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Unlearning Gender

Artwork Unlearning Gender

What would happen if we tried to forget what we know about “gender”? By forgetting I mean trying to unlearn all the things that we think gender is, what it means and how it works, even thinking of it as a “thing” at all that exists “out there”. In this piece, I want to suggest that this labour of unlearning gender is the first step towards forging a new theoretical and methodological approach to gender. Suspending gender theory and unlearning it provides an opportunity to step back from current debates and anxieties surrounding gender, and reassess its political possibilities and limitations. For almost two decades, feminists have lamented the watering down of the critical edge of the gender concept. Many feel that it has become a commonplace synonym for “sex” in everyday use and policymaking rather than a tool for dismantling power hierarchies. Or worse, it has been usurped by market-driven governance in order to increase women’s flexible and precarious work under the guise of promoting gender equality. In other controversies, the attack on what they call “gender ideologies” has become a mainstay of conservative and far-right voices, while deep rifts have developed amongst Anglo-American feminists around whether gender should be understood as a system of power or a personal identity. Gender, therefore, has varied meanings and purposes today across a range of political actors and institutions.

For feminist philosophers, such gender “troubles” have led to attempts to re-theorize gender in ways that would retain it as a meaningful concept for feminist theory and politics. However, in the attempt to rehabilitate or defend particular conceptions of gender, we often forget that gender, understood as the theory of the social construction of sex, was not a feminist idea to start with. Just as Michel Foucault demonstrated that sexuality was a relatively recent concept invented in the Victorian era, scholars such as Jennifer Germon and Joanne Meyerowitz have shown that gender is just as much an invention and thoroughly entangled with scientific knowledge and clinical practices as sex. In addition, however, Foucault understood sexuality not only as historically constituted, but also as a tool or technology of power. I argue that by understanding the ways in which gender has always been a tool or technology of power, it is possible to better understand how and why it has come to occupy such a contentious place in present politics, and what political stance to take in response


The founding kernel of gender theory is often located in the work of Simone de Beauvoir, especially her idea that one is not born a woman but rather becomes one. Yet, her book, The Second Sex, did not articulate or develop the concept of gender at all. As Sara Heinämaa argues, the association of sex/gender theory with Beauvoir is an Anglo-American misreading. Sex/gender is a distinction foreign to Beauvoir, whose idea of “becoming a woman” is not a philosophy of socialisation, but rather a phenomenological description of the meanings of sexual difference. Sex/gender, by contrast, is an ontological framework that structures the realities of sexed being into two distinguishable orders: the biological and the cultural. This is not taken up in feminist theory until Kate Millett’s seminal 1970 book Sexual Politics, twenty-one years after The Second Sex and fifteen years after the first theorisation of gender as we understand it. ​

Sex/gender is an ontological framework that structures the realities of sexed being into two distinguishable orders: the biological and the cultural.

Rather than being a feminist invention, the idea of gender as describing the social, cultural and psychological aspects of sex was first introduced in 1955 by Dr John Money, a psychiatrist who published a series of articles with his colleagues Joan and John Hampson on the development of sex roles in intersex people, people whose biological and physical sex characteristics do not align. Money was interested in finding out which factors best predicted the psychosexual outcomes of intersex individuals, in other words, what were the best indicators for whether an intersex person would identify as female or male.

The studies of Money and the Hampsons made one major proposal: rather than reaffirming the dominance of biological indicators such as chromosomes or hormones as the determinants of gender roles, their studies showed that most intersex people took on the role of the sex they were assigned at birth. Based on these studies, they made the radical new argument that a person’s psychological sex was not innate or biologically determined, but that it was learned through processes of socialisation, even to the extent that socialisation might, in rare cases, entirely override biological factors. They named this learned psychological sex gender. The term “gender role” was also introduced to mean “all the things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of a boy or man, girl or woman”. The term brought together the concept of gender from linguistics and the idea of “sex roles” from the renowned sociologist Talcott Parsons, who taught Money as a student at Harvard University. Crucially, Parsons’ structural functionalism was at the height of its popularity in the 1950s. It was focused on examining society as a system, composed of acts, relationships, processes and structures that were the building blocks of social conformity. The family in particular was a key social institution for norm reproduction through the socialisation of children into sex roles. For Money, a child’s sex assignment and rearing needed to be constantly reinforced by parents in their behaviour and relationship with their child. Integral to this was also the “normalisation” of ambiguous genitals through surgery so that a child could learn to identify with their mother or father as female or male.

Despite acknowledging that not all people easily fitted biologically into a strict male-female dichotomy, through his new idea of gender Money endorsed surgical interventions for infants born with ambiguous genitals in order to ensure the upbringing of coherently sexed, heterosexual individuals. Money’s work therefore had a normative dimension that was firmly grounded in the Western post-war ideals of White American nuclear family life, where the nuclear family was assumed to be the foundation of social order. This, in turn, necessitated surgical inventions on infants, preferably as soon as possible after birth, as Money believed gender roles to develop into irreversible identities within two-and-a-half years of life. It was relatively easy for Money and other doctors to persuade parents to consent to the surgical procedures by arguing that they were doing what was best for the child. When surgery was carried out on children old enough to speak, their resistance to this violence was often dismissed as childish paranoia. These intersex case management protocols became standardised around the world, and are largely still in use today.

In the 1960s, the idea of gender was further developed by psychoanalyst Robert J. Stoller. In the attempt to understand and treat transsexualism, Stoller drew on Money’s work and divided sex from gender as a separate order of knowledge by mapping it explicitly onto the biology/culture split, where sex referred to biological characteristics, and gender referred to social, cultural, and psychological forms. Stoller also distinguished “gender identity” from “gender role” in order to differentiate a person’s sense of self from the behaviour one displays. For Stoller, the fixity of gender identity, once it is established, placed further attention on childhood sexuality and familial relationships as sites of intervention to prevent transsexuality. For adults, whose gender identity was already fixed, Stoller advocated surgery as a means to tame their gender deviance and bring their genitals in line with their personal sense of self. While this represented liberation for trans patients, who were increasingly asking their doctors about sex reassignment surgery, for the medical profession it was also a means to normalise deviant adult sex.

Press how is gender identity formed


When Kate Millett articulated gender as socially constructed and separate from biological sex in 1970, she directly referenced the work of Money and Stoller. Other prominent feminists such as Germaine Greer, Ann Oakley and Gayle Rubin did the same. As Rubin has stated since, Money’s work was a valuable resource for feminists, as it provided scientific evidence for longstanding feminist arguments against the idea that masculinity and femininity were intrinsic; that biology was destiny. By deploying the concept of gender, it became possible to challenge the idea that women and men were naturally destined to act and exist differently. Moreover, if gender roles were actually learned, then women’s liberation was possible through the overthrow of the social and cultural structures, norms, and practices that reproduced women’s subordination. However, when Anglo-American feminists of the 1970s took the term from this psychiatric context, they ignored the associated abuses: infant genital surgery and the pathologisation of transgender people. Despite the huge gains the concept of gender brought to the feminist struggle, it was also a lost opportunity to expose the complicity of the medical profession in the maintenance of strict sex binaries at whatever cost.

Deployments of gender today are pitted against each other in conflict like never before, each seemingly convinced of the truth of its own definition.

By now I hope it is clear that what I have tried to show is that the history of gender is a history not only of language, but of power. In a time when many feel more invested in the idea of gender than ever, recalling its very specific invention in the context of post-war social control should remind us that gender has always been political. It does not have a true meaning or pure origin, but has from its conception been a mechanism for controlling, managing and regulating bodies. As stated in the beginning of this essay, deployments of gender today are pitted against each other in conflict like never before, each seemingly convinced of the truth of its own definition. Given the availability of gender to an array of political projects, issues and interests, it would be a mistake for any movement to presume that assuming ownership of the term would provide it with ultimate truths, enlightened answers, or progressive solutions. Gender is merely the latest and decidedly Anglo-centric way of understanding human experience in a long history of sex. Relinquishing if not the concept then at least our attachment to it is therefore crucial for creating openings for new modes of critical thinking beyond the current impasse.

Jemima Repo is lecturer in the politics of gender at Newcastle University, and author of the award-winning The Biopolitics of Gender.


From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 3 ('Identities').

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