By Morgan Elyse.
♀: you see it everywhere – from book covers, to necklaces, to advertisements – and always in reference to the female gender – the UMKC Women’s Center even uses it in the logo for our CineWomen event. These days the symbol for the female gender is a representation of feminism, the pride in being a woman, and the pride in sisterhood. There are also versions of the male and female gender symbols which represent pride for a variety of sexual orientations, i.e., a figure with two linked male symbols is an icon used by homosexual men, a figure with the wearer’s gender centered between a male and a female symbol represents bisexuality, the transgender community uses a couple of adaptations that fuse together both symbols as well as adopting the sign for Mercury in favor of Linnaeus’ meaning (see chart), etc., etc.
Most of us are well aware of what these emblems signify in today’s culture, but where on earth did they come from? Well, they came from space, actually; Venus and Mars, to be exact.
If you perform an internet search on the origin of the symbols, you will come across a plethora of explanations, some as misguided and offensive as “X marks the spot where pointy things go”, but most of which reference Greek mythology. William T. Stearn’s 1962 article,”The Origin of the Male and Female Symbols of Biology,” published by the International Association for Plant Taxonomy’s journal, Taxon, gives us a comprehensive account of how these symbols and their uses have evolved since 5th century BCE.
||The Celestial Body/god(dess)
Found carved in ancient stone, the Greek symbols in the chart above were used to reference the heavenly bodies as well as their corresponding gods and goddesses.
The same signs were later used as shorthand in the practice of alchemy and even later in chemistry. Prior to Berzelius’ abbreviations for the Latin word for each element (which remain on the periodic table today), each planetary character represented a different metal. So what does that have to do with gender other than the fact that Venus was a woman and Mars was her male counterpart/love interest? Eighteenth century botanist, Carl Linnaeus was actually the first in recorded history to use these symbols in reference to gender. Linnaeus also used them as shorthand, but to represent different properties of his botanical specimens rather than metals.
Stearn also references the work of French scholar Claudius Salmasius in what he calls a more “academically acceptable” theory of the origin of the symbols. Salmasius explains that ♃, ♄, ♂, ☿, and ♀ all derive from contractions in Greek script which were used as abbreviations for the names of Greek gods but have, over so much time, come to form the pictographs we see today. Renkema illustrated this phenomenon:
from “The Origin of the Male and Female Symbols of Biology” by William T. Stearn.
Taxon , Vol. 11, No. 4 (May, 1962), pp. 109-113.
Stearn also mentions a “less” academically acceptable theory (as do many other internet sources), which is that each symbol illustrates a physical attribute of each god and goddess, i.e., Mars’ shield and spear, Venus’ hand mirror, Mercury’s winged helmet, Saturn’s scythe, Jupiter’s lightning bolt, etc.
It’s been more than 50 years since this article was published, and Stearn’s article is the only scholarly work I could find on this subject – and it still sort of leaves us questioning whether the metamorphosing script theory or the illustrative traits of the gods theory is more accurate. Personally, particularly when taking in to consideration the symbol for the sun and the moon, as well as the symbol for Neptune being an unmistakable trident, the pictographic analogy seems much more valid.
Despite its ostensible sensibility however, this concept leaves me with yet another question: If we feminists are flaunting about a hand mirror as a symbol of strength, might we want to reevaluate its cogency? If you consider the mythology of Venus and how she got a raw deal just because she was a woman and she was beautiful, in conjunction with the fact that today, women have yet to overcome the same sexism, and you use this as a symbol of perseverance – then, by all means, flaunt the $#!% out of ♀. Do you think the symbol being both a visual remnant of the stereotyping and gendering that women are fighting against and a textual embodiment of a goddess who undoubtedly could sympathize with our plight today (even though she didn’t actually overcome any of her own), can put some positive meaning behind it? Sure, I think it works.
Once used as shorthand for astronomy and the gods, then for science, now used as shorthand for gender equity and empowerment, the simple yet mighty ♀ is a recognizable insignia that’s been around for centuries and will most likely be for centuries to come. So recognizable, mind you, that most of us hadn’t even questioned its genesis. It makes me wonder, though, what all these symbols will mean, how they’ll be used, or if they will even exist in another 2500 years.
What do the gender symbols mean to you?