Skip to main content

The Concept of Gender in Law

Part of the Gender Perspectives in Law book series (GPL,volume 1)


Everybody talks about gender. The term gender is now part of our vocabulary and globally incorporated in media, academy, law, politics, and society in general. Gender perspective, gender mainstreaming, gender identity, gender and law are now common terms. However, do we know what we refer to when using the term gender? Frequently, simple questions like, What is your gender? or What is your sex? can be difficult to answer when we realize that the term gender is used in the same context as sex to refer to male and female or masculine and feminine.

Gender can also be used to refer to sexual harassment, social sex, cultural oppression, and even as a synonym for woman. Furthermore, for some, gender is a binary, while for others, it reflects fluidity and diversity. These various approaches to the concept of gender appear to complicate its use in law which prefers established normative factual concepts. Therefore, what is the meaning of gender in law? Avoiding the misleading use of gender requires shedding some light on the concept and term and its development within feminism and in law.


  • Gender
  • Feminism
  • Sex
  • Law

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-031-14781-4_2
  • Chapter length: 22 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   119.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-031-14781-4
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Hardcover Book
USD   159.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Baden and Goetz (1997).

  2. 2.

    Scott (1986), Shaw (2000), Baden and Goetz (1997), and Maynard and Purvis (2018).

  3. 3.

    Lykke (2012).

  4. 4.

    Calás and Smircich (2006), p. 218.

  5. 5.

    Verdu-Sanmartin (2020): The Istambul Convention can be signalled as the first time a definition is given in an international legal text Niemi and Verdu-Sanmartin (2020)

  6. 6.

    Ahmed (1995), p. 56.

  7. 7.

    Dworkin (1991) and Grosz (1994).

  8. 8.

    Stoller (1984).

  9. 9.

    Lamas (1986).

  10. 10.

    Butler (2011).

  11. 11.

    Shaw (2000), p. 412.

  12. 12.

    Barad (2020).

  13. 13.

    Jaggar (1983), Tong (1984), and Beasley (2005).

  14. 14.

    Oakley (1972).

  15. 15.

    Butler (2011).

  16. 16.

    Oakley (1972), p. 13. Garfinkel, for his part, refers to a “natural attitude” that relies on biology: this attitude is grounded in the notion that gender is the cultural part, the expression of a moral commitment to these natural facts in Garfinkel (1967).

  17. 17.

    Hawkesworth (1997).

  18. 18.

    Delphy (1996).

  19. 19.

    Delphy (1984, 1996).

  20. 20.

    Delphy (1996).

  21. 21.

    The law still seems to reinforce this distinction as for instance the Act on Equality between Women and Men in Finland. In Section 2 on the limits to the scope of application the relationships between family members or other relationships in private life are excluded.

  22. 22.

    The feminist analyses of law first focused on positive law and its direct discriminatory effects o women such as the lack of recognition of marital rape, the prohibition to vote or to work without the male permission and as Margaret Davies explains, the focus moved into the analysis of concepts, values and principles in which law is grounded, to show how these foundations of law “support a socially embedded notion of masculinity” Davies (2017a), p. 299; see also Munro (2016).

  23. 23.

    Minow (1988).

  24. 24.

    Smart (1992), p. 29; Cain (1988).

  25. 25.

    Smart (1989).

  26. 26.

    Bartlett (1990), p. 103; Bornstein (1994); Watson (2016).

  27. 27.

    Lykke (2012).

  28. 28.

    Postmodernism includes many different theorists and theories: post-feminism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, postcolonialism. For the purpose of this chapter I do not focus on and address the differences between all of these; rather, I highlight their approach to gender as a continuum with an emphasis on identity and anti-essentialism.

  29. 29.

    Lorber (1997).

  30. 30.

    Lorber’s classification is quite comprehensive within the humanities, and it focuses on the theories that try to answer questions about equality and inequality between women and men. Even if some strands of feminism are left out, she includes many of the theories from the last 35 years. Lorber proposes three categories that group feminist theories and political strategies with regard to the gendered social order: (1) gender reform feminism; (2) gender resistance feminism; and (3) gender revolution feminism in Lorber (1997).

  31. 31.

    Franke (1995).

  32. 32.

    Repo (2011).

  33. 33.

    Smart (1989).

  34. 34.

    Ortner (2005).

  35. 35.

    Olsen (2000), Conaghan (2013), and Smart (1989).

  36. 36.

    Daly (1990), Lacey (1998), and MacKinnon (2007).

  37. 37.

    MacKinnon (1989).

  38. 38.

    Burgess-Jackson (1996), MacKinnon (2005), and Halley (2016).

  39. 39.

    Directive (EU) 2019/1158 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 June 2019 on work-life balance for parents and carers and repealing Council Directive 2010/18/EU.

  40. 40.

    For the differences between countries on recognizing parental leave see: EUrodev, Paternity Leave in Europe 2021 – New EU Directive (2021) <>; Introducing the Network

  41. 41.

    Fausto-Sterling (2000).

  42. 42.

    Valdes (1995a, b).

  43. 43.

    Köhler et al. (2015).

  44. 44.

    Westbrook and Saperstein (2015).

  45. 45.

    Nature is understood as the source of biological determinism. Nature gives us a sex and with it certain sexual attributes. Culture in opposition to nature represents social construction giving meaning to the natural. As cited by Hawkesworth in “Confounding Gender”, Garfinkel writes that “the beliefs constituting the natural attitude are ‘incorrigible’ in that they are held with such conviction that it is nearly impossible to challenge their validity”.

  46. 46.

    Garfinkel (1967) and Kessler and McKenna(1985).

  47. 47.

    Bondi (1998) and Hearn and Parkin (2001).

  48. 48.

    Miller (2011), p. 837.

  49. 49.

    Butler (1994).

  50. 50.

    Miller (2011), p. 838.

  51. 51.

    Gatens (2013) and Thompson (1989).

  52. 52.

    Davies (1997).

  53. 53.

    For examples on this see: Niemi and Sanmartin (2020).

  54. 54.

    Alcoff (1988), p. 417.

  55. 55.

    McGill and Kirkup (2013), p. 33. Other her examples can be found on cases such parental leave, in the obligation of sterilization when changing sex or adoption law which varies in each national legislation.

  56. 56.

    Sweden Adds Gender-Neutral Pronoun to Dictionary. (The Guardian, 2015) <>.

  57. 57.

    Deleuze and Guattari (2004), p. 271.

  58. 58.

    Davies (2017b), p. 73.



  • Ahmed S (1995) Deconstruction and law’s other: towards a feminist theory of embodied legal rights. Soc Leg Stud 4(1):55–73

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Alcoff L (1988) Cultural feminism versus post-structuralism: the identity crisis in feminist theory. Signs 13(3):405–436

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Baden S, Goetz AM (1997) Who needs [sex] when you can have [gender]? Conflicting discourses on gender at Beijing. Fem Rev 56(1):3–25

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Barad K (2020) Meeting the universe halfway. Duke University Press, Durham

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Bartlett K (1990) Feminist legal methods. Harv Law Rev 103:829–888

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Beasley C (2005) Gender and sexuality: critical theories, critical thinkers. Sage, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Bondi L (1998) Sexing the city. In: Fincher R, Jacobs JM (eds) Cities of difference, Guildford

    Google Scholar 

  • Bornstein K (1994) Gender outlaw: on men, women, and the rest of us. Psychology Press

    Google Scholar 

  • Burgess-Jackson K (1996) Rape: a philosophical investigation. Dartmouth Publishing Company, Brookfield

    Google Scholar 

  • Butler J (1994) Against proper objects. Differences. J Fem Cult Stud 6(2-3)

    Google Scholar 

  • Butler J (2011) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, London

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Cain PA (1988) Feminist jurisprudence: grounding the theories. Berkeley Women’s Law J 4(2):191

    Google Scholar 

  • Calás M, Smircich L (2006) From the ‘Woman’s Point of View’ ten years later: towards a feminist organization studies. In: Clegg SR et al (eds) The SAGE handbook of organization studies. Sage

    Google Scholar 

  • Conaghan J (2013) Law and gender. Oxford University Press

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Daly M (1990) Gyn/ecology: the metaethics of radical feminism. Beacon Press

    Google Scholar 

  • Davies M (1997) Taking the inside out: sex and gender in the legal subject. In: Naffine N, Owens RJ (eds) Sexing the subject of law. LBC Information Services, Sweet and Maxwell

    Google Scholar 

  • Davies M (2017a) Asking the law question, 4th edn. Thomson Reuters

    Google Scholar 

  • Davies M (2017b) Law unlimited: materialism, pluralism, and legal theory. Routledge, Glass House

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Deleuze G, Guattari F (2004) Thousand plateaus. A&C Black

    Google Scholar 

  • Delphy C (1984) Close to home: a materialist analysis of women’s oppression. Hutchinson

    Google Scholar 

  • Delphy C (1996) Rethinking sex and gender. Women’s Stud Int Forum 16(1):1–9

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Dworkin A (1991) Woman hating. Penguin Publishing Group

    Google Scholar 

  • Fausto-Sterling A (2000) The five sexes, revisited. Sciences 40(4):18–23

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Franke K (1995) Central mistake of sex discrimination law: the disaggregation of sex from gender. Univ Pa Law Rev 144(1)

    Google Scholar 

  • Garfinkel H (1967) Studies in ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Gatens M (2013) A critique of the sex/gender distinction. In: Imaginary bodies: ethics, power and corporeality. Routledge, London

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Grosz EA (1994) Volatile bodies: toward a corporeal feminism. Allen & Unwin, St. Leonard

    Google Scholar 

  • Halley J (2016) The move to affirmative consent. Signs: J Women Cult Soc 42(1)

    Google Scholar 

  • Hawkesworth M (1997) Confounding gender. Signs 22(3)

    Google Scholar 

  • Hearn J, Parkin W (2001) Gender, sexuality and violence in organizations. Sage, London

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Jaggar AM (1983) Feminist politics and human nature. Rowman & Littlefield

    Google Scholar 

  • Kessler SJ, McKenna W (1985) Gender: an ethnomethodological approach. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Köhler R, Recher A, Ehrt J (2015) Legal gender recognition in Europe.

  • Lacey N (1998) Unspeakable subjects: feminist essays in legal and social theory. Bloomsbury

    Google Scholar 

  • Lamas M (1986) La antropología feminista y la categoría “género”. NuevaAntropología VIII(30):173–198

    Google Scholar 

  • Lorber J (1997) The variety of feminisms and their contributions to gender equality. Oldenburg Universitätsreden: BIS

    Google Scholar 

  • Lykke N (2012) Feminist Studies, a guide to intersectional theory, methodology and writing. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • MacKinnon C (1989) Toward a feminist theory of the state. Harvard University Press, Harvard

    Google Scholar 

  • MacKinnon C (2005) Women’s lives, men’s laws. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • MacKinnon C (2007) Are women human? Harvard University Press, Harvard

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Maynard M, Purvis J (2018) Methods, practices and epistemology: the debate about feminism and research. In: Maynard M, Purvis J (eds) Researching women’s lives from a feminist perspective. Taylor & Francis, London

    Google Scholar 

  • McGill J, Kirkup K (2013) Locating the trans legal subject in Canadian law: XY v. Ontario. Rev Leg Soc Issues 33

    Google Scholar 

  • Miller A (2011) Fighting over the figure of gender. Pace Law Rev 31(3):837–872

    Google Scholar 

  • Minow M (1988) Feminist reason: getting it and losing it. J Leg Educ 38(1/2):47–60

    Google Scholar 

  • Munro VE (2016) The Ashgate research companion to feminist legal theory. Routledge

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Niemi J, Sanmartin AV (2020) The concepts of gender and violence in the Istanbul Convention. In: Niemi J, Peroni L, Stoyanova V (eds) The Istanbul Convention as a response to violence against women in Europe. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Oakley A (1972) Sex, gender and society. Maurice Temple Smith Ltd, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Olsen F (2000) El Sexo Del Derecho. In: Ruiz AEA (ed) Identidad femenina y discurso jurídico. Biblos, Buenos Aires

    Google Scholar 

  • Ortner SB (2005) Is female to male as nature is to culture. In: Feminist theory: a reader. Kolmar, WK & Bartkowski

    Google Scholar 

  • Repo J (2011) The biopolitics of gender. Unigrafia, Helsinki

    Google Scholar 

  • Scott JW (1986) Gender: a useful category of historical analysis. Am Hist Rev 91(5):1053–1075

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Shaw J (2000) Importing gender: the challenge of feminism and the analysis of the EU legal order. J Eur Public Policy 7:406–431

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Smart C (1989) Feminism and the power of law. Routledge

    Google Scholar 

  • Smart C (1992) The woman of legal discourse. Soc Leg Stud 1:29

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Stoller RJ (1984) Sex and gender: the development of masculinity and femininity. Karnac Books

    Google Scholar 

  • Thompson D (1989) The ‘sex/gender’ distinction: a reconsideration. Aust Fem Stud 4(10):23–31

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Tong R (1984) Women, sex, and the law. Rowman & Littlefield

    Google Scholar 

  • Valdes F (1995a) Queers, sissies, dykes, and tomboys: deconstructing the conflation of sex, gender and sexual orientation. Calif Law Rev (8)

    Google Scholar 

  • Valdes F (1995b) Afterword & prologue: queer legal theory. Calif Law Rev (83)

    Google Scholar 

  • Verdu-Sanmartin A (2020) Trapped in gender: understanding the concept of gender and its use in law. University of Turku.

  • Watson L (2016) The woman question. Transgender Stud Q 3:1–3

    Google Scholar 

  • Westbrook L, Saperstein A (2015) New categories are not enough. Gender Soc 29(534).

Other Sources

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Amalia Verdu Sanmartin .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2023 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Verdu Sanmartin, A. (2023). The Concept of Gender in Law. In: Vujadinović, D., Álvarez del Cuvillo, A., Strand, S. (eds) Feminist Approaches to Law. Gender Perspectives in Law, vol 1. Springer, Cham.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: Springer, Cham

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-031-14780-7

  • Online ISBN: 978-3-031-14781-4

  • eBook Packages: Law and CriminologyLaw and Criminology (R0)