I've seen the term 'the fairer sex' being used in a number of areas to refer to females. How did they get that title?
What does 'fairer' refer to in this case?
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3. fair — very pleasing to the eye; "my bonny lass"; "there's a bonny bay beyond"; "a comely face"; "young fair maidens"
6. fair — attractively feminine; "the fair sex"
OED will provide a citation, I'm sure. Chaucer used fair maid and fair maiden, but the earliest use of fair (or fairer) sex I can find is from Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott, 1771–1832):
[...prevented him from putting his foot into the stirrup.] This, however, was a slight inconvenience to the gallant Abbot, who, perhaps, even rejoicing in the opportunity to display his accomplished horsemanship before so many spectators, especially of the fair sex, dispensed with the use of these supports to a timid rider.
The word fair is here used in its original sense. It is not uniquely applied to women, although this is what the fair/fairer sex has largely come to mean.
The following is an excerpt of the relevant senses, with only a few each of citations, from the OED regarding all this:
Beautiful to the eye; of pleasing form or appearance; good-looking. Phrases, fair to see (arch.); fair and free (obs. or arch.). No longer in colloquial use; in literature very common, but slightly arch. or rhetorical.
a. of persons; chiefly with reference to the face; in mod. use, almost exclusively of women. Also of the body or its parts.
- C. 1205 Lay. 3886 ― He wes wis he wes fæir.
- A. 1300 Cursor M. 4223 (Cott.) ― Ioseph··was fre and feir.
- C. 1385 Chaucer L.G.W. 613 ― Cleopatras, Sche was fayr as is the Rose in May.
- A. 1400-50 Alexander 601 ― Þe fax on his faire hede was ferly to schawe.
- 1602 Shaks. Ham. ɪ. i. 47 ― That Faire and Warlike forme.
- 1697 Dryden Virg. Georg. iv. 760 ― His Head, from his fair Shoulders torn.
- 1832 Tennyson Sisters, ― The earl was fair to see.
- 1864 Tennyson Aylmer’s F. 681 ― Fair as the Angel that said ‘Hail!’
b. Applied to women, as expressing the quality characteristic of their sex. So, the fair sex (= Fr. le beau sexe), a fair one. Also in comparative.
- 1800 Med. Jrnl. III. 442 ― These melancholy cases··spread a general alarm over a considerable district among the fair sex.
- 1825 A. Cunningham ‘Wet Sheet & Flowing Sea’ 10 ― O for a soft and gentle wind! I heard a fair one cry.
- 1878 J. H. Beadle Western Wilds xxix. 451 ― The fairer section of our party are startled at the crowds of men in the streets.
c. of abstractions personified.
- 1742 Pope Dunc. iv. 24 ― There, stript, fair Rhet’ric languish’d on the ground.
d. used in courteous or respectful address. Obs. exc. arch.
- 1588 Shaks. L.L.L. ᴠ. ii. 310 ― Faire sir, God saue you.
- 1820 Scott Abbot xi, ― ‘So much for your lineage, fair sir,’ replied his companion.
- 1889 Mark Twain Connecticut Yankee 230 ― Even so, fair my lord.
You can still find occasional uses of fair applied to men, such as in Twain above. But be careful what you Google for — especially at work. ’Nuff said.
It refers to looks...'nuff said; anything more will get me into trouble I'm sure.
[Sorry, should be comment on Jon of All Trades' answer] I have to say I always thought that 'fair maid' etc. had some reference to lack of tan in certain contexts. It is only in the twentieth century that tanned skin on a person of light skin tone has become admired, probably to do with the fact that, once plane travel came into being, most people in could not afford to go abroad and get a good tan after working indoors fifty weeks of the year. Before that, untanned skin was admired because only well-off people could afford not to work in the fields.
Having said that, I am happy to accept that the primary meaning is not really to do with class. It may be that the class explanation is a misconception that some of us have taken as the gospel truth. I suspect the down-voters did so in the belief that they were serving the cause of political correctness.