Archive for May, 2012

In recent years, I’ve been seeing the word “gender” increasingly substituted for the word “sex”, meaning male or female, as if the two words were interchangeable.  I see it on job application forms, to use a common example; you are now asked what your “gender” is, rather than asked what sex you are.

It’s also nearly ubiquitous in journalism now, too, both print and online.  For example a recent online Ms Magazine article contained the phrase

Do you turn around and give a reasoned explanation of why your gender plays no role in your ability to fly a plane?

These words are most assuredly not interchangeable.  For those who have forgotten or don’t know the difference between sex and gender:

Sex is biological; male and female (and biologically intersex).  It includes genes, skeletal structure, hormones, gonads, and secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, beard, etc).  Sex is biological, not psychological or cultural.

Gender is cultural; “masculine” and “feminine”.  It involves the stereotypical roles assigned to and associated with one sex or the other.  Such gender roles, unlike biological sex, vary according to culture and/or time period.  Conforming to or shunning such gender roles, in whole or in part, do not affect one’s sex or sexual preference, because they are not biological in origin.  A woman who loves to play football and hates wearing makeup is every bit of a woman as one who loves high heels and cooking, and the first woman might well be straight as the second woman might be a lesbian.

The original purpose of gender roles was to emphasize and/or call attention to our sex; it does not define our sex, whether we are a man or a woman.  As far as I’m concerned, the secondary sexual characteristics; breasts, beards, etc, do that job very nicely on their own and have little need of augmentation.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was a young feminist, the words sex and gender were not confused, nor used interchangeably, even among feminists.

Indeed, one section of the Equal Rights Amendment reads:

bullet Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

This is a simple and clear statement. Sex is biological and is the same regardless of culture or time period.  It wouldn’t have been nearly so unambiguous and direct if they’d used the less clear and obfuscatingly slippery word, gender.

As far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t be unhappy if gender was once again used only when referring to grammar.


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Recently, I’ve been reading news stories about a woman who was prevented from boarding an American Airlines flight because the airline objected to what she was wearing.  Judging from the headlines alone, one would be led to believe that the airline had objected to the woman’s T-shirt simply because a pro-choice sentiment was printed on it.  Searching on Yahoo for articles about this incident, I found several headlines that conveyed this idea:

Woman Kicked Off Plane For Wearing Pro-Choice T-Shirt 

Women Kicked Off Airplane For Pro-Choice Shirt

American Airlines Rejects Female Passenger Because Political Pro-Choice T-Shirt Is ‘Inappropriate’

Woman in a Pro-Choice T-Shirt Not Allowed to Board Her Flight

And so on.

Naturally, such an incident would generate widespread ire among pro-choice advocates and those advocating free speech in general.  Indeed, the sharing of articles about this incident has gone viral on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and has no doubt inspired many blog posts.

But when I clicked on such articles that included a photo of the t-shirt in question, I immediately saw that the headlines had been misleading:

Seeing the T-shirt makes it rather obvious that the problem American Airlines had with the shirt had little or nothing to do with the sentiment expressed, and everything to do with the F-bomb in the middle of it.  Indeed, after seeing the word “fuck”, they probably didn’t bother to read the rest of it, as that one word was enough to make it offensive according to their guidelines.

Thus, the headlines are misleading because she was not denied entry to the plane because she is pro-choice, but, rather, how she chose to express that opinion.

It still could be argued that this is a free speech issue, but I’m guessing that a headline reading, “Women Kicked Off Plane for Wearing F-Bomb T-Shirt” wouldn’t have generated anything near the amount of ire and publicity that using “Pro-Choice” in place of “F-Bomb” did.  After all, too many people would be able to understand the airlines’ position then, as many people traveling with children would have no doubt been offended by seeing the F-Bomb on someone’s clothing,  It’s reasonable that the airline would choose to avoid such a problem.

I think it’s wrong to mislead people as to what the actual issue is.  If people want to protest that she has a right to wear a shirt printed with expletives on a plane and in other public places,  that would have been fine.  But let’s give readers the real story, so they know just what they’re arguing about, fully informed.  As a pro-choice liberal, I resent being manipulated and I especially don’t want to give anti-choice conservatives any ammunition to use against us.

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