Museum Manifesto. On the origins of gender
"Woman" and "Man": two categories that are used to distinguish both the sex and the gender of a person. Natural history helps to deconstruct this confusion, which makes people prisoners of an unequal and violent social system.
"Non-binary", "bigender", "polygender", "agender", etc. Growing numbers of social and philosophical movements are calling for a break with these traditional gender categories. Beyond the matter of vocabulary (man/woman) and grammar (masculine/feminine), they are challenging a rigid social system based on heterosexual norms that are a source of social and financial inequality as well as physical violence.
What is gender ?
Gender is a system of social organisation that distinguishes between two categories of members of society: men and women. It is based on the presence of noticeable physical differences but does not tolerate any ambiguity. Thus, in France, a child born with sexual characteristics that are difficult to categorise will be subjected to surgical procedures that ensure that their appearance coincides with their assigned gender.
Categorising people in this way effectively places individuals in a hierarchical power play between men and women. Modern-day societies are dominated by a more or less radical patriarchal model that benefits men and subjugates women to social restrictions and sanctions.
On the origin of gender
Given the lack of prehistoric accounts available, it is hard to establish when this categorisation began. It may have been rooted in the division of labour by sex, which first appeared in the Neolithic era with the shift to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle.
In animals, where such a division of labour by sex exists, it appears to be less marked and varies according to the species. Nor do animals display standard behaviour according to their sex: female emus fight, lionesses hunt and many different male fish care for their offspring. Homosexual behaviour has been described in over 1,500 different animal species.
What is sex ?
Sexual reproduction entails the fusion of several different cells, most frequently a 'male' gamete and a 'female' gamete.
Among plants and animals, all kinds of configurations can be found: male and female gametes may be carried by a single individual (hermaphroditism) or by two distinct individuals, who may even change sex during the course of their lives.
In humans, in principle, sex is established at the time of conception. However, a minority of people possess genetic and/or physical characteristics that make it impossible to determine their sex.
Hence there is no strict natural boundary between a 'male' individual and a 'female' individual.
Categories are critical to thinking, communicating and building scientific knowledge, but should not become tools of social domination. However, conflating sex and gender amounts to relegating people to predetermined roles and creating a fertile environment for a sometimes brutal patriarchy. Queer philosophical theory asserts that it is possible to have breasts but be considered a man and advocates freeing oneself from the confines imposed by western culture in particular.