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The distinction between sex and gender is attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead (Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, 1935). Sex is the biological category, whereas gender is the culturally shaped expression of sexual difference: the masculine way in which men should behave and the feminine way in which women should behave. It is emphasized by de Beauvoir that in this system woman is the Other: the kind of person whose characteristics are described by contrast with the male norm. It is a central aim of much feminist thought to uncover concealed asymmetries of power in differences of gender, and to work for a society in which the polarization of gender is abolished.

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