When was the term "gender essentialism" coined, and when did first it come into common usage?

I was under the impression that the concept originated though the feminist existentialism work of authors such as Simone de Beauvoir but GoogleBooks Ngram shows the term start to show up in published works in 1987. I did a Google search but could not easily find an authoritative source for the origin and initial spread of this term.

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    Are you sure that it has come into common usage? Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 10:21
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    A search in the COCA corpus only returns one hit for gender essentialism, the 1998 paper "Essence of Culture and Sense of History: a feminist critique of cultural essentialism". However, on investigating that paper, it uses gender essentialism as the established theory to which it draws parallels, so it must have expected the term to be well understood by its intended audience. My guess is the term arose in feminist studies & postmodernist academia....
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 10:46
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    ... but never made it into the broader population (hence the dearth of hits in the COCA corpus). In other words, it's a technical term, a term of art: jargon.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 10:49
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    I think saying it's in "common usage" is a stretch. But an Ngram of the early days of the term shows it first being mentioned in the early 70s, and "taking off" about 1986. *Radical Feminism" in 1973 may have been the first mention.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 1:56

1 Answer 1


There is a trick for figuring this out. You go to Google Scholar and try out a series of custom ranges.

Doing that, I discovered the following:

I argue that their work, though powerful and brilliant in many ways, relies on what I call gender essentialism-the notion that a unitary, "essential" women's experience can be isolated and described independently of race, class, sexual orientation, and other realities of experience.

Harris, Angela P. "Race and essentialism in feminist legal theory." Stanford law review (1990): 581-616.


Essentialism is implicit in analogies between sex and race. Angela Harris explains gender essentialism as "[t]he notion that there is a mono- lithic 'women's experience' that can be described independent of other facets of experience like race, class, and sexual orientation."

Grillo, Trina, and Stephanie M. Wildman. "Obscuring the importance of race: The implication of making comparisons between racism and sexism (or other-isms)." Duke Law Journal (1991): 397-412.

The Harris 1990 article is cited by 2503 other works. Before making a claim in print, of course one would want to do a little more research, but Harris looks very likely!

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