Gender essentialism is the belief that a person, thing, or particular trait is inherently and permanently male and masculine or female and feminine.
In other words, it considers biological sex the primary factor in determining gender.
According to gender essentialism, gender and gender-based characteristics are intrinsically linked to biological traits, chromosomes, and the sex a person is assigned at birth.
Gender essentialism doesn’t account for a person’s right to self-determine gender identity or presentation.
Gender essentialism came from Plato’s philosophy of essentialism. In it, he posited that every person, place, or thing has an essence that’s fixed and makes it what it is.
Gender essentialism suggests that every person has either a male or female “essence” that’s determined by biology, chromosomes, and the sex assigned at birth.
Gender essentialism is often associated with trans-exclusionary radical feminism. This belief system inaccurately and harmfully excludes trans people and those assigned male at birth from being included in the definition and classification of “woman.”
Gender essentialism fails to acknowledge the scientifically recognized fact that sex and gender are different and both exist on a spectrum.
The spectrum of sex involves a wide variety of combinations of anatomy, hormones, biology, and chromosomes that are naturally occurring and healthy parts of human diversity.
The spectrum of gender includes the many personal identities, experiences, and cultural beliefs systems that relate to being:
- a man
- a woman
- some combination of these labels or something else altogether
It’s now a scientifically proven and accepted fact that sex doesn’t necessarily determine or indicate anything conclusive or permanent about an individual’s gender identity, personality, or preferences.
Ideas rooted in gender essentialism are particularly harmful to transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people who have a gender identity or presentation that’s different from the one prescribed at birth.
Some people use gender essentialism as a rationale for adhering to and upholding outdated and rigid gender beliefs, stereotypes, and roles.
In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists and gender theorists began to introduce frameworks for understanding gender and sex that called the foundations of gender essentialism into question.
These emerging ideas pointed to the fact that how we understand and experience gender is heavily influenced by systems, beliefs, and observed patterns in a given community or society.
For example, the beliefs that only women wear dresses, the color pink is for girls, and that women are less mathematically capable than men are rooted in how we as a society understand and treat gender.
In the mid-20th century, people began to realize that gender essentialist beliefs didn’t account for the scientifically accepted difference between sex and gender, nor did it consider the way language, norms, and stereotypes shift over time.
This shift in understanding led to the adaptation of new gender theories and more inclusive frameworks for understanding sex and gender.
When theorists and anthropologists further investigated the role society plays in defining gender, they found it to be the central component rather than a minimally influential factor.
According to their findings, societies and cultures across history have created systems and categories that dictate the traits and behaviors that should be preferable or acceptable for a person based on their assigned sex.
The process of socialization and internalization disguises gender as inherent, when in reality, it’s learned and develops over time.
Gender is often referred to as a social construct because society — not an individual person — created the idea that living things, language, behavior, and traits fit neatly into male or female, or masculine or feminine, categories.
Science demonstrates that there are — and always have been — elements of the human experience that are discriminated against, excluded, and erased using this mutually exclusive classification system.
There are a number of other theories that suggest gender is a social construct that changes over time and culture — in turn, highlighting the flaws found in gender essentialism.
Gender schema theory, introduced in 1981 by Sandra Bern, suggests that upbringing, schooling, media, and other forms of “cultural transmission” are the primary factors affecting the way humans internalize, process, and embody information about gender.
In 1988, Judith Butler published the essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” clearly distinguishing sex from gender.
She goes on to address the misunderstandings and limitations rooted in the gender binary.
Butler suggests that gender is socially inherited from one generation to the next and is best understood as a performance. In it, people consciously and unconsciously communicate and express cultural ideals and norms.
Both theorists proposed ideas that provide more inclusive and nuanced frameworks for understanding gender as an aspect of personal identity and social capital.
Although gender essentialist ideas are now viewed as outdated and inaccurate, gender essentialism as a theory offers important context about where our ideas of gender come from.
It also provides important information about the way gender has been understood and performed throughout history.
Mere Abrams is a researcher, writer, educator, consultant, and licensed clinical social worker who reaches a worldwide audience through public speaking, publications, social media (@meretheir), and gender therapy and support services practice onlinegendercare.com. Mere uses their personal experience and diverse professional background to support individuals exploring gender and help institutions, organizations, and businesses to increase gender literacy and identify opportunities to demonstrate gender inclusion in products, services, programs, projects, and content.