What is a “woman”?

“My femininity is different from your femaleness,” I said. “Oh, that’s good,” she said, writing it down. The gender non-conforming woman insists she is a woman and women are oppressed because they are women. Freedom for women requires a strict definition of “woman”, excluding trans women even though it includes some with disorders of sexual development.

My Radical feminist Friend (I have more than one- do not assume any individual) wrote, The illusion of gender difference is the one making it possible to let one sex be dominant and the other subordinate. Any definition of “woman” which includes me would exclude her, or restrict and limit her to “femininity”. Trans is no escape from oppression: she mocked the trans “man”, 5′ tall with a high voice and feminine mannerisms.

A social conservative arguing for traditional marriage, even for women to remain at home looking after children, wrote, Men’s gift, physical strength, is at the same time their greatest liability. It enables them to be extremely helpful but also enables them to get what they want without regard for what is good for everyone. Suddenly I saw this social conservative was on the Left, in seeking common goals and goods rather than individual dominance. We would argue over our differences while here is this clear agreement.

Rather than state advantages for the GNC woman’s definition of “woman”, I might couch them as fears, what she seeks to avoid, to show that I too seek to avoid what she fears- or can gain the advantages she seeks. I can assuage your fears, I say, reassuringly. However it seems they are fears, she is protecting what she has against possible loss.

If I am a woman because of my femininity, then the GNC woman feels she is either restricted to femininity, or excluded from womanhood. She will not accept either. So her definition of woman relies on sexual dimorphism, and whatever fun we can have with intersex or disorders of sexual development, the distinction holds. Including an androgen-insensitive XY woman does not mean she must include me. My side could argue the different intersex folk show sufficient fuzziness at the edges of the definition for me to squeeze in. She does not accept that.

Who needs protected? The GNC woman says women, the XX people, from men, the XY people, because of men’s physical strength and gendered propensity to violence and expressing anger against others rather than internalising it against themselves. Possibly I could say with that social conservative that those needing protection are those who seek “what is good for everyone rather than what they want”, but not all who transition are on the left, and she would say transition is a conservative phenomenon. Both sides are mostly on the left, accusing the other side of being on the right. “You perpetuate gender roles!” they say. “You write for The Spectator!” we reply.

My radical feminist friend told me of girls brought up as boys in Afghanistan, because without a male relative a woman cannot go out. So a widow takes her “son”. One such boy-girl revelled in the freedom that gave her, and one pined for feminine pursuits. People have gender, it just does not correlate to sex.

To answer “Who is a woman?” I would say, everyone who wants to be one or considers herself one- not in the moment on a whim, but as a settled conviction and desire for all of life. Then, “What is a woman like?” Anything women born women want to be, without restriction, but complete diversity including that femininity which appeals to some women, and to all of us who transition to womanhood.

3 thoughts on “What is a “woman”?

  1. Thanks Clare. I enjoy your insights and gentle provocations, which mirror many of the questions with which I am grappling myself, but without the lucidity that you possess. At a personal level I have been trying to engage others in the trans community in discussions about the nature of womanhood, feminity, manhood, masculinity, that those of in transition are seeking to express. Your writings are amongst the most thoughtful and honest expressions on the subject that I have encountered.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I am happy to have your words to contemplate. They resonate with experience, compassion, sharp intelligence, and a knowledge of art. Hard for me to come up with a better combination. Except to ask if you have written anything on the the topic of the ‘gaze’. I am used to academics discussing the tourist gaze or the male gaze but I would be fascinated to read your thoughts on the feminist gaze, or the trans woman’s gaze, or the trans man’s gaze, or the non binary gaze. During my limited experience of transition I find myself wondering how others see themselves and others, and how this translates into thoughts about their bodies and souls, and to subjects that I have not seen discussed much – e.g. desire, control, power.

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