Gender Symbols

Gender Symbols


The women’s gender symbol began life as a representation of the planet Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love. She is often depicted holding a mirror and admiring her own gaze, so the symbol originates from the idea of her holding a hand mirror. Can you see that?

The male symbol began as a representation of the planet Mars, the Roman God of War. He is often depicted with a shield and spear, so the symbol roughly represents these weapons.

The symbols were also used in alchemy to represent the metals associated with the planets, e.g. copper for Venus and Iron for Mars.

They were introduced more specifically as gender symbols by Carl Linneaeus, a Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist and physician who formalised the modern system of naming organisms. He is known as the "father of modern taxonomy". In his books Mantissa Plantarum (1767) and Mantissa Plantarum Altera (1771), Linnaeus regularly used the planetary symbols of Mars, Venus and Mercury – ♂, ♀,  – for male flowers (stamens only), female flowers (pistil only) or “perfect” hermaphroditic flowers with both pistils and stamens.

As time went on they were adopted for other scientific texts, as a quick way to reference genders, so the pictograms stuck. The symbols are now ubiquitous in biology and medicine to indicate the sex of an individual, for example of a patient.

Maybe not all feminists would be thrilled to learn that the back story for (say) the women power symbol included a vanity mirror, but very few would be aware of that, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

Story Idea: Bonnie Siegler



1. Venus with her hand mirror
2. Mars with shield and spear
3. "Designation of celestial bodies" in a German almanac printed 1850
4. Carl Linneaeus aka Carl von Linné, 1707–1778
5. 1515 Translation of Albumasar, an early Persian astrologer. Top left is Mars with spear and shield, bottom right is Venus with her hand mirror.
6. Two different symbols for Copper on the facade of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory of Yale University in New Haven, CT
7. Two different symbols for Iron on the facade of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory of Yale University in New Haven, CT
8. All gender restroom sign in San Diego Natural History Museum
9. The feminist fist inside a female gender symbol was first featured on a button at the 1969 Miss America Protests

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