatical sense dates from the late 1300s, according to the dictionary, and is ultimately derived from genus, classical Latin for race, kind, or grammatical gender.
The dictionary notes that the use of “gender” for sexual identity grew in popularity over the last century as the use of “sex” for sexual intercourse became more common.
“In the 20th cent.,” the OED says, “as sex came increasingly to mean sexual intercourse, gender began to replace it (in early use euphemistically) as the usual word for the biological grouping of males and females.”