How and why have feminists emphasised the difference between sex and gender?

Feminists have drawn a sharp distinction between sex and gender.

Feminists have drawn a sharp distinction between sex and gender. For feminists, sex refers to natural and unalterable biological differences between women and men. The most important of these differences are linked to reproduction: childbearing; menstruation; and the capacity to suckle babies. Gender, on the other hand, is a cultural term that refers to the different roles that society ascribes to men and women. Gender differences are typically imposed through contrasting stereotypes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. This is known as the ‘politics of conditioning’. Boys and girls are encouraged from a very early age to associate with very specific gender identities. This takes place within the family (said to be patriarchy’s chief institution), but also within public life and the economy. Therefore, for feminists, ‘sex’ is given whereas gender is socially and politically ‘constructed’.

Feminists believe that this is an important distinction because it emphasises that a woman’s biological make-up should have no social, political or economic significance. Sex differences between women and men are minor and cannot explain nor justify gender distinctions. This therefore follows an androgynous view of human nature. The distinction thus draws attention to the processes through which women are ‘engendered’ and oppressed. This therefore makes social change possible where gender roles and stereotypes can be challenged and overthrown, and a post-patriarchal society established. Thus women and men can be judged not by their sex but as individuals, or ‘persons’.

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