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When talking about women’s rights and equality it is important to acknowledge the feminist movements throughout history, and amongst them feminist scholars’ critical views of the difference between sex and gender. There is a distinct difference between the two terms, which decides how we discuss the cultural and historic concepts and ideas of femininity, masculinity and their roles in society (Stein, 2004). The patterns and definitions of gender and sex vary significantly across historical and cultural contexts, but they matter greatly in all human societies, Stein (2004) continues. In this text I will briefly mention the different “waves” in feminist theory and what their main focus was. Secondly, I will further examine the difference between sex and gender, and how the conversation concerning gender roles have developed as a result of critical analysis of these ideas.


According to the Oxford Dictionaries (2016) the word feminism means: “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” Feminism can therefore be defined as the struggle for equal rights. It is a social and political movement that is described in terms of “waves” (Easton, 2012). The first wave of feminism emerged out of the environment of urban industrialism and socialist, liberal politics in the late 1800s and early twentieth century. The focus and goal of the first wave was to open up opportunities for women, with a particular focus on voting rights (Rampton, 2008).  The second wave of feminism during the 1960-90s was increasingly radical, as well as more inclusive to women of color, different social classes and of women living in developing nations. The dominant issues were gender, sexuality, reproductive rights and, in the US, the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing social equality regardless of sex. The second wave of feminism advocated for greater equality in education, the workplace and the home, Rampton (2008) explains further. The third wave of feminism concentrated more on identity politics, intersectionality, and heteronormativity, and was strongly influenced by post-colonial and post-modern thinking. They attempted to correct what some perceived as a lack of attention to class, religion, race and other markers of difference (Bartel, 2016). In recent time known as post-structuralism, some scholars also claim that gender could be explained as a performance, where you learn to perform your gender in society (Bartel, 2016).

Sex and Gender:


The second wave of feminism was increasingly theoretical, and one of the concepts critically examined during this period and continuously today, was the social construct of gender (Rampton, 2008). Sex and gender are differentiated by sex being biological and gender a social construct that varies from culture to culture through time. Marc Stein (2004) explains further:


“Gender and sex are social constructs associated with culturally and historically specific ideas about femininity-masculinity and femaleness-maleness. While gender and sex definitions and patterns vary significantly across cultural and historical contexts, they matter greatly in all human societies.”


The term sex was, according to Stein (2004) traditionally used in a way that presumed a connection between someone’s biological sex, their view of themselves as feminine or masculine, and their social positions. In other words all biological females see themselves with feminine characteristics and in a specific social status, which implies that they have a biological purpose in life. This biological understanding makes social change difficult (Stein, 2004).


Whereas body parts determine biological sex, gender a social construct. Stein (2004) clarifies that: “the expression “gender” was introduced to mark the distinction between biological and social components.” Simon de Beauvoir (1949) states that: “One is not born, but rather becomes (and continues to be become), a woman (or man)”. This is done through socialization were individuals develop gender identities and understand gender roles.  Furthermore, you perceive your gender through social constructs and norms, and adapt certain behavior and gender roles based on cultural values (Stein, 2004).

Written by Sandra

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