Do you remember hearing this nursery rhyme about boys and girls when you were a kid?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
and puppy dogs tails
That’s what little boys
are made of!
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and
all things nice
That’s what little girls
are made of!
This whimsical verse was originally written by the English poet Robert Southey sometime prior to his death in 1843 and subtlety reflects the idea that a person’s biology (sex) has significance—it means something to be born a boy or a girl. Unfortunately, during this same century, women and people of color were barred from some educational opportunities because of arguments based on biology. In 1872, the Women’s Educational Society of Boston sought to enroll women at Harvard. Dr. Edmund Clarke, a Harvard professor, argued that if young women studied too much, they would divert blood from their uterus to the brain, rendering themselves “irritable and infertile.” He concluded that women should not attend college based on his faulty and tragic understanding of biology.
Close to a century later in the 1960s, a pivotal time arose for the discussion of biology, gender, and sex. Secular and religious feminists and psychologists asserted “rights” and advanced gender ideologies that have contributed to the gender bending and gender confused society we find ourselves in today. Definitions do matter. Words matter. Dr. Clarke’s faulty defining of women’s biology impacted women’s access to education for a time. Early feminist advocates realized that whoever controlled language had power. Simone de Beauvoir, a French philosopher and forerunner to the second wave of feminism, famously claimed that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman. She believed that biological determinism was harming women and that “social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature.” Feminists began to seek to redefine what it means to be a woman in order to “liberate” women from biological determinism.
However, it was psychologists writing on transsexuality who were the first to employ the term gender to refer to something other than masculine and feminine words or as synonymous with biological sex. In 1968 psychologist Robert Stoller wanted to explain why some of his clients felt trapped in their own bodies. He used the term “sex” to refer to biological traits and “gender” to refer to how a person expressed femininity or masculinity. A transsexual, according to Stoller, was a person whose biology (sex) did not match the expression of his sex (gender).
By introducing new terms and definitions into the cultural lexicon, psychologists like Stoller and feminists like de Beauvoir were seeking control. They realized the power of words and that whoever controls language controls people. The proposed paper will examine the lexical journey of the terms sex and gender and discuss implications for contemporary ministry.