Gender or Sex?

Gender Mainstreaming and the Gender Perspective

Christl Ruth Vonholdt

Gender mainstreaming is a new term which we are encountering more and more frequently. Once discovered, it seems as if the phrase can be found everywhere – on websites, in book titles, on invitations to training seminars and various (secular and church-sponsored) events. Gender mainstreaming is being promoted everywhere. But what does the phrase actually mean and what are the issues behind it?
One journalist compared gender mainstreaming to a submarine – no one really knows what its intentions are, in what direction it is being navigated and when its goals will become visible. Is this really the case, and if so, why?

After skimming through texts on gender mainstreaming, one might come to the conclusion that they simply have to do with more equal rights and the ‘equality’ of men and women as stated in our German Constitution. In reality, gender mainstreaming clandestinely imposes a completely new understanding on our Constitutional Right of Equality.

A decisive step toward the world-wide diffusion of gender mainstreaming took place at the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. In the conference’s final resolution The Beijing Platform for Action it says: “Governments and other actors should promote an active and visible policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective in all policies and programmes.“ The phrase “mainstreaming a gender perspective” was shortened to gender mainstreaming.

By the end of 1995, the general recommendations of the Beijing Conference had become an obligation within the United Nations: The UN made a binding commitment to the objectives of gender mainstreaming, with the European Union following in 1996 and the German government in 2000.

1. The Gender Perspective: Differentiation is unjust

With the phrase “mainstreaming a gender perspective” in the final resolution of the Beijing Conference, reference was made to the fundamental ideology underlying the concept of gender mainstreaming, namely the gender perspective. Despite its many facets, the gender perspective is a clearly outlined radical theory about sex and gender: “The gender perspective… is a comprehensive world view which sees every relationship or activity in which human beings engage as socially constructed.1

In English, there are two terms for the German word “Geschlecht”: sex and gender. While sex has been understood as an explicitly biological term, gender has been used to describe man and woman in general, as well as man and woman with regard to their social roles. Until recently, however, the concept of gender has remained inseparably connected with the biological term of sex. Therefore, in ordinary speech, sex and gender often continue to be used as synonyms.

During the 1970’s, a radical form of feminism developed and with it the ideology of the gender perspective. The gender perspective is based upon a completely new understanding of the term gender. According to the gender perspective there is to be no longer any relationship between ‘sex’ and ‘gender'. Instead, the terms are to be understood independently, yes even in opposition to one another. Gender perspective theorists maintain that, although ‘sex’ as a biological construct exists, the concept of ‘gender’ is much more important. Furthermore, gender is simply a socially and culturally constructed role which is not connected to any biological criteria and, as a result, can be altered at will.

The gender perspective derives many of its essential principles from Marxism. Gender feminists recognized their own central issue in the theories of Marx and Engels, namely the alleged universal oppression of women by men and the conviction that heterosexual marriage represents the source and prototype of all oppression. According to Marx and Engels, the natural differences between man and woman resulted in the first division of labour based on the criterion of sex, which in turn became the basis for all other divisions into economic and cultural classes. In other words, the first class division which led to all other class divisions and upon which all injustice is founded, is the division based on sex.

Therefore, according to the gender perspective, women’s liberation isn’t simply achieved by eliminating possible male privileges. Humankind must be fundamentally emancipated from the ‘class of sex’, in other words, from the binary sex categories of male and female. If the differences between man and woman are the source of all oppression, then the only objective can be an ‘equality' in which all differences (as far as possible) are eliminated. Those distinctions which cannot be removed are declared irrelevant. The gender perspective adopted the motto of Marxism: Difference is always unequal and unequal is always oppressive.

A leading gender feminist wrote how the gender perspective should be implemented in a “just society”: “In its social structures and practices one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye colour or the length of one’s toes. No assumptions would be made about ’male’ or ’female’ roles.2

2. Goals and Strategies: the Ambiguation of the Category ‘Gender’

A central strategy of the gender perspective is to blur the category of gender, making every differentiation between man and woman irrelevant. The objective is to “ambiguate gender” and, not least, to eliminate the “binary view of sex”. Only in doing so can the goal of ‘equality’ be achieved – and here we are confronted with the reinterpretation of the term equality. Equality is now to be understood as the complete interchangeability of woman and man.

But how is this possible? Biological research has long since demonstrated that women and men are “different by nature”, not only in their anatomy, but in their entire being.

This is the reason why the gender perspective rejects the concept of biological sex and has instead chosen as its central term its own definition of ‘gender’, understanding gender to be nothing more than a “socially constructed role” which is radically detached from all criteria rooted in biology or an individual’s physical body. As a result, what was impossible with the term ‘sex’ becomes possible with the term ‘gender’ – gender can be arbitrarily altered. “Gender fluidity is the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders, for any length of time, at any rate of change. Gender fluidity recognizes no borders or rules of gender.3

In contrast to the biological term of ‘sex’, there are not only two genders, but many. Currently, gender theorists differentiate between five or more genders.4

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the GenderKompetenzZentrum (Gender Competence Centre) at the Humboldt University in Berlin has been primarily responsible for the implementation of gender mainstreaming since its founding in 2003. In 2006, the following statement could be found on its website: “A human being is born with biological characteristics which are located along a spectrum between male and female characteristics.” Furthermore, gender means “sex in the diversity of its social expressions”. “Therefore, gender is also influenced by ancestry, religious beliefs, age, competency and handicaps, sexual orientation and other structural characteristics.”5 In other words, instead of two complementary sexes (man and woman), there now exists a myriad of equivalent genders. This is the new interpretation of the term ‘equality’. In addition, what are actually different subjective sexual inclinations or “sexual orientations”, such as “gay”, “lesbian”, “bisexual”, and “transgender”, are treated instead as different genders. Therefore, it becomes clear that the gender perspective and gender mainstreaming not only involves a reinterpretation of ‘equality’, but also brings with it a new understanding of ‘marriage and family’, demanding that homosexual relationships be treated on equal terms with heterosexual marriage.

3. The 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995

Websites which advocate gender mainstreaming consider the 1995 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing to be a “milestone” in the diffusion of the concept of gender mainstreaming. However, the heated debates and conflicts among UN delegates prior to the Conference reveal that it was really the ideology of the gender perspective that had won the day.
At the time, UN delegates from rich nations that supported the new ideology carried out a successful power play against the fierce resistance of some UN delegates from developing nations. The journalist and eye-witness Dale O’Leary wrote an informative and fascinating report on what actually took place prior to the Conference and how several UN representatives from poor countries were silenced in their attempts to advocate the complementarity of woman and man, marriage and the family.6

4. How is the Gender Perspective Politically Implemented?

The gender perspective seems to be miles away from the daily life of most people in Europe. However, in considering this issue, one should take seriously the words of the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, who said that the thoughts which are expressed on today’s university campuses will be lived out in tomorrow’s side streets.

The gender theorist Nina Degele, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Freiburg/Breisgau confirms that the gender perspective has to do with the “denaturalization of gender”. She goes on to say that the goal of gender mainstreaming is to programmatically implement this viewpoint. “This kind of… undermining is radical. For what can make us more insecure than being unable to clearly classify the individuals we encounter as a woman or a man.”7

Today, the growing and well-resourced bureaucratic apparatus of the EU, as well as that of the Federal Republic of Germany, are already implementing some of the primary goals of gender mainstreaming, namely to ambiguate gender and achieve the complete interchangeability of woman and man. The following examples demonstrate this:

  1. Gender Studies have reinterpreted the meaning of equality. The central focus is no longer equal opportunity and equal rights, but interchangeability. In an initial step this ‘exchangeability’ is being programmatically implemented by the demand for mandatory statistical equality, i.e. 50/50 (man-woman) quotas for all areas of employment and life. In order to achieve this, all women must either resume full-time employment as soon as possible after giving birth and largely relinquish their children to public institutions, or husbands and wives must see to it that the areas of paid employment and family work are always divided, with each person carrying out 50 percent of the respective work areas. It goes without saying that it is fine for a couple to voluntarily divide their work in this way. However, things become problematic when this division becomes mandatory. On the International Woman’s Day in March 2007, the Deputy UN General Secretary demanded a 50/50 quota for all UN employees with regard to career positions and areas of life.8
  2. The main obstacle to achieving this new ‘equality’ is motherhood. Only women can become pregnant, give birth and breastfeed their infants. The goal of statistical equality in all areas becomes a statistical impossibility as soon as even a small share of women desire to be full-time mothers for several years. Therefore, in order to ensure ‘equal treatment’ for women and men, abortion is sponsored worldwide in order to allow women to rid themselves of motherhood whenever deemed fit.
    In the autumn of 2006, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) put the elected government of Nicaragua under massive pressure because its parliament had passed a law prohibiting abortion. The BMZ unmistakably threatened “consequences for future cooperation” if the law was not revoked.9
  3. Gender theorists are of the opinion that distinctions between men and women should be eliminated wherever possible. Male and female abilities must be branded as ‘gender stereotypes’. Men and women should experience their respective gender-typical endowments as embarrassing. This has particularly destructive effects on the identity development of young people. In 2007, the EPSCO Council of the EU (under German presidency) specifically demanded “measures to combat gender stereotypes in education” in the statement of principles presented by the “European Alliance for Families.10
  4. In January 2007, a bill calling for a change in the transsexual law was introduced before the German Parliament. The bill (which was ultimately rejected by the German Parliament) stated that the legal determination of a person’s gender must no longer to be based upon objective, external sexual criteria but instead should be solely dependent upon the subjective perception of each individual. In the draft we read that “the true diversity of identities must be accepted”. Individuals who consider themselves transsexuals (or transgender) should not be forced into predefined binary categories. For gender theorists, such a bill is a strategic step in eliminating the “binary gender system”, not only for transsexuals and transgender persons but for all people.11

5. The Corruption of Language

The goals of the gender perspective and gender mainstreaming advocates are the ambiguation of gender, the dissolution of marriage and family, and the creation of a new, ‘free’ and self-determined person who exists beyond gender categories and whose gender and identity can be invented and re-invented at will.
In reality, the gender perspective represents a corruption of language, a battle against biology and a ‘freedom’ (from the category of sex and gender) which is actually a Cartesian alienation of the self. The result is an escalation of the battle between the sexes (interestingly, those who are allegedly the same must constantly compare themselves), as well as the dissolution of marriage and family.

Let us take a closer look at the first point.
C.S. Lewis spent a great deal of time studying the “the corruption of language”. He maintained that language could either heal or destroy. Language heals when it clearly conveys something which is true. In contrast, corrupted language is incomprehensible or unclear. Volker Zastrow, editor of the FAS, writes that when it comes to gender mainstreaming, the lack of clarity is deliberate.12
In addition to this lack of clarity, words such as equality, rights, family – all of which evoke positive associations – are covertly reinterpreted. Language is consciously employed to confuse and to blind.
The metaphor of the submarine also fits well here. It has not truly revealed itself yet. No one knows exactly where it’s heading and what its intentions are.

Lewis wrote that the process of reinterpreting good into evil first becomes apparent in the use of language. When one alters words or their meaning, one changes the public perception of the issue in question. The goal is to bring people to the point of endorsing something which they normally would never support if they actually knew what the underlying issues were.

6. Humankind – Created as Man and Woman

Created as man and woman, human beings cannot simply re-invent themselves, their identity and what is good for them at will. This is not only true for the ‘biological reality’ which the advocates of the gender perspective have unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss. It also holds true for the one objective norm “which human beings must yield to and become embedded in”, if they are to achieve their freedom and avoid falling victim to slavery.13 In the foreword to C.S. Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, H. von Balthasar writes that “human beings do not invent that which is good for them, but discover this deep within the primeval intuition of their reason and, in response, they must choose to obey this if they are not to sink below the dignity of their freedom.”14 In reality, it is the very diversity of both sexes which feeds the creative tension between man and woman – and it is this tension which makes children, family and a sustainable future possible.

Over 50 years ago, the philosopher and Judeo-Christian thinker Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, while a clear supporter of marriage based on partnership, wrote the following about the two supposedly “interchangeable” and therefore indistinguishable marriage partners: “It seems to me that using the term of two partners instead of husband and wife or bride and groom represents a conscious blurring of the profound difference between the sexes. What makes marriage glorious is the way in which it reflects the peace which can be achieved between the inexpressibly divided sexes.”15

The gender perspective will not prevail in the end as long as there are enough women and men who choose to affirm their femininity and masculinity and are prepared to embark on the adventure of reliable, mutual completion. This adventure has nothing to do with “interchangeability” but rather focuses on the equal appreciation of “profound” differences.


This article was written in 2008 and has remained unchanged except for a few minor corrections. Only the original reference to the subsidisation of the GenderKompetenzZentrum in Berlin by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BFMSFJ) has been removed. The BFMSFJ discontinued its financial support for the GenderKompetenzZentrum in July 2010.

1. O’Leary, D., Gender: The deconstruction of women: analysis of the gender perspective in preparation for the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China, September, 1995, p.7, quoted in Mundy, D.L., Hitting Below the Belt: Sex-ploitive Ideology and the Disaggregation of Sex and Gender, p.33.

2. Okin, S., Justice, Gender and the Family, New York 1989, p. 171.

3. Bornestein, K., Gender-Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us., New York 1994, p. 52, quoted in O’Leary, D., The Gender Agenda, see footnote 6.

4. For example: Fausto-Sterling, A., The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are not enough, in: The Sciences, March 1993.

5. Quoted in Mascher, K., “Geschlechtslos in die Zukunft?“ , Salzkorn 5/2006, Publisher: OJC, 64382 Reichelsheim, available at: Italics have been added. In the meantime, the GenderKompetenzZentrum has removed both of these sentences from its website.

6. O’Leary, D., The Gender Agenda, Vital Issues Press 1997. A two part summary in German is available in: Bulletin Nr. 13, Frühjahr 2007, Deutsches Institut für Jugend und Gesellschaft, Pf. 1220, D-64382 Reichelsheim, Email:

7. Degele, N., Anpassen oder unterminieren: Zum Verhältnis von Gender Mainstreaming zu Gender Studies. In: Lüdtke, D., Kompetenz und/oder Zuständigkeit. Zum Verhältnis von Geschlechtertheorie und Gleichstellungspraxis, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften 2005, S.95.



10. May 30, 2007 Newsletter of the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (Bundesfamilienministerium, BMFSFJ-Newsletter). EPSCO: The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council in the EU.

11. Bill submitted on January 30, 2007.

12. See Zastrow, V., Gender-Mainstreaming – Politische Geschlechtsumwandlung. Leipzig 2006, p.10. FAS: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

13. Balthasar, H. von, Einführung in: C.S. Lewis, Die Abschaffung des Menschen, Einsiedeln 1997, p.11.

14. ibid. p. 12.

15. Rosenstock-Huessy, E., Der unbezahlbare Mensch, Berlin 1962, p. 139.

Copyright: July 2010 DIJG