a. the fair (also gentle, soft, weak, etc.) sex : the female sex, women. Similarly †the devout sex , †the woman sex , the second sex .
In more recent use often ironical or humorous (as also in senses Phrases 1b and Phrases 1c).
1536 P. Melancthon Confessyon of Fayth of Germaynes f. 24, This happenyd also..in Monasteries of women..not withstonding that the weake sexe or kynde ought more to haue ben spared.
[1583 P. Stubbes Anat. Abuses sig. Eviiv, The magnificency & liberalitie of that gentle sex.]
1652 R. Brome Joviall Crew iii. sig. H4, I am bound by a strong vow to kisse all of the woman sex I meet this morning.
c1660 J. Evelyn Diary anno 1644 (1955) II. 246 The Pillar..at which the devout sex are always rubbing their Chaplets.
1688–9 J. Evelyn Mem. (1857) III. 294 Lovers and courters of the fair sex.
1694 N. H. Ladies Dict. Ded. sig. A2, To the Ladies, Gentlewomen, and Others, of the Fair-Sex, the Author Humbly Dedicates this following Work.
1702 C. Beaumont J. Beaumont's Psyche (new ed.) xiv. l. 213 The softer sex, attending Him And His still-growing woes with tenderer eyes.
1716 Pope tr. Homer Iliad II. v. 435 The King insults the Goddess as she flies..Go, let thy own soft Sex employ thy Care.
1732 G. Berkeley Alciphron I. ii. xxiv. 142 The fair Sex have now nothing to do but dress and paint.
1801 Port Folio (Philadelphia) 23 May 166/3, I prefer the favours of the fair sex to the company of the soakers, and so there is an end to all drinking.
1821 Byron Don Juan: Canto IV cviii. 125 Benign ceruleans of the second sex! Who advertise new poems by your looks.
1836 W. Irving Widow's Ordeal in Magnolia for 1837 257 It is somewhat remarkable that..the gentler sex should have been most frequently the subjects of these rude trials.
1838 E. Bulwer-Lytton Alice II. iv. vi. 14 In addition to those qualities which please the softer sex, Legard was a good whist-player.
1896 J. K. Bangs House-boat on Styx vii. 86 But go along and have your ladies' day here, and never mind my reasons for preferring my own society to that of the fair sex.
1928 D. K. Parker tr. Schopenhauer: Selections 443 Women..form the sexus sequior—the second sex.
1953 H. M. Parshley tr. S. de Beauvoir (title) The second sex.
1974 J. Mitchell Psychoanal. & Feminism ii. ii. 306 Woman is the archetype of the oppressed consciousness: the second sex.
1996 L. Lowndes How to make Anyone fall in Love with You xxxvi. 217 Another gentle habit of the gentle sex that, unfortunately, drives men stark raving berserk.
2008 N.Y. Rev. Bks. 26 June 44/3 The translation is sometimes old-fashioned (who now describes women as ‘the fair sex’?).