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This article examines the historically and culturally specific valence of ‘gender’ as currently deployed in the field of gender and women's history. It draws broadly on the scholarship on gender since the 1980s, while focusing particularly on the case of the British North American colonies and the early United States republic. The essay argues against the common practice of assuming that gender, understood as an oppositional binary, functions virtually universally as a primary process for representing differential power. It concludes by calling for a way of thinking about gender that can recognise important historical and cultural alternatives.