Do we really need gender?

October 17 2014

A school-teacher friend recently asked me what issue I thought would be most transformative for future generations, and I didn’t hesitate before answering. As much as I want young people to get a grasp on climate change or income inequality, I think the biggest generational shift already underway has to do with our concept of gender. And that’s a wonderful thing.

As awareness of transgendered individuals grows, the rigid idea of gender as unchangeable and defined by one’s genitals is quickly collapsing. The speed that public opinion on LGBTQ issues is changing also shows that young people are much more accepting towards diverse gender identities and expressions.

But in the adult world, we’re far from gender equality. In the U.S., only in the past hundred years have women begun to achieve the same legal rights as men (though due to gender discrimination, they’re still highly underrepresented at the highest levels of politics and business, and even in the same careers, they only earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by men).

So I ask you to think critically when you make gendered assumptions, and question why we cling to this male/female division. At a deeper level, do we really need words like “man” and “woman”? If men and women can truly achieve whatever they want—follow any passion in their personal life or career—then what is the purpose of identifying someone's gender by calling them “he” or “she”? What vital information do these words tell us, beyond describing certain sex organs?

Up through the present, gendered language has enforced restrictive guidelines for how people should live their lives. Visit the aisles of any major toy store, and you’ll notice boys’ and girls’ toys are sharply divided: Girls can have pink, housework, and the arts; boys get cars, sports, and science. Social norms may be changing, but profit motives are not.

Some argue that language doesn’t affect reality, but studies have repeatedly shown that female-gendered words create a negative bias—from the usernames on comment threads to those at the tops of resumes. Calling a someone a "girl" isn't just about pointing out her vagina, but about grouping her into a class of people assumed to share personality traits and life paths. And in America, by and large, those traits are deemed lesser.

What is gender if not the most acceptable form of stereotyping? Perhaps in our lifetimes we will adopt a new neutral term to refer to individuals (as Swedish preschools have begun to do), or simply start using the more equitable “they.”

Until then, some thoughts for you to ponder: Why must we know a baby’s gender even before it is born? Why do we let advertisers tell our children what toys each gender can play with? Why is the U.S. one of the few developed countries without paid parental leave? Why aren’t all bathrooms gender-neutral? Why does the idea of taking a woman’s last name make most men angry? Why are laws restricting the reproductive rights of women mostly enacted by men?

Be kind to one another, and please VOTE on November 4th.

Hunter Oatman-Stanford
[email protected]
San Francisco, California

P.S. I write about fascinating, forgotten tidbits of history at collectorsweekly [dot] com. Follow me @hunterrible or drop me a line at [email protected].

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