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Verbal Energy

When did 'sex' become 'gender'?

How Ruth Bader Ginsburg's secretary helped to effect a shift in public discourse.

By Ruth Walker / April 4, 2013



It's interesting how browsing the Web has come to duplicate – I don't quite want to say "replace" – the random-access aspect of foraging through a newspaper.

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And so it was, dear reader, as I was trying to catch up on Web coverage of the US president's Middle East trip or some other worthy topic the other day when I ran across "Pink or Blue, It's All Oversharing: Trendy Parents-To-Be Hold 'Gender Reveal' Parties," a commentary from Sharon Brody on WBUR's Cognoscenti Web page.

The idea is that the prospective parents hold a party at which they find out, at the same time as their guests, whether they have a little girl or a little boy on the way.

There are variations on the theme here. But in what seems the simplest approach, the parents instruct their ultrasound technician to communicate (by sealed envelope!) knowledge of their child's sex not with them but with a bakery, which will then bake a cake that, under a protective coat of white or other non-gender-specific frosting, is either pink or blue.

At the party, the parents cut the cake, and, ta-da! The pink or blue is visible.

Ms. Brody's piece included a video clip in which a prospective father slices away a corner of a cake to reveal a deep pink, and then falls, in tears, into the arms of the mother-to-be.

Let's trust the tears were of joy or relief; it's hard to tell for sure from the video.

Not everyone is convinced that the "gender reveal" party is a forward step for civilization.

Emily Yoffe of Slate, aka "Dear Prudence," has vented about "the amazing development of the awful gender-reveal party." Brody herself has clearly worked up a head of steam on this one.

But there's a language issue here, too. As Brody puts it, "[W]hile I'm in the neighborhood, the party also lives next door to Sloppy Vocabulary Lane. Because what we actually are revealing here is sex. Not gender, but sex. Biological and physiological characteristics, not a social construct. Sorry, but some of us are picky that way even if you are too squeamish to have a Sex Party."

When did "sex" become "gender"? Even in the days when people hesitated to speak of the "legs" of a piano, they used phrases like "the fairer sex" or "sterner sex." Over time, though, sex came to refer to an activity, rather than a set of characteristics. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces this meaning back to D.H. Lawrence, in 1929.

As so often happens, a newer, dare I say "hotter," meaning drives an older, "cooler" meaning out of circulation. Eventually there may come a tipping point, which is then reflected in formal or legal language.

Jeffrey Toobin casts some light on this point in his recent New Yorker profile of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, today an associate justice of the US Supreme Court but, earlier in her career, an important litigant for women's rights. And it seems Ms. Ginsburg's secretary, who typed up her legal briefs for her, deserves some credit for a shift in public discourse.

Mr. Toobin quotes Ginsburg: "I was doing all these sex-discrimination cases, and my secretary said, 'I look at these pages and all I see is sex, sex, sex. The judges are men, and when they read that they're not going to be thinking about what you want them to think about.' "

From that point on, Toobin writes, Ginsburg changed her claim to "gender discrimination."

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