With roots in ancient astrology and alchemy, the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols may ultimately derive from ancient Greek abbreviations for the names of gods.
This week, President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s “protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity,” as the New York Times reported.
Covering the story, many media outlets have presented images of gender-neutral bathroom signs such as:
This symbol, by no means universally embraced by the transgender community, seeks to depict non-binary gender identity by joining the classical sex symbols for male (♂) and female (♀) with a combined male-female one (⚦).
Where do these male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from, anyway?
Of gods and metal
In a 1962 edition of the journal Taxon, William Stearn lays out a compelling origin story:
Ancient astrology believed the movements of celestial bodies influenced all life on earth, from changes in the seasons to the fate of an individual person. In their system, the Babylonians named particular celestial objects after their gods. They identified the planet Venus, for instance, with Ishtar, a fertility goddess, and Mars with Nergal, a war god.
The Greeks copied the Babylonians – including alchemists and metallurgists, who associated deities with particular metals in religious rituals of their craft. Iron – hard, rust-red iron, hard, and forged for weaponry – corresponded to Ares (Mars), Greek god of war, emblem of masculinity, and, as a planet, ruddy in the night sky. Copper, a softer metal (the Greeks weren’t always so enlightened) fashioned into mirrors, corresponded to Aphrodite (Venus), goddess of love, figure of femininity, and glowing greenish just after sunrise.
A cramped hand
Ares/Mars/iron answered to thouros (θοῦρος), from the Homeric epithet θοῦρος (thouros), “rushing” or “raging,” i.e. impetuous Ares. Aphrodite/Venus/copper went by Φωσφόρος (phosphoros), “light-bringer,” referring to the planet’s appearance in the morning. (The element Phosphorous also comes from this root.) Scribes eventually developed a shorthand for these names, as 17th-century French scholar Claude de Saumaise surmised.
Dutch botanist H. W. Renkema illustrated de Saumaise’s hypothetical evolution of the shorthand in Greek script:
And so, if this theory is correct, ♂ and ♀ don’t represent Mars’ shield and sword and Venus’ mirror, necklace, or spindle, as is popularly thought, but abbreviations of Greek letters.
A pedigree pedigree
The planetary/metallic symbols passed from ancient astrology and alchemy into modern science. Swedish master botanist Carl Linnaeus, drawing on their historic association with Mars’ masculinity and Venus’ femininity, used ♂ and ♀ for his own shorthand as early as 1725: ♂ stood for male plants and ♂, female ones, in his pedigree charts. Over the century, his symbols soon spread into zoology, biology, genetics, and medicine, from there jumping into the broader culture as sex symbols.
Today, geneticists use squares for males and circles for females, a code which appears to trace back, says G. D. Schott in the BMJ, to one Pliny Earle, who used them for a study of the inheritance color-blindness at the New York Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane in 1845. For his charts, Earle had to use ovals and rectangles, apparently, because his printer only had musical notation available (e.g., like the elliptical head of a half note or and its rest counterpart) for symbols.
Flush the symbols
Debate over gender symbols – not to mention over gender itself – will continue. But as for how to sign a gender-neutral bathroom, many are feeling any combination of ♂, ♀, and ⚦ fall short. What do they opt for instead? A symbol picture of a toilet. That, in the end, is all a bathroom is about.